Winter & Whiskey: Alfonso Brescia's La spacconata (1975)
Tone is everything in cinema. It establishes an all-important mood and serves as emotional indicator, riding tandem with the more cerebral, rational elements of narrative structure and story. Tone speaks to the filmmaker’s intent via conjured feeling and atmosphere. Such resonance is critical to the success and/or enjoyment of any film, no matter what genre. Tone should, ideally, be trusted – serve as binding contract between viewer and film, consistent in both support and reflection of the story at hand. This is especially true of the European western, where coherence, basic film grammar and – it must be said – quality were often sacrificed in favour of attitude and ruthless efficiency. Leone, for example, maintained a dependably ironic tone throughout his lauded Dollars trilogy, the three films linked by a patented climate of sardonic detachment (inadvertently establishing the blueprint for the Spaghetti Western phenomena in the process). Corbucci, on the other hand, at least in his best Italian westerns, opted for a darker, more sombre signature, peaking with a near-perfect air of anguish and heartbreak in Il Grande Silenzio (1967). That film remains, perhaps, the finest example – at least within our own beloved wheelhouse – of a master filmmaker in total and utter command of projected ambience; Silenzio remains a haunting, deeply affecting picture thanks to its beautifully sustained atmosphere of tragic gloom.
Alas, not all films or filmmakers are as successful at nailing tone. Often, defining a determined aura can be a delicate balancing act; blending genre – or at least the amalgamation of generic elements – can often lead to a debilitating imbalance, maybe even the death of a film. One need only look at the decline of the Spaghetti Western itself to see a frustrating – and wholly unwelcome – asymmetry take hold in the form of many a wretched ‘comedy’ western; that unfortunate tonal trend not only ruined many an individual film, but managed to destabilize the entre genre, running the Euro-western into the ground before killing it outright.
And then there is Alfonso Brescia’s La Spacconata / White Fang and the Gold Diggers (1975), a film so tonally deaf that it transcends its dizzying air of confusion and emerges as something akin to cinematic schizophrenia – the filmic equivalent of bipolar disorder. Forget the film critics of the period – Brescia’s film should have been screened instead before a psychiatric committee, who would have undoubtedly diagnosed the film with multiple personality disorder. For full disclosure, I have nothing but unconditional love for La Spacconata, despite its myriad problems, but after each successive rewatch, several nagging questions (re)emerge: Who is this film for? What demographic was Brescia’s intended contemporary audience? After multiple viewings, there remain no easy answers. This is a film about a young boy and his dog (White Fang, or Whiskey, as the pooch is referred to in the English dub, is definitely not a wolf – it looks more like a common German Shepherd), a synopsis seemingly tailor-made for family viewing. Or it would be, had Brescia not crammed his film with such atrocities as gang rape, murder, stillbirth, and endless scenes of animal-on-animal cruelty (and even more reprehensible, human-on-animal abuse). Indeed, the film vacillates wildly throughout the course of its running time between moments of genuine pathos – all pitched against a backdrop of evocative, wintry landscapes – to sequences of such bewildering, repugnant savagery (not to mention skits of facile comedy) that the viewer is left in a state of absonant whiplash. As jarring as this tonal cocktail is, though, it wasn’t totally without precedent.
