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Firing Blanks: Damned Pistols of Dallas and Three Dollars of Lead (1964)

From The Spaghetti Western Database

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The very first piece I ever submitted to the SWDb was an article on Alberto Cardone’s barmy, brilliant diptych of Sette dollari sul rosso/Seven Dollars on the Red and 1000 dollari sul nero/ $1,000 on the Black aka Blood at Sundown (both 1966). I believe now, as I did then, that those two films necessitated a joint exploration: even though they stand as two separate narrative ventures, they work so cohesively as a whole that it was impossible to approach them as anything other than a mammoth, singular achievement. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Malditas pistolas de Dallas, Las/ Damned Pistols of Dallas and Tres dólares de plomo/ Three Dollars of Lead, and yet, like Cardone’s films, they come as a package deal – destined to be lumped together as one amorphous whole, although the results are far less satisfying. Both films appear to have been born of the same package deal, shot either in tandem or (more likely) back-to-back by the same production companies, namely Cinematográfica Coperfilm and Tellus Cinematográfica. But Damned and Lead lack the creative, unifying vision of Cardone, and – if anything – emerge as the complete antithesis of that director’s astounding one-two punch. Or, put more bluntly and less charitably, they drag like a seal’s arse.

Having never written about a spaghetti – or spaghettis – I find to be impossibly underwhelming, I have to approach such critique with caution. I never want to denigrate a film unduly, or rubbish it based purely on personal opinion. But both these films prove difficult to champion, such is their collective lack of momentum or anything approximating narrative urgency. Damned and Lead share many similarities, not least a sense of overwhelming inertia. Both films are devoid of life or any hint of élan. It’s incredible that these films have different scenarist/screenwriters, so similar is each film in their respective monotony and indifference. The production companies might just have easily photocopied the one script and tweaked a few names; for all we know that’s exactly how it played out, plot and action-beats interchangeable. Damned and Lead crawl by, agonising in their non-action, challenging even the most die-hard SW fan to find even a hint of worth. I’ve defended many of the early, more staid European westerns, even those slavishly dedicated to aping the American model. Directors such as the Marchent brothers, José María Elorrieta and Ignacio F. Iquino, for example, made some solid films during that teething period. But – at the risk of showing my hand too early – there simply isn’t much to recommend here, both films unworthy of in-depth examination and unable to support any kind of subtextual argument. No hidden political agenda, no subversive ambition, just…nothing. Hell, they even faulter as mere action fodder. But they remain a fascinating venture, nonetheless, even in their brazen failure, and therefore warrant some kind of scrutiny. Just because both films fall spectacularly short as entertainment doesn’t mean they should be discounted without due consideration.

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But what else do these films share beyond a lack of conviction? Both are headlined by American for-hire Fred Beir. The prolific New York-born actor was a regular face on television in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing in countless guest-slots on such popular shows as The Outer Limits, Burke’s Law and The Mod Squad. At some point during the mid-1960s, like many of his dissatisfied peers around that time, Beir must have gambled on Europe to resuscitate his career. Unlike most, however, Beir didn’t seem to find his niche, and the European representation on his résumé is noticeably sparse. In addition to Lead and Damned, Beir only has one other Euro-genre credit: Emilio Miraglia’s excellent, NY-set Eurospy Assassination (1967), alongside Henry Silva and Evelyn Stewart. That seems to be his full contribution to European genre fare, although he did land a leading role in the 1965 American western Fort Courageous. The bulk of Beir’s output, however, remains episodic television and TV-movie work. He is fine if unremarkable in both of his Euro-westerns. It’s not his fault. Damned and Lead are so sluggishly directed that it’s doubtful any actor could inject much life into proceedings. But Beir is also unforgivably bland, too; he looks like a slimmer Dan Duyrea, without that Noir actor’s canny knack for finding an inherent ambiguity within his characters, good or bad. At a time when the Euro-western not only reframed what was left of the genre, but also helped redefine the cowboy himself as mythical figure, Beir’s characterization feels some 20 years too late to the party: clean shaven, stoic and sickeningly civilized – in short, not what any serious SW fan wants in a protagonist.

