Red on Black: Two Films by Alberto Cardone
From The Spaghetti Western Database
Director Alberto Cardone made five westerns during the so-called ‘boom era’ of the Italo-western (see our Cardone film listing), all shot within the acknowledged golden timeframe of 1965 to 1969. Even in authoritarian and fan circles, however, Cardone’s name is rarely mentioned, and his films are yet to receive the attention they both warrant and deserve. Prior to his contribution to the Spaghetti Western, Cardone – who often grafted behind the anglicized screen credit Albert Cardiff – was one of the most prolific second unit/ assistant directors working in the Italian film industry.Barbarella (1969). Thankfully, Cardone also took the helm of several films himself, although his résumé as director is sadly sparse (ten films as official director, although Cardone was credited as co-director on the 1964 German western Alla Conquista Dell’ Arkansas / Massacre at Marble City). In addition to his own directorial contributions, Cardone’s other lasting benefaction to the Spaghetti legacy would be in establishing both the construction and on-screen introduction of the famed Elios town set (commissioned and built specifically for the first film explored in this essay), a recognizable Spaghetti staple thereafter. This piece, then, will examine two of his better westerns – Sette dollari sul rosso7 Dollari sul Rosso (1966), and Mille dollari sul neroMille Dollari sul Nero (1966), the latter being the director’s crowning achievement. Without direct association (the second film is in no way a sequel), these films stand as perfect companion pieces, both inextricably linked in terms of tone and theme.
- 7 Dollari sul Rosso aka Seven Dollars on the Red (1966)
- Mille Dollari sul Nero aka $10,000 on the Black or Blood at Sundown (1966)
... the Red
7 Dollari sul Rosso (which will be referred to simply as Red from here on), Alberto Cardone’s first sole- credited western (although, according to various sources, the film’s direction was supervised by the film’s producer, Mario Siciliano), began shooting in 1965; however, a brief hiatus in production – often referenced in Spaghetti literature but never satisfactorily explained – meant filming wasn’t completed until 1966, and it’s interesting that the film should be split into two distinct portions of assemblage, as this curious bifurcation is very much reflected in the finished product. Although A Fistful of Dollars had blasted onto the scene in 1964, and For a Few Dollars More in 1965, it was 1966 which proved to be the transitory period for the Italo-western; thanks in great part to Leone, the genre had been somewhat liberated from the classic American model and had begun to cut a harsher, more cynical template of its own. Whilst Cardone’s follow-up, Mille Dollari sul Nero, would obliterate the remaining influence of the traditional Western blueprint, Red suffers very much from said identity crisis, and is typical of most Spaghettis lensed during this bridging period.
General consensus – both critical and genre enthusiast – towards Red is that of a middling, unremarkable film for much of its running time, with little during that stretch to distinguish it from the glut of other Italo-westerns which saturated the market during the genre’s golden period, other than that extraordinary final sequence. There is some truth to this assertion. Indeed, the final eight minutes of Red are so strong – so singular and insularly dramatic – that said dénouement can almost be seen as a standalone entity; a short, sharp dose of vicious melodrama which approaches a cinematic Gothic grandeur worthy of Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti.
The finale of Red, then, is justly feted, but why does it feels so disconnected, so superior to everything that has gone before it in the film? Was this incredible tonal transformation a result of the aforementioned break in filming? Did Cardone use this downtime in production to devour and absorb the collected works of Euripides and Sophocles? Was he purposefully seeking to end his work with such dramatically rich tragedy, or did the scene read that well – so glumly exquisite – in the original shooting screenplay? Whatever his inspiration, we must be thankful. Red ends with a sledgehammer blow that renders the banal notion of a clean and happy ending not only redundant, but downright dishonest. One of the initial reasons that I, as discerning viewer, was drawn to the Italian western(s) in the first place was that the Euro-take on the mythology of the West just seemed so much more truthful than the stock American model, something that even most Spaghetti detractors surely cannot deny. This gradual reconfiguration proved most paradoxical; the Italians somehow downplayed the romanticized conventions of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Bud Boetticher et al whilst simultaneously lifting the genre to often ridiculously outré heights.
Nowhere is that best illustrated than in the final moments of Red (and the entirety of Mille Dollari sul Nero). Drenched in rain and singularly dark in atmosphere, this closing scene not only pre-dates (by just three weeks, in terms of initial release) the trading of sand-for-mud in Sergio Corbucci's lauded Django (1966), but also pre-empts the downbeat conclusion of that very same director’s unrivalled masterpiece, Il Grande Silenzio (1967), albeit to diluted effect.
But back to that nagging question which plagues popular opinion of Cardone’s film: does such a strong finale render all that has gone before reductive? I think not. 7 Dollari sul Rosso is a very good, somewhat misunderstood and wholly underappreciated western, and is certainly a picture that stands as so much more than a stock 87 minute prelude to a corking 10 minute payoff.
Red opens to a thundering chorus of horse hooves. This in itself is a telling motif, as Cardone’s film will move like lightning, fleet and surefooted; edited to near-perfection and filled with impressively fluid camera work. Unlike Corbucci, who worked (effectively) to a rough-hewn rhythm of murky crash-zooms and blunt-scissor cutting, Cardone appears far more precise in his craft. (It must be noted, however, that Cardone’s follow-up film, Sul Nero, isn’t nearly as technically assured as Red.)
