Chain of Fools: Marchent's Cut-Throats Nine
Chain of Fools: Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s Condenados a vivir/ Cut-Throats Nine (1971)
Cut-Throats Nine is a big, bloody, mean-spirited mess. The film’s rather dubious reputation endures as grisliest of all spaghetti westerns. At the time of its American release, Nine became something of an unexpected breakout success; one of the very few non-Leone Euro-westerns to attain certain mainstream infamy and reach an audience beyond the hardcore Spaghetti faithful. Whilst most late-day Spaghettis found themselves relegated to second-and-third tier provincial cinemas throughout Europe, Cut-Throats Nine found its spiritual home on New York’s 42nd street, the then-mecca for all bottom-barrel exploitation fare and beating heart of the so-called grindhouse circuit. Said success was, of course, built on a huckster’s add campaign which played-up the film’s legendary gore quota, the picture repackaged and sold by its distributor as some kind of grueling, confrontational horror set to test even the strongest of cast-iron stomachs. Cut-Throats Nine was no longer a mere film, but the ultimate horror-western advertised as endurance test.
But does the film stand to scrutiny beyond the schlock and tacked-on gimmicks? Maybe, although I’m not wholly convinced. Nine feels like the work of a hungry young filmmaker, striving to inject new life into a moribund genre via some then-fashionable, modern cinematic tropes. (By 1971, the giallo filone had begun to bloom. Characters were being killed off in quick succession, in a number of highly stylized and increasingly visceral ways. Cut-Throats Nine is in no way influenced by or patterned after the giallo template, but you get the feeling the filmmakers were encouraged by the relative relaxation in censorship and liberal daring exhibited in other burgeoning genres to play a little harder and meaner with their own on-screen mayhem.) Indeed, if one had to assign directorial authorship at a guess, you might blindly assume it to be the work of Corbucci, his penchant for bodily mutilation reaching its on-screen zenith here. But the director actually responsible for all this sanguine carnage is the most unlikely candidate of them of all: Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, the elder statesman of the European western. (Well, old-ish: Marchent was 51 when he shot Cut-Throats Nine.) The very same Marchent who helped successfully birth the genre, back in the early days of the Spanish western, before Leone, Ciaino and Corbucci re-appropriated it by force and turned it into a distinctly Italian phenomenon. (Incredibly, Marchent helmed his very first Spanish western, the adventure-cum-saddle romp El Coyote, way back in 1955.) It is ironic that many of Marchent’s early films were dismissed as transparent facsimiles of the traditional American oater, bland and unremarkable, yet here Marchent paints the snow red with hardcore atrocities, as if bookending the golden age of European westerns with two wildly opposing extremes. Perhaps this was a deliberate move on the director’s part – prove his relevance and adaptability with regard to the ever-changing cinematic landscape and sudden shifts in audience tastes. (Or maybe Marchent had genuine feeling for the macabre, as he followed up Nine with the 1973 horror-mystery, El juego del adulterio.)
The plot, what little there is, concerns a small group of chained convicts, forced into survival mode amidst an unforgiving winter milieu after their transportation wagon is destroyed. Adding to their woe is Sergeant Brown (Robert Hundar aka. Claudio Undari), shepherding them on by gunpoint, working toward his own personal objective, his pretty young daughter in tow. Further complicating matters is the group’s realization that the iron chains binding them are actually forged from gold. Cue bloody mayhem. Cut-Throats Nine is a disorientating journey. Marchent directs without mercy or compassion. Long gone are the days of white-hat valor and law-enforced stoicism which he so vividly recreated in films such as Tres hombres Buenos/ The Implacable Three (1963) and Antes llega la muerte/ Hour of Death (1964). On this evidence, Marchent had, over the 16 years since helming his first western, grown cynical and angry as director. There are no heroes left, at least not in this world. Sgt. Brown, the film’s narrator – and closest thing the film has to both an ostensible lead and a likeable human being – is unceremoniously killed off at the midway point. He is burned alive. This after being beaten, tortured, and forced to watch his daughter be gang-raped. The effect of said character’s demise is jarring, to say the least, and wholly problematic. Who is the viewer supposed to identify with or champion beyond that point? The remaining men are killers, rapists and thieves – degenerates all. Beyond the film screening at a maximum-security prison, it is difficult to imagine any empathetic connection between audience and film. But maybe that’s why the film retains its hold. All bets are off, Marchent is saying, bestowing his film with a raw unpredictability by dispatching Hundar so early on. He leaves the viewer stranded, too far in to turn back, daring one to go it alone for the second half of the picture, tethered to proceedings as if part of the chain-gang itself. (Not that the Brown character was painted as infallibly virtuous, mind; we see that he, too, is guilty of indiscriminate murder and callous brutality, he just happened to be the best of a particularly rotten bunch – the protagonist by default.) The rest of the characters are totally inscrutable and near-impossible to delineate as individual human beings; a mere collective of bastards. They snarl and threaten each other, threaten Hundar (pre-death), threaten the girl, snarl some more like a pack of feral dogs. Dialogue is perfunctory, maybe even unnecessary. Cut-Throats Nine might well have worked better as a silent film; had Marchent truly committed to the horror he flirts with, he would have had Brown cut out his prisoners’ tongues and made them communicate via those leering, murderous glances and the echo of rattling chain.