Besides Beir, both films share many of the same cast members and production personal. As well as Beir, actors Eva Mirandi, Dina De Santis, Olivier Mathot, Angel Alvarez, and Andrea Fantasia all pull double duties. Fantasia, prominent in both pictures, is the brother of famed maestro of arms/ swordsman/ stunt man/ actor and spaghetti stalwart Franco Fantasia. He is a dead ringer for his sibling, so much so that when he first appeared I was certain it was the older Fantasia. Andrea has some of his brother’s natural charisma and high likability, however, and both films are much improved whenever he’s on screen. Both films share the same costume designer, Oscar D’Amico; both were shot in the wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio in Totalscope. Exteriors were shot on location in Yugoslavia, according to records. The music, by Gioacchino Angelo, is dreary and uninspired (both scores are/were available from GDM records). Angelo had a limited run with regard to film scores, and focused mainly on operas, ballets and live symphonies, although he did contribute the music to one more spaghetti, Roberto Mauri’s Colorado Charlie (1965), starring the ubiquitous Livio Lorenzon. Oddly, there are no individual producers credited for Damned; Luigi Rotolo and G. Carrus are credited on-screen for Lead. Those two names ring strangely hollow, however. Rotolo at least has another professional credit to his name, serving as production manager on the rather good 1965 Eurospy film Agente X 1-7 operazione Oceano, starring Lang Jeffries (most familiar to Euro-western devotees as the star of the subversive, eclipse-themed 1968 spaghetti, Réquiem para el gringo/ Requiem for a Gringo). G. Carrus, however, feels like a pseudonym, or a name given to satisfy international financiers; this theory is supported by the fact that Lead appears to be Carrus’ sole documented credit.

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Alarmingly, each film has a different director. The guiding hand of Damned was José María Zabalza, a writer/director who helmed a number of late-entry Spanish westerns, including Plomo sobre Dallas/ Bullets Over Dallas (1970), Los rebeldes de Arizona/ Rebels of Arizona (1970) and 20,000 dólares por un cadáver (1971). As late as the early 1980s, Zabalza was still dabbling in westerns, with Al oeste de Río Grande (1983), starring spaghetti mainstay and genre MVP Aldo Sambrell. The filmmaker clearly had an affinity for the genre, even if he demonstrated little actual aptitude here. Indeed, Zabalza is probably best known in cult cinema circles for ‘directing’ La furia del Hombre Lobo/ Fury of the Wolfman, the 1972 Paul Naschy debacle, notorious for its cut-and-paste construction and the liberal amount of stock footage utilized in order to pad the film out. (Naschy stated on various occasions that Zabalza was directly to blame for the resultant mess.) There is nothing about Damned to suggest that Zabalza was personally invested in the venture, and the whole sorry enterprise comes off as nothing more than a very obvious job for hire. Pino Mercanti, director of Lead, seems even less committed to the genre. The Palermo-born filmmaker began his career back in the 1930s, and worked in such diverse genres as action, comedies and melodrama. Three Dollars of Lead was his only western.

But wait. Many online sources – including our own SWDb – suggest that Mercanti was responsible for directing both pictures. Whilst I am unable to find any concrete proof, at least in any English language documentation, this implication feels right. Both Damned and Lead play near identical in terms of tone, pacing and artistic achievement; in other words, they seem like the work of one man. Zabalza’s other works in the genre are at least watchable, most certainly a notch or two above the films under scrutiny. But why would he allow his name to be associated with such a drab endeavour as Damned Pistols of Dallas? We’ve seen this before, of course, many times before: non-collaborators receiving credit in order to placate international financiers or negate certain industry union requirements. But if said supposition was/is true, then I would be royally pissed off if I were Zabalza. Damned is a thoroughly mediocre work, uniquely dull, and as such I’m backing said theory that Mercanti (then in his mid-50s) was responsible for helming the bulk of both films. (If any SWDB readers have further information on this, please let me know and I’ll amend this article accordingly.)

Notes on Malditas pistolas de Dallas, Las/ Damned Pistols of Dallas

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What a fiercely evocative title. Not just pistols – but damned pistols. That’s badass, right? Sadly, it’s wasted on this achingly mediocre film. Damned was the first of the two films to be released theatrically in Italy, on 5th December 1964 (Three followed on 19th December of that same year, just fourteen days later), and so it’s granted first place with regard to chronology. Zabalza’s (Mercanti’s?) film stumbles right out of the gate, with a god-awful theme song which assaults the ears and serves as bad portent. Equally disconcerting is a bizarre credit for an ‘acrobatic consultant.’ This is 1964, early days for the European western: is the genre already submitting to the risible, clownish antics which would blight many a twilight entry?

