Gutless Wonder: Notes on Paolo Bianchini's Ehi amigo... sei morto
Cowardice might seem an oddly contradictory theme for a genre built around a projected, near-mythical masculinity. The cinematic west was tamed by tough, decisive men determined to make an unhospitable frontier their rightful home. These pioneers were invariably men of action, at least in the celluloid retelling; only too willing to kill whilst (somewhat paradoxically) adhering to a strict and upright moral code. Of all cinematic heroes, the cowboy – that white-hatted paragon of virtue and decency – seems least likely to hesitate or proceed with caution when confronted by certain threat or injustice. And so it is that the viewer might-well be troubled by the opening act of Paolo Bianchini’s Ehi amigo... sei morto!/ Hey, Amigo… A Toast to Your Death!, wherein the denizens of a small border town are taken hostage by the nefarious Barnett (Rik Battaglia) and his crew of gunmen, among them Manolo (Raf Baldasarre) and Blake (Aldo Berti). Dave ‘Doc’ Williams (Wayde Preston) is slow to respond. The viewer – anticipating violent retaliation and cheap, obvious bluster that will establish said character as our hero – is left wanting. From there, both Bianchini and the film proceed to subvert expectation. Doc initially appears passive in the face of said intrusion: he is summarily humiliated, beaten and half-drowned in the first ten minutes of the film. Not only is he subjected to this brutal ignominy, but Doc is then chastised by his fellow citizens over his failure to act. But why such honed vehemence toward this character? Why do the bandits target Doc, specifically? And why do the townsfolk turn on him so quickly? Are they somehow cognizant of the fact that Doc is the nominal hero of the very story unfolding around them? It certainly seems that way, their ire a tad premature. One grieving citizen even blames Doc directly for the death of her husband, killed during the initial takeover (Doc didn’t intervene). In terms of Euro-western defamation, poor old Dave ‘Doc’ Williams is up there with the equally emasculated Richard Martin (Enrico Maria Salerno) from Massimo Dallamano’s sublime Bandidos (1968).
Thematically speaking, cowardice in the western film was nothing new. The term ‘Yellow’ has become synonymous with western cinema as the insult du jour, cliché or not, and is the basis for most third-rate John Wayne impressions to this day. The genre has a long history of questioning the notion of frontier bravery and prairie duty, beginning as far back as 1916 with John Noble’s silent western, Brand of Cowardice. Likewise, heroic inertia as narrative strand was specifically commonplace within the European western, albeit more attributable to the townsfolk at large, who were often paralyzed by either fear or – worse – an overt apathy, necessitating action and/or intervention from the heroic figure. Indeed, such provincial inertia was often the main driving force behind many a plotline. Occasionally, in films such as Il pistolero segnato da Dio/ Gunman Sent by God aka. Two Guns and a Coward (Giorgio Ferroni, 1968), the notion of the cowboy as recreant was subject to a deeper, more focused exploration.
Further muddying the waters with regard to Bianchini’s heroic inversion are costume choice and assigned character occupation. Throughout this opening scene, Doc is seen wearing a pink undergarment. Is Bianchini aligning said colour with femineity and, therefore – somewhat dubiously – lack of fortitude within our hero? Or is this just a realistic component of scene and setting (Doc is, after all, ambushed at dawn, caught off-guard whilst washing himself in a water trough, having presumably just rolled out of bed)? Or maybe Bianchini is merely having a laugh, taking a pot-shot at the genre’s amplified machismo – the pink thermals a visual pun à la Tony Anthony’s pink parasol in Un uomo, un cavallo, una pistola/ The Stranger Returns (1967). Whatever the reason, said costuming decision had to be a deliberate move on behalf of Bianchini – a subtle visual subversion which indicates just how slyly the filmmaker was approaching the genre at this point, with this film, his fourth and final western. Another interesting variation of the usual genre tropes in Hey Amigo is Doc’s given profession, which again could be seen as Bianchini tweaking the standard. In a genre crammed with gunfighters, cardsharps, bounty killers, hired guns, ex-soldiers, mercenaries, and vengeance-seekers, it’s interesting to find a protagonist plying an honest trade, as it is revealed that Doc is the town postmaster. In terms of establishing his leading avenger in a moody western-action picture, Bianchini should be lauded: the Passive Postman in Pink is clearly a novel conceit. And yet, despite that base description, Amigo isn’t a John Waters-esque parody or limp distortion of the form, but a modestly diverting, low-key spaghetti western proper, and a film which this article seeks to celebrate. (There is also the possibility that Bianchini could be referencing Henry Hathaway’s overlooked gem, Rawhide, the 1951 American western in which a beleaguered mail company employee, played by Tyrone Power, finds himself up against four outlaws who lay siege to an isolated stagecoach way station.)
