In the Bleak Midwinter
From The Spaghetti Western Database
Revision as of 15:00, 23 December 2020 by DGBell
A Closer Look at Sergio Merolle’s A Taste of Death (1968)
The spaghetti western is much lauded for both revolutionizing and reinvigorating the moribund classical western film, often via the subversion and reconfiguration of key components: stylistically, aesthetically and – most controversially – in its approach to meta-ethics, much changed during the handover. Time and time again we are reminded of how violent they were; how transgressive and ethically problematic the Euro-westerns were when compared to their American progenitors. How these so-called spaghetti westerns muddied the waters of a hitherto obvious dichotomy, needlessly complicating – eradicating, in some instances – the established divide between good and evil. Those are all valid points, for certain, but what often goes unsaid, or ignored, or – worse – unrecognized is how much more affecting the Euro-westerns were in comparison to their American antecedents. Even now, during an extended period of welcome rediscovery and long-overdue mainstream critical re-evaluation, the SW is still dismissed in some quarters as nothing more than a counterfeit product; that beyond the patented stylistic flourishes or technical bravura, the European western at large remains nothing more than an empty, misanthropic entertainment; a minor cinematic sub-genre built on a body count and a couple of tackily infectious tunes, with nothing of consequence going on under the hood.
I call bullshit.
The 1950s westerns are often marked as a turning point for the American western film, beginning with Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950), after which a raw psychology permeated the films of Bud Boetticher and Anthony Mann, complicating prairie life beyond cattle count and corruption. But a small cohort of spaghetti westerns dared to go even further, dealing in a bruised emotional resonance that had nothing to do with sweeping orchestral scores or an arch romanticism, and everything to do with a dark and inescapable fate. And so, a few spaghetti westerns managed to deliver an emotional gut-punch designed to undercut all that hyper-masculinity without parody or ridicule. In a filone built on overt machismo and based around a uniformly patriarchal society, these films were/are, I think, tantamount to male weepies.
Sergio Merolle’s 1968 French-Italian co-production Quanto costa morire/ A Taste of Death falls comfortably into this small coterie of cowboy melodramas which deliver an unexpected wallop. Maybe it’s season and milieu; many of the films I’m referring to take place in late autumn or in the dead of winter. I have written on snow and spaghettis before in a previous article, but what is it about the winter which brought out a vicious and deeply disturbing pessimism in the European western? Some are obvious: think of the depression-inducing finale to Corbucci’s near-perfect masterwork il Grande Silenzio (1967), or the grim entirety of Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s Condenados a vivir/ Cut-Throats Nine. Others hint at a more subtle and crepuscular air of autumnal melancholy, like Gli specialisti/ The Specialists (Corbucci again, 1969), or Tonino Cervi’s excellent Oggi a me... domani a te!/ Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! (1968). Even Demofilo Fidani’s 1971 entry Per una bara piena di dollari/ Barrel Full of Dollars manages a chilling air of seasonal desperation thanks to its twilight setting.
But dig a little deeper through the snow and things get even darker. Lucio Fulci’s snowbound diptych, Zanna Bianca / White Fang (1973) and Il ritorno di Zanna Bianca/ The Return of White Fang (1974), both free adaptations of the Jack London literary classic, and both ostensibly children’s films (ha!), feature an inordinate amount of brutality, the list of on-screen barbarities including real animal-on-animal violence, abhorrent human-on-animal cruelty, much bloodletting and graphic violence, and even a scene in which the titular dog fights – and kills – a real, living eagle. Ditto the scene in Fulci’s best western, I quattro dell'Apocalisse/ Four of the Apocalypse (1975), in which hero Fabio Testi finds shelter in a heavily snowbound village, only to have his would-be-lover die during childbirth. (This is actually the most optimistic scene in the entire film, believe it or not, but even then, the film manages only a choking sadness. What did you expect from the misanthropic Fulci?) Aristide Massaccesi’s 1975 film Giubbe rosse / Red Coat, again starring Fabio Testi, this time as a hard-bitten Mountie, is fairly standard stuff, albeit set in snowy Canada, but that, too, ends with an affecting, left-field tragedy which feels a little rough for such an enjoyable film. Worst of all – or best, depending on your view – might be Alfonso Brescia’s La spacconata/ White Fang and the Gold Diggers (1975), another alleged children’s film cut from the same cloth as Call of the Wild. In it, Robert Woods and his young son arrive in a small, snowy town in the dead of winter, only to find violent opposition from Robert Hundar and his men. That this so-called family-friendly film includes scenes of horrendous animal violence and a gang-rape as integral plot points beggar’s belief. (I will go on record, however, and say that I have an inexplicable affinity for Brescia’s film.)
A Taste of Violence is not quite as grim or disturbing as those films, but it is a cinematic downer, make no mistake. It also takes full advantage of its season and setting, and thus emerges as one of the great winter westerns. The film opens on a distinctly unpromising note, with an achingly dull campfire sequence; bland, clichéd cowpoke stuff ripped straight from a 1950s B-feature. Just like the director, maestro Francesco De Masi also appears to be taking the utter piss with his equally stale music cue.
Turns out that’s exactly what Merolle and De Masi are doing.
