Tony Anthony - A Stranger at Home
Tony Anthony was born as Roger Pettito on the 16th of October 1937, in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He made his first appearances in low-budget independent productions, directed by friend and colleague Saul Swimmer. Anthony then decided to move to Italy, where he appeared in movies made by respectable directors such as Ugo Gregoretti and Lina Wertmüller (Questa Volta parliamo di Uomini, 1965), but always in supporting roles. His chance of a lifetime came when he was asked to be in a Hollywood backed spaghetti western, called A Stranger in Town. One of the film’s producers was Allen Klein, who’d later become the manager of The Beatles.
The first two Stranger movies
Tony Anthony (right) and Marco Guglielmi, in The Stranger Returns
A Stranger in Town (also called A Dollar between the Teeth, a literal translation of the Italian title) apparently was the first spaghetti western with American producers. It didn’t make much of an impact in Italy, but became a surprise hit in the US in the slipstream of Sergio Leone’s Dollar movies with Clint Eastwood. Anthony plays a nameless character, a stranger who rides into a Mexican border town, where he witnesses how a regiment of federales is slaughtered by bandits. The bandits want to lay their hands on a consignment of US gold and need an intermediary for their contacts with the American army. The stranger first collaborates with the bandits, then double-crosses them, subsequently is tortured by them and finally massacres them. This would become the blueprint of the series: betrayal-torture-massacre. The critics didn’t like the movie, and even today it tends to divide the spaghetti western community. Alex Cox calls it entirely derivative and stupid (1), French author Jean-François Giré complains about the slow pace, the poor script and the repetitive score; he also calls Tony’s performance a pale imitation of Eastwood’s hieratic acting style (2). Both have a point (or two). The film is derivative, it is slow, and the score is repetitive. But the film is more about atmosphere than about story, and it uses its limitations to good effect: A Stranger in Town is a poor man’s A Fistful of Dollars, and therefore presents its protagonist as a man who wears a blanket because he can’t even afford a proper poncho. The atmosphere is sleepy, somnolent, but there are sudden outbursts of violence and the low budget is used to create an idea of nihilism and decay, a nightmarish vision of hell on earth. This is as close as the spaghetti western ever got to a minimalist experience. A Stranger in Town is essential viewing.
Thanks to the unexpected success of it, the sequel The Stranger Returns had a bigger budget. It’s a more polished, but at the same time a more outlandish movie, starting with a bizarre scene of the Stranger riding through a desert landscape, protecting himself from the sun with a pink parasol, having conversations with his black horse, called Pussy. The film is based on a story written by Tony himself, which copies virtually all story elements of the first movie, respecting the above mentioned triptych of betrayal, torture and massacre. At the same time it adds some pretty hokey details to it, such as a stagecoach made of gold the bandits are after. The film is longer on plot but shorter on atmosphere. It has more crackpot ideas than the first movie, yet it seems more traditional in its approach to traditional genre elements. The highlight is a hilarious scene involving Raf Baldassare, a chicken and a four-barreled gun. It’s rather tasteless, but absolutely brilliant, and I won’t spoil it by saying more about it. You have to experience it for yourself.
The other two Stranger movies
The first two movies had been offbeat genre outings, but were still firmly rooted within the spaghetti western genre: they were set in the West (at least some kind of West), and featured a western hero (at least some kind of hero). Tony Anthony’s Stranger is a clumsier, more vulnerable, and less self-assured version of No Name. Instead of chewing on cigar stumps, the Stranger rolls cigarettes without ever smoking them. If Giuliano Gemma’s Ringo was No Name’s more sophisticated brother, The Stranger was his bastard brother, the brother who's even a stranger at home, and therefore the one most likely to close the door behind him and find his luck elsewhere. The second pair of Stranger movies, would indeed bring the character to different shores, trying to find new ways of expression for the now dried-up genre while exploring its boundaries.
In The Silent Stranger the spaghetti western is brought back home to its Kurosawa roots, as Stanton has put it on the film’s page. Apart from the opening scene, set in Klondike, it is entirely set in Japan. The Stranger gets in possession of a scroll when he shoots a few bandits who try to rob a young Japanese man. He is told, by the Japanese, that the owner of the scroll will pay a reward of $ 20.000 for its return. Arrived in Japan, the Stranger once again has to become a so-called servant of two masters (3), when two warlords, fighting over a small village, claim the scroll is their rightful property. Made in ’69, the film is considered to be the first East-meets-West crossover, predating Red Sun by two years. But due to a dispute between producer Allen Klein and MGM, the film stayed on the shelf for several years, and was only released in 1974, when the cross-over subgenre was firmly established. It was also cut by some twenty minutes, which – according to Anthony – ruined the movie. The storytelling is jerky and the action scenes feel a little rushed. Still Tony thinks it was potentially the most interesting project he was ever involved in, so there’s still hope that one day he’ll come up with an uncut version …
The fourth and final Stranger movie, Get Mean, stresses the formula (and our imagination) even further. Some don’t even consider it to be part of the series. It’s not clear if it can be called a western at all, since it’s not set in some kind of West, but some kind of Spain. In the opening scene, a horse runnimg wild brings the Stranger to a ghost town, where he’s asked to escort a princess to Spain. On the Iberian peninsula he’s again confronted with two warring factions, this time Barbarians and Moors. I beg your pardon? The Moors occupied large parts of Spain (called Al-Andaluz by them) for several ages, but were chased in the fifteenth century (The Fall of Granada and the start of the catholic Reconquista), in the same year Columbus discovered the American continent, 1492. And who are those barbarians? The inhabitants of the peninsula were initially called barbarians or vandals by the Arabs (some linguists think Al-Andaluz refers to Vandalous, the Arab name for the Vandals) , but the barbarians in Get Mean look more like Vikings. The content of the film is as bonkers as its historical background. There are some Shakespearian references, and at a certain point I had the feeling they tried to parody Shakespeare’s negligence towards historic accuracy. You never know, but the Bard gave his characters better lines than the mess they’re saddled with here. The film never manages to surmount its ludicrous premise; it is occasionally funny, but mainly during the more serious stretches; as soon as they try to play it for laughs, it becomes silly, or even downright ridiculous. Nice detail: the film also stars Tony’s cousin, David Dryer, as a back-stabbing homosexual.
