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Championing the Underdog: Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966)

From The Spaghetti Western Database

Rome-born director Carlo Lizzani only helmed two spaghetti westerns during his long and distinguished career, but those films stand as two diametrically opposed halves of an ill-fitting whole, the Italo-western equivalent of yin and yang. Those films are, of course, The Hills Run Red / Un Fiume di Dollari (1966) and Requiescant (a.k.a. Kill and Pray, 1967). Lizzani’s binary offspring remain the Cain and Abel of the spaghetti universe, standing back-to-back (and year-to-year) in a state of perpetual magnetic repulsion – two completely different beasts reared by the same loving hand. The Hills Run Red is an unabashed b-western – loud, vulgar, brutish, brisk, and kinetic. Requiescant, in stark contrast, stands as Hills’ more well-heeled brethren, flirting with an art-house credibility due to its then-fashionable political polemic and the involvement of one Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both films are – and remain – incredibly divisive, capable of causing great discordance amongst the normally unified world of Spaghetti fandom; you don’t so much choose one of Lizzani’s westerns over the other as pledge your undying allegiance. Indeed, in the pantheon of timeless cultural preferences, I rank the question ‘Hills Run Red or Requiescant?’ up there with ‘Lugosi or Karloff?’ or ‘Elvis or The Beatles?’ Whilst I both enjoy and appreciate Requiescant (and there is much to appreciate and enjoy), I must disclose that both my heart and loyalty lay squarely with The Hills Run Red. Alas, I fear I may be in the minority. Some fifty-odd years on after their initial releases, it’s interesting – and more than a little frustrating – to note the divergent critical standing both films have acquired, with Requiescant emerging very much as the prestige picture and The Hills Run Red its pulpier, more bombastic subjacent. Perhaps Lizzani foresaw this – why else would he sign Hills with the director credit ‘Lee W. Beaver’ (a name that even a 1970’s adult film star might reject due to its on-the-nose innuendo)?

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Requiescant is exactly the kind of film that the cultural intelligentsia like to reassess and belatedly laud, with both Lizzani and Pasolini lending the film a certain artistic cachet. UK boutique label Arrow Video even went so far as to lavish a brand-spanking new 2k restoration on the film in 2015. By comparison, The Hills Run Red remains relatively inscrutable. There have been releases of the film on digital format, of course (notably Koch’s excellent DVD release, number 11 in their trend-setting Italo-Western ‘rainbow’ collection; a nice UK disc from Optimum; the long-deleted R1 DVD from MGM; a rather sloppy Blu-ray transfer from Australia), and the odd-screening on TCM, but the film seems intent on maintaining its status as one of the genre’s dirtier little secrets. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing any time soon. The Hills Run Red remains a polarizing film, even amongst the genre’s most well-respected vanguard. Alex Cox is surprisingly dismissive. In his book 10,000 Ways to Die (Kamera), Cox devotes a full section to Requiescant whilst marginalizing Hills with a short, throwaway comment, referring to the film as ‘uninteresting’. Similarly, the trusted Matt Blake over at The Wild Eye concurs, calling the film ‘disappointing’ and ‘a rather mediocre production’. Tom Betts supports Blake’s negative view, saying, ‘The overacting by the key players is annoying. I don’t know who to blame; the director or the actors… was he (Lizzani) just not impressed with the material and allowed Hunter and Silva go over the top [SIC]. Not a bad film but a rather unique experience.’ Not all judgment is so hostile, however. Howard Hughes is a big fan of the film, deeming Hills worthy of a full chapter in his critical study Once Upon a Time in the Italian West (I.B. Tauris). Frayling, too, is an acknowledged fan, with Hills once landing on his Spaghetti Top 20. The film also has many fans on our very own SWDb forum – as well it should. The Hills Run Red is a tough, delirious western, brimming with perverse energy and little sense of control. Nothing about Hills lends itself to narrative scrutiny or high-watermark filmmaking (yawn); this is genre cinema rendered purely via demonstrative emotion, a state of spiralling madness caught on film. Watching the film almost becomes an act of enabling behaviour; hitting the stop button would surely halt all the torment and anguish Lizzani inflicts upon his characters, yet one watches, enthralled and appalled at this endless parade of broken men and tortured souls. In a sub-genre that would become synonymous with the theme of violent revenge, The Hills Run Red might just stand as the most reactionary of all spaghetti westerns.