Like many revenge-themed Spaghetti Westerns, Red begins with a massacre. One of the recurring leitmotifs in Cardone’s work seems to be his thorough trashing of the family unit. Not just in terms of the encroachment of outside threat, either, but also – perhaps more damagingly – the more fragile internal binds. Just as the American master Ford built many of his western films around the sanctity of the familial homestead, so does Cardone set about obliterating it. Again, the Italo-western seemed most energized, most vital and necessary, when turning established convention on its head.
Regular heavy Fernando Sancho leads the assault, playing a Mexican bandit named, imaginatively, Sancho (although improbably, and rather hilariously, referred to as ‘Jack Wilson’ in the English dub track, or El Cachal in other prints), who leads a vicious attack on a random farmhouse, unceremoniously killing the attendant ranch-hands and, more intrinsically, the lady of the house. In his own patented, typically flamboyant style, Sancho then lends further indignity to the poor woman’s death by dropping seven silver dollars onto her red-decked corpse, stating the allotted amount to be the price of a new Indian woman, should the (absent) man of the house wish to purchase himself another squaw.
The slain woman’s young son almost receives a similar fate from one of Sancho’s more trigger happy goons, but Sancho uncharacteristically intervenes. The bandit not only spares the boy, but takes him home, instructing Sybil, his lover, to, ‘Raise the boy as if he were my own.’ We learn during a heated dialogue exchange between Sancho and his woman that Sybil is unable to conceive. (Or is it Sancho that is firing blanks with his other pistol? He certainly seems a little tetchy when Sybil raises the subject.) And so we have the oedipal crux of Cardone’s film, in which the boy, named Jerry, is given both home and parentage by the very man who killed his natural mother. Truly, this is the stuff of classical tragedy – a theme the director seems intent on exploiting.
The film then shifts gear to introduce our nominal (anti)hero, Johnny Ashley, played by genre stalwart Anthony Steffen (real name Antonio de Teffe). By this point in his career, Steffen had already headlined a number of Italian oaters such as Mario Caiano’s solid Coffin for the Sheriff and Edoardo Mulargia’s little-seen Why Go on Killing? (both 1965), and would soon emerge as one of the lynchpins of the genre. It is in Red, though, that Steffen consolidates his stoic, granite-cut presence which he would continue to hone throughout his Spaghetti tenure. Not often given due credit as a performer, Steffen can at the very least be said to epitomize the very essence of the Spaghetti hero – taciturn, implacable and, ultimately, bullet-proof.
‘You too are part of the old West that is fading away,’ Johnny is told as he bids farewell to a band of settlers that the viewer can only assume Johnny has been travelling with and/ or serving as acting guide (no firm explanation is given). That particular line of dialogue holds real resonance, given how the classic American western film had run aground at this point in time, thanks to the homogenization and softening of the genre by syndicated television, and, as mentioned before, can be read as the passing of the baton from old guard to new. It’s as if the film is already pre-empting its last leg turn of face; as discussed, Red may well begin and unfold in the traditional mould, but by the time the credits roll, things have taken an unexpectedly ugly turn, the film shedding its skin for something altogether more challenging and painfully contemptuous – both qualities that have come to be strongly identified with the Spaghetti Western.
Johnny makes the long trek home, riding through a montage of seemingly endless panoramas – as if the Spanish countryside held no natural limits – until he finally reaches his familial ranch. His journey is marked by maestro Francesco De Masi’s exemplary score, topped by trumpet-ace Michele Lacerenza’s superlative work (Lacerenza would go on to score Cardone’s following work, albeit working solo). Once home, Johnny finds what we, the viewer, already know. Having stumbled upon the body of his wife, Johnny searches frantically for his son, Jerry, but finds nothing but an empty motive that will drive him through the remainder of the film. In one startling scene that borders once more on the Gothic, Johnny searches the attic, but all he finds is his son’s rocking horse, which moves back and forth in unprompted motion, as if the ghosts of this newly-haunted man have already begun their torment.
And thus the scene is set for revenge, the staple motive de jour for such films, with Johnny out the door and pounding that well-worn vengeance trail. Plot-wise, that is about your lot, save for Jerry growing up to be a real bastard, as per the influence of his adopted father. But the Italo-western was never about Byzantine storytelling. It was about attitude, action, and reaction – blunt and keen. What makes Red such a blast are the individual components (performance, atmosphere, technical proficiency and an overall sense of enthusiasm from the filmmakers) which add up to a satisfactory whole.
Even if the film falls somewhat short of consistent quality, Cardone certainly serves up some memorable moments. Take a look at the random scene in which Johnny is informed by a young boy that his mother has been accosted by bandits: without pause for thought (or even stopping to validate that he has landed at the correct homestead), our hero gallops off and throws himself through a glass window before gunning down the unsuspecting villains. It’s a stupid, nonsensical scene, akin to something from a lesser Demilo Fidani effort, and doesn’t serve the film at all in terms of forward motion, but it typifies all that is wonderful about the Spaghetti Western – careless, freewheeling and unpredictable. Or how about the powerhouse sequence set in the cantina, where an adult Jerry (played by Roberto Miali, toiling under the anglicized name Jerry Wilson) terrorizes the patrons before shooting dead a whip-wielding dandy? The whip would return, in surer hands, in Cardone’s next film, but here, in Red, he tantalizes the viewer with things to come. There are other, minor plot-deviations, including Steffen taking on work with the local sheriff (one of those rare, honest, capable lawmen not often seen in European westerns), and Jerry using a love-struck girl as a patsy for Sancho’s upcoming bank heist, but the film sticks mainly (and rightly) to Steffen’s quest to track down Sancho’s gang.