Cut-Throats Nine is the spaghetti western by way of Hieronymus Bosch. It remains a cold, sparse, unfeeling film in locale, climate, and tone. Limbs are hacked off by machete. Faces are shot. Eyeballs are ruptured from sockets. Throats are crushed by chain. Bodies are burned. People are skewered on hooks and hung. (There exists, of course, the filmic theory that much of the gore was added post-production, and some of the bloodier close-ups would certainly support this.) Marchent’s film isn’t exactly a paragon of humanity, the tone set at permanent dusk. The film doesn’t feel like an Italian western. But then again, nor does it feel particularly Spanish. In fact, Cut-throats Nine doesn’t feel like anything. It exists as its own singular beast; a gross, anomalous aberration within the Spaghetti canon. Whether this is a positive or a negative will depend entirely upon the viewer’s tolerance of the ceaseless brutality on parade. Even after multiple viewings, the film’s narrative is not immediately apparent. I understand the plot of the film, but I’m not sure I understand the point. Hundar’s Sgt. Brown wants to know which one of the men is responsible for the murder of his wife (whose death, in keeping with the rest of the film, is shown in graphic, close-up detail, the wall of her stomach appearing to collapse as she is viciously stabbed in the abdomen). His, then, is the classic revenge thread, but the film does nothing with it. The remaining convicts just want the gold that binds them. As for Sarah (played by Spanish actress Emma Cohen), the sergeant’s daughter, well… God knows what she wants. Maybe just to survive her ordeal. But with Hundar’s plot strand cut short early on, and the girl violated around that very same time, the film is left with no clear direction or upheld suspense, other than following bloodied footprints through the snow. Cut-Throats Nine is not a film to enjoy, then, so much as an experience to be endured. The remaining convicts – whose numbers whittle drastically throughout the remainder of the running time – continue on their journey, sans any clear motivation or objective, rambling much like the narrative. In one exciting scene, Marchent quadruples-down on what Leone had Tuco do in Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966), by having the men break their chains beneath the screeching wheels of a locomotive. Liberated from their shackles but keen to hold onto their gold, they walk free from the tunnel, loose chain draped around their necks like caricatured pimps from some third-rate Blaxploitation film. It’s a great visual, legitimately daft. Also effective is the film’s brief deviation into horror territory (beyond the fake blood and obvious butcher’s scraps). Having separated from his fellow survivors, Brewster (Antonio Iranzo) stumbles through the snow, apparently succumbing to some kind of frost-bitten hysteria. Having gone back on himself through the snow, he lands once again at the charred, skeletal remains of the burned cabin (or is this, too, mere hallucination?). As Brewster looks on, disbelieving, we see the cabin rebuild itself, the previous collapse footage effectively reversed. Sergeant Brown then reappears, his face badly burned, lurching through the snow toward the fearful convict. This is obviously an apparition, conjured by certain delirium – the manifestation of Brewster’s remorse or regret, perhaps? (Maybe not, though; prior to this, Brewster is painted as perhaps the most vicious and dangerous of the men.) It’s an unsettling and effective moment, reminiscent of other Italian winter-themed horrors such as the ‘Wurdalak’ segment of Mario Bava’s 1963 classic I tre volti della paura/ Black Sabbath or Giorgio Ferroni’s 1972 film La notte dei diavoli/ Night of the Devils. The scene is so good, in fact, that I can’t help but feel Marchent should have leaned more heavily into the Gothic throughout, gone the whole Django il bastardo/ Django the Bastard (1969) route.