The first scene of his film and neophyte director Merolle is pulling a cinematic rope-a-dope worthy of the KO his film will ultimately deliver. His opening scene is nothing but a lie, a cruel joke played at the expense of the viewer, the pay-off both punchline and gut-punch, albeit one hardcore spaghetti fans are only too happy to receive: The resting cattlemen are obliterated by a group of merciless gunmen, led by the vicious outlaw Scaife. They are murdered in cold blood, via ambush in the dead of night. Flaring pistols pop, not only slaughtering the honest trail folk but effectively killing De Masi’s duplicitous music sting, too. The first shot fired annihilates the score, leaving nothing but diegetic sound and death, two staples of the SW and the first of many impressive technical embellishments. Taste of Death is a mere ninety seconds into its run time yet has already sanctioned two massacres: that of the innocent, hardworking cattlemen and those of the viewer’s expectations. Now, says Merolle, now my film begins proper. And so Scaife and his band of outlaw killers make off with the spoils of their bloodshed: the cattle. Merolle is setting his stall out early, letting intent be known should there be any confusion on the viewer’s part: Taste of Death will be a film of tremendous struggle and hardship: elemental, personal, existential. Climate and location double-down on his threat/promise. Scaife and his men are caught in the immovable grip of a harsh and unforgiving winter, surround by dead foliage, inhospitable terrain, and throttled, melancholic light.
The opening credits play out over their doomed efforts, unfolding to an insanely catchy song, ‘Who is the Man?’, sung by regular spaghetti troubadour Raoul. (We are told that this is a Les Films Corona/Cine Azimut production, although no specific producer is referenced or credited. Whilst I will get to the film’s alleged high-profile producer later in this piece, the absence of such an important credit is baffling, at least for what appears to be a very sincere and credible genre venture. A Taste of Violence is a cinematic work to be proud of; it puzzles me as to why no producer should want to be openly associated with such a solid work.) Scaife and his men soon realize that – whilst they can bully and kill and overcome all human obstacles – they cannot exert power over Mother Nature. Struggling to marshal the cattle through the mounting snow drift, they decide to seek refuge in a nearby village and wait out winter. Albeit a move born of certain desperation, it is, however, a smart play, one which demonstrates a fair amount of patience on Scaife’s part, and sure enough our antagonist will reveal himself to be a calm, controlled, icily pragmatic type – much like Tigrero in Il Grande Silenzio (1967) – and all the more realistically frightening for being so. Scaife is played by the great character actor Bruno Corazzari, here promoted to rare lead-villain status. His older lieutenant, the conflicted Dan El, is portrayed by Hollywood star – and genre regular – John Ireland.
Scaife, Dan and their men arrive at the small village, which in reality is barely more than a throng of dilapidated domiciles, and even that description is being overly charitable (as far as I am aware, the place itself is never specifically referenced or given a name.) This alleged community is nothing more than a depressing necropolis, a shanty town of crumbling stone edifices more suited to a Gothic horror than a spaghetti western. Like the winter-ravaged fauna surrounding it, the village is already dead, drained of all life and vigor – how can such a deathly place already exist during the onset of national birth, at the height of western expansion? Whatever promise the pioneers saw here is long gone, yet the remnants of the village stubbornly remain, like some decaying rebuke to the notion of Manifest Destiny.
The photography and camerawork here by Benito Frattari is gorgeous. Frattari worked mainly on documentaries (both legit and Mondo), and here he brings a stark realism to his compositions, yet one bolstered by some truly dazzling camerawork. Frattari’s camera is mobile throughout Taste of Death; restless and constantly in motion, forever gliding and circling around the actors as if stalking them, utilizing the copious space (both wilderness and interior) to its full potential.
The villagers, led by aging Sheriff Bill Ransom, are cautious in their welcome, but accommodating all the same. Ransom is played by French actor Raymond Pellegrin, who brings great warmth and a tired, well-worn dignity to the role. Just one look at Ransom and you understand him to be a man who has spent his whole life fighting to do the right thing and yet still fallen short. The rest of the village is populated by farmers who have clearly fallen on (very) hard times; so hard, in fact, that the viewer is often left wondering as to why anyone would have remained in such a place voluntarily. There is no real sense of community, no apparent commerce operating beyond the local store, no workable land or tillable soil in sight. Hell, so far as I can tell (after multiple viewings), there isn’t even a bank! In terms of socioeconomics, the place is a graveyard.
Here we are introduced to young Tony, our ostensible hero. Tony is essayed by then 22-year-old Andrea Giordana. By this point, the young Roman was already something of a genre stalwart, having already taken the lead in two excellent spaghettis: Franco Rossetti’s down-and-dirty El Desperado (1967) and Enzo G. Castellari’s terrific Shakespeare adaptation, Quella sporca storia nel west/ Johnny Hamlet (1968). Again, whilst Tony represents our nominal hero, Taste of Death has little real use for the character: this is a man’s western, it belongs to Ireland, Pellegrin and Corazzari, and exhibits no real concession to youth. Tony exists as mere architype; an avatar of stock hope in what remains an extremely dark picture. Giordana is solid – blank but not bland and does exactly what is required of him. Tony is also the surrogate son of sheriff Ransom, tentatively flirting around some kind of love affair with his sister, Gladys (German actress Betsy Bell), Ransom’s blood daughter (a little questionable, perhaps, but Ransom seems to condone their burgeoning romance, so who the hell am I to judge?). Further darkening these already muddied waters is the revelation that Tony is actually Dan El’s birth son, and that Dan and Ransom have a shared history. All this information is delivered within the first ten minutes of the film.