However, as much as the purpose of this piece is to both champion the film and (hopefully) prompt mild critical re-evaluation, it would be remiss of me not to recognise the film’s many weaknesses. Indeed, Red has many faults, both technical and in terms of clarity of storytelling. Cardone’s biggest mistake with regard to the latter is lapse of time, and in particular the distance between the opening murder(s) and the leap to the present. The film jumps some twenty years (one can only assume), transforming Jerry from innocent child to a cruel and ruthless adult, but Cardone gives no initial evidence of this – there is no simple intertitle marking said passage of time. Laughably, the best Cardone can do is rub some talcum powder into Steffen’s sideburns, ineffectively ‘aging’ our hero.
There are other problems, too, such as a number of distracting day-for-night shots that look as if they were edited into the finished film without any colour correction, the only discernable evidence of nocturnal intent being the chorus of crickets chirping over the soundtrack. Minor quibbles aside, though, it’s difficult to scorn a film so lean and energetic. Red also has a much better-than-average script (credited on-screen to Juan Cobos, Melchiade Coletti-Franciolini and Arnaldo Franciolini) for the genre, too.
And so the film marches violently on, edging ever-closer to Steffen inevitably locating his son and learning the awful truth as to what kind of man his offspring has become in his absence. As well as that showdown, Cardone also gives us a brutal, superbly shot (and choreographed) fight between Steffen and Sancho, both wielding hay hooks, and a decent stand-off between the honest townsfolk and Sancho’s rampaging bandits. Hell, he even throws in a dose of throwaway matricide just to round things off – talk about value for money! But, as strong as the film is and as affecting as the dénouement to Red remains, the film still serves mainly as a mere taste of the brilliant madness which was to follow.
Mille Dollari sul Nero – which will from here on be referred to simply as Black – is a singular beast, not only within the Alberto Cardone canon but, rather tellingly, as an Italo-western. Black is fresh and daring, bold and uninhibited. It is bleak tragedy played out in broad yet detailed strokes which stand to further scrutiny. The picture itself is as crude and audacious as its antagonist, and – for this author at least – no other individual entry epitomizes the wild-eyed spirit of the Spaghetti Western better than this particular film.
As if vitalized by the final few minutes of his previous western, Cardone ups the ante considerably in terms of ferocity and sheer unpredictability. Whereas Red appeared content to dabble in a muted subversion, Black comes awfully close to being a surreal masterpiece. What is doubly rewarding here is that all of this lunacy strikes me as being intentional; I genuinely believe Cardone set out to make a bona fide western that flirted dangerously close to filmic insanity.
Cardone’s film begins with our hero, Johnny Liston (Anthony Steffen – who else?), riding back to his hometown of Campos after having served a 12-year prison sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. It is important that we delineate hero from anti-hero, especially within the elastic confines of the Spaghetti universe. Here, Johnny is a wronged man, and so very much a legitimate hero a la the American model. Johnny appears to have no monetary imperative here; he shows no sign of material avarice or – at this stage of the film at least – any hint of obsession with redressing life’s ecumenical score. When we meet Liston, he is merely a man loose and free having been granted a second chance.
No sooner have the opening credits played out, all to the tune of Michele Lacerenza’s brilliant, instantly iconic score, Johnny is immediately set upon by two goons, and here the first of many superlative fistfights plays out. Mercifully devoid of on-screen ego, Steffen always could take a good beating, but he eventually wins the bout and sees his attackers off, all to the repetitive sound of post-sync thumps and thuds.
The film then wastes no time in introducing our villain – and what a villain. Sartana is played to wild-eyed, combustible perfection by genre stalwart Gianni Garko (appearing here under his Americanized nom de plume John Garko), in what may well be his finest performance. Hell, this may well be the defining performance of the entire Italo-western canon; it’s certainly the most Eurocentric. (There is, of course, the rather tired issue of confusion regarding this incarnation of Sartana and that of the other Sartana: the sharp-shooting dandy first played by Garko in Gianfranco Parolini’s If You Meet Sartana, Pray for your Death  and its subsequent three official sequels. Needless to say, beyond the obvious inhabitation of the same actor and the shared name, these characters exist as completely separate entities and bare no cinematic correlation.)
Sartana leads his faux-army of lowlifes and scumbags from some kind of Aztec ruin, which in itself is a marvel of deranged art design. Cardone only has one master-shot of this place, but it’s a doozy; vividly realized via a beautiful matte painting. When we first meet General Sartana, he is having his boots cleaned by an underling whilst gulping down meat from the bone. It’s a wonderful, flamboyant, telling entrance. Immediately we see that Sartana is everything that our hero Johnny is not; one gets the feeling that, had the shot begun a couple of seconds earlier, the viewer might well have witnessed Sartana being fed the meat like some indulgent, upper-echelon Roman senator basking in a permanent state of pampered hedonism.
