The Exploration of Violence: The Westerns of Robert Hossein
Robert Hossein in 2013 by Georges Biard.
Robert Hossein was an extraordinary French film director and actor who with two Westerns, Le Goût de la violence and Une corde, un Colt, showed a singular talent that revelled in silence, allowing the story to be carried by the camera in complete trust of the cinematic technique. At the same time, he infused these films in a unique stance for the genre, of rejecting the notion of closure through violence, a single-handed overthrowing of what, for many Spaghetti Westerns, had become an archetypical genre staple and trope that many an average film relied upon for dramatic effect.
His talents ignored and even derided by French critics of the sixties for not being part of the Nouvelle Vague and as merely an exponent of the so-called “Tradition of Quality” that had stifled French cinema from the years of World War Two onwards until the cinematic revolution of 1959 with François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups. This critical savaging by critics, in particular at the influential Cahiers du Cinéma has led to a serious critical neglect in the years since the seventies both in France and in English-speaking worlds, where his work is virtually unknown. It is a shameful thing, made all the worst that his films are so good, so in tune to cinema that watching them is a revelation and a discovery of a genuine filmmaker who understands the medium brilliantly.
Robert Hossein: The Man and His Films
Robert Hossein in the 1950s.
Robert Hossein was born in 1927 in Paris to an Iranian-born composer, André Hossein and a Ukrainian comic, Anna Minevskaya. Of Jewish descent and living in Paris under the German Occupation, life would have significantly improved for him after the Liberation. Taking to the stage in the immediate post-war period, he debuted in cinema in a small role in Les souvenirs ne sont pas à vendre (1948), after training in the famous Grand Guignol theatre in Montmartre. During these first few years in cinema he worked with some interesting directors, such as in Sacha Guitry’s Le diable boiteux, also 1948, and Raymond Bernard, where he appeared in Maya (1949).
His first major role however, that made his name in France, was his supporting performance in Jules Dassin’s highly influential crime thriller Du rififi chez les hommes (1955). That year also marked the beginning of his directorial career with Les salauds vont en enfer (The Wicked Go to Hell), starting a parallel career that would create at least two masterpieces that transcend their genre. Wicked… though, also proved to be the start of a successful of adaptations of the work of the massively prolific French thriller writer Frédéric Dard, a kind of French Agatha Christie.
The same year, 1955, also brought another film by Hossein, Pardonnez nos offenses (Forgive Our Trespasses), starring his then-wife Marina Vlady (they were divorced in 1959), while the rest of the decade included roles such as in Georges Lampin’s 1956 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, co-starring next to Jean Gabin.
He also directed two more films, including one of his most famous, Toi... le venin (in English renamed as the evocative and provocative Blonde in a White Car) (1958), a thriller, again taken from Dard, that has become one his most praised films. In 1959 Hossein also made a two-hander, starring himself and Vlady, called La nuit des espions (Double Agents), once more adapted from a Dard original, about secret agents during World War One trying to find out if the other is the double agent of the title.
The new decade, the 1960s, would see his critical dismissal by the now dominate New Wave filmmakers and critics and France, the neglect meaning his films were not widely distributed in English-speaking countries, compounding the disregard. However, he started 1960 with another directorial effort Les scélérats (The Wretches), once more a Dard thrill with similarities to later films by Claude Chabrol. The next year, he made one of his masterpieces, Le Goût de la violence (The Taste of Violence). A searing examination of revolution and violence, his subsequent starring role in a Sophia Loren historical vehicle, Madame Sans-Gêne (1961), must have come as a relief.
Le jeu de la vérité (The Game of' Truth) also came out in 1961, another Hossein directed and starring film, with a young Jean-Louis Trintignant in an almost Buñuelian tale crossed with Agatha Christie, of high society people subjecting each other to a cruel game of truth.
