Friday, May 6, 2016

Past Misdeeds: California (1977)

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.

The US Civil War is over. The former Confederate Army is being dissolved, which leads to an army of men without money or food trying to get home passing through areas where they aren't exactly welcome anymore.

A man (Giuliano Gemma) who has given himself the pseudonym of Michael Random - after a brand of tobacco, the film informs us, not the plotting proclivities of Italian scriptwriters - is one of those men. While he is not a bad guy at heart (as proven by his heroic efforts in protecting a helpless kitten from being eaten), Michael is rather cynical about the war and his shadowy past in which (as we will learn much later) he was a gunman known as "California", so he would really rather keep to himself and cultivate his aloof pose. That's easier said than done when a very young, very much not cynical former soldier named Willy Preston (Miguel Bose) starts to follow Michael around like a loveable little puppy.

At first, the older man is annoyed by his new companion, but Willy's excessively kind nature and the vagaries of travelling together let the men grow close.

At the same time, a group of fur-coated bounty hunters lead by a certain Whittaker (Raimund Harmstorf) is prowling the ex-Confederate refugees as the easiest prey imaginable. Whittaker is in league with some Union generals who are just too eager to produce new victims for him.

Somehow Michael and Willy are always able to just barely avoid direct run-ins with Whittaker's group, but those guys are not the only danger awaiting them.

After some strokes of bad luck, Willy ends up dead with a bullet in his back for a horse he had to steal to keep alive. Michael decides to do the decent thing for once, and travels to the Preston farm, telling Willy's family that their son died as a hero in the war.

Willy's parents (William Berger and Dana Ghia) are just too willing to take Michael in as a kind of adoptive son, while Willy's cute sister Helen (Paola Bose) takes quite a shine to the man. It seems as if Michael could make a peaceful life for himself on the farm, but one day, when visiting the nearby town, more bad luck leads to Helen's abduction by Whittaker and his gang, who have just fallen out with their former friends in the military.
Michael swears to bring Helen back, whatever the cost might be.

Before director Michele Lupo ended his career with a string of shitty Bud Spencer vehicles, he made this excellent late-period Spaghetti Western.

It's a slow film mostly built on two of the most important fundaments of Spaghetti Western filmmaking - mood and mud. A large part of the film trades in a silent mood of melancholia. To produce that effect, Lupo drenches his film in muted autumn colours, fog and the aforementioned mud. It is quite a beautiful film to look at if you are a friend of the colder seasons, and definitely a visually well-composed one.

The film keeps the Spaghetti-typical nasty violence a bit more low-key than usual. This doesn't mean that there is no violence on display, rather Lupo uses violence and the undercurrents of violence as silently waiting below much of human interaction instead of throwing it into our faces all the time. Unlike many American western directors, he doesn't shy away from random death and the suffering of innocents, he just doesn't wallow in it more than is strictly necessary to get his points across.

The film's subtext isn't much friendlier than those of other Spaghetti Westerns, though. Lupo's film isn't as hopeless as some other films of the sub genre, but calling California's ending a happy one would be quite a stretch, unless every ending that leaves people still standing is to be called a happy one.

I was pleasantly surprised by the acting here. Gemma has never been one of my genre favourites (which mostly says that he isn't a Franco Nero or Lee Van Cleef) does an excellent job of keeping his character sympathetic despite his flaws and past and still makes you believe in both, while Harmstorf actually manages something you don't get to see too often, namely making it plausible why people would want to follow the main bad guy. He's quite a charismatic man in his own, selling-women-into-prostitution way.

You could now add the usual paragraph criticizing the treatment of Bose's female main character as an object used to keep the plot running, but I'm afraid this just comes with the Spaghetti Western territory. At least, Lupo is showing restraint when it comes to showing the indignities heaped upon her on screen. Although I am not sure that this really is the better way to go about it. Not showing the worst often just seems a bit cowardly to me, as if a film wouldn't trust its audience enough not to enjoy a rape sequence.

The film's screenplay isn't without its flaws anyway. While I approve of its preference for randomness in place of classic plot logic when building the film (and here it really feels like a writerly decision to keep closer to reality than the orderliness of tight plotting and not like incompetence), there are moments when the film just drags its heels a little too much for my tastes.

Of course, nobody in her right mind watches Italian films for the quality of plotting. Thankfully, the rest of the script isn't half bad.

California is one of the better late period Spaghettis I have seen, well worth watching for anyone interested in seeing a film of the genre that shows restraint without being defanged.

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