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It is ironic, then, that Lizzani – one of Italian cinema’s most eminent intellectuals and dedicated socialists – should author such an outwardly base film. Ironic, maybe, but not wholly surprising. Unlike many of his peers, Lizzani never shirked from more commercial ventures, daring to blend his neo-realist signature with a more populist slant, as if committed enough to address the issues most important to him, yet savvy enough to have them reach the widest possible audience (said synthesization reached its apogee with his 1972 film Torino Nera, starring Bud Spencer, Francoise Fabian and Marcel Buzzoffi – a fascinating hybrid of docu-style social drama and tentative poliziotteschi). As a filmmaker, Lizzani existed in some magical place between Francesco Rosi and, say, Sergio Sollima – never afraid to let a rogue pulp aspect infiltrate his overt socialist sensibility (which would, in theory, make him the perfect candidate for helming a spaghetti western). Indeed, when Lizzani passed away in 2013, his obituary in the UK newspaper The Guardian noted that the director ‘never became, or aspired to be, an auteur’, before adding that Lizzani ‘was never ashamed to make popular films’. I can think of no finer or more accurate epitaph, especially in direct correlation to The Hills Run Red, which endures as Lizzani’s most deceptively commercial feature – the film in which the director appears to abandon any trace of socio-political allegory and commits fully to the notion of ham-fisted pulp. The film goes far beyond its anomalous place in Lizzani’s oeuvre, however: The Hills Run Red is easily the most absurdly melodramatic of the spaghetti westerns, something akin to a Raffaello Matarazzo film with added bullets and dynamite. Like Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Robert Aldrich’s superb The Last Sunset (1961), and Questi’s Se sei vivo spara / Django…Kill! (1967), Lizzani’s western is so heightened and flamboyant and bizarre that it hovers on a camp brutality without ever spilling over into parody. Much of this must be credited – not blamed on, as some would have it – to the film’s two lead performances, which both Lizzani and the film struggle to contain. Thomas Hunter and Henry Silva both deliver highly-charged characterizations, each threatening to cancel the other out, both landing at some perverse dramatic impasse, lending Lizzani’s film an air of the demonic. Both appear to hover on the precipice of emotional combustion whenever they’re on-screen; rarely have hero and villain seemed so symmetrically unhinged. Hunter and Silver go nuclear with their performances, essaying two irreparable fruitcakes who desperately need therapy intervention and half-a-kilo of Seroquel tablets – talk about the psychological western! (Many commentators have compared the film to the much-feted, so-called psychological westerns of Anthony Mann, but I’m not sure I subscribe to that correlation. A clear delineation must be made between the psychological western and the psychotic western, of which Hills most certainly is; as has been acknowledged by many commentators before, it seems to me that the film has far more in common with Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks [1961] than anything from Mann or Boetticher. Both narratives are strikingly similar – two friends commit a robbery; one is incarcerated [a five-year sentence is served in both films] whilst the other proliferates in terms of money, family and social standing after committing a certain betrayal; the wronged man seeks an obsessive, self-cannibalizing revenge upon being released. We can only assume that writer Piero Regnoli was familiar with Brando’s sole directorial effort; if he was, he certainly wasn’t alone – along with Robert Aldrich’s excellent Vera Cruz [1954], I think One-Eyed Jacks is very much responsible for much of what we now regard as the spaghetti western blueprint.) Indeed, one suspects that, for all its ludicrously fevered affectation, Hills might well be one of the most inadvertently realistic depictions of the revenge-obsessed gunslinger committed to film. Beyond the gritted teeth, monosyllabic grunts and obvious demand for ecumenical redress, the spaghetti rarely took time to probe the after-effects of such a pursuit (given, of course, that the protagonist should survive his quest). It occurs to me that – after whatever loss suffered and bloody retribution gained – a state of mental breakdown or spell of catatonia might be a tad more believable than the standard wink or pithy quip (though infinitely less cinematic). With that in mind, maybe there is more subtext here than I’m giving Lizzani credit for. Is it possible that Hills might just stand as the director’s sly examination of western PTSD? Is this a scathing correction of all hitherto filmic Prairie Cool? Doubtful, but it’s an interesting thought, given the level of suffering on display, and the fact that Lizzani has always been a confident enough filmmaker to have a point without beating his audience over the head with it.