Hossein also appeared in a Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot film, Love on a Pillow (1962), in the first of several collaborations with Vadim, which included the following year’s film, Vice and Virtue, a film “inspired” by the writings of Marquis de Sade. From 1963, there was also Julien Duvivier’s adaptation of a James Hardly Chase novel, Chair de poule.
La mort d'un tueur (Death of a Killer) (1964) marked not only another Hossein directed film, but the first time he worked with Claude Desailly, a scriptwriter who would co-author many of his films over his directorial career. It was another year too, where Hossein released one more film directed by him; in 1964 it was Les yeux cernés (Marked Eyes), scripted by Desailly as well and starring Michèle Morgan alongside Hossein (generally, he was in all of the films he directed).
Michèle Mercier as Angélique.
He also found time that year to play the villain in an OSS 117 film, Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117, with Sinbad himself, Kerwin Matthews playing the super spy, shot on location in Thailand, as well as acting with Michèle Mercier, in his most famous role as Jeoffrey de Peyrac in the phenomenally popular Angélique five film series.
All directed by Bernard Borderie and based off the successful series of novels by Serge and Ann Golon, Michèle Mercier played the titular role of a young noble woman during the era of Louis XIV in the mid seventeenth century and detail her many and varied adventures. The series started with Angélique, marquise des anges (1964) and continued with Merveilleuse Angélique (1965) Angélique et le roy (1966), Indomptable Angélique (1967) and finally Angélique et le sultan (1968), these last two being shot back to back and then broken up into two films during editing. The films co-stared a number of notable actors such as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Spaghetti Western regular Giuliano Gemma (who was dubbed). In addition, the films were shot by Henri Persin who would go on to photography some of Hossein’s own films, including Une corde, un Colt (1968).
The next year, 1965, saw Hossein directing once again, Le vampire de Düsseldorf (The Vampire of Düsseldorf), one of his most highly regarded films, dramatising the exploits of the serial killer Peter Kürten in 1929 in Germany. Played by Hossein, it was a break from his usually more sympathetic roles. The real life killings reputedly inspired Fritz Lang’s M (1931), while Hossein’s film attempts to draw comparisons between Kürten’s activities and the Nazis and use them as representations of the breakdown in society at that time in Germany.
The same year he appeared in a spy portmanteau film called The Dirty Game, directed by Christian-Jaque, Werner Klingler, Carlo Lizzani and Terence Young with all star cast including Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Vittorio Gassman, Bourvil, Peter van Eyck, Mario Adorf, Wolfgang Lukschy and Klaus Kinski.
1966 brought, among others, Alexandre Astruc’s La longue marche, starring Hossein, Maurice Ronet and Jean-Louis Trintignant about the French Resistance, while in 1967 Hossein directed another of his career defining films in the guise of J'ai tué Raspoutine (I Killed Rasputin), based on Felix Yusupov’s book, who also introduces the film, Hossein anticipating documentary dramas by decades.
Starring Gert Fröbe as Rasputin and Peter McEnery as Yusupov, Hossein himself stars alongside Geraldine Chaplin. Highly praised by many, the film struggled to gain international distribution and to this day still remains hard to see outside of France (a common fate for many of Hossein’s films).
He also appeared in the thriller L'homme qui trahit la mafia, Jean Aurel’s Lamiel and in 1968 another OSS 117 film, Niente rose per OSS 117, directed by Renzo Cerrato, Jean-Pierre Desagnat and André Hunebelle and starring this time John Gavin as the splendidly named hero Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath as well as Bond actors Curd Jürgens (who would one day play Bond villain Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me ) and Luciana Paluzzi (the Bond girl in Thunderball ) and Spaghetti Western genre stalwarts Rosalba Neri and George Eastman. This is just a taste of his most important films from this period, so prolific was his actor’s output. He also indulged in a cameo in his friend Sergio Leone’s film C'era una volta il West (1968), the classic Spaghetti Western that many of Hossein’s cast members from his own Spaghetti Western, Une corde, un Colt would go straight onto after finishing Hossein’s film. Although shot in early 1968, according to Alex Cox, it wasn’t released until 1969, where it was dedicated to Leone, a rare instance in the genre.
