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November 17, 2015

Movie Review: "Man, Pride and Vengeance" (1967; Constantin Film/Blue Underground)

...often, this reviewer had been chastised and heckled by some of the more seasoned (...read: having 18 to 25 years aged seniority over me) film collectors and aficionados in varied cult film discussion group circles, for not having any measure of appreciation for the western genre. Without missing a beat, this reviewer is equally quick to set things straight with those critics, obligingly calling forth the contrary, in assuming and maintaining a most ardent appreciation of the western genre...though, not so much the stereotypically melodic, almost vaudevillian adaption of the genre, cinematically depicted in the olden-golden days of the '30's and '40's, but more the latter rendered 'western genre' which depicted the Wild West era in a much more gritty, unrelenting, unflinching and historically brutal & harsh fervor...something with...well, something with more of a 'realistic' bite, than a ballad...

...let's face it: Seth McFarland's bumbling and cowardly, albeit keenly perceptive character, in the director's hilarious send-up to the American Western...2014's Spaghetti Western film-title inspired "A Million Ways to Die in the West"...hit the nail resoundly on the head, when describing the hard, desperate and oh-so deadly times of that particular era. Life, at that time, was hardly that found in western films produced, circa early '50's and before...of stereotypical dashing, clean-cut heroes, who although exceptional with the gun, and unafraid to wrestle up some well-choreographed fist-i-cuffs, never got a scratch on them, wore brightly colored tunic shirts with embroidery & dangly tassels, rode whistle-responding horses as blindingly white as their ten-gallon hats, and almost always had a weather-worn guitar, strapped to their backs, which they would pull out and melodically strum, in between conflicts, out on the so-called 'lone prairie'. With the exception of the seasoned, weathered and 'been around', though still possessing a hint of once-beauty bar keep, as well as the typical segregated brothel of 'fallen' ladies, living just on the outskirts of dusty town, the women were pretty much naive, innocent, virginal and, for lack of a better term, 'polly pure-bred'. And the 'hive of villainy', as self serving and despicable as they might be, always managed to initiate their diabolical ways in such a way that somehow, the hero of the story always managed to save the day, in the end (...a credit to the film writers of the time; after all, we wouldn't want the bad guys to win, right??). The classic vaudevillian, stove-top-pipe high hat-wearing, mustache-twirling 'Snidley Whiplash' type...yes, ruthless, greedy and conniving, but hardly the sadistic, blood-thirsty and power-mad 'bad guys', which would punctuate the brand of western film, yet to come...or rather, yet to be imported, as of the early-to-mid '60's...



...enter the Italian western, or as it's often called affectionately, albeit exploitatively...the 'Spaghetti' Western. Where life in the Wild West is hard, brutal & oh-so deadly....and not merely from the 'show me' end of a gun barrel (...disease, famine, medical medievalism, et al.). A time when one's skill with a steely, ivory-handled Colt is foremost and paramount. No real heroes, to speak of...just anti-heroes; gritty, nameless, wandering, gun-slinging rogues...for the most part, themselves self-serving and greedy, but with enough measure of heart and fairness, to illicit intervention when injustice rears an ugly and ruthless head...or rather, when such a thing annoyingly interferes with the unshaven anti-hero's intent, often, with an eye-rolling 'sheesh, all I want is the gold, but I gotta stop and save the town, first' swagger. The women?? For the most part, haggard, broken and subservient...with but a hint of their once-alluring and exotic beauty...though, but a smattering few, underliningly well-adept with a gun, themselves, if only the need for self-preservation, or at the very least, self-respect. And the bad guys of this era?? Yes, there are a smattering of devious, two-timing cattle barons, Spanish rancheros and well-to-do creole caballeros, but these guys are often few and far between; it's the gun-toting, treasure-snatching independent 'entrepreneurs', so to speak...the devious and despicable desperadoes, who in a sadistically snickering fervor, and not being in such a hurry, as to just blast everyone and everything to smithereens, would rather see those who stand in their way, innocent or not, suffer cruelly before their eyes...often, a rendering of flesh, by hanging, branding, cutting off an appendage of their choosing (...ears, fingers...even limbs), or even merely tying their victims down to some outskirts desert sands, to be slowly roasted by the blistering sun...