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Contrary to the general critical consensus, I find American actor Thomas Hunter tremendous in the lead role of Jerry Brewster. Hunter is handsome to a fault, tanned and lean, all stubble and square jaw. The expat actor can’t win, however, caught as he is in an untenable battle: most Spaghetti leading men were trashed for being too wooden or stilted, but here Hunter goes off like a Chinese firework, yet is too-often criticised for this go-for-broke display. For me, it works. Some have complained that Hunter’s performance is not in keeping with the typical Spaghetti hero, replacing the well-worn squint for wide-eyed histrionics, but so what? Hunter’s character has just lost his wife, child and five years of his life – he’s entitled to get a little pissed off. I’m all for the patented cool of Eastwood, Garko, Steffen et al, but it’s equally rewarding to see an antithetical variant of the accepted heroic persona, one pushed beyond the borders of reason and sanity, where such dispassionate composure is simply not an option. Here, Hunter’s Brewster comes off as a certified madman unable to contain his turbulent grief; upon discovering the fate of his beloved wife and child, Brewster staggers into the desert scrub and screams to the Gods, appealing for some kind of Faustian bargain which will allow him his revenge. This is all brilliantly staged, with Lizzani letting Hunter of his leash and allowing the actor free reign. Hunter was an emerging bit-player who, like many, followed the migration of talent from America to Europe. It was uber-producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis who saw promise in the young actor, casting him cold in The Hills Run Red after a serendipitous meeting (Hunter’s only previous paid acting gig having been a fleeting appearance in Blake Edwards’ 1966 romp What did you do in the War, Daddy?). Whilst amassing a decent body of work during this time, Hunter fell somewhat short of his full star potential. Post-Hills, Hunter appeared in Enzo Peri’s thoroughly average spaghetti Death Walks in Laredo (1966); Edward Dmytryk’s Anzio (1968), alongside Hollywood royalty Robert Mitchum, Peter Falk, and Robert Ryan; The Magnificent Tony Carrera, a shot-on-70mm Eurospy extravaganza from 1968 (wherein Hunter allegedly replaced Roger Moore after the latter was injured in a car accident); Umberto Lenzi’s Battle of the Commandos (1969), co-written by Dario Argento and starring Jack Palance; and X312: Flight to Hell (1971), Jess Franco’s inexplicably enjoyable survival romp which teamed a game Hunter with fellow Spaghetti alumni Fernando Sancho. In his enjoyable 2015 memoir, Memoirs of a Spaghetti Cowboy: Tales of Oddball Luck and Derring-Do (BookBaby) (Amazon UK), Hunter has, rather disappointingly, very little to say about Hills, other than a few minor anecdotes. Far more edifying is Tom Runs Red, the filmed interview of the actor included on Koch Media’s afore-mentioned DVD release. Over the course of a too-short 26 minutes, Hunter proves to be an endearing, self-effacing personality, and he goes into much detail regarding the film. When I think of Hunter, I think of Hills – undoubtedly, this is his signature role.