The opening shot proper of Damned is that of a woman ironing her clothes. Not the most stimulating visual indicator for a western film (although an accurate barometer of what is to come, unfortunately, in terms of action and elicited adrenaline). The film then introduces Mr. Stone, waiting on the arrival of the stagecoach and the return of his son, Clay. Stone consults his pocket-watch, which – of course – plays a musical motif when opened (although any accusation of plagiarism via For a Few Dollars More is rendered moot by Zabalza’s film having preceded Leone’s classic by over a year). Said tedium/harmony is mercifully obliterated when a horde of bandits knock-off the town bank, helping themselves to the gold. In an all-too rare moment of inspired technical prowess, Zabalza and his credited cinematographers, Edmondo Affronti and Julio Ortas, capture the action in long-shot through the window behind the lady doing her ironing. It’s a nice piece of depth perception in a film sorely lacking in flair (visual or otherwise). The head bandit, improbably named ‘Fast Draw’ Krenshaw (Luigi Ciavarro), kills Stone during the ensuing chaos, and helps himself to the murdered man’s pocket-watch. ‘I’ll never understand the shooting of Mr. Stone,’ a townsperson wistfully laments, as if reminiscing about an incident from over a decade earlier, even though it occurred mere seconds ago. Such is this film’s disregard for anything approximating logic. And so, we learn that the fledgling city of Dallas is under siege by the tyrannical Fast Draw and his loyalist mercenaries. The town, as with many seen before, is made up of the usual ineffectual cowards and weak businessmen, all-too ready to capitulate to even the most half-assed form of tyranny.

Clay (Beir) arrives on the stagecoach, travelling alongside sleazy-but-amiable gambler Foster (Olivier Mathot), who is willing to accept a female passenger’s underwear as collateral. The stagecoach is robbed from within by another passenger, although the poorly chosen musical cue which scores this scene would have you believe you’re watching a slapstick comedy. The music is a joke, completely mis-matched. The bandit takes Clay’s bag, but we discover that Clay is a resourceful man, and has pre-empted such treachery in advance. Psychic or overly cautious, we never know. The female passenger, Katy Dior (Dina De Santis), is kidnapped to boot.

Clay lands in Dallas to find the sheriff and deputy hogtied, and the villains doubly pissed at having had Clay switch the bag on them. Fast Draw proves his bad-boy credentials by throwing both a random woman and child into the dirt, prompting the virtuous Clay to intervene. Whilst not a patch on the dustups in the following film, Zabalza at least understands the spatial requirements of a good fight. His actors move and roam, the camera playing catch-up. It’s energetic and physical, and you begin to understand the specialized acrobat credit without the film resorting to circus-style antics that would blight so many potentially decent SWs during their sunset decline. As mediocre as all this introductory fluff is, things go rapidly downhill. The film is seemingly obsessed with filling some kind of romantic quotient, and it’s tedious. Both films are blighted by a shoe-horned love angle that is most unwelcome. Like in the following film, Angel Alvarez – cast here as Goodwin, Clay’s uncle – is on hand to spout laborious bits of exposition and illuminate us as to our hero’s background. But we don’t care: Clay is a bland and uninteresting character with no hint of mystery or ambiguity, so why do we need anything clearing up or explaining? He’s as stock as any cardboard cowboy from a 1930s programmer.

At their peak, the spaghetti westerns were so refreshing because they were so lean and merciless in terms of both violence and plotting. But both films here are padded and inoffensive in the extreme. One rare moment of darkness occurs when a young girl is pulled from a stagecoach, having been slaughtered by marauding bandits, but the film quickly shies away from such on-screen pessimism. There is also an annoying child, Little John, obnoxious and hugely irritating; this kid is far too prominent and proves nothing but a cloying distraction. Zabalza might as well have thrown in a talking horse to complete the damage.

Boring saloon sequences follow, punctuated by painfully bad songs and protracted gambling sequences. Clay seems remarkably unaffected by his father’s death, meaning there is no emotional investment from the viewer. When Clay sees Zeke, an associate of the man who shot his father, he does absolutely nothing for the better part of five minutes before taunting him. But it’s unnecessary and makes the Clay character come off like a preening, smug jackass. This is followed by another spirited fight, none of it remotely convincing but all shot and performed with a certain zest (incongruous kicks and karate chopping). The townsfolk look on, loving it. Clay sees the man off, but the scene is punctuated by an unfunny ‘joke’ about turkey plucking(?) from Uncle Goodwin and a bewildering amount of laughter from the moronic patrons.

