The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, March 21, 2011

They Call Him Cemetery

Names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Franco Nero, and Tomas Milian are always closely associated with the spaghetti western craze of the 1960s and 1970s.  There were countless other stars -- American, Italian, international -- that left their mark on the Italian westerns, some lucky enough to be a part of their own successful franchise.  A star of the Sartana series, Gianni Garko was one of those secondary stars without the name recognition to the average fan, partially because his movies are harder to track down. He wasn't exclusive to the Sartana series (making four official franchise entries), and I'm glad I was introduced to him starting with 1971's They Call Him Cemetery...although it's known by several other names.

The Sartana series made Garko a star, and his main character here sounds like an off-shoot of his infamous gunslinger.  It is similar to the Sabata series and even had me thinking that possibly this character was intended as a younger Lee Van Cleef. Right down to the same clothes and similar arsenal of guns and trick shots, Sartana (or here Ace) and Sabata could be son and father.  But that's just an observation and nothing more. This isn't a hard-hitting, cynical spaghetti western. It's all about the cool factor, the smooth gunfighters, the evil, backhanded villains, the goofy sidekicks, and just a touch of comedy.  This is not on the level of the classic Leone westerns -- few are really -- but it's an underrated spaghetti that deserves more of a following.

Having grown up in the east, the McIntire brothers, John (Chris Chittell) and George (John Fordyce) move west to help their crippled father run the family ranch. They are immediately struck by the violent culture that rules the west, everyone carrying guns and ready to shoot it out at the drop of a hat.  All the local ranchers are even being forced into paying protection to a gang of local bandits.  The McIntire brothers don't see the need, and immediately put themselves in danger by humiliating one of the lead bandits.  Now they must fend for themselves, or seemingly so, when a mysterious gunman, Ace (Garko), arrives in the territory and teaches them how to use a gun effectively.  No matter their ability though, the odds are stacked against them with an army of hired guns waiting to pick them off, including an infamous hired killer, Duke (William Berger), brought in to finish the job.    

One of the best things to come out of the spaghetti western success was the crazy, off the wall, eccentric gunmen in lead roles. We're talking blind, mute, crippled, you name it. There's a western with it.  Named the Ace of Hearts, Garko's gunfighter is relatively simple. He's decked out in black clothes, including a wide, flat-brimmed hat, wears his gunbelt low on his hip, and sports an epic, awesome Fu Manchu mustache.  A cool backstory about Ace is explained early on, giving the character the feeling of a guardian angel hovering over those he's trying to protect. Where many spaghetti leads are amoral, Ace is a hired gun for a reason, looking out for those who need it. It's my first introduction to Garko, and I was very impressed. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of his movies.

My one complaint from a movie I really enjoyed was that Garko and co-star William Berger are underused, neither making an appearance until almost 15 minutes into the movie that only runs 87 minutes (or at least the version I saw). Much of the story focuses on the McIntire brothers which isn't an awful thing because eventually they become interesting characters after a rocky start. Garko's Ace is the means to their characters becoming interesting, but I would have liked less of the brothers and more of the supremely cool Ace. A comedic element is added with the inclusion of two Mexican peons working with the McIntires, Sancho (Ugo Fangareggi) and Pedro (Raimondo Penne), who are also expert knife throwers. With Ace, it's a cool, little motley army of gunmen. They're not boring or annoying, I just liked Garko more than these four.

Balancing Garko and matching him step for step is Berger as similarly talented hired gun, Duke.  Berger was one of many American actors who made a name for themselves heading to Europe as part of the spaghetti craze.  He was rarely the star and more often the secondary character, someone you're never sure if he is a good or bad guy.  Playing the well-dressed gunfighter, Duke, he's a slightly older gunman to Garko's character.  Like Van Cleef and Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More, there's the younger vs. older element which is never boring to watch. Friendly rivals who respect each other despite being on opposite sides, you know a showdown between the two equally matched gunmen is looming.  The ending even hints at a sequel with the two men, but unfortunately it never came along. Still, it's a ton of fun to watch Garko and Berger go at it.

This is another example of being surprised with what I bought when I purchased 44 spaghetti westerns for $14.99.  Three movies in, and all three have been very watchable widescreen presentations.  The sound wasn't great, and the image is a little blurry, but that's nothing compared to some of the horrible prints I've seen with hard to find movies.  The locations are great -- especially the finale in a church's ruins on a very green hillside -- and Bruno Nicolai's score is a notch above the rest, especially the main theme which you can listen to over at Shobary's website HERE, just scroll down to the MP3 link.  A very pleasant surprise overall, and a great spaghetti western.

They Call Him Cemetery <---trailer (1971): *** 1/2 /****

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