Ransom reluctantly allows Scaife and his men to use their limited amenities, justifiably skeptical given Dan’s ambiguous past. The camera continues its journey around the dilapidated village. Rain batters the stone housing like some ominous portent; the place hasn’t seen sunlight for quite a while, and the viewer wonders if such a town – like Dracula’s castle – could even exist during the summer months. Heroes and villains talk in these early scenes, establishing fair tension. The English dub track is particularly good. It sounds as if Ireland and Pellegrin are providing their own voices. Scaife offers money in return for hospitality. ‘Your money doesn’t mean a thing,’ Ransom tells him, the town way beyond economic resuscitation. The set interiors are peculiar and noteworthy in their apparent size. Pellegrin’s house feels distended and stretched, like something out of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), or any expressionistic horror from the Weimar era. There appears to be no ceilings in place, liberating the camera, its vertical tracking unrestricted.
Pellegrin and Giordana talk, the younger man (somewhat inexplicably) troubled by his guardian’s reluctance to allow the outlaws to remain among them for the duration of the winter. The contrast in character is immediately apparent: Tony is young, altruistic, idealistic, yet-uncorrupted by a lifetime of disappointment and hardship – an amateur optimist. The sheriff serves as his polar opposite: older, weary, inured to life’s ceaseless injury and torment, benumbed to the false averment of hope and fully aware that the world rarely – if ever – plays fair. Merolle himself was in his early forties at the time of filming Taste of Death – around the age most people begin to reassess and revaluate their own place in an ever-changing world, stacking what was against what is, almost always to the detriment of their own sanity. Through their discourse, it is clear that Dan El was once a good man. The film will demonstrate he still is. For a SW, one so oppressive and bleak, this is an oddly humanitarian film. The protagonists cling to notions of individual decency and community, even when there is scant evidence of such things. Ransom looks in the mirror, seeing nothing but a time-worn face staring back, lamenting that life will always change men. When daughter and surrogate have left the room, Pellegrin draws his gun, testing himself, seeing if he still has speed on his side. Interestingly, we never learn the answer.
There follows a fight in the village store, wherein Gladys and Tony are harassed by Robin (Claudio Scarchilli) and some of Scaife’s men. Pellegrin intervenes, threatening arrest. ‘For my men, I always make the law,’ Scaife warns. This scene propels the narrative proper, with Scaife and his fellow outlaws seizing control of the village. The sheriff and Dan El talk. Dan is revealed to be a conflicted man early on. It is a complicated part, but Ireland is wonderful. Dan is obviously only riding with Scaife out of necessity, as opposed to any political or ideological link. Probably hates himself for it. He meets secretly with Ransom and pleads with his old friend to run. Predictably, Bill refuses, saying he has been sheriff for twenty years. ‘I’m not sure I did it well,’ he laments, wrestling with an obvious self-doubt. There is nothing remotely cool or comically self-assured about the characters in Taste as in Leone’s Dollar films or the Euro-western in general. Although we are never overtly told of their shared history, Bill alludes that their wives were murdered by men like Scaife, hinting at a dreadful past. ‘Scaife has no mercy,’ Dan El tells Bill. ‘To him, resistance is a technical problem he resolves by killing.’ It’s a brilliant line. ‘You can’t help these people. You can only die for them.’ But Bill remains steadfast in his will to act, to fight, to liberate. ‘Even a heroic death is stupid,’ contests Dan El. It’s a terrific scene – intimate and convincing, with both actors at the height of their game.
The townsfolk might be the most pathetic group of any SW. They are unwilling to fight back, seemingly only too happy to submit to Scaife and his subjugation, apathetic to invasion. ‘We’ll get used to living underneath Scaife,’ says the storekeeper, shrugging off their collective enslavement as if it were mere inconvenience. This is an outrageously weak stance and all but precludes the viewer from sympathizing with their plight. Their village ain’t exactly eutopia, granted, but is life there really so unbearable that an entire colony would just capitulate so readily? I’m not sure, but we must go where the film takes us.
Thankfully, Bill convinces a few good men to join him and attack Scaife’s camp, make a pre-emptive strike. It looks genuinely cold in these scenes – no studio work or outdoor simulation. Icy plumes of breath mushroom from the actors’ mouths as they speak, lending a visual authenticity. The film not only looks cold but feels cold. Giordana’s costume is reminiscent of Trintignant’s in Silenzio, with the long fur around the neck to fend off renegade snowflakes slipping down his collar. Armed and ready to attack, Bill takes one last look around his house, likely knowing he will never return, stoically accepting his fate. It’s a brief moment, unforced, but it carries a terrible emotional weight. Taste is a film full of such moments; people are forever looking back, whether that be in time or over their shoulder, stuck in a state of emotional and geographical stasis. The present barely exists, the future a laughable uncertainty. Only the past – that gone, lost, missed, misspent – is of any relevance or import here. Merolle has crafted a film of much longing; the characters view the world through glazed eyes, snared on a sadness and inescapable introspection. Taste plays very much like a mid-life crisis shot through the filter of genre film; an existential malaise trussed up in Stetson and spurs.