Some nonsense about Katy Dior being held for ransom follows, establishing a secondary plot stand, before we cut to a court scene. Now, I’m normally a big fan of these municipal courthouse sequences, but here said scene is trite and interrupted by more scattershot gunplay from Fast Draw’s gang, who ride through town blasting at nothing in particular, throwing ransom notes as if delivering pamphlets for a new takeaway restaurant. As bad as all this has been so far, the film now takes a deeper dive into banality with yet another awful song performed by some non-character with a guitar, singing to the captive Dior. Not only is all this unremittingly boring, but it’s also nonsensical. The plot ambles when it should dash, and severely overestimates the viewer’s patience. Dior takes a whipping, but there’s nothing savage or disturbing about this, backed as it is by another jolly musical sting. Did the filmmakers accidentally switch scores with an Alberto Sordi comedy? Does said film, then, feature scenes of people slipping on bananas to a sombre score meant for Zabalza’s western? If so, I guarantee it’s a damned sight more entertaining than this flaccid penis of a film.

The gang want Dior in return for Fast Draw’s freedom. Seems like a fair deal. The sheriff refuses to acquiesce. Unlike the sheriff in the following film, the film here paints the law as not only ineffectual, but disinterested. Richard Corbett arrives, a friend of Stone’s. He’s a dandy in a blue frock coat, and anyone still sticking with the film by this point will know our de facto villain has just arrived. And yet the film limps on. Clay and Uncle Goodwin plot and plan; Beir and Alvarez are good together, against all odds. They work better as a couple than the alternative, more traditional romance. The film gets side-tracked with insipid scenes between the lovesick Clay and Estelle. The worst scene of the picture (and there is much competition) involves our lovers calling each other freckle face. It’s abysmal, like watching two anaesthetized sloths make love in real time, and a true affront to the spaghetti ethos. It’s a film where the viewer has no alternative but to side with the villains, as well they should. Even when Clay holds a gun on the town’s lawmen and takes Fast Draw into his own custody, knocking out the deputy in the process, the scene carries no weight or tension. ‘Get,’ says Clay, poking his enemy gently in the back with two pistols. It’s kids’ stuff; routine and rote.

‘Keep these people away,’ the sheriff instructs another deputy as they prepare to hang Fast Draw (not knowing Clay has swiped their prisoner). ‘I can’t do that,’ the deputy replies, ‘the folks have come to see some action.’ The irony can’t be lost on any viewer still sticking with the film as it crawls past the halfway point. Clay then parades his prisoner past the crowd. Is he gloating? Too stupid to have taken a different route, or just too damn lazy?

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The film has no interest in realism or narrative verisimilitude. In the next scene, the town’s newspaper reporter take’s Little John’s account of the jail incident as bond, and then whisks the annoying child off to print the story. Testimony from a starstruck 7-year-old? Talk about credible journalistic integrity. But the film might have benefited from more of such a heightened perspective; one suspects that the film as played out from the boy’s over-imaginative mind might have been far more interesting than the safe, plodding tale we’re being peddled for real. Clay sets the outlaw free, realizing he has coerced his prisoner out of town using Little John’s empty toy pistol. It’s as if the film itself knows it’s packing no real firepower, its drive as empty as the chambers of Clay’s gun. He trades the outlaw for Dior, who – blonde hair and red cape – looks a lot like Chris Hemsworth in the recent Marvel Thor films.

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The best bit of the film is when the gambler Foster defends Clay’s name in a saloon, refuting the rumour that Clay paid bandits to off his own father and thus inherit the business. Zabalza fills the frame with brawling pairs. It’s not good, but it reminds the viewer that they still have a functioning pulse. The saloon girls continue to dance, confused and apathetic to the events unfolding before them. Again – the irony. The fight feels like it goes on forever, people falling over furniture. The piano player gets knocked off his chair. ‘It’s one hell of a party,’ marvels a drunk. The viewer might beg to differ.