But here’s the rub. Whilst Doc might – along with every other member of the corralled townsfolk – be guilty of inaction and easy subjugation, maybe his failure to act wasn’t through lack of courage. Maybe Doc’s decision to play along was one born of strategy, of survival instinct and self-preservation; of an icy-cool pragmatism: again, all acknowledged precepts of the spaghetti western hero. Maybe the viewer, like Barnett and his motley crew of marauders, has been deceived by this most cunning and unassuming of protagonists? We’ll see.
By 1970, the genre had settled into a comfortable, somewhat predictable pattern of patented narrative beats/production tropes. As such, Amigo opens with the now-requisite theme, written and composed by Carlo Savina and sung by Los Angeles-born crooner Don Powell. Interestingly, though, the opening credits do not play out over the established riding montage of the lone hero’s journey. Here, Bianchini focuses on the mule-riding character of Loco – the ostensible jester and sidekick figure, here played by the portly Marco Zuanelli. The film soon settles down to business, however. Bianchini pitches the viewer into his film at the deep end, demanding his audience sink or swim, with no concession made to anything as arbitrary or humdrum as set-up. In fact, so abrupt and dynamic is this sudden gearshift that the viewer might well be caught off-guard, as shocked and appalled at this sudden breach of violence as the onscreen victims.
And so, Barnett and his men lay siege to a small, dusty, unnamed Texas town. The place is dilapidated, dying. The photography is suitably grim and muddy, the climate captured cold and unwelcoming. Savina’s score is purposeful and disquieting during these early scenes, atonal and unsettling. Men, women and children are herded like cattle and corralled into the local store. ‘We’re just a poor little village. Nobody has any money,’ reasons a hostage. A head count reveals the captives are a villager down. How did Barnett and his men know? Do they have an inside man in town? Bianchini’s film revels in small details: One of the bandits flattens a wasp against a slab of cured meat and slices off a mouthful. The bandits wait on the incoming stagecoach. The missing villager dares to act, loading his pistol and making a stand, but is immediately gunned down for his troubles; time and time again, the spaghetti western chewed up and spat out any foolhardy attempt at candid heroics, and so it is here. Doc even prevents one of his fellow hostages from striking back against one of their captors, catching the man’s fist mid-swing. Not only is he reluctant as to his own intervention, but so too does Doc seem loathed to let anybody else assume the heroic mantle:
‘Do you want to get us all killed?’ demands Doc. ‘You coward!’ responds the hostage, before being thrown back in line with the rest of the captives. Two more of his fellow citizens then step forward to rebuke Doc. ‘You’re on their side,’ posits a woman. ‘You’re a coward,’ another man reiterates.
But the bulk of Bianchini’s film will prove them wrong in their hasty, collective assertation. Doc is merely playing the odds. He knows the bandits want him and him only. They need Doc in order for their criminal plan to succeed. He is, after all, the established postmaster, and will prove familiar to the incoming stagecoach drivers, who will soon be making a drop-off at the North-Western Bank, the reason for their siege. Bianchini’s opening is meticulous in both staging and execution. By 1970, many SW had grown cheap and rough-hewn as the zeitgeist began to splutter out, but not here. Amigo feels like Bianchini and his cinematographer, Sergio D'Offizi, were both heavily invested, the film extremely confident in its visual precision. The Butterfield stagecoach company men are duly massacred in cold blood, with Doc looking on, impotent from behind a corpse; it’s hard to tell if he’s using the still-warm body as a shield. (The moustachioed Preston bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard Harrison here, never noticeable before.) Barnett and his men then clear out with their spoils. Doc unties the hostages, although given their joint grievance, the viewer might well wonder why he bothers – ungrateful bastards, all. ‘Filthy coward,’ one of them snarls upon being released. Again, what has Doc done to warrant this resentment, this blame? It’s difficult to fathom. The town charge after him, berating him further, seemingly more angry at their postmaster than the men responsible for the decimation of their peaceful town. ‘What about Walter?’ The grieving widow demands. ‘What are you going to do?’ Doc turns to the camera, veil of fragile detachment slipping, Bianchini the director and Preston the actor revealing the man behind the mask for the first time proper. ‘Now I’m going to kill,’ he cooly states, all matter of fact. ‘All of ‘em.’