The ambush proves a valiant failure. Scaife and his men easily get the better of Ransom and his volunteers. The sequence is exciting and visually arresting; all muzzle flare against black night and angry, flaming torches. Some of this action is raw and disturbing; on more than one occasion a thrown torch hits a steer and sets the animal’s pelt ablaze. Luckily, the camera does not dwell on such ugly, irresponsible cruelty and quickly cuts away. Dan guns down his own men under the cloak of night, aiding Bill and his cause, hoping that Scaife hasn’t noticed, although he eventually is the man to capture young Tony. Ransom races back into the village. Scaife confronts Pellegrin in the first of the film’s many showdowns. They exchange bullets, the action messy and real. Pellegrin demonstrates a believable fear in this scene. He faces Scaife and is shot. But Corazzari wants more than another death notch on his gun belt. He wants to denigrate and humiliate the sheriff. Wants to use the wounded lawman as a declaration of intent.
Ransom crawls through ice and mud, bleeding out and dying, the likeliest true end of any modern hero. Scaife demands the farmers watch him die, the film establishing a remarkable cruelty. ‘I want them to see a hero die,’ he says, looking to expose the sham of heroism much like the film is seeking to do. ‘You didn’t know he had dreams. Dreams of protecting his flock. Brave fool must die, while the cowards must live and breathe on.’ He then instructs Dan El to finish him off. Having crawled into his home, Ransom and Dan share another moment of grim pathos. Dan tells Ransom he will survive and that they will get out of their predicament. His lie is transparent, obscene. Ransom begs Dan to help Tony and his people before finally dying. De Masi’s music reinforces the downbeat atmosphere the film is working so hard to create.
‘You will crawl like worms,’ says Scaife, establishing dominance and effectively turning the villagers into white slaves. ‘Every day, your life will be harder,’ he pledges, talking like a politician cursed with the inability to lie. The serfs begin their forced manual labor, with Scaife looking to build a coral to house their stolen cattle. So, too, do Scaife’s men seize control of the women, the newly oppressed famers seemingly as indifferent toward their wives as they are their own liberty. Scaife himself is given a romantic interlude with an (unnamed) women. She offers herself freely, although – in keeping with the film’s forlorn tone – her advances appear motivated more forcibly by a personal desolation than any overt physical need. Both admit to being lonely, Merolle and his scenarist/writer Biagio Proietti determined to add shading to Corazzari’s would-be tyrant. Indeed, it is in these more muted moments between our antagonist and this woman that Scaife’s encroachment comes across as much rescue mission as violent incursion, this bastard equal part liberator and oppressor. Meanwhile, beyond their forced drudgery, their women-folk now otherwise engaged, the farmers are forced to live like livestock in the barn, but, again, seem to have no trouble sleeping, as if what is happening to them is of little concern. What is wrong with these people? Hell, even the farmers in Shichinin no samurai/Seven Samurai (1954) had the gumption to reach out and seek help from Kikuchiyo and company. But these piteous creatures elicit little sympathy from the viewer, having acquiesced so readily to domination. With the sheriff gone, only Giordana’s Tony seems bothered. He slinks off into the night and wastes no time in fighting back, reclaiming a little dignity, and providing the film with the closest thing to a traditional hero.
Meanwhile, Dan pays Gladys a visit, explaining that when he fired his gun, seemingly terminating her father, Bill was already dead. Gladys admonishes him softly, saying he should have saved her father. ‘It isn’t easy to change after living the same way for so long,’ he replies, somewhat ambiguously. The film is full of such conversations; characters ruminate on a life misspent, on personal ethics and the responsibility of man to his fellow man. Some of the dialogue sticks to landing, some of it inevitably feels mistranslated or over-simplified as in many of these films, but overall, the script lends an authentic poignancy to the film which cannot be denied. Here again, the film appears to be looking back, forever nostalgic over a time dead and gone, comparing what was and who these people were to what they have become. I think one of the film’s strongest points is that it resists the use of flashback. The film trusts that these faces – Ireland, Pellegrin, Corazzari, even the comparably young Giordana – are etched with enough experience and pain that we understand their histories; we don’t need to see the key events which ultimately distorted them as people. ‘It’s what he always wanted,’ continues Dan, still talking about Bill. ‘To die for something.’ This, of course, is absolute nonsense, and contradicts that fine line earlier in the film that rightly told us even a heroic death is stupid. I am not sure Ransom died for much, other than to ignite a natural impetus within his surrogate son to fight back. But such a death is to the film’s benefit, highlighting a raw honesty; Bill did not die a noble death, and Merolle – much like Corbucci – is only too keen to deconstruct the fallacy of heroism and demonstrate its physical cost. The killing – murder – of the sheriff was ugly, prolonged, needless, and utterly avoidable, and the film is happy to wallow in the aftermath of such senseless tragedy. Whereas an American western might have used such incident as catalyst for ecumenical redress, this Euro-western merely turns over the body with its boot toe and coldly moves on, looking for its next victim.