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Much has been made of Henry Silva’s deranged performance as Garcia Mendez, and the hype is well-founded – he’s terrific. The character of Ken Seagal (played by Savona-born actor Nando Gazzola) is actually the nominal villain of the film, but it is Mendez – as Seagal’s flamboyantly psychotic henchman – whom the viewer remembers. It seems to me that behind many of the great Spaghetti villains – no matter how brilliant and memorable they might have been (and were) in their own right – there was a wickedly memorable lieutenant. Think of Gerard Herter’s stone-cold killer, Baron von Schulenberg, to Walter Barnes’ Brockston in Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1967), or Sieghardt Rupp’s Ralph to Gianni Garko’s maniacal General Sartana in Alberto Cardone’s 1.000 dollari sul Nero / 1,000 Dollars on the Black/ Blood at Sundown (1966). Here, as good as Gazzola is, Silva upstages him to become the film’s de facto bastard. Kitted out in his dandy Mexican outfit – the funereal leather going far beyond a mournful sobriety and into the realm of deadly kitsch – and matching Hunter scene-for-scene, Silva delivers his dialogue as if wired on a cocktail of cocaine and caffeine. The dub track – here spat rather than spoken by Silva – is so harried and bursting with élan that it reaches a state of slum poetry as recited by Speedy Gonzalez. Be it spouting lip-smacking sarcasm, sleazing on Nicoletta Machiavelli or screaming ‘Bravo!’ whilst clapping vigorously like a seal on amphetamines, Silva is simply a joy to behold. Sadly, whilst he would go on to corner a large part of the Poliziotteschi crime genre, The Hills Run Red would be Silva’s first and only Spaghetti western.

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Beyond Hunter and Silva’s infectious grandstanding, the film also boasts a third point in its trifecta of American acting talent, with perennial screen heavy Dan Duryea also on board as the oddly named Winny Getz. Although mainly associated with golden-era film noir and American crime cinema, Duryea was no stranger to the western, having appeared in Anthony Mann’s seminal Winchester ’73 (1950) and the 1957 James Stewart-Audie Murphy double-whammy Night Passage, as well as countless guest slots on many of the syndicated TV westerns so popular at the time. Duryea appears early doors, levelling the playing field for Brewster during an ambush, but his motive remains ambiguous until the very final scene (more on this later). With his distinct, high-pitched voice and relaxed demeanour, Duryea supplies some much-needed control to proceedings, and contrasts nicely with Hunter and Silva’s showboating. Getz seems to hover on the periphery for much of the film, as if waiting for either Brewster or Lizzani to use him, until becoming integral to the action during the final act. Beyond Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and Franco Giraldi’s underrated Un Minuto per pregare, un istante per morire (1968), with Alex Cord, Arthur Kennedy and Robert Ryan, Lizzani’s film is one of the very few spaghettis with an all-American line-up with regard to its leading players; it’s also worth noting that all three actors provide their own voices for the English dub track, giving the (often lousy, often great) dialogue a much-needed boost in credibility. Nicoletta Machiavelli also deserves mention here. The raven-haired Italian beauty, so good in the afore-mentioned Un Minuto per pregare, un istante per morire, is very impressive in the role of Mary Ann, Seagal’s sister and Brewster’s ersatz love interest. When not spurning Mendez’s rather forthright advances, she is tending to Brewster’s many wounds (prone as our hero is to taking a good licking). This is no passive cardboard role, however. Mary Ann is naïve to her brother’s erroneous ways, not to mention how he became wealthy, and so, initially at least, is unwaveringly loyal to Seagal. Her allegiance isn’t unconditional, though, and said familial devotion begins to dissipate once she begins to learn the awful truth. Machiavelli brings nice shading and depth to the role, and proves to be one of a select group of proactive female characters within the spaghetti western cannon.