We’re only ten minutes into the film, but such was Doc’s feigned serfdom during that extended opening sequence that the viewer feels somehow relieved at this overdue, near-cathartic show of force. Meanwhile, Barnett and his crew discover that the stolen loot isn’t gold but plain, worthless rocks. Certain that the stagecoach itself contains the intended loot, an undeterred Barnett deigns to take the coach to a local mine for further investigation. Doc, meanwhile, begins his pursuit – but what of his motivation? It can’t be revenge, as all he took was a couple of decent slaps and a rough dunking. It can’t be on behalf of the townsfolk (not even the heartsick widow), as those people were a bunch of whining ingrates. Professional pride, perhaps? The station having been robbed on his watch? Or bruised ego – Doc’s masculinity having been impugned in a public forum, before a pretty lady, no less? Whatever the determining factor, Doc has shaken off his counterfeit funk and is on the hunt. Gone are the pink undergarments: Doc is now dressed in pure black, as if galloping toward a funeral. Preston looks the business here. Often in the Euro-western, a hero cloaked in black was nothing more than a lazy citation to the Colonel Mortimer standard, but here the costuming looks appropriately sombre and befitting of Doc’s hostile mood. Reticent cur to avenging angel by the twenty-five-minute mark is no mean feat, and yet said arc is convincingly rendered. It’s as if Bianchini is withholding information from the viewer regarding the Doc character. In a genre where ‘Mysterious Stranger’ was often charitable parlance for wafer-thin character development, Doc emerges as a genuinely intriguing presence: Just who is this man? What is his background? Why the effortless subterfuge? Waiting on easy answers (ex-lawman, former soldier, reformed criminal et al), the viewer is gifted no concrete explanation by Bianchini or his screenwriters, and Doc remains an enigma to the end. As such, the stakes in Amigo feel suitably low yet wholly appropriate. No dead wife or blood debt, just a regular Joe out to make sure ecumenical justice is served in absence of any recognizable law.
Doc rides into the next town, where Barnett’s lieutenant, Manolo (Baldassare) pays off numerous hired guns to have him killed. It’s in the saloon that Doc meets Loco, the jovial, jaw-harp twanging sidekick. Preston smiles here for the first time in the film, and if the gesture feels a tad incongruous, it also provides Doc with a warmth and humanity often missing from the genetic make-up of your average spaghetti gunslinger. There follows an impressive sequence wherein Doc stalks the town’s Main Street by night, moonlight filtering down and illuminating the framing buildings’ facias. Lighting and composition are bang on-point here, proving that – even as late as 1970 – there were still spaghetti westerns capable of high artistry being produced during this twilight period. Loco warns Doc about the paid gunmen lying in wait, but our hero remains unphased. He sinks into shadow, that heart of darkness a suitable camouflage, and sets about slaughtering those who mean him harm. Bianchini has his hired killers slink into shot, morphing from night, led by the nose of their firearms, but Doc cuts them all down with ease before quickly being arrested. His plea for self-defence goes unheard by the distracted, alcoholic judge, who is too busy eyeballing a bottle of scotch as if it were a potential lover. The narrative seems somewhat confused here. Doc is imprisoned for thirty days but doesn’t seem remotely bothered by this turn of events. He’s barely begun his quest for justice, and the surviving bandits are now aware he’s in town, imprisoned like a sitting duck, and yet Doc appears totally ambivalent to said incarceration as if it were a minor inconvenience. Loco duly springs him, however, citing friendship as rationale, and the pudgy joker saddles up with Doc. Marco is an odd but workable choice for the role normally essayed by, say, Sancho or Camardiel; his character suitably ambiguous with regard to decency and/or possible betrayal.