With Tony now running amok and picking off his men, Scaife does what all good despots do and takes his ire out on the townsfolk. He binds three farmers to a fence and kills them. ‘You are no longer men to me,’ he snarls, scorning his remaining captives with biblical tongue, ‘only hostages.’ Tony retaliates further, via some seriously iffy subterfuge and more cold-blooded murder. Whatever philanthropic leaning Tony may have demonstrated earlier in the film is now well and truly gone; ironically, he has attained a state of misanthropic dispassion far more quickly than either Dan El or Bill. Whereas those men earned their fatalistic outlook via the long, hard slog to middle-age and accumulated experience, Tony has arrived at the very same hollow destination by means of instant fix. Poor old sheriff Ransom must be spinning in his grave (if, indeed, Scaife bothered to bury the poor bastard).
Up until this point, being a former idealist, Tony has been a pacifist and thus had no need or knowledge of firearms. His aversion/ inexperience to firearms will come into play later in the film. In the meantime, he runs around stabbing all enemies on sight, his knife-work formidable, like a white Cuchillo, or the equal of James Coburn’s Britt from The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960). Meanwhile, realizing the way to Tony is Gladys, Scaife proceeds to use the poor girl as bait. The outlaws parade her through the snow on horseback, their booming threats echoing over the snow-capped terrain.
The environment here is almost a secondary character; winter’s grip as dangerous as Scaife himself. Again, cinematographer Frattari works wonders in conjuring a world stuck at permeant dusk; a twilight neverland governed by infinite loss. Naked, gnarled twisted branches infiltrate every shot, caging the players like barbed wire fencing. The wind howls incessantly, as integral to the film’s soundtrack as De Masi’s score. Dead leaves cling to trees just as the characters cling so desperately to spent years. In Taste of Death, everything is dying or decaying, ravaged by time and a vicious arctic wind, external and internal alike. Don’t ever tell me that the spaghetti western craze was built of cheapjack, factory-line films devoid of depth or substance when there are films like this; in between the firearms and the fisticuffs, Merolle’s film succeeds in creating a desperation and tragic masculine trajectory worthy of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Tony almost takes the bait, but is stopped by Dan, who by now has crossed the line of no return and will side with the villagers henceforth. The two men – father and son – fight. It is a proper dust-up – nice and messy, none of that neatly over-choreographed stuff. They roll around in the snow, flailing weakly, no doubt cold, hungry, and tired. Predictably, the fracas leads to nothing but a grudging respect. Dan admits to Tony that he knew his father well. Again, this is Ireland’s character stepping out of himself, referring to his former self in the third person. You feel that is exactly how he sees himself, though; that the person he used to be is now so far removed that he exists only in memory as a different entity – a better man, a good man, another man. Again, there is an unforced melancholy at play here, although Merolle and his editor, Antonietta Zita, never dwell on such matters too long, ensuring that things never get soapy or sentimental. In fact, rather puzzlingly, as expertly as Merolle sets up these brief moments of legitimate, affecting pathos, the film always seems in an awful hurry to move on. The editing is brutal, the film mercilessly trimmed of all fat, as if Merolle never lost sight that he was making a genre flick, a genre which had established an awfully specific checklist by 1968. This is an epic film shoehorned into an 85-minute running time; Taste of Death might be that rare cinematic beast which could have benefited from being an additional twenty minutes longer. As it stands, Taste feels like one of two things: either a scrappy little B-picture which exceeded its reach, via ambition and technical skill, or a would-be prestige picture which somehow fell short. Which one I am not entirely sure.
Dan and Tony talk strategy. There is a lovely bit where Ireland packs snow into a tin kettle before setting it on a fire. These little pieces of visual minutiae are wonderful – they say so very much: about the filmmakers’ eye for detail, about who these characters are. These men are survivors, floating through life clinging to debris, kicking to stay afloat. And so, Ireland begins to train his young protégé/ son in what is surely one of the all-time great training montages (the epoch of all masculine action cinema). Our new allies run side-by-side, throwing the shotgun to one another whilst taking turns to blast the hell out of strategically laid targets such as caribou skulls and empty glass bottles. This scene is glorious, guaranteed a high rewind factor, and is worth the price of admission alone.
The film cuts back to Scaife, who listens to their preparation, gunshots echoing off rock and ice. The film seems set on humanizing Scaife in these quieter moments, our villain just as prone to introspection and internal confusion as Ireland and Pellegrin’s characters. For such a vile bastard, Scaife seems inwardly conflicted. We never see him enjoying his spoils; never catch him drunk or acting in a debauched manner. Instead, he skulks through shadow, caught in the film’s crepuscular web, muttering cod philosophy. He, too, knows that the inevitability of death is coming. Not because he is the villain in a piece of high-stakes drama, but because he has an innate understanding of fate. His new girl begs and pleads that they should leave, sensing the shadow of death herself, but Scaife knows he cannot outrun what is already ordained. In his own way, he concedes to destiny just as readily as the weak farmers have submitted to his own hand of dominance.