The man-servant busy cleaning the psychotic Sartana’s boots is called Jerry – a cripplingly ineffectual mute who serves as both slave and unwilling Jester in the royal court of Sartana. Jerry is played by the returning Roberto Miali, so effective as the villainous son in Red, but here – in the first half of the picture, at least – his performance is less sure; for the most part, Jerry comes across as rather dim-witted and impetuous when it strikes me that the filmmaker’s objective was to elicit sympathy for this much put-upon character.
Sartana’s trusted right-hand Lieutenant, Ralph (played by the terrific German actor Sieghardt Rupp, so good in Leone’s Fistful, who had presence to burn and was never fully utilized within the genre) goes to shoot Jerry, but Sartana takes hold of a bullwhip and lashes the pistol from his friend’s hand. ‘The right to punish is mine,’ snarls Sartana in full demigod mode, his decree final. Much of what follows is played out to bouts of ludicrously sustained laughter, a staple of the Spaghetti genre in itself. Garko’s barbed mirth is no mere dub-track padding, however, but rather born of his addiction to humiliating all around him, friend and foe alike. It must be said that Garko is simply electric here; caught in a bubble of delirium, Sartana is portrayed as a man on the precipice of madness, only too willing to jump.
Liston then arrives on the scene, tying two plot strands together with startling narrative efficiency, and we learn that he and Sartana are brothers. Furthermore, it is revealed that Sartana has taken Liston’s love, Manuela, as his own bride during Liston’s absence. Poor old Johnny! He’s only been out of jail for a couple of hours and already he’s been shot at, beaten, and learned that his old flame has married his brother, who himself is a bullying, unhinged tyrant. Suddenly, Fort Yuma isn’t looking so bad.
Johnny rides off, leaving the faux-Aztec encampment behind, and then swiftly comes to the aid of a woman named Joselita Rogers, who is being chased by men on horseback. Truly the tragic figure, Johnny then learns that this is the very daughter of the man he served time for murdering. Black is barely twenty minutes into its 100 minute running time and already we have enough bloodshed, treachery and drama to rival Titus Andronicus.
Steffen then returns to his family home, where the film takes another interesting turn and lurches evermore violently toward a towering eccentricity, brushing precipitously close to Oedipal Gothic melodrama. The scene here should, ideally, have been shot in B&W to accentuate the oppressive atmosphere; all shadow and darkness and cobwebs and chiaroscuro gloom. There Johnny reconciles with his mother, Rhonda (played very well by Carla Calo), a reclusive diva living alone in a mansion overrun with personal ghosts.
Their family reunion is short lived, however, as Sartana and his band ride into town, where the pseudo-general and his men proceed to shake down the townspeople in the name of some dubious protection racket. (‘Look at your brother,’ Rhonda coos, hypnotized by her son’s presence to the point of erotic fascination, ‘he moves like a general’). Spotting a wanted poster with his image on it, Sartana then bites into his own thumb, drawing blood, and scrawls what appears to be a W over his own image. Does the letter W mean anything to either the character of Sartana or the director Cardone? Or is this seemingly inconsequential detail open to viewer interpretation? Perhaps this was something significant to the original Italian dialogue track lost in translation to the English dub. Alternatively, the seeming W could well be composed of two L’s written at a Dutch angle, as the Sheriff, when pushed, interprets the symbol to mean ‘Long live Sartana’. (Personally, I’d like to think that Sartana is powerful – crazy – enough to go around writing whichever letter of the alphabet he wants on anything he sees fit.) After humiliating the town’s ineffectual sheriff and having killed a prowling bounty killer (victim number 26, we are informed), Sartana hilariously asks the townsfolk to dig deep into their pockets for a ‘voluntary’ contribution toward his services. When one merchant refuses, Sartana simply guns the man down. (I’m not convinced that a man this cavalier about murder – who has just killed his fourth man since the start of the film, no less – could have chalked up a paltry tally of only 27 lives taken; given what we have witnessed, that number seems laughably conservative.)
Having had his fun, Sartana then joins his mother and brother in their shambolic family home, where the two men promptly knock the shit out of one-another like schoolboys vying for their mother’s favour. Sartana’s relationship with his alcoholic mother is both disturbing and fascinating; without any direct hint at incest, theirs is a relationship that approaches clear taboo.
The film moves on, with Johnny once again saving Joselita from the clutches of Sartana’s gang, before tailing them to the town of Blackstone Hill and foiling their second shakedown of the morning. There, in a scene of absurd cruelty, Sartana has Jerry crawl around on all-fours like a dog, a feedbag tied around his neck, whilst the terrified/ apathetic townsfolk offer their ‘contributions’. But Johnny suddenly appears, rooftop like some avenging angel, stating that the town is now under his protection and warning his older brother to back off. Such omnipresent heroics were a staple of Steffen’s patented shtick; he would cruise fearlessly through the landscape of his pictures, unfazed by enemy numbers or anything as trite as precise marksmanship.
Always a divisive figure in fan circles, Steffen was/is much criticised for his stoic persona, but one need only to look at a film such as Mario Caiano’s excellent Train to Durango (1968) – wherein Steffen was partnered with the great Enrico Maria Salerno to vibrant comic effect – to know that this wasn’t necessarily through lack of talent, but more likely the performer’s prerogative. This Zen-like stubbornness would reach its apotheosis in Sergio Garrone’s suitably gloomy Django il bastardo (1968), in which Steffen was granted the opportunity to legitimise his on-screen passivity by playing a vengeful ghost, out to cut-down those who betrayed him during the murky aftermath of the American civil war. Whatever your opinion on Steffen, his patented apathy is well suited to his character in Black.