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Plot wise, The Hills Run Red requires no detailed examination; what little narrative story that exists has been satisfactorily described already in countless other essays and reviews. As such, I will be brief: at the end of the American Civil War, Hunter’s Brewster is incarcerated for stealing $600,000 dollars from the Union army payroll, allowing his accomplice, Ken Seagal, to flourish as a free man with their ill-gotten gains. The passing of five long years are then condensed into a fine opening credits montage, all to the iconic soundscape of maestro Morricone (here credited under the name of Leo Nichols, as if carried away by all the deception and name-changing going on within the picture he is scoring). One can only assume by all the torture endured by Brewster in this sequence – trapped in a mesh cage, burning beneath a fiery desert sun, freezing in a dug-out – that he wasn’t a model prisoner, and you get the feeling he must have served each and every minute of his sentence. And so Brewster is finally released, only to find his wife and son dead – their pleas for help having been ignored by Seagal, who, Brewster discovers, has changed his name and become a very wealthy and influential man in the interim. Cue the standard vengeance trail. Along the way, Brewster will learn his son is alive and well, will fall in love with his enemy’s sister (the sultry Machiavelli), and will take out multiple attackers with a frying pan. Aided by the aging gunfighter Winny Getz, Brewster sets out to expose Seagal and exact a bloody revenge. So far, so spaghetti, but Hills is further complicated by an inordinate amount of subterfuge. In his excellent book, The Spaghetti Western: A Thematic Analysis (McFarland & Co), author Bert Fridland accurately addresses the fact that the Italo-western was rife with disguise and deception, with many of the genre’s (anti)heroes assuming alternative identities in order to best execute their objective. Although the idea of the Italian cowboy riding incognito is probably best represented by Duccio Tessari’s masterful Il ritorno di Ringo (1965), in which Guiliano Gemma’s ex-Confederate spends literally the entire film suppressing his own identity in order to reclaim the life he had before the war, Lizzani’s film isn’t far behind when it comes to dual identity as plot machination: Seagal changing his name in order to proliferate post-war/post-crime; Brewster faking his own death in order to fool Seagal; Getz joining up with Seagal’s men; Brewster infiltrating Mendez’s inner-circle; Getz’s ulterior motive overall. Hell, there’s enough deceit and dishonesty to rival a political election. It’s to Lizzani’s credit that none of this ever grows confusing or tenuous. He also manages to avoid many of the expected Leone-esque indulgences that so many of his fellow directors were unable to resist when working in this specific filone. There is no protracted stand-off during the dénouement, for example; as soon as Brewster gets his chance to take out Mendez, he does so. It’s not a particularly memorable death scene befitting such a majestic character (in fact it’s a little disappointing), but it feels right in the way it avoids the typical genre cliché. The film also contains one scene of astonishing brutality, albeit self-inflicted. The spaghetti western was often criticized for setting a new standard with regard to screen violence, but such critique was, in hindsight, not only knee-jerk but mostly unfounded. Said judgement, one suspects, likely stemmed from those most desperate to protect the sanctity of the so-called authentic American western film, horrified to have seen a hitherto morally sacrosanct landscape (however fraudulent) infringed upon – by Europeans, no less! – and sullied via unwelcome reinterpretation. In reality, very few spaghetti westerns contained on-screen blood or squib effects; most were proponents of the victim-clutching-at-his chest-and-tumbling-into-the-dirt demise – cheap and easy to film (although whether actually effective is another argument entirely). There were exceptions to the rule, however – individual scenes or films which did actually live up to the infamy accrued by the genre as a whole (poor old Piero Lulli, riddled with gold bullets, being torn to pieces by bandits in Django Kill!, or the whole of Joaquin Marchent’s Condenados a Vivir / Cut Throats Nine [1971] being perhaps the most notorious examples). Here, in order to fool Seagal into thinking that Brewster is dead, Getz flays our hero’s skin, slicing off a distinct tattoo in order to present certain proof of our hero’s death. Not much is shown on-screen, to be fair, but when Getz actually proffers the dried flesh to Seagal, wrapped in cloth, there is something disturbingly macabre about the whole affair, further accentuating the overall sense of cruel hysteria which permeates Lizzani’s film.

The musical score is excellent. It has been said that Morricone, at the height of his new-found popularity, spread himself too thinly with regard to projects, and many deem The Hills Run Red to be one of his more inferior western scores. I strongly disagree. Why, then, did Morricone choose to go by another name on the credits? Was he himself wary of market oversaturation, his name alone now a cultural phenomenon? Or by doing so was the maestro himself admitting that this was, indeed, a second-tier score? I sincerely hope not. His compositions for Lizzani’s film are rousing, fast-paced stuff, as bold and reckless as the film itself. It’s a wonderful score, and the soundtrack album is positively crying out for a definitive reissue.