The sexy and newly rescued Dior is hot for Clay, but so vanilla and chaste is our hero that he smugly turns away in bed. The film threatens to replace soggy romance with something more morally ambiguous – that is, impromptu, casual sex – but then Zabalza cuts to another scene. Again, the film seems intent on running away from its most vital, promising moments. The sheriff then arrests Clay, and you can’t help but hope that they hang him. As Dior pleads for his release, something remarkable and quite brilliant happens: Little John shoots and kills her, albeit accidentally. Clay shakes his head, none too bothered. In the next scene he’s locked up and laughing, making goo-goo eyes at the cloying Estelle whilst the soapy music suggests the viewer should be moved, or at the very least awake.

There follows a ‘comedic’ non-sequitur of a scene in which the preacher’s wife fires a pistol, having confused the act of firearm misuse with ringing the church bells. Why? Who knows? It’s an irrelevant, unfunny interlude, and one of many. Goodwin and his wife talk vigilantism, with Goodwin saying he has always dreamt of being in a posse(?). Clay duly rides off to bring back Fast Draw and prove his innocence, leaving poor old Foster as human collateral with the sheriff, wherein its revealed that – surprise – Richard Corbett is the puppeteer behind all things evil.

By this point, the film has all but ground to a halt. The climax hovers but never seems to grow any closer, the ending of the film forever out of reach. The duplicitous Corbett tricks Clay, but Goodwin overhears two flunkies discussing the real plan. SW fans are sadists; they want to see every film in the genre, wear that badge, but this film severely tests the patience of even the hardiest Euro-western fanatic. Even the death of the villain is uninspired: Clay throws Corbett down a banking. Not a cliff, not off a butte lip, but down a slight decline. Corbett rolls down the hill for a couple of seconds before lifelessly plopping into the river below. One can only assume he was bitten by a rattlesnake as he rolled, slowly and cautiously, to his death.

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The singing cowboy returns, vying for most irritating character on film, going up against the murdering Little Johnny for the honour. Goodwin is found dead, face streaked in blood; it’s one of the very few affecting moments of the film, such is Alvarez’s likability as actor. In order to execute his revenge, Clay makes the most ridiculous bird call ever caught on film, his mouth dubbed with the sound of a real caw, as if he’s human sound-machine Michael Winslow from the Police Academy films. It raises an inadvertent chuckle and might help to rouse the viewer once more from their sleep. Clay infiltrates the villains' camp. He throws a stone, which appears to confuse and frighten Fast Draw and his men, prompting the outlaws to flee, leaving Fast Draw to face Clay alone, mano-a-mano. I hoped this might be a great dust-up, but it’s over with in just three punches. Three punches. Talk about short-changing your audience. Thankfully, mercifully, Clay then smashes the singing cowboy over the head with his own guitar. (At this point, I’ll take anything I can get by way of incident.) As Clay begins to whack at the remainder of Corbett’s men with a stick (a fucking stick!), the film simply fizzles out. Clay and Fast Draw punch each other senseless, until both men are laying on the ground, tired and breathless. Ironically, nobody shoots. Nobody even brandishes a gun, let alone prove they’re worthy of the dubious sobriquet Fast Draw. Clay rides back into town, dragging Fast Draw by rope. Clay opens his father’s pocket watch, and we get another musical interlude. The film even has the audacity to end on Clay and Estelle’s marriage. It’s a dreadful, unwanted coda. And, to make matters worse, Dior is revealed to still be alive, having survived the murderous imp’s accidental shooting. Little Johnny screams in joy, no doubt happy to have been exonerated from first-degree manslaughter charges before having even learned his alphabet.

I can’t remember the last time I was so relieved to see a film fade to black. Zabalza has somehow managed to craft a film guaranteed to induce narcolepsy or combat severe insomnia. It’s certainly unbearable, almost unwatchable. The following film in this package has to be better, right? And thankfully – mercifully – it is, although not by a huge margin. It’s akin to saying being killed by a ravenous shark is preferable to being trampled to death by a pregnant hippo – there ain’t much in it.

Notes on Tres dólares de plomo/ Three Dollars of Lead

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Another ear-sabotaging song. Five credited screenwriters. The acrobatic consultant credit. Lead kicks off like the filmic equivalent of PTSD. Déjà vu for spaghetti sadists. The opening scene is sluggishly directed, with the now-familiar interminable music. Beir turns up – again, he’s nobody idea of the ideal, lone gunslinger. Here he’s Rudy Valance, going home. Again. Returning to the family homestead, his father dead, Rudy finds a bucket, which seems to bring him an inordinate amount of joy (thankfully, we’re spared a wistful flashback of a younger Rudy enjoying himself with said bucket). He sits in a bath. Finds a sickle. All of this seems to trigger some kind of emotional recall. Beir may not look the part, but he seems intent on giving a committed and sincere performance. His childhood sweetheart arrives, prompting some horrendous dialogue and threatening more bullshit romance:

ANNE: ‘It’s me, Anne. Don’t you remember?’ RUDY: ‘Anne! Well, so it is.’