The popularity of the spaghetti western boom led to many off-shoots and variations on the established framework: the Zapata westerns, some notable Gothic-infused entries, the afore-mentioned comedy-westerns, the kung fu hybrids and even the occasional musical variant. One of said tributaries ran North, however, into colder climates, following the financial success of Lucio Fulci’s Zanna Bianca / White Fang. Based on the Jack London classic, this 1973 release starred a roster of SW notables, including Franco Nero, Fernando Rey, Raimund Harmstorf, John Steiner, Daniel Martin and Rick Battaglia. A surprising hit at the box office, it immediately spawned a slew of cash-in and imitators, as per the mimetic industry at that time. Ostensibly a children’s film, albeit one shot through the harsh, misanthropic filter now-synonymous with Fulci, Zanna Bianca remains a difficult film to classify (and an even harder film to like), containing much gruelling violence and unfortunate animal cruelty (the 1974 sequel, Il Ritorno di Zanna Bianca, would double-down on such ugly, recurrent elements). Revenue superseding good taste, however, ensured that a run of similarly wolf-themed, snowbound adventures followed in the wake of Fulci’s sizable hit. (This sub-genre can be broken down further to include a short-lived crest of Canadian Mountie spaghetti westerns, the best of which might be Aristide Massaccesi’s Giubbe Rosse/Red Coat, a rock-solid adventure from 1975 starring Fabio Testi, Claudio Undari and Bruno Corazzari.) This White Fang-esque sub-genre should not be confused – or lumped in with – the snow spaghetti western legitimate, however. The likes of Silenzio, Quanto costa morire / A Taste of Death (1968), Condenados a vivir / Cut-Throats Nine (1972), El Más fabuloso golpe del Far-West / Nevada (1971) et al should all be classified as authentic winter-set spaghettis. Zanna Blanca and its kin, including La Spacconata, Il Richiamo del lupo / The Great Adventure (1971) and Il Tre del Colorado / Hudson River Massacre (1965), however, feel more indebted to Yukon or Canadian-set adventure films: malformed offspring of Jack London and the incorruptible Mounties who upheld law and order throughout the Great White North. (With regard to a certain debate, I am of the opinion that all of these films are spaghetti westerns).
The opening credits promise much. The music by Alessandro Alessandroni is mournful, lyrical stuff; it supplements the fine cinematography of DoP Silvio Fraschetti beautifully. The film wastes no time in introducing us to our hero, Sandy Shaw. Shaw is well-played by Robert Woods. The term “hero” is applicable here, which can’t often be said for most spaghetti protagonists (or, if appropriate, is normally – and deservedly – pre-fixed with an emphatic anti). Revenge and money were the two most common driving factors behind most SW leads, the genre erring on the cynical side compared to its more principled American antecedents. But not so here. Shaw is a good man who, along with his son, Rick, is looking to start his life anew after inheriting a property called Eagle’s Nest. Shaw is not your typically stoic Euro-western cowboy. Picking his son up after their sled violently topples during the opening credits, Shaw is open about his fears and doubt. ‘I’m sorry, Rick,’ he says. ‘This is a harsh land, and I’m not sure I did the right thing bringing a boy here to raise.’ This is good writing with regard to establishing character. The widowed Shaw has brought his young son out North, in the midst of an oppressive and unforgiving winter, in the hopes of striking gold on his land and thus providing a better life for both. It’s a huge, perilous gamble, and our hero (there’s that word again) is torn as to the paternal worth of his decision. Said move could be interpreted as either foolish or selfish, but Woods elicits an immediate empathy in his wide-eyed playing. The viewer has a rare human being to root for in a European western, as opposed to a stock cliché. Travelling with father and son is the aforementioned Whiskey, the loyal family mutt. Whiskey is well-used: Brescia never makes the dog the focal point of his film, but nor does he cast the animal adrift in terms of appearance. Whiskey remains a constant present throughout the film, never integral to the plot but featured enough to warrant the picture’s inclusion in the White Fang sub-genre.
When Shaw and Rick arrive at their shack, they find it already occupied. The squatter is a jovial, overweight drunk called Dollar (played by Pedro Sanchez a.k.a. Ignazio Spalla). In his book, 10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox refers to a certain strand of subsidiary characters exclusive to the Italian western as ‘cute/funny’ and lambasts them as inconsequential irritants. Dollar certainly fits that bill. The friendly vagrant instantly endears himself to the Shaw family, mostly by talking up his love of alcohol, bragging about his culinary skills and exchanging witty bon mots with his pet parrot (who, beyond the bird’s introduction, is never referred to again, even when the shack is set alight later in the film). This introductory stuff is played fairly light, but it works. The actors are charismatic, the English dubbing is solid and even the kid isn’t the usual cinematic equivalent of having hot grit thrown into your eyes.