Beyond my obvious affection for the film, the picture does, of course, have certain shortcomings, and those issues must be addressed. Indeed, The Hills Run Red comes awfully close to sabotaging its own greatness – much, much closer than most other Italo-westerns, in fact. Any seasoned spaghetti aficionado understands – and, sometimes, welcomes – that certain factors must be overlooked in order to both access and appreciate many works: faded, third-generation VHS copies; cropped or incorrect aspect ratios; poorly rendered dub tracks; cut or censored prints; incomprehensible retitling and so forth. This is all part of the pact we made when we swore our undying fealty to a sub-genre of film which was, for a long time, misinterpreted, ignored and/or ill-preserved. But sometimes the rot has set deeper, and the problems presented extend way beyond those acknowledged considerations. With that in mind, there is no getting around the fact that certain moments in The Hills Run Red are just plain awful. Lizzani’s film features the most horrendous saloon song sequence ever committed to film. Always the most unfortunate recurring motif in any spaghetti western (and guaranteed dud on most spaghetti western soundtracks), the saloon number here goes beyond bad and into the realm of painful. The actress (or, more accurately, the woman providing the English dub track vocal) wails like a sick cat being fed through a wood-chipper, the lyrics equally excruciating; it’s hard to believe the vocal artist wasn’t taking the utter piss when recording this woeful sequence. The scene might have worked had the background artists populating the saloon set reacted accordingly (i.e. perforating their own eardrums with toothpicks), but – somewhat incredulously – they sit in mute appreciation, as if impervious to certain torture. But if said saloon scene is wretched (and it is), it’s not nearly as insufferable as the antics of child actor Loris Loddi in the role of Jerry’s son, Tim. (To be fair, Hunter speaks of young Loddi with great affection in the Koch Tom Runs Red interview, whilst also relaying a near-tragic tale in which the boy almost lost an eye whilst filming another picture.) All that business with the hands and fingers and the ‘sign-of luck’ is truly awful; as if Jerry and his son belong to a third-rate sub-division of some secret order. Were Lizzani and his writer Regnoli tipping their hats to George Steven’s classic American western Shane (1951), or was this nonsense something that read emotionally affecting on the written page but failed to transfer convincingly to screen? It also seems like a rare misstep into the realm of saccharine for Lizzani, who – like Rosi, in particular – never forced or milked an overtly moving moment.