Hossein also acted in Sergio Gobbi’s adaptation of a Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel (the authors behind the sources for both Henri Georges-Clouzot’s film Les diaboliques  and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo ) called Misdeal (1969), co-starring Elsa Martinelli. Other films from 1969 include La femme écarlate, a comedy directed by Jean Valère, and starring Monica Vitti as well as Maurice Ronet next to Hossein. La battaglia di El Alamein from Giorgio Ferroni was an all-star Italian spectacular retelling the crucial North African battle during World War Two; Hossein played Field Marshall Rommel with the likes of Frederick Stafford, George Hilton, Michael Rennie, Gérard Herter and Enrico Maria Salerno. Hossein appeared in a Nadine Trintignant (wife of Jean-Louise, who also stars) crime film entitled Le voleur de crimes and acted in an Italian film featuring Enrico Maria Salerno, Claudia Cardinale and Britt Ekland too, Luigi Magni’s period comedy Nell'anno del Signore. He was out in Italy for more one of their Second World War films, La battaglia del deserto, at the same time, rounding off the decade.
The 1970s would see not just Hossein’s star wane, but also a slackening in pace of directing, his days as a star in France and Europe past their zenith. Increasingly he would be cast in supporting roles. Born as he was in 1927, he was now in his mid-forties and hardly a match for the new wave of not just American stars like Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal but for French sensations such as Alain Delon. The critical establishment’s passing over of his films too must have affected not only his ability to finance them but also the desire to make them as well; gradually throughout the seventies he would concentrate his talents in theatre rather than cinema.
Still, in 1970, he acted yet again in a Sergio Gobi thriller, Le temps des loups and directed his only film of the decade, Point de chute (Falling Point), co-scripted by Claude Desailly and starring French pop phenomenon Johnny Hallyday and Hossein in a virtual remake of the Marlon Brando-starring film The Night of the Following Day (1968), where a young girl is kidnapped and held for ransom.
The following year saw Hossein act in his last (and only non-directed) Spaghetti Western, Le juge, directed by Federico Chentrens and Jean Girault, based on a Lucky Luke comic about Judge Roy Bean. Curiously, during adaptation, Lucky Luke himself was dropped. In 1971, Hossein starred next to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif and Dyan Cannon in the minor crime classic Le casse, made by Henri Verneuil, about a trio of thieves stealing a precious gem in Greece while pursued by a tenacious (and corrupt) police inspector; noted for its stunts, performed for real by its cast, in particular Belmondo, who made it part of his repertoire as an actor.
Hellé (1972), directed by Roger Vadim, saw Hossein play supporting in a tale set in France in the 1950s, about a returning Vietnam veteran. Deliberately timed to make pertinent points on American military involvement in the Far East, it fits it neatly with Hossein’s consistent anti-war and anti-violence philosophy extolled in his own films.
1973 saw Hossein act again for Vadim, in the cult Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme... , Brigitte Bardot’s penultimate film and co-starred Robert Walker Jr., Jane Birkin and Maurice Ronet in a comedy where Bardot believes she is the reincarnation of Don Juan. In one of his last major starring roles, Hossein acted in Denys de La Patellière’s Prêtres interdits: Hosssein plays a priest who falls in love with a girl during the Second World War and the film traces how the romance affects their lives.
After Prêtres interdits, Hossein started to act in films made directly for television and his prior prolific career in cinema decreased sharply. It wouldn’t in fact be until 1981 that Claude Lelouch would cast him in a real part in the huge international success Les uns et les autres (re-titled Bolero in English-speaking markets), an all-star musical fantasia about four families of different nationalities from the 1930s to the 1980s, all connected by their passion for music. Le professionnel, also released in 1981, directed by Georges Lautner, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo with Hossein in a supporting role and featuring the now iconic Ennio Morricone theme “Chi Mai”, was another huge hit at the French box office.