When one of Sartana’s gang attempts to silence Johnny with a bullet, the victimized Jerry finally makes a stand and joins up with our hero. Jerry then takes Johnny to an underground cave (the same mine set utilized in Red, surely?) and reveals to him a secret stash of dynamite, which he has been hoarding in order to take his revenge against the despotic Sartana.
Sartana, meanwhile, has moved onto the town of Wishville, for – yes – his third community shakedown of the day (a smarter businessman might have spread his collection dates out, but Sartana seems to lack anything even resembling sound business acumen). It is here, with an almost supernatural omnipresence, that Steffen reminds us of his character from the aforementioned Django il bastardo. Jerry then sets off a few sticks of dynamite, and Sartana and his flunkies are driven off. The film then cuts back to the Liston homestead, where Sartana is beaten around the face with a riding crop by his mother for his having Johnny best him. These scenes between mother and son add a certain frisson, charged as they are with an unforced yet deliberate perversion.
Back in Campos, Johnny attempts to shake the townsfolk from their collective indifference and rally them into some kind of stand against the tyranny of Sartana, but, rooted in fear, they are having none of it. Headed by the conniving Judge Wood (Carlo D’Angelo), the town fathers rebuke his plan. One of the merchants even has the temerity to call Johnny’s mother a whore, resulting in the second of many fistfights of which Cardone seems so adept in staging and shooting. Interestingly, it is the sheriff who comes to Johnny’s aid. The law – and in particular the role of sheriff – is notoriously ineffectual in the realm of the Spaghetti Western; most lawmen are either corrupt or impotent. Not so here (although the sheriff will, predictably, pay for his courage later on in the film with his life). It seems to me that Cardone must have believed in the Law – both Red and Black contain honest, incorruptible men who attempt to do the right thing.
At this point, the film makes a slight detour which could easily have killed a lesser film. Cardone broadens his canvas by introducing some of the Campos townsfolk, most notably a ridiculously effete grocer who seems to be moonlighting as a gun merchant(!) in the family owned store. In most films, such potentially grating characters (accurately referred to as cute/funny by author/ director Alex Cox in his uniquely subjective book 10,000 Ways to Die) would have been a collective bore, but such is Cardone’s skewed perspective that here they elicit an incredulous laugh.
The viewer then learns, unsurprisingly, that the Judge is in cahoots with Sartana, and that he was complicit in sentencing Johnny for his alleged murder some 12 years ago. The Judge then stages a mock kidnapping, in which he and Joselita are taken hostage by Sartana’s men. He rides back to Campos, mouthpiece for Sartana, giving Johnny three days to attempt the rescue of Joselita.
Steffen rightly suspects foul play, but heads off regardless, taking the crooked Judge along with him. Once inside Sartana’s pseudo-Aztec temple, Steffen is quickly set upon. This allows for a remarkable ‘ring of fire’ sequence that further demonstrates Cardone’s flair for the theatrical. But Steffen, pre-empting an age in which suicide would be utilized as not only a final ideological statement but also a bargaining weapon, has covered himself in dynamite, and threatens to blow the camp sky high unless Joselita is released.
She is released, but then Johnny is mercilessly beaten and taken hostage. Wanting him dead but unable to slay his own brother (delineating a hitherto hidden moral line for the character), Sartana sends Ralph to kill Johnny out of earshot.
Before Ralph can complete his task, however, Johnny escapes, with a little help from Jerry. When Ralph skulks back to the Aztec ruin somewhat shamefaced, an incensed Sartana rallies his troops and vows that ‘Before sundown there will be blood in this valley!’ (This line is most likely the source of the film’s alternative English title – Blood at Sundown.)
Back in Campos, the duplicitous Judge is muddying the waters further, telling the good townsfolk – Joselita included, still unwise to his game – that Johnny was as corrupt and as evil as Sartana. Steffen appears and attempts to implicate the Judge, but – unbelievably – the townspeople still won’t have any of it. If Black strikes a single false note, it is in the townspeople’s wilful refusal to accept the Judge as co-conspirator and architect of their misery.
Sartana and co. then lay siege to Campos, killing everything and anything that moves – including women and children. The elder women of Campos – wives, mothers, daughters – beg Rhonda to use her maternal sway with Sartana and end the bloodshed. Rhonda reluctantly agrees, wresting a hung shotgun off the wall and braving the carnage outside the house. She charges into the fold, determined, taking two bullets in the process, but marches on nonetheless. This is an exciting, redemptive scene; original and oddly touching.
‘No one will touch you,’ screams Sartana, in reference to his own infallibility and therefore hers by proxy, unaware that his mother has already taken two bullets. Rhonda levels her gun at her son, as if finally awakening to her vile offspring’s egregious ways. Why did it take so long? And did it really only take a few nagging women to end said spell? Neither question is answered. All that matters now is that Rhonda has finally been roused from her blind stupor, and that the cloud of a mother’s unconditional love has finally dispersed. It is as if Rhonda is finally seeing her son for what he is – as a wicked man, as a ruthless killer, a worthless despot – as opposed to merely her child.