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Undoubtedly, though, the film’s biggest failing is its ending. Weak, woefully misjudged and totally unconvincing, The Hills Run Red has an epilogue that beggars belief. After all that untethered delirium, the all-important closing scene sees Lizzani’s film settling for 1950’s Hollywood programme-filler mediocrity. What the hell, Carlo? After 80-some minutes in the company of a certified loon, our anti-hero Brewster appears to have undergone some kind of extreme personality transplant – the character now damagingly diluted and utterly unrecognizable. Killing Mendez should have tipped Brewster over the edge into the realm of pure insanity (‘It’s the reason I live, why I breathe,’ he says of his quest for revenge earlier in the film), but here Jerry seems cured of his savage dementia, as if his driving grief had proven nothing more than a mere headache and murdering Seagal a cathartic remedy. How glorious it would have been for The Hills Run Red to have ended with Brewster – having finally brought down his duplicitous quarry, and thus finding his life robbed of all cause or purpose – biting down on his own pistol and eating a bullet! Much like Trintignant’s Silence in Il Grande Silenzio (1967), death appears to be the only logical conclusion for such a character as Hunter’s Brewster (suicide as mercy killing), yet the film doesn’t have the conviction to carry us there. Instead, we get what appears to be some kind of tacked-on, producer/studio imposed compromise. It almost kills the film. We also learn – via a single line of throwaway dialogue most likely added at the last minute – that Winny Getz is actually some sort of government agent(?), working undercover to retrieve the money Brewster and Seagal originally stole(!). Getz then informs the authorities that Jerry Brewster is now dead, thus granting Brewster not only a new identity but also a new life. Adding further insult to injury, Getz then swears in Brewster as town sheriff, seemingly overriding all trace of civic democracy by bypassing an election. With that, Brewster and his son ride off into the sunset. What is this rubbish? This is a terrible ending. Or, rather, the ending as is – there were apparently two different endings shot for The Hills Run Red. The ‘happy’ ending feels like a betrayal of everything that has gone before. Again, as much as I root for Trintignant to survive each and every time I watch Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio, the character of Silence has to die. The hero/revenger’s ultimate sacrifice must be one of life in order to help society (i.e. the town under oppression or attack) regain independence and reform atop a firmer, more eugenically sound foundation. ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,’ Fitzgerald once wrote; Lizzani and Regnoli should have taken note. (To be fair, Regnoli had already addressed the concept of heroic death by killing off the titular protagonist in Corbucci’s 1966 film Navajo Joe, so, again, I might look toward external, post-shoot tampering here as opposed to laying the blame at Regnoli or Lizzani’s door.) Each time I revisit The Hills Run Red, I toy with the idea of pressing the stop button just after Hunter has gunned down Gazzola, thus sparing myself the frustration of this banal coda; failing that, I like to imagine that Brewster and his annoying son gallop off, only for their horse to lose its footing just beyond the range of cinematographer Antonio Secchi’s camera, both of them plummeting to their well-earned deaths. Lizzani’s film is one of madness, of crippling psychological devastation – why attempt to remedy this via a base lie (the obscene notion of a ‘happy ending’) in the final moment of the picture? I wouldn’t have actually minded if Brewster had survived, but had done so in a personal climate of continuing grief and despair. In his underrated 1969 film Gli Specialisti, Corbucci spares his protagonist, Hud (Johnny Halliday), from death, but even then the film refuses to cling to any notion of hope or rebirth for the character. As Hud rides off into further uncertainty, one gets the feeling that it will be a long time – if ever – before that character ever smiles again, and that he might well have been better off dying from his injuries, if only to put the assaultive ghosts of waking life to rest once and for all. Similarly, if Lizzani and Regnoli were absolutely set on Brewster living, they should have painted a far bleaker world for him to inhabit, as if his struggle was far from over.

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The film was a huge hit when released in Italy in late 1966 – and rightly so – but seems now to have slipped into certain obscurity. This is a shame; it feels like a film that should be far better known beyond the boundaries of spaghetti fandom. Hills is nothing if not commercial filmmaking (just look at that bloody ending!), and deserves to be appreciated by any mainstream western fan. Spurred by its success, Lizzani moved straight on to Requiescant, with Lou Castel, Mark Damon and Franco Citti, the following year. Here the director, reconciling with his socio-political conscience and a hard-Leftist sensibility, tackled the stock genre tale of a crooked landowner exerting control over the land via a fistful of sham deeds. It’s a good film, I suppose – smart, more experimental, more knowingly funny, more to say, perhaps – but it lacks the sheer intensity and raw, unapologetic feeling which makes The Hills Run Red so damned infectious. Lizzani never returned to the saddle after Requiescant. Instead, he chose to focus on contemporary crime, always more simpatico with ‘modern’ bandits than those of, say, the Mexican revolution. But his two westerns remain high watermarks in the variable world of the Italo-western, even if neither one directly compliments the other. Let Requiescant bask in the glory of a belated critical extolment; it wholly deserves its growing reputation as one of the finest subversive Spaghettis. But The Hills Run Red is even better – it’s ruthlessly entertaining.


DG Bell
DG Bell is a writer and Spaghetti Western aficionado from the UK. His debut novel, the horror-thriller Ends Meat (Amazon UK - Amazon US), was recently published by Zharmae Press in the US. His second novel – Medium Rare: Ends Meat Book Two – is due out in early 2017.
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