Mario Siciliano's Taste of Vengeance (1968)
Mario Siciliano’s 1968 film I vigliacchi non pregano / A Taste of Vengeance is a darker, more complex beast than many of its brethren. Like many other westerns, the film puts two formerly unified men under the microscope and watches as they transform, their lives and personalities warped by fate, for better or for worse, until each is unrecognizable to the other and the seed of personal war is sown. It’s a well-worn path, often told, but Siciliano – playing everything gallows-serious – digs unusually deep for a spaghetti western, excavating genuine feeling whilst delivering on the action. The film seemingly belongs to that small clutch of Italo-westerns which aspire to a certain dramatic prestige, foregrounding tone and mood against the usual genre beats as they crawl toward their gloomily tragic conclusion (I count L'uomo, l'orgoglio, la vendetta / Man, Pride and Vengeance , Il ritorno di Ringo / The Return of Ringo , and Per 100.000 dollari t'ammazzo / $100,000 for a Killing  amongst this select group). It’s a strong, confident work; I Vigliacchi non pregano runs at a longer-than-average 113 minutes (this piece being based upon the DVD print included in the Koch Italo-western Encyclopedia Vol.1 box set), and neither Siciliano nor his film seem in a hurry to reach the end. For the patient viewer it remains a rewarding, upper middle-tier spaghetti and a definite high-watermark for its undistinguished director.
Rome-born Siciliano was a competent – albeit workmanlike – director with a body of work that remains inscrutable with regard to personal stamp or signature. He filmed a further two spaghetti westerns, both of them minor, vanilla-flavored works and ultimately quite disposable, which is both puzzling and disappointing given the inherent quality of Vengeance. Siciliano would prove more consistent in other genres. La lunga notte dei disertori - I 7 di Marsa Matruh / Overrun! (1970), and Sette baschi rossi/ Congo Hell (1969) are two fair macaroni combat romps, both starring Vengeance-lead Ivan Rassimov. A prolific screenwriter, Siciliano also served as co-writer on the extremely obscure and rather fine African ‘western’, Caccia ai violenti / One Step to Hell (1968). I think his most important contribution to genre cinema, however, might be via his association with the terrific Genoese filmmaker Alberto Cardone. Hiding behind his anglicized ‘Marlon Sirko’ credit, Siciliano served as a producer on Cardone’s masterful Italo-western diptych, 7 dollari sul rosso, and its brilliant pseudo-sequel, 1000 dollari sul nero (both 1966). I have written passionately on this site previously about Cardone and those two films in particular, so any affiliation with those pictures earns Siciliano a pass in my book. Further to this, and this is pure speculation on my part, but Siciliano appears to be channeling Cardone throughout Vengeance. Did the elder Cardone serve as mentor to the (slightly) younger director at some point? I wonder. I vigliacchi non pregano often feels like a Cardone film; the footprint of that filmmaker’s patented subversion detectable throughout the picture. Regardless of influence or involvement, Vengeance remains Siciliano’s only worthwhile Spaghetti.
The picture opens with a written crawl, establishing the film’s historical setting sometime after the end of the civil war, wherein a group of renegade Northern soldiers force their way into a peaceful homestead. Held at gunpoint, Brian (Gianni Garko) and his fiancée look on in impotent fear as the Yankees take over the house. Siciliano makes sure that both Brian and the viewer acknowledge that the soldiers are all wearing law badges, a key visual motif that will guide the rest of the picture. Their intent appears obvious in its hostility, with at least one of the men inferring rape via some prolonged, salacious leering. Anticipating conflict, Brian takes the offensive (with a fire poker!), although on every re-watch I cannot help but feel that he might have acted a little rashly in his pre-emptive strike. The soldiers’ motives are sinister, obviously, but not guaranteed; had Brian left it an hour or so, maybe his uninvited guests would have eaten their fill, warmed themselves through by the fire and waited on the storm outside to pass. Who knows? But attack Brian does, and all hell breaks loose. The husband is gut-shot, the woman senselessly murdered, and the domicile burned to the ground. Brian, of course, miraculously survives, plucked from the flames by the altruistic Daniel (Ivan Rassimov). Brian then throws in with his ersatz savior and younger brother, Robert (Roberto Miali), and the three ride off toward – one would hope or assume – a better life. Here the film explores two divergent strands of the same theme: that of reformation, both personal and civic. Just as a ruptured America was left to rebuild itself post-war, so too is Brian tasked with putting back together the broken pieces of his life and moving forward. It is here that the viewer expects Siciliano to join the dots with regard to narrative, have Garko seek revenge and settle his tragic blood debt. But the film ignores the more obvious, predictable beats, and chooses to travel a more treacherous route. Far from being the standard wronged avenger, Brian is soon revealed to have been left somewhat troubled by his unfortunate loss, and by troubled I mean deeply fucked up. This is an interesting and credible approach to a survivor’s mental state, post-trauma. Not only is he suffering from what appears to be some form of amnesia or acute memory loss (has his mind wiped itself clean in a bid at self-preservation?), but Brian also exhibits some frightening characteristics and a complete lack of self-regulation that lean toward the psychotic. Indeed, the only thing that Brian does remember from that fateful night are the law badges worn by his wife’s killers; in his damaged mind, the tin star has now come to represent his codified hatred and distrust of all things lawful. Thus, he begins to rebel. Try as they might to keep their friend on the side of good, Brian and Robert soon realize that Brian is too far gone, lost to his demons, slave to the poison in his veins. Thus they ultimately part company with Brian, who quickly succumbs to a life of crime and indiscriminate murder. Daniel, in stark contrast, is sworn in as town sheriff, the film once more delineating the opposing symmetry of dark and light, good and evil, the selfish and the selfless. The film may well have been shot in gorgeous Eastmancolour, but it remains a thematically chiaroscuro work – everything rendered in black and white. From thereon, it’s a matter of all tributaries reaching their communal destination: we know that, ultimately, Daniel will have to face Brian in the inevitable showdown. It’s been done before, sure, but the Devil is in the details.