...hey, everyone's gotta have a hobby, right??

...interestingly enough...if anything, for those more appreciatively literary, in inclination...perhaps to avoid the overly tired and well-worn western cliches, and yet taking into consideration the unconventionally dynamic impact & success of the classically & literary-inspired Sergio Leone-directed 1964 cult classic, "A Fistful of Dollars", the latter Italian westerns also often resourced the literary classic, albeit often tragic heroes, found in several classically written works...not only from the tried & true fervor of the American Old West, but also that of embraceable profound Greek heroes, Japanese feudal warriors and Euro-Shakespearean & operatic themes. Hey, it worked with "Fistful...", in incorporating a literary parallel to Akira Kurosawa's classic "Yojimbo". So, soon after, came 1968's "Duel in the Eclipse", which took it's literary cues from Asian filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi's classic 1962 period piece, "Harakiri". And 1967's "The Ultimate Gunfighter" & 1968's "To Kill or Not to Kill"...both of which cleverly resourced Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" and "Hamlet", respectively. Or 1965's "Blood at Sundown", aka "The Return of Ringo", which took it's literary cues from Homer's "The Odyssey"...

...and considering all that, as well as other Italian westerns which drew their inspiration from classic literary sources, who have thought that the virtues of classic true romance and love stories would be keenly incorporated into this gritty and wildly unconventional fold?? Such was the case, with one such film in this genre...an operatic adaption, masquerading as a titular-only knock-off of the popular 'Django' western film series...
...Don Jose (Franco Nero), a regimented Spanish army officer, assigned to a guard post adjacent to a cigarette factory, finds his militant inner self-discipline falter, when he happens upon a captivatingly alluring and beautiful gypsy girl, Carmen (Tina Aumont), who self-servingly exploits his attraction to her, in an efforts to pull herself out a jam. Despite having been duped by this mysterious gal, Jose continues to find himself irresistibly and obsessively drawn toward the mysterious Carmen...an unrelenting obsession which blinds him from the fact that he is being used...
...and obsession abruptly turns to unabashed jealousy, when Jose walks in on Carmen...in the arms of his commanding officer. In a fate-changing turn of events, Jose ragefully and uncontrollably lashes out blindly at his superior...and in the unrelenting scuffle of fists, Jose kills the higher-ranking officer. Coming to his senses, soon after realizing the dire predicament, which he finds himself in, he turns to Carmen, who initially chastises him, for his obsession of her, but quickly shifts to a fervor of desperation, as she pleads with Jose to run for his life, and hole away hidden for a while, in the desert mountains. Alternately disgusted with her, and yet also further drawn toward her, obsessively, Jose surrenders himself to his fate, and leaves town, retreating into the desolate desert plains...
...the escapist solitude is short-lived, however, when Jose finds himself in the company of a cadre of ruthless bandits, who are conspiring to lay siege upon a wealthy caballero, who is rumored to be making his way across the dusty and rugged desert transit lanes. Being of a militant mind, yet hardly wanting to reveal his identity, Jose sees dire fault in the bandits' proposed plan of attack, and in taking up with the thieving desperadoes, he suggests an alternate and more prolific plan...the instigation of which crosses the conniving bastard leader of the bandits, Garcia (Klaus Kinski), who not only does not trust Jose and his proposed plan, but is also very much put out on the idea that Jose is showing him up...
...finding himself at a crossroads...at a point of no return...a fugitive, gamefully pursued by the very militia, which he once served... Jose, now willfully caught up in a mire of criminal intent, finds himself once again conflicted when, during the thieving raid, he finds out that Garcia is, in fact, his beloved Carmen's husband, and the whole caper, directed at the wealthy, albeit unwary aristocrat, proves in fact to be a set-up. And when Carmen herself finally shows up...well, Jose finds himself equally torn...as to whether or not kill her, or embrace her, once again...