In this film, it’s would-be oppressor Morrison who rules the land. Rudy is warned about Morrison and told to move on. If this all sounds familiar, then I refer you back to exhibit A. We are treated to yet another unconvincing saloon sequence, this one featuring unconvincing extras and a cross-eyed woman. There’s the requisite caterwauling of the saloon singer. One of Morrison’s men offers to buy Rudy a drink. ‘I don’t drink with coyotes,’ he opines, ungrateful bastard. Cue the obligatory scrap. Rudy sends a message back to Morrison, saying he won’t die like his father. Another of Morrison’s men threatens to ‘back shoot’ Rudy – suggesting a land (and film) without ethics or moral code, but it’s an empty promise on behalf of the filmmakers. Like Damned before it, Lead is pure milquetoast, without hint or threat of danger. Rudy returns home to find that Anne has spruced up the old homestead with flowers. A western with flowers in our hero’s home? This is all tantamount to genre heresy (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ultra-elusive 1967 SW Crisantemi per un branco di carogne/ Chrysanthemums for a Bunch of Swine).

Looking to buy some cattle, Rudy is refused sale by Morrison. The townsfolk are afraid. Good people do nothing, as usual. Morrison is threatening to burn ranches if the private sales of cattle continue. It’s all join-the-dots stuff, story-wise.

The saloon fails to convince as a living environment. The viewer can literally feel the clapper board being snapped and the director yelling, ‘Action’. There follows another dust-up with Valance and Morrison’s men. At one point, Valance seems to have super-human power as he punches a man and sends him the length of the saloon. There’s a lot of jumping and launching through the air, making sense of that specialized acrobatic credit. But then things suddenly pick up. The music stops and the fight gets serious. Rudy and a goon named Matt go one-on-one, trading punches in vicious style, all of it decently choreographed and captured in long takes. It’s a rough, persuasive fight, suggesting the film might be packing a little more heat than the first twenty minutes had led the viewer to expect. Valance is victorious, but only just. Both men are bloodied and exhausted. Matt goes to shoot Valance but is gunned down by a lawman (Fantasia) who has been tracking Rudy for eight weeks. Here we have ambiguity, where before we had only cliché. Who is this man? Why is he tracking Valance? Is there more to Valance than his white hat and pallid demeanour? The man is a sheriff named Raf from Santa Monica – far from home and well aware he has no jurisdiction. Valance begs for one more day to settle his score, but the sheriff refuses. The sheriff is older, slightly overweight, greying, but – as played by the compelling Fantasia – proves a stoic presence.

Technically, the film has more chops than the preceding picture. The director and his DP love to zoom in slowly, highlighting moments of perceived import. But for every positive there are myriad negatives. The character of Anne is weak and totally inconsequential, even for a SW. Her character will punctuate certain moments throughout the film, but it feels nothing more than a concession to Old West romance, and it bears no further mention. Thank God for the sheriff, who adds a much-needed dynamic; he strikes me as the most vital and fully dimensional character in the film (although Fantasia looks oddly uncomfortable riding a horse). More clichés abound. The fearful townsfolk are pathetic; not only are they reluctant to help Valance, but they seem more concerned with justifying their cowardice, scared of losing profit as businessmen.

Sheriff Raf and Valance talk. Raf explains he lost his job, owing to Valance escaping on his watch. It renders the sheriff a tad incompetent, pre-empting Gideon Burnett (Frank Wolff) from Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio, but said failing also humanizes him. Again, he’s the only character who doesn’t seem like a cardboard cut-out. Angel Alvarez returns, appearing here as Valance’s loyal ranch foreman. Again, Alvarez is a welcome presence, but the voice provided via the English dub makes him sound like one of those comedic sidekick dwarves so prominent in the more fantastical pepla. Still, it’s good to have such genre stalwarts around, especially in ventures this uninspired. At the 30min mark, we have heard much of Morrison but not yet seen him; it’s a good trick, elevating our villain to near-mythic status by simple word-of-mouth.