The film then returns to Tony’s training montage. He shoots at an enemy snowman with what looks like a carbine rifle but must be a rocket launcher, as the snowman explodes as if rigged with two ton of C4. It’s a fantastic visual. Merolle may have layered his film with feeling, but he never forgets he is playing to the Friday night crowd. Tony pushes for more information on his father. Dan bifurcates the id again, talking of a man no longer alive, like a schizophrenic holding court with a secondary identity. ‘I can honestly say I know your father better than any man alive,’ he admits.
And so, the film moves toward its final mile. When one of the townsfolk has the temerity to steal some bread, he is shot and killed by Robin, finally provoking an uprising amongst the farmers. ‘And you killed him for this. Only for this?’ they ask, the understatement of the year. The uprising is long overdue and most welcome, but the viewer is left scratching their head as to the frankly puzzling ceiling the farmers’ have placed on their tolerance limit: Being taken hostage and bullied into forced labor they can take, watching their women raped and defiled they can handle, but killing a man over stolen bread? Here they draw the line.
It looks as if the rebellion might be quelled before it has time to kick in proper, Scaife’s man Robin looking to put down the mounting coup, but then Tony arrives unceremoniously, riding into frame and leaping from horse. He tackles the outlaw. They fight, their conflict prolonged from their confrontation in the store earlier in the film. All that firearm training with his father/mentor and… Tony takes Scaife’s man on hand-to-hand, rocking it old school. The camera circles around the gathered men in a move of dizzying grace, cinematographer Frattari working wonders once again, determined to fuse Merolle’s bloody, bruising action with a remarkable egg-shell delicacy. Spears of light slip through naked tree branches, the muted color palette all azure gloom, the light dying along with any hope of a happy ending. Robin goes to kill Tony but is stopped via an axe to the back, lobbed by one of the insurgents. Tony – now an instant revolutionary leader – stands before his people and leads the revolt.
Scaife condemns Tony a coward, certain he wouldn’t dare confront him in combat. Pretty ironic words from somebody who has killed countless unarmed men. On discovering that Tony is already in camp and has already begin picking his men off, he orders all men working on the coral to be killed, effectively eliminating his own workforce. Who will finish the building work? He is also extremely specific in his ordering of all women and children to be killed. He wants the village wiped from memory, eradicated from history. When we first met Scaife, he was a villain. Now he’s a monster. As Scaife’s men search the houses, it is worth mentioning Giacomo Calò Carducci’s production design. The sets look authentically robust and worn, equal to Simi’s lauded work. Scaife’s men move through the village like a death squad from Sierra Leone. Realizing a revolt has been triggered – recalling many a plot in the peplum genre – Scaife realizes he can no longer dominate in terms of power; all that’s left is to spill blood. There follows a five-minute gunfight, expertly captured by Frattari. Dan releases the horses from the coral, tactically adding further confusion to the fray.
In a film built around finding intimacy amidst bloodshed and quiet moments of contemplation among the deafening pang of gunfire, Scaife shuts himself away within the village store and kills the duplicitous owner. There follows a brilliant sequence, all captured in a single shot, wherein Corabuzzi opens a door, intending to exit the building; in the distance, through the opened door, we see a rebel farmer who promptly fires at Scaife. Wooden debris explodes as the bullet impacts the doorframe in the foreground. Scaife closes the door. This is fantastic stuff; a deft handling of depth and space, an in-camera back-and-forth, obliterating the notion that style and technical precision within the genre began and ended with Leone.
The gunplay also deserves special mention. There appears to be an inordinate amount of live ammunition being fired. None of that childish, point-the-gun stuff that Fernando Sancho loved so much. Here, Ireland and company fire their pistols at close-range, the gun sparking and smoking, selling the illusion that this is a dangerous scenario, not just a bunch of performers running around a movie set. Bullets impact against stone and wood, slamming into water troughs and exploding against dirt. In Taste, every bullet not only counts, but resonates. With the coup having succeeded, all that remains is for the settling of a very personal account. Well, two accounts: We have Tony’s revenge trail and Scaife’s weighted grievance against an ally turned against him. ‘What did I do, El?’ he asks his former friend. ‘Why did you turn against me?’ They stalk each other methodically through the forest, over this white-capped wasteland. As with any father worth his salt, Dan wants only to see his son exceed him; rise above his own frailty, failure, and weakness as a human being – as a man. ‘He’s better than me, than you,’ he tells Scaife, referring to Tony, a note of pride choking his voice. This is the stuff of high drama, of classic conflict – two former friends forced apart via circumstance, by choice, now left to face down one another in deadly combat. We have been here a thousand times before, of course, but if done right, like here, its impact remains undiminished.