This new found success must undoubtedly have aided Hossein as he made Les Misérables (1982), who had experience with the source material, having directed on stage the original French production of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic in 1980. Starring Lino Ventura as Valjean and Michel Bouquet as Javert (although Hossein himself didn’t act in the film), it was praised as being one of the most faithful versions of the novel and won the Special Prize at the Moscow Film Festival and was nominated for five César Awards, winning one, for Best Supporting Actor, Jean Carmet.
Surprise Party (1983), Roger Vadim’s last but one theatrical film, once more cast Hossein, which would prove to be Hossein’s last film for three years until 1986 where he directed and acted in Le caviar rouge, returning to Frédéric Dard for his source material in a cold war spy thriller where out of two spies, one is suspected to be a traitor; their Russian controller in Geneva must find who is the mole. Lelouch made use of Hossein the actor again for Un homme et une femme, 20 ans déjà (1986), his sequel to the original that made him one of the top French directors. Jean-Louise Trintignant and Anouk Aimée were once more reunited, Hossein looking on in a small role, playing himself.
Otherwise though, the late eighties and early nineties were lean years for Hossein from a cinematic point of view, apart from Sergio Gobbi making use of Hossein for the last time in 1994’s L’affaire, until Lelouch, Hossein’s best provider of parts in his later years, cast Hossein in his own, highly unusual take on Les Misérables (1995). Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Henri Fortin in the first half of the twentieth century where he starts to see similarities between his own life and that of Valjean’s; another international art house hit, it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
In 1997 Hossein played “Boris Volkoff” in M.D.C. - Maschera di cera, in what was to be Lucio Fulci’s comeback horror film until he tragically died, necessitating special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti to take to the director’s chair. Hossein supported in the popular French film, Tonie Marshall’s Vénus beauté (institut) (1999), a romantic comedy noted not just for its host of cameo performances from the likes of Emmanuelle Riva, Edith Scob and Claire Denis, but also for a young Audrey Tautou’s standout performance.
The new millennium has seen Hossein scale back further his films roles, although he has appeared in a number of television series. His first film though, Frédéric Auburtin’s San-Antonio (2004) was based off Frédéric Dard’s popular character, as well as starring Gérard Lanvin as the eponymous heroic police officer with Gérard Depardieu as his assistant. Other movies include the actress Sophia Marceau’s film La disparue de Deauville (2007) with Christopher Lambert and Marceau taking the leading roles and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s comeback film after years of illness, the light comedy Un homme et son chien (2008), directed by Francis Huster.
In 2010, Hossein directed once again, this time for television, making L'affaire Seznec: c'est vous qui allez le juger while in 2011 he filmed a pageant about St. Bernadette’s encounter with the Virgin Mary called A Woman Named Mary: The Miracle of Lourdes, attended by over thirty thousand spectators.
Robert Hossein is now eighty six years old and has directed seventeen films. He remains active in the theatre.
Robert Hossein: The Westerns
Le Goût de la violence is a 1961 Eurowestern that surprises with its modernity and its intelligence. It is a clear-headed look at “The Revolution” through the prism of a fictional Central American country; in critically examining a peasants’ revolution and the devastating repercussions of violence dealt out by both the rebels and government forces, it takes on a uniquely timely and topical flavour, speaking not only to early sixties audiences but today’s as well.
Shooting just three years after Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba and the recent prevalence of left-wing intellectuals, Hossein chose to make a film that questioned the ubiquitous attitudes and ideas of the young leftist generation regarding a “just revolution” and the right to overthrow capitalist regimes to institute a Socialist society, by analysing the true cost of such action on the normal, average person the revolution was supposed to aid. This made the film go on a similar exploratory journey that Sergio Leone would in time take with Duck, You Sucker (1971).
