The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Minnesota Clay

For right or wrong, movie fans think Sergio Leone created the spaghetti western genre. They would be wrong. With his Dollars trilogy, especially Fistful of Dollars, he didn't create the genre but instead put it squarely on the map, put it in the spotlight. Spaghetti westerns had been around for several years but in an earlier, nicer form. Leone would flip that formula. One pre-Leone spaghetti is pretty decent, a mix of an American and Italian western, 1964's Minnesota Clay.

Wasting away for years at a labor camp in the desert, Minnesota Clay (Cameron Mitchell) has had enough, vowing to prove his innocence. Years before, Clay was sent to prison in a frame-up job, found guilty for gunning down two men. In reality, it was self-defense, but a bribed court didn't see it that way.  He manages to escape, heading for home but in his hometown of Mesa Encantada, Clay finds the town being run by two rival gangs, one a gang of Mexican bandits led by General Ortiz (Fernando Sancho), the other run by a man called Fox (Georges Riviere), an old friend originally hired to protect the town. Looking to clear his name, Clay finds himself pitted against both gangs, working to save his own skin before they turn on him. His reputation as one of the fastest guns around is about to be tested in a big way.

Part of the 50 Spaghetti Western collection I bought several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I knew this next tidbit but didn't remember it going in, but 'Minnesota' is from director Sergio Corbucci, later of Django, The Great Silence, The Mercenary and Companeros fame, among others. Corbucci's big hit, Django, would hit theaters internationally two years later, but here in 1964 with the genre still in its infancy, Corbucci shows his potential with a middling movie. It still has touches of American westerns (forced love interest, forced comedic moments), but there's also some clear, early examples of where the genre is/was heading. There's some familiar locations, decent if not memorable music from Piero Piccioni (he did much better) and a story eerily similar to Fistful of Dollars which was based off Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Not great, but better in general than some early spaghetti entries.

Over the last year, I've been watching The High Chaparral, a TV western that aired for four seasons and is now on syndication, letting me catch up two episodes at a time. One of the stars? Cameron Mitchell who I like a lot as Buck Cannon, a loving life cowboy. I've seen plenty of movies with him, but nothing quite like this. A recognizable face in American westerns, it's cool to see him head to Italy and star in this early spaghetti. It isn't a flashy part but a good one just the same. Gravelly-voiced, steely-eyed and looking for redemption, Mitchell's Minnesota Clay is a good example of where the spaghetti western anti-hero would go in the coming years. Some time is wasted with his daughter (Diana Martin) who doesn't know her father and her bumbling suitor (Alberto Cevenini), not enough focus on his possibly doomed attempt to clear his name. Not the biggest name to lead the way in a western but Mitchell more than holds his own.

The supporting cast is a good example of how the spaghetti western genre helped change the western in general. We've got some very good characters and very evil characters with little in between. Riviere is the slimy, smooth Fox, a manipulative businessman with a gang of killers to back him up, Gino Pernice as his main enforcer, Scratchy (quite an imposing name, huh?). Sancho does what he did best, the crazy, overacting, cliched, stereotypical Mexican bandit right down to the crossed bandoliers, the greasy mustache, the maniacal laughing, all a lot of fun. Ethel Rojo gets to femme fatale it up as Estella, a saloon girl who attaches herself to anyone who can help her out. Rounding out 'the good' department, Antonio Casas plays Jonathan Mulligan, Clay's old friend who took his daughter in as his own.

Maybe the biggest thing that audiences ate up with spaghetti westerns was the brutality, just the out and out violent, vicious qualities. No one was safe. NO ONE. Everyone was a possible target. Corbucci especially took those qualities to heart in his movies (Django, Silence, The Hellbenders), and this 1964 western is a good preview. Corbucci loved torturing his anti-heroes, gunslingers who were crippled, maimed, wounded and handicapped, forced to overcome these things to save the day in the end...and sometimes fail. There isn't a ton of gunplay here, most of it saved for two shootouts late. The finale especially is pretty cool, a partially blinded Clay forced to take on a small gang of gunmen. The American and Italian versions had different endings, and for a change, the American ending was better.

A solid spaghetti western all-around.

Minnesota Clay (1964): ** 1/2 /****

No comments:

Post a Comment