Friday, October 14, 2016

Past Misdeeds: And God Said To Cain (1970)

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.

After ten years of forced labour, Gary Hamilton (Klaus Kinski) is pardoned by the state governor. As it goes with protagonists of movies, Gary has been framed for the crime he has supposedly committed, and has not exactly mellowed towards the people responsible for his plight.

So Gary gets into the next stagecoach to return to the little Western town where his troubles began. With him in the coach is Dick Acombar (Antonio Cantafori), a soldier who is just returning home after two years of absence. As destiny (and it is destiny responsible in this particular film, and not luck) will have it, Dick is the son of the main target of Gary's vengeance. Gary gets out of the coach a bit before town, because he still needs to buy a weapon and a horse from the mandatory old blabbermouth, but he asks Dick to tell Acombar that he'll be around for a visit in the evening.

Dick's father (Peter Carsten) has become the head honcho of the town, ruling it with an iron fist and a veritable army of gunmen, yet has somehow been able to hide his rather dubious character from his son. Acombar and those of his henchmen in the know seem rather disturbed when they hear the news of Gary's impending arrival.

Because the patriarch still wants to hide the nature of his affairs from his son (for whom he has great plans including buying him the presidency), he sends his men out into town to kill Gary before Gary can learn the truth of the business between them. That's easier said than done, though. Gary arrives at nightfall, together with a tornado that might just have metaphorical dimensions, and he shows a nearly supernatural ability at hiding and striking at his enemies from the shadows, slowly working his way closer to Acombar throughout the night. Of course, all that racket in town can't help but send a clever young man like Dick searching for explanations.

After my last Spaghetti Western experience with Ferdinando Baldi's clichéd and unfocused Django, Prepare A Coffin!, it is especially nice to stumble onto a film as focused and tight (though not lacking in clichés) as Antonio Margheriti's And God Said To Cain, the product of a director not only in control of his visuals but also one having quite specific ideas about dramatic unity Aristotle-style. Tightness and focus aren't usually words I tend to connect with Margheriti's name, but And God Said To Cain makes it quite obvious that the director could do tight and focussed if he wanted to.

Now, Margheriti is of course one of my special favourites among Italian genre filmmakers, yet I usually tend to praise him for those of his films that live on sheer gleeful silliness and a sense of good fun like his post-Indiana Jones adventure movies or - strangely enough - his jungle action films. One tends to forget that Margheriti was also quite at home in the Gothic horror genre - a part of the cinematic landscape where one won't find much glee - and did in fact produce some very fine films there.

And God Said To Cain is Margheriti's successful attempt at stitching the stylish and elegant head of the Gothic onto the stinking, unwashed and possibly flea-bitten body of the Spaghetti Western, creating a monster made out of ringing church bells, howling wind, shoot-outs and vengeance taken right out of the Old Testament. In a sense, mixing the typically elegant Gothic horror with the typically rude Spaghetti Western shouldn't work, what with the Gothic being a film genre of night and fog and the Spaghetti being one of daylight and too stark sunshine.

Fortunately, Margheriti makes some deft directorial choices, taking the mood (and therefore the night) from the Gothic and the nature of his hero and the way violence works in provoking ever more violence from the Spaghetti. The director also emphasises the common ground of the two genres he is trying to fuse: both can be high on the melodrama (although the Spaghetti Western not always is) and both love to tell stories of vengeance and the way the sins of the father tend to fall back on the sons, as will inevitably happen to Dick Acombar in the end here.

It comes with the vengeance territory that both genres tend to believe in destiny (or the grim god of the Old Testament working through the gun of a film's protagonist) and so like to end on a scene of a cursed building burning down. And God Said To Cain is certainly no exception to this rule, ending a final confrontation in a room full of mirrors (of course also a visual tell of both the Gothic genre and the Spaghetti Western) with a burning villa.

I find it rather interesting how the film utilizes Kinski. Usually, directors employing the man had him do his - loveable and most excellent - Wild Man of Germany shtick, glowering, screaming and jumping up and down like the original, frightening Rumpelstilzchen, but Margheriti somehow convinces Kinski to restrain himself until he becomes a stone-faced, coolly-burning killer who shows his true emotions only through his eyes. Not surprisingly, Kinski is quite brilliant at this, too.

I was also impressed by Margheriti's restraint when it comes to showing the violence happening, often only letting us (and the increasingly panicked bad guys) see the aftermath of Kinski's killings instead of the the executions, letting the audience share something of his victims' fear of their enemy being more than just a normal human being who can be killed like anyone. Only the film's final third shows Kinski's work in more detail, and very consciously begins to show us the sheer physical strain this man must be under, making him possibly even more frightening than he was when he seemed to possess the dubious physical reality of the killer from a slasher movie. After Kinski has become something akin to a force of nature, he slowly becomes human again until he can throw away his gun in the end.

There's a mythical quality about much what happens in the film. It lies in the way in which what would be coincidences in a different world become destiny, in the dark rhythm of the film's editing, in the methodical way Kinski goes about the killing business, the silent fear he awakens in his victims and in the sparseness of information about what betrayal it is Kinski has come to take vengeance for.

This is not all the sort of Spaghetti Western one would expect Margheriti to make - and in fact, his other Spaghettis are much lighter in tone - but it should be an excellent surprise for everyone stumbling onto it.

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