Steadying his horse, Sartana waves his pistol at his mother – though, tellingly, never takes aim – and effectively severs all ties. This iconic image – a scowling Garko, his hand clutching the gun, his fingers bejewelled with ostentatious rings – served as the poster in the French and Italian territories, and is one of the great pieces of Italo-western advertising. It also serves as a neat summation of the Italian western in general; the hard-faced anti-hero as per the classic American mould, but also the gem-laced knuckles of Garko suggesting something more heightened, flamboyant, and fantastic.
Sartana is clearly in his mid-thirties (Garko was thirty-one when the film was shot), but one gets the impression that only now, at this crucial late-stage in life, is the umbilical cord being cut.
The film then cuts back to Steffen, wandering without purpose a la the Japanese ronin (taking us back, full circle to Leone’s original riff on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, 1958); a man robbed of his past and denied a future. Something – Cardone is never explicit – calls him back to Campos, however, where he finds his beloved home town in a state of post-massacre ruin and his mother dying from her gunshot wounds. This scene is oddly touching, and it is the one time in either film where Cardone allows anything approximating sentiment to enter the family unit. Rhonda renounces her misplaced affections for Sartana, realising that her one success as a mother has been with the hitherto neglected Johnny.
With her dying breath, Rhonda divulges the whereabouts of Sartana, telling Johnny he is headed to Blackstone Hill for more bloodshed. It seems that at this point in the film, Sartana has given up all pretence as a bullying enforcer, and has finally tipped over the edge where fear and gold are no longer incentive. Sartana is now a crazed killer; he is death, indiscriminate and cold – the human equivalent of a nuclear launch strike. (It is a good job that Cardone and his film have only an inevitable death in store for the character, as it is hard to imagine Sartana existing in a world beyond the remaining scenes Cardone so generously allows him.)
At Blackstone Hill, Sartana finally kills the weasely Judge (if the character commits a single vaguely defendable act in the entire film, then this is it), but only after the Judge finally reveals the identity of her father’s real killer to Joselita. That’s right – Sartana.
Pushed to breaking point (finally!), the citizens belatedly strike back. Commendably, Cardone kills off most of the comic relief here, including the vaguely effeminate grocer and one town person who, upon being shot, hilariously proclaims, ‘I hope we can make it’ before summarily dying. (Make what, exactly? asks the viewer – but more on this later.)
Thankfully, Cardone retains focus, and the film concentrates on its fascinating principal characters. Knowing that the audience has come this far and all they really want to see is Steffen and Garko go up against one-other, man-to-man (or brother-to-brother), Cardone goes one better and treats us to an undercard bout before the main event, having Jerry and Ralph fight to the death. It’s a blinder, too; better even than Steffen and Sancho’s climatic duel in Red.
Post-fight, Ralph emerges from the barn and falls to the ground with an axe imbedded in his torso. It would be remiss of me to tell you how the axe found its way into the flesh, but I will say it is as an ingenious a death as anything you’ll find in a giallo.
And then the moment of truth arrives. Johnny versus Sartana. Steffen versus Garko.
The inevitable showdown – the staple of the Spaghetti since Clint Eastwood faced down Gian Maria Volonte in 1964. But Alberto Cardone is too savvy to let mere pistols do the talking, and he once again allows tragedy to intrude. Sartana – his gang whittled down to mere corpses and now all alone in the world, except, ironically, for his brother – is informed that his mother is dead. With that emotive blow, any strand of sanity that the clearly barking Sartana was clinging to finally snaps, and the faux-general is reduced to begging and scrabbling for his brother’s affection.
There is an unforced sadness to this scene. The Italian westerns were a pure distillation of entertainment – all forward momentum, violent release and resultant bloodshed, the cinematic equivalent of a great white shark – but every now and then, when in the shaping hands of a capable director, an Italo-western could still surprise and affect, as is the case here. Garko paints a convincing portrait of suffering – in the moment that Sartana realises that he has lost Johnny, that his brother is as dead to him now as his dear mother, he surely realises that he has never needed him more. This tragic moment is, I think, more valid than the slug which Johnny duly puts into Sartana. By the time the bullet strikes, the disintegration of both the Liston family and the tyrannical world which Sartana had so cruelly strived to build has reached its zenith.
It is interesting – and a little disappointing, in my opinion – that the death blow comes not from Johnny but from Manuela, his stolen love, who shoots Sartana from the sidelines with a shotgun, ending his reign of terror once and for all. Does this absolve Johnny from the act of fratricide? Would his bullet merely have wounded Sartana, allowing the despotic elder brother a chance at redemption? I doubt it. (Cardone, to his credit, is clearly not interested in redemption as resolve.) But I for one would have loved to have seen Johnny’s ultimate action: would he have had the courage to put one in his brother’s skull? We will never know.