As the plot kicks in, the film reveals that the local town is run by the corrupt Barney Taft. Taft is played by the great Robert Hundar / Claudio Hundari, the actor back in the snow following his superb work in Cut-Throats Nine. Like Piero Lulli, Hundar was equally adept at playing both villain (mostly) and hero (occasionally). In one hilarious scene, the viewer is treated to just how deep-rooted and far-reaching Taft’s tendrils are around town: when Shaw goes to buy a pickaxe in order to begin his gold-mining operation, the store clerk tells him that the set price is $200. Shaw balks at the cost but is told that Taft himself fixes all prices. This seems like poor business acumen on Taft’s part; he’s controlling (read: stealing) all prospective gold claims within the area but seems to be pricing the townsfolk out of striking said fortunes. Surely the smart thing to do would be to practically give the tools away, ensuring a swift return when gold is eventually found? Regardless, Taft isn’t happy about the new owners at Eagle’s Nest. Indeed, Dollar reveals to Shaw that all previous tenants/owners at Eagles Nest have met a sticky end at the hands of Taft and his men. Shaw, of course, isn’t discouraged (thankfully, he never appears to give any real thought to his son’s safety in this matter).
It's here that the film reveals its hand (or a hand) far too soon. The camera follows Dollar as he slopes away from the shack and enters a cave located nearby. Inside, the viewer sees that said cave is actually a mine, and that the glistening walls are lined with solid gold. Helping himself to a nugget – Dollar isn’t greedy, just wants to cover the cost of a bottle or two in the local saloon – he then makes his way back into town, only to be intercepted by Rick and Whiskey. Whilst Rick wants to tell his father about the gold, Dollar convinces the boy that such an easy solution would rob the poverty-stricken widower of all purpose. This is a ridiculous juncture in the plotting, instantly robbing the film of any suspense as to whether or not Shaw will prosper or succeed in his endeavours. Luckily for the viewer, Brescia doesn’t give a damn about traditional narrative storytelling. Instead, he ensures his film remains wilfully obtuse, often defiantly so, the pic exhibiting an almost abstract grandeur.
Alfonso Brescia was one of the great journeymen filmmakers working in the industry during the golden age of Italian genre cinema. Like many of his contemporaries, Brescia began his career as a 2nd unit assistant director in the late 1950s before making his directorial debut in 1964 with the rock-solid peplum La rivolta dei pretoriani/ Revolt of the Praetorians, starring Richard Harrison. Brescia’s first western proper came the following year: La Colt è la mia legge/ My Colt is the Law is a very good Spanish western of the romantic variety. It stars Ángel del Pozo and Livio Lorenzon. From there, Brescia ran the gamut of whatever filoni was then-in vogue, including sci-fi, Gialli, Poliziotteschi, horror and even the odd Conan knock-off. Brescia was a solid craftsman, and whilst none of his work achieved classic status, his films were never less than well-made and enjoyable. Quality aside, it is claimed that Brescia’s films never lost money, save his final film, the comedy Club Vacanze (1995), which failed to find a domestic distributor. He was, therefore, a safe bet for profit-hungry producers. His finest work likely remains the late-day series of Neapolitan-set crime films he made with then-popular singer/actor Mario Merola. Sadly, Brescia’s name is now most commonly associated with 1980’s La bestia nello spazio/ Beast in Space, the gonzo sex-in-space romp which suffered the indignity of having hardcore penetration sequences spliced into the film. That notoriety aside, Brescia should be both remembered and celebrated by fans of genre cinema. Too-often dismissed as mere director-for-hire, Brescia could occasionally surprise, as with his excellent – albeit underseen – 1968 spaghetti western Carogne si nasce/Lynching. (That film was recently released on DVD in Germany from True Grit Entertainment, in a limited run of 500 individually numbered units per two different covers. It’s well-worth tracking down/owning/seeing.) La Spacconata isn’t in that same league, but the film occasionally hints at a sombre greatness it can’t quite sustain. Much of that feels like self-sabotage on the part of Brescia himself, however, as if the director was determined to ruin his own film with random moments of misjudged, base immaturity. Much has been written and surmised over the years regarding the tonal discrepancies within Tonino Vallerii’s near-wonder Il Mio nome è Nessuno/My Name is Nobody (1973). Having considered much evidence and authoritative conjecture on that subject, I’m of the opinion that Leone may well have purposefully ruined Valleri’s film, fearful it might have eclipsed his own masterworks in terms of final word elegy. But La Spacconata ain’t Nobody, and I doubt anybody forced their artistic control on Brescia’s film, so the blame must sit squarely on the director’s shoulders. And there is much here to be blamed for.