Zato Ichi in the West
Tony Anthony in Blindman
Get Mean was made in 1976, seven years after the third Stranger movie. It was also the first Stranger movie that was not directed by Luigi Vanzi, who was replaced by Ferdinando Baldi. In-between Tony Anthony had made another western with Baldi, one without the Stranger character, that is now considered by many to be his best film, Blindman. The film was co-produced by both Allen Klein, who had by then become the manager of the Beatles, and Saul Swimmer, who had directed several of their music videos and concert films, among them the legendary documentary/concert movie Concert for Bangladesh, about the event organized by Beatle George Harrison, and featuring, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan. Because of Klein’s and Swimmer’s involvement, Ringo Starr accepted a supporting role in the movie, as one of the Mexican (!) baddies. The mere presence of the Beatle gave the film some notoriety, and brought it to the attention of an audience that otherwise would never have eyes for it. Although set in the West the film is as outlandish as the second pair of Stranger movies. Tony Anthony plays a blind gunslinger hired to escort fifty mail-order brides to mine-workers in Texas. Of course the brides are stolen and the triptych unfolded. The character of the blind gunslinger was based on the Japanese Zato Ichi series about a blind samurai. Blindman is probably Anthony’s richest movie, bringing elements from pop art and European trash cinema into the spaghetti western. But it also elaborates on some of the exploitative and misogynist tendencies that had always been a part of the genre, and the Stranger movies in particular. The first one had a SM dominatrix, killed in gruesome fashion by the Stranger, the second a Mexican woman who was stripped by one of the villains with his gun. The violence towards women in Blindman is of a particularly nasty kind, especially in a scene in which the brides are chased through a desert landscape and many of them are shot.
The West in 3-D
Ringo Starr would produce Anthony’s next movie, directed by Saul Swimmer, Come Together, a movie, filmed in pseudo documentary style, about a stuntman working in the spaghetti western industry. In 1981, when nobody in the entire world but for the Stranger thought of spaghetti westerns, Tony Anthony returned to the genre that brought him global fame with the film Comin' at Ya! The film would have been a rather straightforward affair – and hardly anybody would have noticed it – if it had not been shot in 3-D. The camera system used was the Marks 3-Depix StereoSpace Converter (although posters spoke of SuperVision or WonderVision); Tony Anthony himself designed a projection lens which was cheaper than the regular 3-D lenses (4). Although it’s rarely cited as an inspiration for Tarantino, it’s a typical shotgun wedding story in the line of Kill Bill. It also picks up some ideas from Blindman, such as misogynist villains using women rather than cattle to make a profit. As a spaghetti western it occasionally delivers, but the near-constant use of 3-D effects is really trying. In late 2009 it was announced that the movie had been converted into digital 3-D as part of a rerelease, both in selected theatres and on DVD.
After the Gold Rush
Comin’ at ya! was surprisingly successful and even launched a short-lived (but intense) 3-D craze in the early eighties. Tony Anthony himself would star in another 3-D movie, the Indiana Jones rip-off, Treasure of the Four Crowns, a co-production shot in the Philippines, directed by one of his regulars, Ferdinando Baldi. He even planned a third 3-D production, allegedly a science fiction movie, but it never came off the ground. His glory days were over, but he would occasionally produce movies, such as the infamous Wild Orchid, an erotic soft-core movie directed by Zalman King, featuring Jacqueline Bisset and Mickey Rourke in (top-billed) supporting roles. In 1998 he produced a made for TV eurowestern Dollar for the Dead, a sort of homage to the spaghetti western starring Emilio Estevez.
Although Tony Anthony played in six spaghetti westerns his name is less identified with the genre than those of his fellow Americans Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef, probably because he did very little outside the genre. While being a Stranger at home, he only felt at home as the Stranger. Both the first Stranger movie and Blindman are genre classics, essential viewing to scholars and buffs. The Stranger Returns is a very decent spaghetti western, and even if the two other movies in the series are less convincing, they brought at least a few crackpot ideas into the genre. After all, every genre needs its own dropouts. And the least you can say about Comin’ at ya! is that it added a new dimension to the genre …
- (1) Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die, pag. 131
- (2) Jean-François Giré, Il était une fois le western européen, pag. 132-133
- (3) Christopher Frayling, Spaghettis and Society, in: Spaghetti Westerns, Cowboys and Europeans, from Karl may to Sergio Leone, pag. 39-67 – Frayling distinguishes several ‘Italian plots’, the ‘servant of two masters plot’ is different from its American counterparts featuring a ‘lone hero’ in the sense that the stress is rather on interests than values, and that the hero never commits himself to any ‘cause’.
- (4) Comin’at Ya! Wikipedia film page