This confrontation is crosscut with Tony hurrying – struggling – through the snow to Dan’s aide. But the film has already made its intent known; we are dealing in broad, tragic dimensions here, and the viewer feels that there can be no happy ending now, at least not for all our main characters. Winter holds them in its grasp, waist deep in snow and immovable, unable to climb any further in life. The screen is built on negative space; vast, grim skies and endless mountain peaks. These men are nothing but stains on natural perfection. Scaife draws, but, remarkably, Dan proves faster. ‘He saw from our mistakes,’ Ireland continues, driving home his faith in not only his son, but the next generation. He may have been an absent father, but he has succeeded in doing all that good a father should do in protecting his young. But this act of self-abnegation swiftly becomes an act of mortal sacrifice (the ultimate gift a father can give). Scaife shoots Dan El in cold blood, mercilessly killing him as Tony arrives. Dan El is doomed by personal history, held prisoner by his demons, and neither the film nor fate offer clemency. The film guides him to his grave, the outcome never really in doubt. (I must confess to desperately wanting Ireland to survive the film. Ireland was a likeable player, never a star, caught in that recognizable Neverland between character actor and leading man, easygoing and relaxed. His contribution to the spaghetti western in full is yet to be acknowledged.) Dan dies happy, fulfilled, having squared his debt. Tony is left alone and defeated, even in victory. He throws his gun to the floor, denouncing violence. Cheap trick? Perhaps. But if Dan was/is right, and Tony is better than men like him and Scaife, then he must denounce the way of the gun if he – himself, the community, society, this infant country – is to progress. The end. The film wastes no time with epilogue or extension, and bows out super-fast, perhaps too fast, leaving the viewer a bit disorientated. The camera pulls back, floating through the ether, desperate to escape the carnage.
Taste of Death is a tough one to pin down. As mentioned earlier in this piece, Merolle’s film feels very much like an A picture in conception and production yet emerges more as an upper-tier B film. Again, as much as I am championing the film, my experience of Taste is based on severely compromised prints (third-gen VHS rips and imperfect TV recordings burned to DVD-R for posterity). I have a sneaking suspicion that a proper scan or remaster would be nothing short of revelatory, likely (and rightfully) reinstating the film to its deserved top-tier status. As it is, the film remains one of the great hidden jewels of the genre, I think. The film’s replay factor is extremely high; indeed, I think the film demands multiple viewings to fully digest its many rewards. I could throw superlatives at Taste all day long, but its charms and key contributing factors to its success are obvious.
The casting is on-point. Giordana is fine. Ireland is terrific, as always. He never coasted or cashed a check, even in films or parts beneath him; he always committed totally as a performer, the consummate professional. Here, Ireland knows he has a nice, juicy part and he runs with it. Although he played many parts during his career, the Oscar-nominated actor is inextricably linked with the western genre, for this writer at least, thanks to both his SW tenure and his brilliant, star-making turn as Cherry Valance in Howard Hawks' timeless Red River (1948). Even up against an iconic, once-in-a-lifetime cast including Wayne, Clift and Brennan, Ireland made one hell of an impression, one that should have catapulted him to the fore of young Hollywood stars. (There is, of course, the oft-told rumor of Ireland somehow pissing off Hawks during filming, and the subsequent culling of his character from the second part of the film; Cherry is certainly set up as a main player, only to drift incoherently from the picture.) For whatever reason, though, be that short-sightedness on the part of studios or a mischievous, self-destructive streak on his part, Ireland became a character actor par excellence; we SW fans should certainly be grateful for his time spent in our neighborhood.
The film is also notable for giving long-time supporting player Bruno Corazzari a rare lead role. Blessed with a distinct, instantly recognizable visage, Corazzari was one of the key performers during the Golden era of Italian genre cinema. Whilst most Spaghetti actors arrived at the genre via the side-door of the Peplum, having established themselves in other genres, Corazzari’s career was born exclusively of the SW, making his film debut in Giulio Petroni’s Da uomo a uomo/Death Rides a Horse (1967). He appeared in over fifteen SWs, including Vivo per la tua morte/A Long Ride from Hell (1968) and La diligencia de los condenados/Stagecoach of the Condemned (1970), before segueing into the burgeoning Polizzioteschi and Eurocrime genres. Taste of Death came very early in his career (Corazzari was only a year into his film work), and it probably seemed at the time like greater things were in store for this striking performer, maybe in the vein of Kinski, but it didn’t seem to happen, and his résumé now reads as a catalogue of small but memorable character parts in such diverse genres as giallo, horror and action. If nothing else, Corazzari holds the crown for the all-time great eating scene of cinema. As Charlie, Kinski’s partner in il Grande Silenzio, Corazzari has a short but unforgettable scene in which he quaffs down a roast chicken whilst blowing snot from his nose and lamenting the thinness of his blood. The scene is a standout in a film constructed from countless classic scenes. As of writing, Corazzari is still with us, and according to on-line sources, worked up until 2009.
The script by Biagio Proietti is parred down and streamlined, much to the film’s benefit. Projetti worked mostly in Italian television but does have a number of interesting genre credits to his name, including Duccio Tessari’s excellent crime film La morte risale a ieri sera/Death Occurred Last Night (1970) and the theatre-set giallo L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone/The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974). It’s interesting that Taste of Death is so gloomy and melancholic, as Projetti obviously had a flair for the gothic, given that he went on to write the Edgar Allan Poe television series I racconti fantastici di Edgar Allan Poe (1979).
