The Silent Stranger – The Full Story
by Tomas Knapko
All information and citations regarding the pre-production, production and post-production of the movie are excerpts of Tony Antony´s talking about The Silent Stranger in an interview aired by Zombie Popcorn Radio (interview by Jason Bayless) (1)
It´s interesting to keep track of the gradual development of the Stranger tetralogy, from the more serious approach of A Stranger in Town (1966) to the comical fantasy of Get Mean (1975). The Silent Stranger is a balanced blend, in which the best of all worlds converge.
Director Luigi Vanzi and American actor Tony Anthony made two Stranger movies in 1967. They fully understood what sort of character the Stranger really was, what made him so special, what his strengths and weaknesses were, and even what kind of music his adventures needed. In 1968 they threw their western hero into the blades of zinging katanas from the East, being the first filmmakers within the spaghetti western genre to use this East meets West combination. But, as most fans know, the film was only released seven years later. What happened? Let´s take a look into the history of the movie - how did the idea of this movie come to existence and what followed?
After the successful release in American theaters of A Stranger in Town, and even before the release of The Stranger Returns (1967), MGM approached Tony Anthony and Luigi Vanzi and offered them the opportunity to make a third movie. At that time, both men were in Jamaica, preparing things for their next movie. Tony was informed that Allen Klein was searching for him. A phone call informed him about MGM´s desire to make a third Stranger movie and he was asked if he had some ideas. He had. Anthony had once visited Luciana Paluzzi on the sets in Japan (she was with him in Jamaica too), where she was shooting a movie. While hanging around and watching the production of samurai movies, Tony got the idea of an action movie featuring both cowboys and samurais. Back in Jamaica, Klein sent a helicopter to take them to Kingston (Jamaica´s capital). Anthony explained his ideas to director Vanzi, and during the flight to New York he started working on the story.
# The Genesis
Allen Klein and Bob O’Brien (president of MGM in the 60’s) wanted to shoot another Stranger movie along the lines of the Dollar Trilogy. Tony Anthony told the two men plus (international film distribution executive) Maurice ‘Red’ Silverstein about his ideas for a movie about cowboys in Japan. Within ten minutes, it was decided that MGM would finance the movie. Vanzi and Anthony engaged two writers from Italy (Vincenzo Cerami and Giancarlo Ferrando) and watched at least fifteen samurai movies with them. According to Anthony, Vanzi was phantastic: “He was incredible, he was making ideas from everything, you know. We came up with the first draft of the script within twenty days in a New York writing in a hotel there…” After the work on the script, the crew was flown to Japan.
The production of the movie was unfortunately beset by incessant typhoons - Tony mentions thirteen typhoons, constantly destroying sets. In his own words: “Toughest picture of my career...It was a nightmare.“ And yet another problem emerged - on another continent. As the production of the film was nearing its completion, management conflicts arose within MGM circles - Klein was defending Bob O´Brien, who was facing people trying to take over the studio. Things didn´t look good …
This is what Tony Anthony said about it himself: “ (...) I got back to New York with The Silent Stranger, we screened the picture, everybody loved it and at the same time in the background there was a tremendous fight going on for the power of the MGM. ... New management got control of the stock, Bob O´Brien was on his way out, Klein ended up in lawsuits with everybody, because they said hands off of Allen Klein, because Allen Klein was supporting Bob O´Brien, so there you are, Tony Antony and the Stranger caught in the middle of a power struggle with the studio. And that´s why The Silent Stranger was shelved for seven years. And then people tried to buy it and another regime came in, and they re-edited it and ruined the picture, took out all the humor, made me come to Hollywood and put that stupid narration over, which was just awful - and that picture was completely wasted. That finished the relationship with MGM. So, I was a victim of power play...“
# The Movie
Is The Silent Stranger really a crippled picture?
The beginning of The Silent Stranger is probably the weakest part of it. The opening scene is set on the snowy slopes of the amazing Klondike area, but the action is soon transferred to the interiors of the Klondike shacks. The indoor scene which shows how three guys are hanged is ridiculous - thankfully Tony´s charm is already here. The Stranger obtains a mysterious scroll with the kind of information that makes every spaghetti western hero move in very long distances. The Stranger moves very quickly to Japan - quickly in terms of the story sequencing. From the journey from Klondike to Japanese harbor, we see one static picture. With Anthony´s controversial narration! But, our hero is in Japan and adventure can begin.
After a funny harbor landing (or disembarkation), the Stranger remains true to his usual behavior (or the usual behavior of all strangers in general) of slowly exploring unknown territory, in this case the narrow streets and nooks of a Japanese village. He inevitably encounters some problems, in the first place a not very friendly samurai, subsequently a couple of warring factions of samurais, including one malicious midget and Lloyd Battista. Don’t expect any of the minimalistic look of the previous movies - this one is big with exceptional production design. ‘Warring factions’ are not represented by a handful of warriors brandishing a few katanas. This time around we have real armies of samurai, not only armed with swords and spears, but even with a mobile machine gun (its mobility depends on how many Japanese servants Battista has in a moment). The Stranger is pushed into a maelstrom of events and uncovers reasons of omnipresent hatred and violence - he is of course trying to exploit the dangerous situation and soon finds out it´s a cut-and-thrust game, especially when it comes down to the family matters of the various Japanese clans. Although the second third of the story is mostly about machinations and characters trying to outsmart each other, the scenes are handled with imagination and infused with cleverly delivered jokes.