The film was shot by Jacques Robin on location in Yugoslavia, in what is today Montenegro, the landscape carefully picked to resemble Central America as much as possible, the realism helped by the high contrast, black and white cinematography that effectively disguises any saturation of greenery. The art direction too, cunningly covers any budgetary deprivations by the use of plain hovels and white tunics for the characters to communicate an appropriately Latin American atmosphere.
The opening stunning shot of a train snaking its way around a mountainside carrying soldiers and presumably munitions, is followed by a surprise attack by the rebels wiping out all the soldiers. This massacre takes place behind the credits, only the gunshots heard, the film immediately showing its lack of budget. No matter. In being forced not to show the attack, Hossein also ceases to make an “action scene” and fall into a common trap for directors; anti-war movies still excite the audience with their scenes of battle, gaining from what it supposedly condemns. Hossein instead elegantly avoids the problem while simultaneously furthering the integrity of the film and giving weight to its theme.
The lack of budget of course subsequently affects the film in being forced to shy away from large crowd scenes and events are sometimes more suggested than shown; however the overall accumulative effect is not weakened and the picture is still extremely powerful. The haunting music from André Hossein helps layer the atmosphere and authentic feeling for the landscape. When watching, it's hard not to be reminded of Joseph Conrad's similarly imaginative tale of Latin American revolutions, Nostromo, written in 1904. In fact, the viewer can't help also wondering whether its stark, Spartan visual style and deceptively simple direction didn't also inspire Glauber Rocha's groundbreaking 1964 Brazilian film Black God, White Devil.
Other influences cited have been Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai, influencing Robin’s camera style as well as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), although Aldrich’s vision of civil war-torn Mexico is markedly more “romantic” than Hossein’s.
The plot follows Hossein, playing a revolutionary named Perez and two of his lieutenants, Chamaco (the great German actor Mario Adorf) and Chico (Hans H. Neubert) capturing from the train and taking across country the President’s daughter, Maria, played by Giovanna Ralli. Perez intends to trade Maria for fifty imprisoned rebels. The script was written by a whole assortment of people, Claude Desailly, Louis Martin, Dany Jacquet, Jules Roy, Neubert and Hossein himself. However, Desailly had worked with Hossein before and would continue to do so, leading to the suspicion that he is the true auteur behind the script along with Hossein.
The story has overtones of an allegory, Ralli’s character becoming more of a symbol than a real person. She is frequently compared to the Madonna and is named Maria too, a name whose etymology lies as a Spanish version or equivalent of Mary. In creating a land of no specific country too, Hossein is telling the viewer he wishes us to read other countries, other conflicts into the film. Goya’s series of prints of the Spanish Peninsular War along with imagery from both the Mexican Civil War and the Spanish Civil War seemed infused through the film, the weight of the connotations undoubtedly giving even more metaphorical significance to the film. The budget might have been low, but Hossein’s ambitions were huge and wide ranging.
It is also interesting to note that the two authority figures in the film, President Laragana and the rebellion leader General Guzman remain off-screen throughout the film, despite Perez wanting to take Maria to Guzman. It is of course in keeping with reality that a peasant fighter in a war-torn country in what is presumably the early nineteen hundreds would never see either leader in the flesh, but it also serves to isolate the quartet of characters as they move across the landscape, filled with terrified civilians and troops. There is no beautifying of the scenery; the people are moving too fast, too scared, to concentrate on the landscape. There are no cutaways; we follow Hossein throughout the film, helping to humanise the picture as well as simultaneously emphasising that this is his story.
The first half of the film also shows conflict of a different sort. Adorf, and later Neubert, are convinced that should claim the large bounty for Ralli instead of using her as a bargaining chip to release prisoners. Hossein is surrounded on all aides, literarily, everyone trying to make him drop his passionate cause, all to no avail. The group conflict in play is crucial to the overall film; the government forces are faceless, characterless, but Adorf makes a credible opponent to Hossein’s idealist. He is an earthly man, grounded in reality, a streak of greed in him. In many ways he resembles Tuco (Eli Wallach) in Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which isn’t the only similarity between Hossein and Leone’s directorial works, their shared preference for long stretches of total silence displaying their equal admiration for “total cinema”.