The film is finely directed. It is so well directed, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook how well-crafted the film actually is. It is surprising, then, to learn that Taste of Death was Sergio Merolle’s only credit as film director. Merolle had served mostly as production manager on such prestige political fare as La battaglia di Algeri/Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), and the Brando-starring Queimada/Burn! (Pontecorvo, 1969), as well as working for such genre greats such as Riccardo Freda (Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea/Tragic Ceremony, 1972) and Duccio Tessari. With only one directorial film under his belt, it is difficult to judge the film in terms of authorial stamp. Did Merolle always plan to direct Taste, or did he step in at the last minute? His prior experience as second-unit director deemed qualification enough to bail a hastily vacated seat? Again, frustratingly, there is not much written about the production of Taste of Death or Merolle himself. Why only one film? Did he not enjoy the experience? Or was the film’s critical reception and financial revenue such that the filmmaker was forever discouraged from returning to the director’s chair? I have mentioned one-shot SW wonders before in other articles (Questi, Brass, Massimo Dallamano et al), but they at least played in other sandboxes. Merolle is the exception: he made only one film as director, and as such Taste remains a bitter, er, taste of what might have been had the filmmaker gone on to helm more pictures. He is visually assured and very good with his actors, and it’s a shame we were denied further work. I haven’t gone into the obvious political parallels in Taste of Death, as other writers have explored this aspect far more capably than I am able to (see Scherpshutter and Lone Wolf’s excellent interpretation here on the SWDB for more detail on that critical angle/reading). I will say, however, that the film does work as an effective – and obvious – parable to the partisans’ struggle against both Mussolini and his reigning fascism. Given Merolle’s affiliation with some of the great political works of cinema, such a reading or interpretation cannot be ignored or underplayed.
Maybe the most obvious point of quality for the film is uncredited – alleged – producer Robert Dorfman. The Parisian began his film career in the 1950s, and was soon making films for French superstars like Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Yves Montand, and such acclaimed directors as Costas Gravas (L'aveu, 1970), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, 1970), and Alain Resnais (L'année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), and working with such international stars as William Holden, Richard Basehart and Edmund O’ Brien. By the 1970s, Dorfman would soon move into the realm of prestige American studio production, overseeing such films as Papillon (1973) and Terence Young’s all-star Eastern-Western, Soleil rouge/Red Sun (1971). But Dorfman was clearly no snob, and obviously had a penchant for sturdy genre work, having also worked alongside Giorgio Ferroni on Un dollaro bucato/Blood for a Silver Dollar (1965) and L'arciere di fuoco/Long Live Robin Hood (1971). Of most interest to us SW fans is his alleged involvement on Silenzio; he remains uncredited on Corbucci’s masterwork, but his name is often attached. Was Dorfman happy to produce these genre pics as silent partner, in tandem with his more high-profile projects, but somehow wary of attaching himself publicly to such b-film ventures? I would hope not. Whatever the reason, Taste of Death was clearly no hack work, yet it’s never been regarded as readily as other classics of the genre. Dorfman’s involvement came via his (and American producer Ted Richmond’s) French production company, Les Films Corona, who co-financed along with Italian group Cine Azimut. According to BFI records, Cine Azimut was active from 1968 to 1971 and produced just five films, including Questi’s bizarre 1968 poultry-themed giallo La morte ha fatto l'uovo/Death Laid an Egg and Tonino Ricci’s 1969 film Il dito nella piaga/War Fever, with Kinski and George Hilton (probably better known to us collectors of all Wild East DVD releases as Salt in the Wound).
Finally, there is De Masi’s score, and Taste might be one of his stand-out works. As has been noted, De Masi began composing for Euro-westerns before Morricone, and so his work has never felt beholden, retaining its own singular, more classically influenced sound. His score here is no exception and serves as a perfect aural augmentation to the darker visuals of the film itself. The complete CD from Digitmovies is well-worth tracking down (though currently OOP, I believe) and works independently of the film as an album in its own right.
So where does Taste of Death land when all said and done? It seems to be embraced by those people lucky enough to have seen it, but not particularly revered outside of hardcore fan circles (it is listed as a staff favorite here on the SWDB). It remains out there, in the SW ether, waiting patiently for some boutique label like Koch Media (Germany), Synapse (USA) or Arrow Video (UK) to bring it in from the cold and restore it properly. Maybe some real historical excavation might unearth some cut scenes or additional material, something to explain the choppy, truncated feel of the film (at least of the version I am basing both my viewing experience and this piece on). As it stands, Merolle’s one-shot wonder remains a film that I return to annually, normally in the dead of winter, when season and film feed off each other in turn of mood and resonance. It is not a great action film – the violence is too sparse, taking a back seat to all that naval gazing and glazed eye retrospection – but it is a spaghetti western of remarkable empathy and tonal precision. Taste is redolent of (and would make a good double bill with) André De Toth’s similarly great 1959 winter western, Day of the Outlaw, in which Burl Ives and his outlaw flunkies take over a small, snow-capped town. I am a big fan of De Toth’s final western, and most would say it’s the better film, but to go full circle, Taste hits harder with that final blow. It’s a tough, primal genre flick which somehow manages to conjure a certain poignancy and warmth amidst all that killing and cold.