It’s a deliberately blunt film, morally repugnant, hitting with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. But, despite the minimal plot and unremarkable dialogue, I don’t think it a simple film. It has an unwelcome honesty to it, like a cracked mirror held before the clinically insane, accurately reflecting the dark heart of man. In that respect, it’s vaguely reminiscent of El más fabuloso golpe del Far-West/The Boldest Job in the West aka. Nevada, another unheralded, snowbound Spaghetti (incidentally directed by a fellow talented Spaniard, José Antonio de la Loma.) I believe Marchent is yet to receive his proper due as a credible and talented filmmaker. It’s somewhat ironic – and a little disappointing – that he achieved a durable fame, at least within our own fan circles, with this, the very least of his works. He was, I think, an excellent director whose early Spanish westerns I have come to appreciate more and more in recent years. The Spaghetti zeitgeist had yet to take off proper when Marchent was helming his early westerns, suggesting a legitimate and highly personal passion for the genre, and over a recent period dedicated to revisiting his output, his westerns feel authentic in their appropriation of the traditional American western. Many Italo-westerns successfully duplicated the aesthetic, but Marchent often managed to capture the essence. (We hardcore SW fans tend to view this as a negative, dismissing most pre-Fistful Euro-westerns as sterile pretenders with no distinct personality or voice of their own. I myself have been guilty of that specific bias, but have, over the years – thanks in no small part to Marchent and company – come to find those early Spanish westerns to be of equal importance and merit, deserving of a dedicated critical reappraisal in their own right.) With Cut-throats Nine, Marchent pulls a brilliant 180° turn, and obliterates any notion of a set-in-his-ways traditionalist woefully out of step with (then) modern trends.
Beyond the direction, all other technical components are solid. The acting is fine. Hundar was a strong presence in Marchent’s earlier Spanish westerns, shining in such fare as El sabor de la venganza/ Three Ruthless Ones (1964). The film misses both the actor and character after his departure, however; Sgt. Brown exits the picture far too early. Had Marchent and his writers killed him off during the climax, it might have proved more effective, delivering more emotional punch. Confusingly, Marchent doesn’t even show his death. We see his charred corpse as the cabin burns, but his actual manner of demise is never made explicit. It’s as if Marchent doesn’t care. To him, Brown is just another victim. Filling the void left in Hundar’s absence is a decent ensemble. Cohen is an acceptable – if unremarkable – presence as the endangered female, and the chain-gang are all fine if mostly interchangeable, with only Jose Manuel Martin standing out in any real capacity, such is his familiarity. Marchent renders them a broad and hateful collective, devoid of any real individuality beyond their hilariously blunt sobriquets (‘Dandy Tom’, ‘The Torch’, ‘The Weasel’, ‘El Comanchero’, ‘Slim’ et al). The score, by Carmelo Bernaola, works fine within the confines of the film, but is a little undistinguished to be considered a pantheon listen. Far more impressive is Luis Cuadrado’s cinematography, ably capturing the expansive, snow-capped Pyrenees vistas and lending the film some much-needed scale.
Ultimately, Cut-Throats Nine manages to shrug off its rather hollow exploitation reputation; cut out all the gore and gristle and you have a perfectly decent time-filler in its own right, the twilight gloom and choking winter atmosphere being far more oppressive than any explicit on-screen horror. It’s not nearly as impressive as Marchent’s earlier genre efforts, but as a cynical, splashy, uncompromising view of humanity shot through a genre filter, it’s a grimly compelling ride. The only real issue I take with Marchent’s film is, well, it’s just not a western – spaghetti or otherwise. That’s a pretty blunt statement, and bound to draw argument, but I just can’t seem to classify it as such. I don’t recognize any of the genre’s visual metonymy in Marchent’s film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. William A. Wellman’s 1954 film Track of the Cat has ranchers and horses and Stetsons and carbine rifles and Robert Mitchum and is an utterly fantastic melodrama (Douglas Sirk by way of Anthony Mann), but it ain’t a western. Not really. And I feel the same about Cut-Throats Nine. But if it isn’t a western, and it’s not an adventure film, nor an all-out horror, then what the hell is it? (That’s not rhetorical – I’ll take any persuasive categorization that comes my way.) But maybe that’s exactly Marchent’s point after all, the very thing I’ve failed to grasp despite multiple viewings. Savvy filmmaker that he was, perhaps he set out to create an anomaly; something to which no easy label could be applied. If so, he succeeded brilliantly. Cut-Throat’s Nine remains the cinematic equivalent of rubbernecking as you pass by a car wreck; it demands your attention as visceral atrocity, prohibiting you from turning away despite your better judgment. And then, when it’s all over, you try desperately to forget what you saw.