La Spacconata contains two of the most ridiculously unconvincing – and painfully unfunny – barroom brawls in the genre. Light-hearted, anachronistic fistfights that flirt with a shoe-horned redundancy are not uncommon in the world of the SW, especially toward the back end of the boom. But the two dust-ups on display here are so forced, heightened and ill-conceived that they surpass an unwelcome inclusion and achieve a certain level of embarrassment. In the first, Dollar fights off a group of townsmen who have the temerity to throw a bottle of his beloved whiskey to the floor. What follows must be seen to be (dis)believed – the term ‘fight’ barely applicable. Amongst other moves, Dollar incongruously karate chops the patrons, distracts them by waving his hat whilst making a bleating sound (Spalla ain’t no Michael Winslow), and even crushes one adversary between his gut and another man’s equally ample stomach. This is all broad, tedious stuff, overplayed to the point of parody, the scene going on (and on) far too long. Mercifully, Shaw turns up to help his freeloading lodger out, and throws a few decent punches, grounding the fight during its dying moments. Woods was always a convincing physical performer – as proficient with his fists as he was in the saddle. ‘A ring-a-ring-o-roses,’ sings Dollar, for no discernible reason, punctuating the scene. As pathetic as this initial brawl is, however, it’s a masterpiece of fight choreography and conviction compared to the one later in the film.
In the second big fight, Dollar again engages in mass warfare with the patrons of the saloon. What follows might be the worst fight in any spaghetti western. After kicking one of his opponents in the shin, forcing the man to hop around in a state of pained delirium, said offensive move then catches on like wildfire, affecting everybody in the bar like some kind of violent contagion, until some fifty or sixty clueless extras are hopping up and down, howling in forced agony. (Poor Nello Pazzafini features heavily in this scene, and one can only feel sorry for this great character actor, reduced to cameo status in a worthless capacity.) So contrived is this sequence, so utterly disingenuous and poorly staged, that the viewer might question Brescia’s sanity, let alone his commitment to telling a coherent story. It’s a wretched, inept set piece – no merit or value whatsoever. But, again, such is Brescia’s film. For every solid sequence or moment of conviction, the film seems equally intent on embarrassing itself. This is a shame, as the promise is clearly there – the odd glimpse of sincerity and genuine craft perceptible amidst all the lowbrow interference.
And so, the film stomps along in heavy boots, subtility and nuance dirty words, with Shaw taking on Taft and his men in classic western style. It’s familiar material, but Brescia repeatedly deviates from good taste, ensuring the film remains compulsively watchable for all the wrong reasons. The nadir of the film might be when Shaw’s proxy bride, Connie, arrives in town, and is hoodwinked into believing that one of Taft’s men is Shaw (the two haven’t laid eyes on each other since childhood, but Shaw feel Rick needs a maternal figure). Not only does this imposter force himself on her in bed, but the poor girl is then passed around the rest of Taft’s goons and gang-raped (off-screen, mercifully). Brescia then continues his assault – on both Connie and viewer – by having her impregnated for her troubles. Then, just when you think the film can’t wallow in any more filth, Connie loses the child via miscarriage. What were Brescia and his screenwriters, Piero Regnoli and Giuseppe Maggi, thinking? How did they confuse heavy drama with such clumsy, repellent nihilism? The spaghetti western was never known for anything approaching an illuminating feminism, true, but rarely did it sink to such ugly, misogynistic depths as in these wretched scenes. They derail the film entirely – tantamount to somebody having spliced snuff footage into a 1930s Rin Tin Tin movie. The immediate fallout hardly fares any better, with Shaw finding out about said atrocity when a barroom of drunken louts emasculates him via song, inferring that his new love is a whore. ‘Now I don’t want her,’ Shaw tells the sheriff (Andrea Fantasia) in response, our supposed hero a paragon of empathy. La Spacconata is a cold, callous film in both milieu and feeling, with little regard for its characters beyond action and reaction, victim or attacker.