Loco is soon captured, however, and summarily abused by Barnett and his men. Battaglia’s performance here is excellent. He plays Barnett as a multi-faceted character, not just a cardboard villain. As Barnett presses Loco for information on their pursuer, the duplicitous Blake (Berti) attempts to steal the loot. Said betrayal occurs in a church – neither surprise nor coincidence, given the often-anticlerical condemnation of religion by the many leftist directors who worked within the genre. There follows a clutch of decent action beats in which Doc, from a rooftop vantage point, takes out many of Barnett’s men, picking them off from above like some deranged sniper. Then, as if to demonstrate he’s as proficient with a blade as he is bullets, Doc throws dual knifes at two men simultaneously, killing both. Eat that, Cuchillo. Throughout this sequence, Bianchini crosscuts back-and-forth between Doc and Loco, the Mexican peasant hanging from a noose, time and life slipping from him as the grain bag on which he stands spills its contents.
Finally, it comes down to Barnett and second-in-command Manolo shooting it out with Doc. Doc blasts Manolo through the top of the head, from a loft, capping a scene of extended tension. Barnett strides through town like a vengeful dandy, decked out in a burgundy jacket and sporting floppy, foppish hair. Doc tricks Barnett by donning his dead lieutenant’s coat and pretending to be Manolo. In a rare moment of ill-conceived staging by Bianchini, hero and villain exchange gunfire from a distance of some ten or so feet – Doc from behind a haystack and Barnett a barrel, neither object persuasively bulletproof – until Barnett takes one to the temple. This proves an interesting and mildly shocking turn, with Bianchini basically – and unceremoniously – retiring his main villain at the one-hour mark, and thus promoting Judas henchmen Blake to the role of main antagonist.
Having saved Loco from the noose, they set off to track down Blake and the missing gold. In an odd, almost unnecessary narrative detour, they come across a farmhouse where a woman grieves over her murdered husband, victim of Blake. The widow recounts events, shown via hazy flashback, wherein Blake slays her lover before raping her. With his bright red shirt and sheepskin waistcoat, Blake looks ridiculous here, but remains a sleazy, credible threat despite the odd wardrobe choice. There follows a visually striking scene in which Doc and Loco bury the dead man at dusk; it’s a beautifully shot sequence which makes full use of the widescreen Techniscope frame and the haunting locale. This impromptu burial is interrupted by gunshot, the widow having committed suicide in the house. Bianchini shows nothing but infers everything. Much of Amigo is crisply photographed, with enough natural sun-flare captured on screen to make JJ Abrahams or Michael Bay envious.
Somehow, Blake has made it back to Doc’s hometown, scene of the original robbery, the film having gone full-circle, and is about to rape the unnamed blonde who was heavily featured in the opening hostage crisis. The sexual obsessions of the Blake character add an additional layer of seediness to the villain. Doc takes the door off its hinges with a mere shoulder barge, saving the day, and proceeds to leather Blake until he reveals the location of the stolen gold. This prolonged fight sequence is superbly staged, down and dirty, with Preston doing all of his own stunts, including getting his head repeatedly bashed against a barn wall. In a nice reversal of fortune, it is Doc who holds Blake’s head underwater in the very same trough as in the opening scene. With the last of the bandits dead, and the score ostensibly settled, Doc rides off. This makes little sense – didn’t Doc live there? Reuniting with Loco, Doc reclaims the stolen gold in an oddly unsatisfying and abrupt ending. There is no easy resolution or redemptive triumph here. No sequence of Doc returning the gold or the townsfolk thanking him/apologizing for their selfish behaviour earlier in the film. If Doc is robbed of any communal absolution, then, so too, is the viewer denied the satisfaction of seeing a hero’s vindication. Roll end credits.