What is absolutely wonderful about this picture is the setting. Whether we are with the Stranger in the middle of lifeless village, on the rooftops of Japanese houses, or in magnificent Japanese countryside, every scene is rare, believable and uncommon for a western. Be prepared for a story about a gunslinger in Japan and not about a gunslinger on sets representing Japan.
The movie has fine cinematography by Mario Capriotti (according to IMDB the original aspect ratio is 1,85:1) who worked on early Italian post-Leone westerns like Gunmen of Rio Grande (1964), The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) and Johnny Yuma (1966). Some scenes are handled with special camera touch increasing the hero´s indifferent charisma - for instance, when the Stranger dispassionately eats an apple with sun behind his back, and a swarm of yelling samurais around him. Great stuff. But these scenes would be less effective without the ‘help’ of decent music. Stelvio Cipriani’s playful score is supportive from first shots of the hero running downhill in Klondike. It’s maybe closer to Morricone than his score for The Stranger Returns, but fitting the action and mood of the movie very well. His use of Slovak folk instrument called drumbla in combination with guitar is interesting.
Atmosphere and mood are essential elements of the movie and I wonder how those typhoons mentioned in the interview have influenced the finished product. Intended or not, the rainy weather and night scenes (including the finale) perfectly represent a hostile environment, creating sort of a unintentional twilight western, years before the genre entered its twilight stage. Sort of, because it never falls into melancholic contemplation about being stranded in a troublesome place - the movie has its serious moments, but is clearly marked by deliberate pellet shots of comic book approach, lightweight entertainment and a few cruel jokes.
As a fan of western movie genre, I have always been interested in the premise of a western hero being confronted with an alien environment, in which rules of the game are different, and a western hero cannot apply his skills and experiences to full advantage. The Stranger fails in confrontation with malevolent powers of Japan and he fails more than once. We see him in utmost degradation, lying in a deep dirty splash, a covered night sky over his head, raindrops covering his face, whining that he wants to go home. It is a humorous scene, but at the same time you feel sorry for him - he is not only humiliated by his enemies, his terrible situation is a result of the outlandish setting and the distance which separates him from America. You wish he finally pull round and rise. And he will, in a grandiose way.
Director Vanzi had already expressed his interest in bizarre weaponry in the previous movies. In The Silent Stranger, the hero is deprived of one of his magical tool, the revolver. Since the Stranger shows no interest in learning how to use a sword, he must improvise. He does so, with a new-found gun, a bulky and heavy muzzle-loading cannon (according to movie, it takes ten seconds to load it). After he has sawn off the barrel, it may help him to turn Kosaka village into hell. The scene with a celebration of a temporarily friendly family, with everyone indulging in a dancing and hard drinking, and with the Stranger preparing for a battle with words: “They´re having a big party with my money,“ is one of those atmospheric moments heralding a storm.
Luigi Vanzi unleashes a grand finale which is, quality wise, on a level with its predecessors, but offers some battlefield turmoil as a plus. The Stranger´s roaring cannon throws poor samurais through thin collapsing walls after they experienced the impact of heavy projectiles. Well-composed action scenes are accompanied by swirling clouds of ignited powder charge, expelled from a gun barrel. Not many samurais will survive the night - but they are not hero´s only antagonists.
Lloyd Battista turns in a superb, charismatic performance as The American, a smirk almost permanently present below his vulpine eyes. There’s some great chemistry between the two Americans, and you almost wish they would become partners and turn the thing into a buddy movie. But no such thing will happen, this is a one man show and this man, Tony Anthony, is doing a great job again. Whether he’s loading his weapon in front of a fire-eating scoundrel or is chatting with his deadly foe, he is always spontaneously cool. Anthony and Battista would re-unite in the series final entry, called Get Mean, as well as in the independent Blindman. In both movies they repeat their roles of arch adversaries. The Japanese actors (Kin Omae, Kanji Ohara, Yoshio Nukano) are perfect as the members of the quarreling families and bring passion and taciturnity (and also little of drunkenness) in contrast to Stranger´s stoic manners. (Although one could argue that these Japanese characters are one-dimensional).
The final moments of the film reflect the true spirit of the series. After a cleverly conceived duel between Tony´s character and the head of the Japanese gang, the Stranger finds out some unpleasant news about the scroll and the fortune. Nevertheless, the end with the hero departing on horseback from this godforsaken place (and Japanese princess giving him a funny and sincere farewell), almost made me jump for joy, not only because the Stranger made his way back home, but also by means of satisfaction over the whole movie. With the exception of the initial indoor scenes, I could only find fault with one scene, the one with the Stranger fighting three women - it´s not that bad, but it simply goes on too long.
With this truncated version looking so good, I wonder how the uncut version would look like. If The Silent Stranger had been released in 1968, it would surely have equaled the success of the two previous movies and be regarded as a classic today, up there with the very best.
(1) The Interview: http://zombie-popcorn.com/?p=6685
--By Tomas Knapko
Thanks to Scherpschutter for some assistance