The film has a staccato pacing. It stops and starts, cutting back and forth between scenes which have been chopped up and needlessly extended. The sheriff and Valence are attacked by Matt and Morrison’s men. This scene is so poorly shot, the cameraman seemingly on a bucking bronco, so shaky, that it makes it look as if the action is playing out amidst an earthquake. It’s about as lacklustre and as sloppy as action filmmaking gets. Men point, shoot, say things like, ‘Get them!’ and then continue to point and shoot and spout more obvious non-dialogue. Indeed, this is all so poorly handled that, at one point, the director cuts from the sheriff shooting to the sheriff shooting. Fantasia falls from his horse in full-acrobatic style. ‘Our only chance is behind those rocks,’ says Valance, although the director gives us no such visual reference to support his plan.

‘Come on, let’s go back to town,’ declares the villainous Matt. Why? Mid-gunfight? They ride off, obviously having more pressing matters to attend to, though I can’t imagine what. The film is approaching a near-ambivalent outlook to all aspects of plot and character motivation. The sheriff remains determined to take Valance back to Santa Monica. Valance crafts him a splint and walking staff out of tree branches. ‘We’ll make Santa Monica even if I have to crawl there,’ says the sheriff. There follows some Odd Couple-type banter, none of it funny or particularly warm. The film is at the halfway point, but there is no edge. No stakes. Nothing for the viewer to invest in beyond a mildly engaging lead wanting revenge against a figure the film is yet to introduce. There follows more nonsense between Sheriff Raf and Valance, who bicker about being stranded in the middle of nowhere, as if lost in the wilds of Patagonia, when in fact we know they’re only about a two-mile ride from town. It’s ludicrous, and yet the more these two trade limp-dicked insults, the more endearing they become. The sheriff, wounded slightly in the leg, crawls around as if he’d been shot in the spine by a Gatling Gun. When a rider appears, Valance says, ‘Quick! Let’s hide behind those rocks!’, even though they are already behind a rock. He then helps the wounded sheriff move a couple of yards behind another rock. I’m no military strategist, but such a move seemed not only superfluous but dumb. Luckily for them, it’s Anne to the rescue. Unluckily for the viewer, it’s Anne to the rescue.

Morrison is still spoken about in fearful, referential tones, as if he’s some kind of Krimi mastermind in the Dr Mabuse vein. A Mexican bandit breaks into the Valance homestead. He’s a terrible burglar, walking straight into a chair in front of him. For the second time, Valance is shot and saved by the sheriff sworn to taking him in. ‘You think these people will help you? Like they helped your pa?’ asks Sheriff Raf. This question is followed by a head-scratching visual moment wherein the camera slowly passes Valance’s face whilst the actor Beir just…well, stares into the lens. It’s a baffling sequence, signifying nothing beyond the mere randomness of the moment.

During some exposition, we learn that Valance shot Raf’s deputy, although it’s obvious the sheriff doesn’t really believe this, which renders his entire quest redundant. This is a film chasing its own tail, spinning in circles, trying to find something to latch on to. At the hour mark, however, it’s doubtful it will find any such purpose, yet the viewer has come too far to throw in the towel.

Morrison finally arrives, but the moment is wasted. No zoom, no visual panache, no heightened reveal, no notable genre character actor (I would have killed for the likes of Piero Lulli to have stepped out of that stagecoach). Morrison is revealed to be a total non-entity, unworthy of that belaboured, tailored introduction. Everything seems engineered to disappoint here.

Ticking another box on the list of appropriated must-have sequences ripped from the American model, the film offers up a tiresome John Ford-style town dance, wherein Morrison’s men crash the party. They proceed to emasculate the male contingency by snatching all the women and forcing them to dance. A fight breaks out, but it’s all of little consequence. The film is rudderless, so loosely constructed that now, on the final stretch, it has descended into a series of loosely connected scenes. Again, Morrison really is a disappointing criminal figure given the build-up – nothing more than a sulky businessman. There’s no presence or palpable evil. Not the actor’s fault, but the film fails to personify his reputation in the flesh. But he flexes whatever muscle he has by threatening the landowners that if they help Valance, they will die.

