A Stranger in Town Review (Scherpschutter)
From The Spaghetti Western Database
A Stranger in Town' (Un Dollaro tra i denti)
Cast: Tony Anthony, Frank Wolff, Jolanda Modio, Gia Sandri, Raf Baldassarre, Aldo Berti - Music: Benedetto Ghiglia - Director: Luigi Vanzi
A stranger arrives in a sleepy Mexican border town. The first person he spots, is already dead, the second one, the bar owner, he kills himself... with a whiskey bottle. The world we have entered, is not a friendly one. A Stranger in Town, also known as For a Dollar in the Teeth, is as close as the genre ever got to a minimalistic film experience. Not even a handful of sets are used, only a few lines are spoken, the film seems to be made on a shoestring, and still it was co-produced by Allan Klein, the man who would save The Beatles from bankruptcy.
After having killed the bar owner, the Stranger (Anthony) witnesses how a regiment of the Mexican army is slaughtered by bandits, who want to take their place in a lucrative deal with the American army. He offers his services to the sadistic leader of the gang, Aguila (Wolff) - who needs somebody who can 'identify' him as an officer of the federales - but of course he is double-crossed by him. When Aguila tries to eliminate the stranger, he manages to escape, but shortly after he is trapped and brutally tortured, first by Aguila's men, then by the bandit's fiancée (Sandri), a 19th century SM dominatrix with a 20th century fifties coiffure, timeless jodhpurs and a whip. But she gets sexually aroused when torturing a man, and the stranger uses this 'weakness' to get the better of her, in a mesmerizing and - for the time - very daring scene. Finally he faces the entire gang in a bloody showdown in the town's street.
For some obscure reason I had never seen this film before, and having read a lot of negative things about it, I had low expectations. To my surprise I was enthralled from the moment the stranger rides into the dusty town of Cerro Gordo. Often called a poor man's A Fistful of Dollars, director Vanzi uses a thinly disguised, simplified version of the plot, and some elements are taken directly from Leone's landmark movie, but his style is decisively different. The ultra-slow pace may seem Leonesque, but like Frayling has pointed out, Leone was above all interested in the ritualistic build-up to typical genre elements like shootouts, thus the making of every action scene in the film, with its own opening, crescendo and climax. Vanzi's style is lingering, dream-like, with sudden, unprepared outbursts of violence.
Of course there are a few flaws. When Aguila executes the Mexican soldiers, he shoots holes in the men and the wall behind them, but not in their uniforms, and that ultra-slow pace occasionally even flirts with catatonia. But I was impressed by the atmosphere of decay Vanzi manages to create with a few simple means. The stranger wears an old blanket instead of the poncho he apparently can't afford, a damaged railcar still runs on tracks down the main street ... punctuated by those sudden outbursts of violence, his film becomes a nightmarish vision of hell, both minimalistic and nihilistic. A priest is drowned by one of Aguila's henchmen, called Marinero (sailor, mariner) who owes his name to his love of water ... This Marinero is played by Aldo Berti, the lunatic who knocked out a woman in El Puro with his head. When making this film, he was living with Barbara Steele ... (And this guy of all people has to confirm repeatedly that Frank Wolff is a fair man!)
As said, the film wasn't received well by critics and still isn't popular among them. Hughes (1) thinks it's "so poorly executed that its success, especially in America, is difficult to fathom". Frayling (2) nor Casadio (3) pay attention to it and Phil Hardy (4) calls it a poor imitation of Leone, only outdoing the maestro in violence, but little else. Marco Giusti is a little more positive on the film, saying "it seems well-written and executed with much care" (5). Anthony doesn't have the virile looks of Eastwood, but he sure knows how to take a beating and his doggy-like, faithful eyes and nearly lisping speech hide an inner rage that can emerge at any moment. Unlike most actors playing Mexican bandits, Frank Wolff turns in a rather restrained performance, only occasionally bursting out in those inevitable laughs. The film was entirely shot in Italy, mainly in the Mexican village of the Elios studios in Rome. Benedetto Ghilghia's score is mainly a fuzzy guitar, seasoned with some whips, bells and flutes. It's a wonderful score, even if the main theme is used a few times too often (but when the film is over you want to hear it again!).
- (1) Howard Hughes, The pocket essential Spaghetti Westerns
- (2) Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone
- (3) Gianfranco Casadio, Se sei vivo spara! Storie di pistoleri, banditi e bounty killers nel western 'all'italiana'
- (4) Phil Hardy, The Aurum film encyclopedia of westerns
- (5) Mario Giusti, Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana
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