In stark contrast to Red – which annihilates all that has come before it with a finale worthy of Sophocles – Black ends with what appears to be a more traditional showdown, albeit one where brother kills brother. The main difference between the two endings is not a matter of familial dynamics, however, but one of individual trait. In Red, Jerry was an unrepentant prick – the man shoots his own mother, for Christ’s sake, who throughout the picture had been nothing but supportive and unconditionally loving toward her surrogate, despite his indefensible ways. As tragic and as difficult as it is for the character of Johnny to kill his own son (albeit accidentally) during the dénouement of Red, the viewer simply demands this outcome. Jerry has exhibited zero virtue as a human being, and must simply be stopped. But in Black, Garko, in stark contrast, is such a deeply troubled individual that, despite his penchant for unbridled sadism and frequent outbursts of indiscriminate murder, he emerges the human equivalent of a wounded bird. Garko’s persuasion has been so strong, proven so forceful, that the viewer – at least this one – wants no part of Sartana’s demise.
It would seem that at this point, the character of Johnny might feel the same. He crouches and cradles his dead brother, who is, for all his cruelty and evil, still his brother, and his passing must be mourned. Cardone even allows Johnny a moment of posthumous fraternal protection, having him scream, “Get away from him!” as the surviving few townsfolk cautiously approach to ogle the end of their nightmare.
Here, the death of the hero’s enemy is not necessarily something to be celebrated, but rather to be mourned, the scene oddly reminiscent of the heartbreaking dénouement of Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (1972), in which Mario Adorf becomes Gastone Moschin’s spiritual protector only after the latter’s death, moved to proclaiming him the worthiest of foes, even though he’s spent most of the film trying to expose him as a traitor and/or kill him. In both cases, I find this a fascinating and complex exploration of a character’s death, mounted in a Euro-crime thriller and a Spaghetti Western respectively. And yet, the tragedy inherent in Cardone’s work dictates that such a fate is inevitable, and so Garko must die, the character of Sartana doomed from the start. At first, it seems almost unthinkable that this gloriously heightened entertainment – this grand piece of Greek theatre – has been brought down by a single bullet. But this is a western, after all, and the Winchester will always be the final adjudicator in this particular arena.
Shoehorned into the film at this point – in a scene of such unintentional mirth so as to rival Steffen jumping through the window in Red – is a short throwaway in which Jerry finally regains the capacity for speech and mumbles something to his sister Manuela. Is Cardone really telling us that all one need do to overcome a speech impediment is disembowel a self-styled, messianic general’s lieutenant with an axe? Or did he merely submit to that blandest of fictional fallacies – the happy ending? I don’t think so (the Italo-western was no place for Happily Ever Afters, as any genre fan knows). Mercifully, the film doesn’t end here, with that asinine, borderline comical punctuation.
Cardone then shows the sky cloud over; a murky sun distorted by black gauze. Is it going to rain again, a la the finale of Red? (Both films are inextricably tied, and I stand by my initial assertion that both films should be seen as two different pieces of an ill-fitting whole). It is interesting that general rule of closure (at least in the cinematic vernacular) would have it that, after the drama, the storm clouds should break and a cleansing sun appear. In both films, however, Cardone reverses said convention. It is as if he is saying that, as dark as it has been, the world can always – and will – get darker. ‘I hope we can make it,’ lamented the unfortunate, laughably optimistic clerk upon being shot and only mere moments from expiring. Was this what he wanted to make it to? What he hoped to achieve as part of a pro-active community? A town decimated by bloodshed and empty hatred, where even the sanctity of brotherhood is slave to the law of the colt? Perhaps the cowardly townsfolk in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) had it right after all.
I don’t think Cardone was a pessimist, though, at least not here. Both Red and Black are far too much fun to be overly concerned with existential pretence.
Finally, Black ends with a quote (just as Red had opened with a biblical passage, Cardone effectively book-ending his diptych).The quote is unnecessary. Cardone has already illustrated perfectly the potential tragedy within the familial unit; he didn’t need Leviticus to hammer home his point (the equivalent of having Sir Cedric Hardwicke call out the numbers at a game of bingo).
It hardly matters by this point, though. Cardone has played his hand, and it’s a royal flush. With Black, Cardone took the remnants of the dying traditional American western film and heightened the distinctly Italian elements into a wild, almost unrecognizable carnival ride populated by Gods & Monsters.
Why do I feel the film is so successful, then? Why do I go back to Black again and again, returning for multiple viewings and fresh excavation? Outwardly, at first glance, the film is a simplistic tale of brotherly hate, a revenge story at heart, devoid of any of the overt political complexity that would soon come to characterise the best of the genre, courtesy of staunch leftists Lizzani, Sollima, Damiani, Petroni and Corbucci et al. But perhaps that’s what makes Black so attractive, so unique – at a time when modern, very real world (or, more specifically, national) politics began to infiltrate and inform the Spaghetti Western, Cardone went the other way and looked toward old world myth for his inspiration. As a result, Black frequently flirts with the fantastical, emerging as a coal-black fable loaded with Grimm lore.
With all the lunacy inherent, it’s difficult to pinpoint where, exactly – if anywhere at all – Cardone took inspiration from with regard to a classical American antecedent, although Black does bear some resemblance (thematically, at least) to Horizons West, the 1952 Universal picture from Budd Boetticher. In that film, Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson play brothers who return home after four years on the front line fighting for the South. The embittered Ryan soon turns to rustling cattle and robbery, building himself a small criminal empire made up of ex-soldiers and military deserters, assisted at a higher level by crooked politicians and corrupt lawmen (including, yes, a judge). That is until Hudson is sworn in as town marshal, determined to put an end to his elder sibling’s egregious ways. Milking the familial tragedy further – as Cardone was prone to do – Boetticher also has Ryan turn his gun on his own father during the dénouement of the film. Such similarities aside, however, Black strikes me as the least likely Italo-western to have siphoned direct influence from the American mould; like some rebellious progeny unwilling to conform to what has gone before, Cardone’s film appears wholly reluctant to emulate the example set by its filmic forbearers.