Mario Adorf’s character tries to betray Hossein, reluctantly aided by Neubert. When Neubert stays behind at the camp to guard Ralli, Adorf disappears into a thick forest to track and murder Hossein, who is hunting for food. Instead of following Adorf, Hossein’s camera lingers on the increasingly nervous and anxious Neubert, who is perhaps unsure as to how he really wants their encounter to end. The scene lasts for what feels like a long time for the viewer, the oppressive silence biting at both him and by extension, the audience, who now identify with him.
The tension builds until gunshots ring out. We, the viewer and Neubert, know that someone is dead. The only question that remains is who. Hossein then cleverly reverses these expectations, revealing both Adorf and Hossein coming out of the forest together. The shots had been aimed at animals for dinner. Adorf had missed his opportunity; he would have to wait. Neubert is visibly shaken.
It is a beautifully shot and edited scene, the dappled light of the late afternoon perfectly captured by the camera. The sequence never feels too excessive in length, the timing and editing perfectly judged, adeptly communicating a lot with a little, which could in fact sum up Hossein’s entire directing style.
Adorf’s subsequent, final act of betrayal takes place on a deserted, lonely beach at night. It is strikingly photographed and made haunting by the sudden, unexpected discovery of the body of a man spread-eagled on wooden poles, left to die of thirst. It is during this scene that Maria becomes a fully integrated member of the drama: previously she had been a prawn in other characters machinations. By saving Hossein, Giovanna Ralli creates a new dimension to Maria, one that underpins the rest of the film.
The use too, of dramatic and horrifying depictions of death is echoed later on in the film vividly when Hossein and Ralli enter a walled town to see the main street lined with bodies hanging, massacred by government forces.
In fact, phrases such as “government forces” or “massacres” seem eerily timely in today’s world of Arabian springs and long, drawn-out revolutionary winters. Hossein, in setting the film in no specific country and no specific conflict, gave the film universality in its themes that allude over movies. The creative concept alone attests to the films origins and inspirations in literature, films with a similar narrative being hard to find from before and since.
The movie’s central argument is later extrapolated on when Hossein and Ralli visit the sister of Hossein. A war widow, she mercilessly harangues Hossein’s ideals, her arguments boiling down to revolutionary violence never ending, justified or not. It’s a powerful statement, one that is as relevant now as it has ever been, Hossein the director standing back from events and seeing clear-eyed who his character, Perez, is. He is an idealistic leader of the people, yet he knows his cause is hopeless, but finally chooses to continue irrespectively, a classically existential decision.
If Le Goût de la violence is among the best films ever made on the nature of revolution and violence, then it also demonstrates Hossein as an auteur, these pertinent themes being sustained in his next, superficially more traditional Western, Une corde, un Colt. The continuation of exploring the moral implications of violence, whether such actions can be justified or not and if responding to violence with violence merely carries on the cycle of destruction, show his deeply thought through attitudes and help make his films intellectual statements as well as operating as “entertainments”.
The Spaghetti Western genre started as a unique, subversive overhaul of the American archetypes of the Western. Yet like all genres, the directors who trailed in the wake of the Leones and Corbuccis inevitably turned what was fresh and groundbreaking into a formula. These new rules of the West became, in effect, no more inherently superior to say, the old Fordian approach which preceded it, when handled by maudlin directors. However, Robert Hossein, with Une corde, un Colt (Cemetery without Crosses) took a completely different, radical course, transforming a revenge drama into his masterpiece.
Scripted by Hossein and his long time collaborator Claude Desailly (Dario Argento is also credited in international prints, but reputedly did not work at all on the screenplay), it follows, on paper, a standard Spaghetti Western revenge filled pattern: After Ben Cain (Benito Stefanelli) is lynched and his ranch torched under the orders of the cattle boss Larry Rogers (Daniele Vargas), Marie, Cain’s widow, (Angélique herself, Michele Mercier) attempts to extract her vengeance by hiring the mysterious Manuel (Hossein).