...and with films like "Man, Pride and Vengeance"...also known in some circles, as "With Django, Comes Death", obviously due to actor Franco Nero, the original 'Django', having been cast here...there is often a love/hate thing, going on. One will either appreciate a film like this, or they'll depreciate it, on the idea that at a pivotal point in the storyline, whether subtly or jarringly, the film switches gears and becomes something else. Not an amiably juxtapositioned and easily digestible melding of ideas, but more like 'hey, here we have an orange, and POOF...we now have a banana'. In the case of "Man, Pride and Vengeance", the creative and inspired powers-that-be herein, had chosen to adapt the operatic themes of the classically romantic, albeit provocative French-scribed tale of "Carmen"; of course, this is hardly suggested by the film's rustic, Euro-western-flavored movie poster, so in the course of the film, the compelling romantic fervor abruptly takes a back seat, in favor of the more atypical and...well, let's face it, expected Spaghetti western ardor and intensity...
...Franco Nero affords a very relatable performance, in the role of Don Jose, the hapless military guard, coerced into turning fugitive, if only as the result of being enslaven to his own lust (...and what guy out there, can't identify with that, right?? Can you say 'the little head, ruling the big head'??). And as relatably intriguing as this might be, Franco's characterization is made all the more compelling by Franco himself, and his uniquely adept ability to perform with quite literally nothing but his eyes. In varying degree, from film to film, it quite striking how Franco Nero can abruptly shift his character fervor...one moment, expressing a humanly emotional wrought with a very soft expression in his eyes, and without warning, turning on a dime, to something more stone-cold, stern-squinting, steely-eyed angry and rageful. Depending upon the film and the associated scenario, Franco's performance transition, in this respect, can actually be quite unnerving, at times...
...however, as interesting as Franco's performance can be, especially in "Man, Pride and Vengeance", there's no denying that actress Tina Aumont is equally captivating and hold her own quite well, in the flirtatious protagonist role of Carmen. Tina adeptly engages a performance which proves almost diabolically manipulative, not only for her for-the-moment chosen patsy, namely Franco's hapless army guard, Jose, but also for the audience as well, who may well find themselves just as lured and allured by her character's beauty and sexual fervor. And much like Jose, in as many times in the course of the film, that Carmen flirts her way into his heart and mind, only to play him for a sucker, once again, we as the viewing audience, despite an equally tortured love-hate allure of the character, may well find ourselves hoping that the next flirtatious engagement is genuine...that Carmen actually wants to be with the love-sick Jose, for what they could possibly offer each other, and not just for her own underlining and self-serving purposes. And of course, without missing a beat...well, we're played for suckers, ourselves, that is, until the next time Carmen bats her eyelashes and pouts her luscious lips. And let's face it: as the result, we're just as 'doomed' as Jose, himself...
...for Blue Underground's digital transfer of the "Man, Pride and Vengeance" film print, they have done an exquisite job in bring out the rustic detail and color of the film; this is a good thing, as well as a not-so-good thing. In the remastering process, much like the captivating allure of Carmen herself, it is suspect that the power-that-be may well have 'fallen in love' with how clean the master print used here, actually was...so much so that the film might well was ultimately given a makeover, far greater than what the film genuinely deserved, and thus, exuding the idea that there's such a thing as being too perfect. Yes, the picture is incredibly crisp...the colors, vivid and vibrant...and the detail, oh-so minutely rendered. However, for a film culled from and representative of the Italian western genre, the seemingly over-indulgence in remastering the film, affords an almost distracting 'slickness' in the film's proceedings, despite the dustiness, grittiness and rustic fervor of the film, itself...

...making it's home video debut...at least, officially..."Man, Pride and Vengeance" has thusly been afforded an understandably descriptive moniker of obscure and under-appreciated. Itself, one of the more minor-league 'Spaghetti' westerns, one might even say that the fault of the film's unjustly deserved under-appreciation lies within the evidence that the film most assuredly has 'bite' to it, though much to the dismay of the more devoted fans of the genre, it does take a while to get 'bitten'; however, for those harboring a good measure of patience, the film does eventually get down to business, at around the second of the three acts of the film. But much like the film's Carmen character, "Man, Pride and Vengeance" opens up with a subtle and unconventional, albeit captivating and manipulative allure...motioning a rather seductive 'come here' finger, and before you know it...well, there's just no escape.....

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