The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hate Thy Neighbor

With characters like the Man With No Name, Django, Sabata, Sartana and several others, the spaghetti western genre became famous (infamous depending on the reviewer) for highly memorable lead characters. Then there's 1968's Hate Thy Neighbor -- what a great title -- where the interesting lead has been dropped in favor of two much more interesting bad guys.

Running from a gang of gunmen, a man is killed -- along with his wife -- for a map of a nearby but hidden goldmine. The gang's leader, Gary Stevens (George Eastman), is working for a local businessman/rancher with a sadistic streak, Chris Malone (Horst Frank). Together, they intend to find the location of the goldmine and split whatever they find. Their plan hits a roadblock though when the dead man's brother, Ken Dakota (Spiros Focas), shows up to pick up his nephew who survived the shooting. Dakota finds out not only that his brother was murdered, but who did it. Now, it's just a matter of time before the three paths collide.

This is a spaghetti western lost in the shuffle over the years. I suppose that happens when some 600 movies were made from one genre over about 10 years. Some were good, some were bad, and some were awful. This one has no star power and doesn't do a ton to differentiate itself from the pack. There are some interesting camera angles, and the score from Robby Poitevin is okay in the moment if not particularly memorable. The story is familiar (countless spaghettis relied on revenge as a story-driver), but at the same time it's never dull. Clocking in just 84 minutes, there is little in the way of wasted time, and I enjoyed it to the end, eccentricities and all.

As far as lead characters go, I'm straining to think of one who was more dull than Focas' Ken Dakota. Okay, that's not fair. His name is pretty cool, but that's about it. He shows up looking for answers about his brother's death, and sort of meanders along getting those answers. I don't know if it's his fault, but the script gives him nothing to do, and Focas isn't exactly a charismatic actor. He's too goody-two shoes for a spaghetti western anti-hero. His budding romance with Peggy (the always lovely Nicoletta Machiavelli) and his fatherly relationship with nephew, Pat (Claudio Castellani), feel like they've been hijacked from an after school special. The final scene could even be the freeze frame of a 1980s sitcom episode. Basically it feels like an American western in its portrayal of the hero.

Thankfully, director Ferdinando Baldi seems to recognize that his hero is just a means to an end. He needs someone to set off the bad guys, and these bad guys carry the movie. Besides having maybe the most boring, Dilbert-like character name (Gary Stevens? Really? That's the best you could come up with?), Eastman is a scene-stealer as Gary. He's got a smile like a rattlesnake and will gun his enemies down without a second thought. As the classier, suaver villain, Frank is the perfect counter to Easman's tougher villain. Their life and death rivalry is something else. Reviews point to their cat-and-mouse game back and forth, and it certainly works. Each would like nothing more than to kill the other, but as is so often the case with greed, they need each other....for the time being. I would have loved a movie focusing exclusively on these two, but I'll take what's here.

It's Frank's Chris Malone that provides some of the movie's most memorable, eccentric moments. Like a Roman lord, he has his "slaves" fight to the death in a corral. They're given a wooden shield worn over their wrist and a Wolverine-like blade on their other hand. Guarded on all sides by riflemen, a duo fights to the death and Malone and his wife (Ivy Holzer) watches from their elevated seats. There are two different fights in the ring, and they're doozies worth the price of admission alone. Malone also unleashes an elaborate torture on Gary to get some information out of him that includes hanging upside down, a pit of snakes and hungry rats gnawing at the ropes holding him up. Diabolically evil much?

Two other parts worth mentioning, one normal, one typically eccentric. Paolo Magalotti plays Jose, Malone's trusted right-hand man, and makes the most of the pretty standard part. A highlight? Jose and his men save Gary from hanging by distracting his guards via some Spanish guitar action. Odd? Yes, but a hilariously bad scene.  As for the typically eccentric, Robert Risso plays Duke, Ken's sidekick, a shotgun-wielding, accordion-playing undertaker/coffin maker. I can honestly say I've never typed a sentence like that before. So while the main character's interest levels are lacking, the rest of the movie certainly makes up for it. Well worth giving a watch!

Hate Thy Neighbor (1967): ***/****

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