For a film that dwells in silence, in oppressive hush, where realms of dialogue is exchanged through mere stolen glances, the conversation where Maria persuades Manuel to take revenge on the Rogers family is a crucial in its statement of themes and intent in Hossein’s oeuvre. “Revenge never ends,” intones Manuel, the film’s counterpoint to the widow in Le Goût de la violence, before finally undertaking the mission only because he loves Maria, who is too blinded by hatred to see it.
The action in the film is sparsely spaced, giving greater power to it when it does finally erupt; our senses aren’t numbed into passive acceptance like in other films by scenes of death and killing because Hossein ensures each act of violence carries weight and power to impress its importance onto the audience. When Manuel aids the Rogers boys in a dispute in a saloon in a ghost town (all the towns in the film are deserted, dust covered arenas where high drama plays itself out) to ingratiate and infiltrate the Rogers family, the fastness of the gun play is extraordinary as the speed is made to feel realistic, in contrary to other films where the action is spread out and lengthened.
Upon arrival at the Rogers ranch as a new hand, Manuel is invited to dine with the family; nothing is said during the meal, only the sounds of plates and cutlery clinking and food being chewed break the pervasive silence. The tension builds as Manuel becomes increasingly awkward, feeling the rest of the table looking at him. Suddenly, after fingering a jar, a jack-in-the-box bursts out. The silence is now broken by raucous laughter that grips everyone. This scene uncannily mirrors the dining sequences in Claude Chabrol’s 1969 thriller Que la bête meure, where another would-be avenger finds himself unexpectedly accepted and befriended by the family he seeks to destroy. As Alex Cox says in 10,000 Ways to Die, the Rogers have become humanised and cease to be abstract figures of hate, both for both Manuel and the audience. It’s a long scene, precisely edited and broodingly, beautifully shot. Due to Hossein's friendship with Leone, Leone in fact directed the scene, but it's a testament to not just Leone's directing skills, but Hossein's ability to ensure that in editing that tonally, the scene feels the same as the rest of the film.
The following scene, where Manuel frees the horses in Rogers’ corral to make the ranch hands chase after the colts, making Manuel’s kidnapping of Diana, Larry Rogers’ daughter, straightforward, is almost average in comparison, despite Henri Persin’s attractive night time cinematography.
Yet when Ben Cain’s brothers, Thomas and Eli, rape Diana as part of Maria’s merciless revenge, it is played without dialogue to great effect. Instead of showing the act, Hossein concentrates on Manuel and Maria waiting in the street, only Diana’s cries punctuating the silence; the scene is vivid and raw with power.
The subsequent reversals and killings increase the pace, all very entertaining and shot through with Hossein’s customary excellence, the camera gliding with fluid glace. Manuel throughout the film wears the mantel of “avenger” uneasily, in contrast to other Spaghetti Western (anti-)heroes. He cements this difference when he returns Diana to her family, his actions showing he believes his prediction that “revenge never ends”. Like Perez, Manuel is driven by an existential desire to do what he must do, irrespective of consequences.
Maria is killed by the Rogers; dying in Manuel’s arms, she only then finally realises his love for her. A Spaghetti Western tragedy, Hossein manages to invest a potentially risible scene with genuine pathos. The final, inevitable showdown is edited almost in the Leone style, the master’s touch evident. Manuel’s prediction turns out correct. Larry Rogers and his three sons might die biting the dust and sand in the main street, but so does he. Only the innocent Diana survives, used as a prawn in an evil game, riding off into sepia tones, Hossein repeating the device from the beginning of the film, giving the movie a feeling of having come alive from the past.
The direction overall builds on Le Goût de la violence, Hossein working not only an even more controlled mise en scène, the deserted sand-ridden streets juxtaposed with gloomy, stark, shadow-filled interiors. The editing is minute, Hossein favouring faster cuts, lending the film a unique, modern feel that can be again compared to Leone.