By this point, the film has all the spark and pep of Raf the sheriff, who is convalescing in a rocking chair, puffing on a cigar. ‘You mark my words, there’s going to be a fight,’ one nondescript man tells another in the street. Or is this throwaway character an avatar for the director, promising his flagging audience that something exciting is on the horizon. As if to double-down on this vow, the sheriff hands Valance a pistol, arming him in his approaching stand against the corrupt patriarch of Dallas.

And so, the film crawls to its climax, with Morrison and his men waiting on their showdown with Valance in the saloon. This sequence contains one of the very few original touches in the film: Morrison takes a shot of whiskey, and then his men follow in unison, their movement choreographed to a tee. It’s utterly meaningless, of course, but it stands out by way of sheer incongruity. It’s a shame Mercanti couldn’t bring this sense of the absurd to his laborious action sequences.

As the townsfolk fill the church, effectively clearing the streets, Valance arrives for the showdown. We know he means business because he’s wearing a black glove on his gun hand. The film should be gathering some serious momentum by now, with ten minutes left on the clock, but even now, the film seems ambivalent toward such things as pace and tension, and instead we get more shots of Valance creeping around town as if he’s some kind of voyeur. Thank God Morrison’s men fire on him, igniting some much-needed action.

The people in the church sit quietly in shameful denial, much like the viewer, as the pang of gunfire monotonously plays out. All very High Noon. Nothing is improved, however. At one point, Valance charges into a wall, and the set appears to visibly wobble on-camera. This is lazy filmmaking, sloppy editing. There is a tedious rhythm to this entire climax which becomes repetitive very quickly (Valance fires, takes cover, he moves, fires, takes cover, moves, fires… etcetera). But just when you think this dénouement might prove to be a dud, the sheriff comes riding into town. He enters the fray laying down on the flatbed of a wagon. It’s a pretty cool turn of events, especially as the lawman appears to be so calm and nonchalant. In fact, he seems to be quite enjoying himself until he takes a bullet.

The townsfolk finally acquiesce to a burning shame, and one by one the men find the fight within themselves, albeit a good while too late. The sheriff has on his person a confessionary note from Valance’s brother, admitting to the killing of the deputy and thus exonerating our hero. ‘He was a fine sheriff,’ laments Goodwin as the lawman dies in his arms. And the only interesting character in the film. But said death spurs the townsmen into taking up arms. There follows a lot of smoke and carnage, none of it particularly well-staged or exciting, although it’s nice to see so many visceral bullet impacts as they strike objects in a genre which, all-too-often, relied on mere sound effects or mime. One of Morrison’s men kills his own father in the chaos, but said death carries all the emotional weight of a dandelion spore striking a brick wall. Valance chases Morrison into the saloon and they continue to exchange gunfire until Morrison is hit and spills over the balcony to his death. It’s a real non-event in a film which has struggled to engage throughout and is capped by more insipid interplay between Valance and Anne as the music plays the film out. It’s as rote and as unfulfilling a climax as I’ve ever seen.

Conclusion

With two films in the can, you would have thought – or hoped – that at least one of the films would turn out to be at least passable entertainment. It’s a 50/50 shot, after all. Those are decent odds. But the filmmakers ensure that both Damned Pistols of Dallas and Three Dollars of Lead are DOA. No pulse, no sign of life, nothing approximating a heartbeat. Both films flatline before the viewer's eyes. There exists, of course, the possibility that I’ve been overly harsh on both films, viewing them in such close proximity and analysing them (unfairly?) via a compare and contrast approach. As similar as they are, Damned and Lead are two separate films, and thus need judging on their own merits. But when a hastily cobbled-together production co-operative churns out two similarly tame and humdrum products – with a clear aim to riding the burgeoning cultural zeitgeist, making money and very little else – it should come as no surprise to anyone, even the most slavishly dedicated SW fan, that there is little artistic or entertainment value here to speak of. Two dud westerns, both utterly interchangeable and lacking any real merit or obvious excitement, for genre completists only. But it’s fascinating to look back and see that – even as early as 1964, before Fistful reignited both genre and cowboy-as-icon – producers recognized the European western as a bankable commercial product and were only too keen to meet growing market demand. If nothing else, then, Damned and Lead represent the kind of Euro-western trickle so prevalent before the deluge began proper, serving as unrefined link between the German Karl May adaptations and that specific, pioneering moment where Joe rode into San Miguel on his mule and changed the cinematic landscape forever.

DG Bell
DG Bell is a writer and Spaghetti Western aficionado in the UK. Click here to read more of his articles.
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