Sonny and Jed / La Banda J&S - Film Review (Scherpschutter)
The first of two westerns made by the other Sergio in ’72, after a year’s break in his western production. According to many, it also marks the beginning of his artistic downfall. Sonny and Jed tells the story of an uneasy relationship between two opposite characters, typical of Corbucci’s Zapata westerns. Only this time the partners aren’t brothers in arms, but lovers, who eventually become partners in crime. Sonny is a tomboy who wants to be outlaw. She saves Jed from being arrested by sheriff Franciscus, because she thinks he is a notorious outlaw. Jed is unwilling to accept her as his companion because she’s a woman and still a virgin; to him women are only good for one thing, but the idea of deflowering a girl is revolting him. He changes his mind after her confession that she has fallen in love with him, even though he (literally) treated her like a dog. Being loved by a woman is something Jed has never experienced before, so he asks her to become his wife and partner. Soon they make themselves a name as the most notorious couple of bandits of the region, the Bonnie and Clyde of the Far West.
The film was almost unanimously labelled as a failure upon its initial release. Corbucci thought the casting of a woman in one of the major roles was wrong: the film should have been a buddy movie, not a love story. He also blamed the long title, which nobody could reproduce without stammering (*1). Personally I don’t think there’s too much wrong with Susan George’s character, nor with her uneasy relationship with Milian. The love story is crude, occasionally even painful to watch because of Milian’s nasty, misogynist behaviour, but there are also touching moments and flashes of great humanity. The characters don’t always act like we would expect them to do (how can a woman love a man who treats her like a dog?), but this is a movie about lowlifes, about outcasts, rejected by society, who live for the day and by what’s coming their way. Sonny thinks Jed is a notorious outlaw, but all he is, is a small-time crook with a small-time sheriff on his trail. But he’s her only chance to become an outlaw, and she takes it.
Like some have pointed out (*2), Sonny and Jed is a synthesis of the two genres practiced most by this director, the western and the comedy. It’s also an amalgam of typical Corbuccian themes such as the uneasy relationship of opposite characters, scenes of mutilation and humiliation, often in a serio-comic context, deserted towns, muddy streets and even a machine gun. But there's also something missing. In his Zapata westerns, Corbucci had placed his rogue stories against the background of the Mexican revolution. As a result The Mercenary and Compañeros weren’t just episodic adventure movies, but also social studies, reflecting a growing historic and revolutionary awareness of characters with a different background and philosophy. In Sonny and Jed the background is very unconvincing. There are a few scenes about poor peons being exploited by the rich (the Corbucci theme par excellence), but it all feels forced, especially near the end, with Milian kidnapping Fajardo’s high class wife (who, of course, turns out to be a sex hungry bitch). The film is beautifully shot, creating an autumnal atmosphere of mud, mist and early snow, but we learn preciously little of this miserable world Sonny and Jed live in, it all remains peripheral.
The key factor - and the reason the movie doesn't work as well as it should - is the absence of a crucial character. In The Mercenary and Compañeros the female character (respectively Columba and Lola) did not get much screen time, but she was, so to speak, always in control of things. She knew what she wanted and was sure to get it: she wanted the peon and she wanted the revolution, so the boys could fight their macho wars and show off their bravura, as long as the peon married her and the mercenary served the revolution. In Sonny and Jed there’s no such character. Because Corbucci's 'strong female character' has been brought to the foreground, she's absent elsewhere; by consequence there's no one to link the narrative to the background, no character to serve as a catalyst for the story to interfere with the context; there’s only sheriff Franciscus (played by an, all in all, surprisingly restrained Savalas), who comes and goes, and increasingly becomes pathetic in the final half hour, after he has been blinded.
This is not an easy film. As a comedy it’s often too crude to be funny, and as a western it’s a bit short on action. There are moments of intense, violent action, but they’re few and far between. Morricone’s unobtrusive, wistful score serves the movie quite well, but I wouldn’t call it particularly memorable. Apparently Milian and George got along very well, and there’s some real chemistry on-screen between the two. Their relationship appears ill-balanced, with a helpless Sonny being mistreated almost constantly by a self-obsessed, foulmouthed Jed, but note that in the final scenes the roles have been reversed: it’s Jed who’s now following Sonny like a dog. Milian did his own lines in ‘Italian’ and they’re a combination of Spanish, Cuban dialect, Roman dialect and some classic Italian too (if you watch the film in Italian be sure to watch it with subtitles in any possible language you understand). Sonny and Jed is far from grade-A Corbucci, but it's still an intriguing film, which seems to announce the melancholic Twilight Spaghettis of the second half of the decade. It also feels a little like a retelling of Fellini’s La Strada in western form; some of the best moments – notably those starring a terrific Laura Betti as a Madame – are indeed of an almost Fellinesque beauty. To be compared to Fellini is not a shame. Not even for a Sergio.
- (1) Marco Giusti, Dizionario del Western all’Italiana
- (2) See for instance: Françcois Giré, Il était une fois le western européen, pag. 443-444, and: Federico di Zigno, Gli Spaghetti Western di Sergio Leone, in: Amarcord, N° 8/9, may/aug 1997 (cited in: Camasio, Se sei vivo, spara!, pag. 41)
Director: Sergio Corbucci - Cast: Tomas Milian, Susan George, Telly Savalas, Laura Betti, Eduardo Fajardo, Rosanna Yanni, Franco Giacobini, Werner Pochat, Herbert Fux, Alvaro de Luna, Dan van Husen - Music: Ennio Morricone