The music, by Hossein’s father, André, uses haunting guitar themes to invest each scene with a distinctive melancholy; completely different from Ennio Morricone or Bruno Nicolai, it is just as effective in its own way. It also underscores how far away from the traditional Spaghetti Western it is; despite the French – Italy co-production status of the film, most of the crew behind the camera, both technical and creative, were French (notwithstanding the Italian producers Vincenzo Buffolo and Giulio Spariga, credited alongside Jean-Charles Raffini and Jean-Pierre Labatut), bringing a new perspective on how to do things. From Jean Mondaroux’s art direction to Marie-Sophie Dubus’ editing, it is made with the care of a high end Western and not as a B-movie trading on its violence. Cox reports that the two ranches in the film were constructed specially for it as opposed to the normal practice of using existing ones and that the town was built on the coastal sand dunes next to Cabo de Gata in Spain.
The ghost towns of Spaghetti Westerns were partly out of pure necessity: the producers couldn’t afford large numbers of extras. Yet here there seems to be a more thought through aesthetic decision. The deserted saloon where we initially find Manuel is an extension of his mind, haunted by the past and with no future, only “ghosts” populating his memories. It is richly ironic then, that the town was demolished after the film ended shooting (again, according to Cox).
The self-consciousness about the intended effect is another link with Le Goût de la violence; Hossein is striving once more to make a point with the most dramatic consequence possible and similarly, he is also trying to show the futility of revenge and its inevitable self-destruction it brings when taken to its logical end.
The acting is very fine. Hossein as Manuel, despite relatively little dialogue even when compared to the average taciturn Spaghetti Western (anti-)hero, is strong, bringing out the depth and pain in his character. Mercier as the mono-minded instigator of vengeance, is appropriately harsh and wrathful, filled with bitterness, far from the glamour of her most famous character, Angélique. Daniele Vargas, as Will Rogers, Serge Marquand, as Larry Rogers, and Michel Lemoine, as the biblically named Eli Cain, are all very good, their conviction in their characters and the fire that is created from within them makes them all the more memorable. A special mention must be made too, of Anne-Marie Balin as Diane Rogers, allowing her character to be genuinely vulnerable and innocent, making her rape show forcefully how revenge has bent and destroyed Maria’s mind, making her incapable of seeing the unnecessary pain and suffering she is inflicting on others, be it physical hurt or, as in Manuel’s case, mental anguish.
By criticising the effects of revenge and violence, Hossein is using the traditionally action-packed genre to comment on the cyclic nature of violence. In many ways, The Spaghetti Western directors of Sergio Corbucci, Giulio Petroni and Tonino Valerii approached the genre from a completely different starting point. If Hossein is affected by Sergio Leone’s directorial style, then it is in technique only not in content. It is hardly surprising then, that Hossein never returned to genre. Having made the film he wanted to make, Hossein simply moved on, uninterested in exploring the parameters of the Spaghetti Western genre further.
Robert Hossein was a star, but in directing he showed he was more than that. He created, with Le Goût de la violence and Une corde, un Colt, two Westerns that not only display his mastery in direction, but show that he took great care in shaping his films, wanting them to be more than mere entertainment. He used and subverted the genre to comment on violence through revolution and revenge, stripping away glamorous pretensions and shirking the cinematic trends of the 1960s, and in doing so made films that feel much less dated than their contemporaries.
Despite his films being unanimously ignored by the critical establishment, both in France and abroad, his two Westerns have, in recent years, become famous among the aficionados of Spaghetti Westerns. The fact that his films remain still hard to find and see, even in this age of digital technology, means there is an aura around his work of unearthing lost masterpieces that makes seeing his films for the first time eminently satisfying. It cannot be long though, until films fans also discover his oeuvre and his seventeen films released for the English-speaking world.
Until then, we wait and watch in the darkness.
--John Welles 12:32, 23 July 2013 (CDT)