As previously discussed, Steffen is pretty much in trademark mode in Black – no bad thing if the role required a stoic, seemingly indestructible figure to mete out some much-needed justice. Indeed, with his stonewall expression and lilting eyes, Steffen’s Johnny Liston is the perfect counterpoint to all the madness exploding around him, and he makes for a dependable, very fine lead. But Steffen is not the show here. Like everything else in the film – actors, scenery, bizarre matte paintings et al – he is completely annihilated by the freewheeling presence of Gianni Garko. Garko is virtually the whole show – but what a show!
For me, Garko was – and remains – the Italo-western’s great unheralded component. As an actor, he was very much an extremely talented character actor who just happened to look like a leading man. Garko’s main strength – and this is crucial to the whole Spaghetti ethos – was his ambiguity; you never knew which way Garko would swing in terms of good or bad; even when playing the archetypal hero, there was always something dangerous in the way he carried himself, the threat ever-present. Garko is simply glorious in the role of Sartana – one of the great Spaghetti characters. Unlike most leading roles within the genre – which were, as Steffen has proven, interchangeable at best – it is difficult to imagine anybody else in the role of General Sartana (with the grudging, possible exception of the equally combustible Tomas Milian). Garko is sexy and despicable; psychotic and utterly unreachable, yet Garko somehow invites sympathy from the viewer, daring us to side with this demon dressed in army blue.
And yet, as incendiary as Garko is and as dependable as Steffen proves, the film also manages to make room for an impressive array of secondary characters. Locked away in her dilapidated mansion, drowning her considerable sorrows in booze and misplaced adulation for her psychotic son, the bitter matriarch Rhonda recalls both the bitter excess of Ms. Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations, and, one would certainly like to think, a fallen version of Vance Jeffords, the character played so brilliantly by Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann’s near-perfect American western The Furies (1950). Credit to Carla Calo, then, that when Rhonda bows out, she does so in such a strong and dignified manner, with all her feminine strength intact. Also worthy of mention is Franco Fantasia in the role of the Sheriff. As we have seen, the Italo-west is no place for arrow-straight law, but here Fantasia brings a sadness and self-loathing quality to the lawman, reminiscent of the great Anthony Ghidra’s drunken, titular has-been in Tequila Joe (1968). As with Rhonda, when the Sheriff’s time comes, we are sad to see him go. Last but not least is Rupp, forever on the periphery as Sartana’s loyal lieutenant. A great villain needs a good right-hand man, and Rupp plays Ralph to perfection, demanding the viewer’s attention even when lit within the glow of Garko’s constant fireworks.
As for production credits, it is a surprisingly mixed bag. If anything, Black is a step back from Red, at least in terms of technical proficiency. Whereas the editing and photography of Red were clean and precise, Black is far sloppier in contrast. The cinematography is often murky and blurred, whilst the editing is choppy and erratic, as if the negative was cut on a blunt, rusty potato peeler. Far from detracting from the enjoyment though, this poverty-row finish somehow adds to the overall feeling of Black’s spiralling dementia.
Another area in which the film succeeds marvellously is Michele Lacerenza’s eclectic, flavourful score – one of the best of the Spaghetti soundtracks. (Oddly, the official soundtrack CD release from Beat Records contains a vocalized song entitled ‘Necklace of Pearls’, which I am yet to hear anywhere in the film itself. Perhaps this existed on a different dub track for a country outside of the English speaking market?) Via his astonishing trumpet skills, Lacerenza somehow managed to perfectly capture the film’s searing atmosphere and mood. No easy task when dealing with a film this schizophrenic!
Alberto Cardone would direct four more westerns. Of those, Kidnapping! (a.k.a. 20.000 dollari sporchi di sangue, 1969), starring import U.S. marquee name Brett Halsey, is the best, retaining many of Cardone’s more surrealistic touches. (It is certainly good enough to warrant a review all of its own and as such I will refrain from further comment here.) L'ira di Dio (1968) is also of note, again starring Halsey, and with another sterling soundtrack by Lacerenza. None proved more colourful or more original than his Red and Black double whammy, however. With two outstanding genre efforts to his name and two other notable – and equally underrated – contributions, Cardone really ought to be better known and far more respected within the Spaghetti stable. All of his films carry a unique aesthetic stamp which defies easy explanation (check out that gorgeous blanket of bright red mist during the opening scene of Kidnapping!) and, once sufficiently acquainted with his oeuvre, proves Cardone to be a singularly recognizable filmmaker. Perhaps his due recognition is yet to come.
Red should be recommended, then, and for so much more than its (rightly lauded) final reel gear-shift. It is one of those rare films which improve upon repeated viewing. Black, though, should be held in far higher esteem. Leone’s Dollar films may well have birthed the Italo-western form proper and liberated it from the classical framework, lifting it to the rich excesses of the Western all’Italiana, but Black is the film that took the Spaghetti Western to its natural conclusion and pushed it beyond all reasonable boundaries of taste and logic. In other words, exactly where it belonged.