Then there’s the animal violence, rightly a source of much debate nowadays. At one point, Shaw has Whiskey take part in a vicious dogfight for money. This is our hero? Brescia films the dogs in real time, the scene playing out in ugly, protracted fashion until the mauled animals part, bloodied and exhausted. It’s not pretty, but then nothing in La Spacconata is. (Such animal violence is likely the reason why this clutch of White Fang-esque films have never enjoyed a legitimate media release in the UK, where such scenes of animal cruelty are still, to this day, refused a certificate by the BBFC.) All of this on-screen, real-world animal baiting smacks of hypocrisy: Brescia seems as guilty of exploiting his animal performers as Taft does the miners and townsfolk, leaving the viewer with a bad taste in their mouth.
Despite all these unpleasant detours (or maybe because of them?), the film remains a fascinating watch. La Spacconata is a low-budget film. The paucity of funds gives the film an air of authenticity, however. The town setting feels suitably ramshackle and decrepit, despite the promise of gold and wealth. Stock footage occasionally intrudes, said inserts ill-matched against the feature. At one point late in the film, Shaw and Rick ‘watch’ as a large herd of reindeer migrate en masse. It’s a beautiful sight, but one clearly culled from a years-old wildlife documentary, the deteriorated film stock pocked with countless scratches and marks. Unable to resist an opportunity for casual cruelty, Brescia includes further footage of the herd being attacked by wolves. Shaw and Rick run from the lupine threat, although the film doesn’t have the means to show the pursuing threat. (The print is in pretty rough shape throughout – at one point during the opening, the film stock is so riddled with white static that I wasn’t sure as to whether it was actual print damage, or if somebody had hand-drawn snow onto the film in order to heighten the wintry atmosphere. Turns out it’s the former.)
In the end, justice prevails. There’s a shootout, a romantic reconciliation and Dollar continues to live on in a blissful alcoholic stupor. No further exploration here is warranted. The only note of interest regarding resolve is when the Captain of the Royal Mounted Canadian Police thanks Shaw for exposing/ending the political corruption in town. What? Was Rick working undercover for the Canadian government from the outset? Or are the Mountie’s merely thanking him for doing their job? Again, multiple viewings have offered no clear or satisfactory explanation. This revelation is as stupid and as pointless as when used in the head-scratching coda of Carlo Lizzani’s otherwise brilliant Un Fiume di dollari / The Hills Run Red (1966). It’s hard to know whether such information is merely throwaway dialogue on the English dub track, or it originated in the script. The opening credits state La Spacconata is based on a novel, Pioneers and Gold-Seekers by one Edgar B. Cooper, but this is likely bullshit. No such source novel seems to have ever been published, at least none that can be found. As most reviews allude to, La Spacconata was likely shot simultaneously with Brescia’s Zanna Bianca e il cacciatore solitano (1975). Both films share the same cast, same crew, same locations; both were produced by Pleiade Films, an outfit seemingly formed for these films only. Of the two, I prefer La Spacconata’s gonzo sensibility.
Despite the film’s myriad flaws and debilitating signs of cost-cutting, La Spacconata remains a highly watchable film, the jarring tonal imbalance no doubt contributing to the films peculiar appeal. As with most genre cinema, the join-the-dots plotting often proved interchangeable; it was the execution which mattered, and nobody could accuse La Spacconata of being bland or merely average. Tasteless? Yes. Inconsistent? Certainly. But boring it certainly isn’t. On a personal note, I first experienced La Spacconata when it was broadcast on the (now-defunct) UK cable channel Movies4Men some fifteen years ago. That version was heavily censored, omitting much of the animal cruelty. I enjoyed Brescia’s film enough to immediately track down the import German DVD from Carol Films (the source of this review – acceptable PQ, English dubbing). A legitimate soundtrack release of Alessandroni’s score would be most welcome, too; the legendary composer’s music – featuring the maestro’s patented whistling – supports the more oppressive elements of Brescia’s film and is often effortlessly haunting in its cold lyricism.
Perhaps best viewed as a minor curiosity for completists only, for those less discerning amongst us, or those fans with a penchant for snowbound spaghettis, Brescia’s film retains an unfathomable and dubious charm. If you’ve ever wondered what a Lassie film directed by Lars Von Trier might look like, look no further. La Spacconata might be that that very film.