Shoot the Living, Pray for the Dead Review
< Prega il morto e ammazza il vivo
- Year: 1971
- Director: Giuseppe Vari
- Writer: Adriano Bolzoni
- Starring Paolo Casella, Klaus Kinski, Victoria Zinny, Dean Stratford
- Music: Mario Migliardi
Dan Hogan and his outlaw gang rob the Phoenix bank and need to escape to Mexico to evade the law. John Webb, a mysterious stranger, meets up with the gang and generously offers to be their guide for a portion of the gold. But is that his true intention?
This film is certainly a true oddity in the Spaghetti Western world. These films are famous (or infamous) for slim stories and violent action. Although I do disagree with that (very offensive to a fan), it is true that some focus mainly on action. However, not all are fast paced kill fests. Beyond the films of Leone, there were a couple Spaghettis which opted for a methodically slow pace. Shoot the Living, Pray for the Dead is one such film.
What makes this film so engaging is the strong script which relies heavily on logic, suspense, and character development as much as anything else. The suspense is high throughout the film and when it is not suspenseful, the interesting plot will hold you down and force your eyes open wide. A lot of Spaghettis have terrible dialogue. And although this film doesn't have grade A vocabulary, it is less silly than others. The characters in this film are faced with several obstacles. Many of these conversations are very important to the plot because almost all of them seem to set the characters path. They act as a real outlaw gang would. Using logic to decipher their every move. This may sound confusing because it is very difficult to put into words. At least for me. Anyway, the plot and atmosphere are very well structured and very engaging.
The atmosphere is another key feature for this film. It at times resembles a horror film. One scene in particular supports this claim. A highly atmospheric night scene during a lightning storm. A group of Texas Rangers come to the way station while the outlaws are lying low. The suspense is high. Soon arises a conflict between two men in the barn and neither can shoot for fear of alarming the rangers. A very well timed fistfight ensues that does not linger on for too long. It is quick, savage, and well filmed with a great use of low angle camera shots. Not to mention the crackling lightning to highlight it all. The film often seems to change atmospheres. This isn't a flaw in my mind because it all connects to the overall feel of the film. And the atmospheres are all similar. The next part of the film (2nd half) changes into a surreal feel that may remind you of Hellman's "The Shooting." A long ride through a dry desert. This half focuses more on character development and a certain uneasiness becomes evident between the stranger and the gang. Vari also adds a peculiar romance between Hogan and a female hostage. The hostage looks at Hogan with disgust but is attracted to his rough outlaw characteristics. Hogan shows little interest in her and this all makes for a very strange "romance."
The film's "class" is open to several interpretations. Weisser says it tries to be epic. He has never seen the film and the film never tries to be epic. It is not sprawling or that picaresque. It is what it is. It does not go beyond its capabilities and stays true to itself all the way through. It can be described as an epic though. Well, not really. My cockeyed interpretation of epic is probably different than most. I think that if a western wants to be epic it might feature a very simple plot but filmed with a very grand scope. Like Once Upon a Time in the West. This film has one ingredient. Simple plot. But doesn't try to be grand. Maybe a different kind of epic. The plot deals with revenge but the style it chooses makes the act of vengeance within the film very convoluted. Also, the desert scenes are well filmed and all this could produce a miniature epic. Another interpretation is that the film is a small scale revenge flick that is very well made but still small scale. Truth is, these two interpretations are not that different. It is a small scale film but I still think there is something epic about it. Who knows. One of the many mysteries of this film.
Another being the thought process of Giusseppe Vari. Supposedly, he is a director of fast paced Spaghettis which makes this film very different. It is very slow paced. Almost non-existent action. Only nine killings in the whole film. Completely different than Holy Ghost. It doesn't take time to develop the plot. From the minute the film starts, we feel immediately sucked in to what is going on onscreen. As I said earlier, it is all very engaging.
The acting choices are good but strange. The main character is played by the little known Italian actor, Paolo Casella. Paul Sullivan is the pseudonym. He has the looks of a Spaghetti Western anti-hero and definitely acts like one. He is cool and quiet. He is rather intelligent. He manages to manipulate an entire gang of outlaws. Klaus Kinski is perfect for the role of Dan Hogan. He can be from calm and collective to wild and violent. He has no respect for his comrades and shows absolutely no emotion in killing them. He does not put up with his second in command's mutiny and eventually shoots him in the back. A truly vile villain.
The music was performed by Mario Migliardi who also created the experimental soundtrack to Matalo!. He shows a certain brilliance here. The score is very slow and soothing. For the main titles, he uses a slow, melancholy tune with a female vocalist accompanied by an orchestra and a mournful harmonica. He uses lots of piano strikes that seem withheld in the editing. Great use of harmonica and haunting vocals and backup effects. He always seems to use a 2 second blast from the Matalo soundtrack which initially sounds similar to the beginning of the Day of Anger soundtrack. A blast of brass.
The directing by Giuseppe Vari is phenomenal. He creates a well made film and paces it just right. He manages to keep the structure balanced and has a knack for set pieces. One, as I mentioned, is the fight scene which he films with strong atmosphere and great noirish camera work. He relies mostly on suspense and mystery to entice the audience's attention. Stunningly well directed.
A very good film but not for all tastes. Fans of Leone might like this one but you definitely have to be in the right mood to watch it. "Shoot the Living, Pray for the Dead."