Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Past Misdeeds: A Coffin For The Sheriff (1965)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A scruffy and unwashed man called not Ringo, not Django, not Sartana, but Shenandoah (Anthony Steffen) rides into a small frontier town. The place has some troubles since the gang of bandit Lupe Rojo (Armando Calvo) has put their base of operations into the area around town.

Shenandoah seems to have something in mind with the gang, though. At first, he does the usual "let's compare our penis sizes" bit by playing the always lovely "poker leading to fisticuffs" game with some of the gang members.

A little later, he subtly interferes with a bank robbery in town, carefully constructing an opportunity to grab a wounded gang member and rescue him from the law. It seems like he wants to join up with the gang.

Unfortunately, Rojo isn't just letting anyone join his merry band of slobbering psychopaths. There is a rather ill-advised membership test in form of a deadly game of hide and seek with guns against one of the original gang members for the potential newbie to survive.

Shenandoah is rather good at the game, though, and uses the possibility of a slowly dying bandit right at his feet to ask some questions about a stagecoach robbery and a murdered woman in Omaha two years ago. Alas, he doesn't get the answers he seeks.

At least, his life's dream of being one of a group of psychopathic bandits who are bound to die rather sooner than later is fulfilled. Nevertheless, he continues to ask pointed questions about the Omaha business. One could get the idea that it is somehow a lot more important to him than raping and pillaging. It might just be possible that our unshaved hero is out for revenge for a certain murder in Omaha.

All goes swimmingly, until Rojo decides to plunder the ranch of a local rancher named Wilson (George Rigaud). Wilson is an old friend of Shenandoah, and the gunman can't help himself but warn him and his pretty daughter (Luciana Gilli) of the ensuing attack.

The following debacle for the gang and Shenandoah's not exactly inconspicuous behaviour weakens his position as a big bad bandit decisively, though, starting off his obligatory torture and the typical finale of bloody vengeance.

If the plot synopsis of A Coffin For The Sheriff (and no, I have no idea what the title has to do with the film) makes it sound as if the typical fan of Spaghetti Western had seen this all before, that impression is perfectly true. There truly is no original bone in Mario Caiano's film's body, but while watching it, I didn't find myself holding that against it.

It is a very thin line which divides the realms of the clichéd and of the iconic. Caiano's film mostly dances directly on the line, doing too much of the expected in the expected manner to come down on the iconic side, yet doing it with too much panache to result in the let-down of the too clichéd.

A Coffin For The Sheriff succeeds as a very pleasant example of its genre (and this isn't exactly typical of the usually rather scattershot Spaghetti Western) mostly through the tightness of its script and Caiano's drive in executing it. While the usual assortment of side characters (with three women fawning over our hero) with their little side plots is there, the film integrates them into the main plot in a sensible way instead of going for a smoke and letting the side plots take over from time to time. This gives the film a sense of wholeness one seldom finds in the genre outside of the work of the Sergios.

But it would be unfair not to give Caiano his fair share of props. Having gone through a very typical career for an Italian director of the time by working in every genre that was popular at the moment, Caiano obviously picked up quite a bit about keeping his plots moving and cutting down on filler while letting his film look much more costly than it probably was through judicious use of rather impressive outside locations. As an old pro (his first writing and assistant directing credits come from the 50s), Caiano doesn't miss out on adding stylistic elements typical of the Spaghetti Western, elements which might still have looked vaguely original to an audience just one year after A Fistful Of Dollars. It is an excellent example of how fast some of the things Leone and Corbucci did visually became part of the visual language of Italian filmmakers trying to make a quick buck off of their successes.

So, friends of frightening close-ups of ugly, sweaty, unshaved men won't miss out here.
Also not atypical for an early Spaghetti are the acting performances. Steffen is (as was often the case with him) a little bland, yet as solid as someone with seemingly total facial paralysis can be, while the bunch of half-remembered character actors playing the bad guys are chewing the scenery nicely.

A Coffin For The Sheriff is probably not the sort of film I'd recommend to a Spaghetti Western beginner. There are just too many excellent films to see first before starting to waste time on one which is "just" very good, but when one has reached the point where one has worked through the classics and semi-classics of the genre, films like this are the little gold nuggets hidden in the dust and mud of the genre.

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