Ehi amigo... sei morto! is, in many ways, an unremarkable film. It rarely deviates from the formulaic, has no standout scenes, and the pay-off is borderline unsatisfactory. And yet everything sticks to landing, thanks mainly to Bianchini’s stripped-down style and clean, unfussy direction. There’ s a few unnecessary moments of Fidani-esque padding here and there (bandits ride, Doc rides, bandits ride, Doc rides), but it never feels like Bianchini or his film are spinning their wheels. (Literally – at one point, Barnett and his men remove the wheels from the stagecoach so as best to make a swifter escape into the mine.) What’s with that title, though? Or titles, rather? They’re deceptively fluffy – more befitting, perhaps, of a lighter film; going by any of those loose monikers, one could easily assume that Bianchini’s film might be one of those dreaded ‘comedy’ westerns which brought the genre to its knees as it entered the 1970s. Rest assured, it’s not. On second thought, maybe Bianchini is fucking with us; perhaps Hey, Amigo… A Toast to Your Death! is emblematic of tone and attitude; such casual pessimism and irony were, after all, two of the founding tenets of the European western proper, and Bianchini’s film proves a quintessential third-tier entry.
Amigo was Bianchini’s fourth western as director. Dio li crea... Io li ammazzo! (1968) is a cheap-looking, threadbare affair; an inauspicious, negligible genre debut despite the presence of spaghetti heavyweights Piero Lulli and Peter Martell. Much better is Lo voglio morto/ I want Him Dead (1968), a longstanding fan-favourite starring Craig Hill, José Manuel Martín, José Canalejas and Frank Braña. I’ve never been as taken with that film as many others in the fan community, but it’s an undeniably tough, deathly-serious film brimming with conviction. Bianchini’s finest contribution to the western genre, however, is Quel caldo maledetto giorno di fuoco/ Gatling Gun (1968), the bona-fide classic starring Robert Woods, Roberto Camardiel, and John Ireland. An historically skewed tale based around a missing prototype of the titular weapon, Gatling Gun remains a superb spaghetti western and a great film, period – maybe even top twenty canon. Amigo certainly isn’t as strong Gatling, but three out of four remains a solid batting average for the director. Somewhat impressively, Bianchini is not only still with us – as of writing – but remains active in the industry, having written and directed the documentary Il profumo delle Zagare in 2022, at the grand old age of 90.
Bianchini assembled a small yet rock-solid cast for Amigo Wayde Preston was the token American lead import and acquits himself well. Preston was mainly known for the ABC television western series Colt .45 (1957 – 1960) but is recognizable to SW fans from his appearances in such European westerns as Oggi a me... domani a te/ Today We Kill... Tomorrow We Die! (1968), Vivo per la tua morte/ A Long Ride from Hell (1968), and Sartana nella valle degli avvoltoi/ Sartana in the Valley of Death (1970). Preston has a nice, loose everyman quality about him which makes him appear more vulnerable than most leading men. Main antagonist Battaglia was the handsome, Corbola-born actor whose career proliferated during the peplum and spaghetti western booms, equally adept with sword or pistol, whilst henchman Raf Baldassare remains a quintessential character face within our favourite genre – a serious candidate for the Mount Rushmore of Euro-westerns. Marco Zuanelli, here playing the by-now mandatory sidekick role, will forever remain indelible in the minds of SW fans for his minor role as Wobbles in Sergio Leone’s C'era una volta il West/Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Agnès Spaak, in the small role of the doomed Pachita, is the sister of the more prolific actress Catherine Spaak. Musically, Carlo Savina’s score seems omnipresent throughout the film. I can’t remember a frame of the film without its backing, which is odd given the repetitive, motif-focused nature of the music (even the GDM soundtrack CD runs a paltry 40mins in total, and that includes Powell’s theme song, and even then, some of the cues appear to be a clean lift from Savina’s earlier work on Dynamite Joe). At certain points in the film, Savina’s score is so loud and intrusive that it becomes overbearing. I don’t recall an effective score being so overused to the point of overkill.
Amigo was produced by Gatto Cinematografica. Again and again with the spaghetti western, we see a one-shot production company/outfit created specifically for the purpose of making the film at hand. I can find no evidence to suggest Gatto were involved in the production of any further filmic ventures (Euro-western or otherwise). Lensed during a regrettable period of rapid decline for the spaghetti western, Bianchini’s film remains stubbornly grim-faced, swimming against the then-changing tide of woeful slapstick. More Lo-Fi than low-brow, and all the better for it, Ehi amigo... sei morto!/ Hey, Amigo… A Toast to Your Death! proves to be a rewarding, mid-tier entry which – much like its hero – has a little more going for it than one might think at first glance.