The film benefits immeasurably from two superb lead performances. Garko’s forte as an actor was his ability to project a visibly troubled moral ambiguity, a talent well-suited to his character in Vengeance. When essaying evil, he often – somehow – retained viewer sympathy, even when playing an unrepentant bastard. Likewise, when playing the ostensible hero, the viewer can never fully trust him; there always exists the threat of betrayal, or a sniff of suppressed duplicity. Sure, Brian is a career-criminal, make no mistake, but the viewer had the privilege of meeting him before the mitigating incident, and from that one short scene we know that this was once an ostensibly decent man, driven back into the murkier waters of the human psyche via the indiscriminate cruelty of life. Late in the film, Brian guns down Robert amidst a spell of overwhelming paranoia, his homicidal delirium triggered by the deputy sheriff badge his friend is wearing. Brian immediately falls into a tailspin of crushing regret and remorse before his pistol has even cooled; the change is so swift that one wonders if Brian is suffering from some kind of mental disorder like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. Whilst not quite on a par with his incendiary turn as General Sartana in Cardone’s barnstorming Blood at Sundown, Garko flirts convincingly here with an overt, heightened psychosis which teeters on the maniacal. Again, this is nothing Garko hasn’t done before, but given he does it so damn magnificently, who cares? At one point Siciliano closes a scene with Garko in close-up, his handsome, sandy features filling the frame, laughing uproariously like a madman. He laughs and laughs, mouth agape like a roaring lion. Throwing back his golden mane, Garko continues to laugh. You wait for Siciliano to cut, move to the next scene, but the camera somewhat belligerently lingers on Garko, cackling for what seems like an eternity. One is reminded of the trick Corbucci famously played on Franco Nero whilst shooting the iconic opening to Django, impishly allowing his lead to trudge on through the mud long after the camera had ceased rolling; did Siciliano do the same here – leave his actor in an elongated spasm of mirth for his own crooked kicks? It’s a brash, forceful performance, and it contrasts nicely with co-lead Ivan Rassimov’s more quietly measured turn.
If anything, Rassimov is even more impressive, and this might well stand as the actor’s finest and most substantial lead role (on a par with his work both in Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 jungle shocker Il paese del sesso selvaggio/ Man from Deep River aka. Sacrifice!, and his deliciously despicable headlining turn the following year in Massimo Dallamano’s Si può essere più bastardi dell'ispettore Cliff?/ Superbitch aka. Blue Movie Blackmail). Gifted with a unique, reptilian allure, Rassimov could – depending on the role or genre – be oddly charming and magnetically repellent, often at the very same time. Mainly (and somewhat regrettably) relegated to villainous or second and third-bill status in golden age genre fare, Rassimov was also capable of demonstrating warmth and a varied vulnerability, although this aspect of the performer was rarely tapped or exploited by filmmakers. Both Siciliano and I Vigliacchi non pregano provide him one such opportunity, and he does some terrific work. The sequence in which Daniel proves unable to take a clear shot with his rifle and thus kill his former friend from a butte-lip vantage point is perfectly executed, with Rassimov nailing the lawman’s moral quandary and the scene itself standing as a clear adumbration of the film as a whole. Daniel stands as the absolute apotheosis to Brian, almost to a fault. The character comes precipitously close to representing your classic American western White Hat hero, stoic and incorruptible to the point of mere angelic cypher, sans any trace of human frailty or shading. Thankfully, Rassimov is too good an actor to surrender to cliché or effigy, and Siciliano and his co-screenwriters Dulio Chanetta and Ernesto Gastaldi give him enough shading and moral conflict to interpret during the last third of the picture that the character never appears bland or one-dimensional.
Another avenue of interpretation, however, if we’re being uncharitable, could be to place all blame squarely on Daniel’s shoulders. Had Daniel not dragged Brian from out of the burning building and saved his life then surely all proceeding carnage and senseless violence would have been negated? Brian would have died an innocent victim, instead of proliferating as a world-class scumbag. It occurs to me that Daniel himself might even be haunted by such a notion. How else to explain this newly-sworn sheriff’s dogged determination to hunt down and end his quarry’s reign? Having effectively (re)birthed Daniel, does he then feel some kind of patriarchal obligation to kill the very child he ostensibly spawned; Brian being the monster to his own Dr. Frankenstein? It’s nice, dense stuff and well worth chewing on. In addition to the two leads, Miali – another holdover from Cardone’s Red & Black films – is his usual reliable self, whilst genre regulars Frank Brana and Luciano Pigozzi are a welcome presence in key supporting roles. Also appearing, just to bring the Cardone connection full circle, is Carla Calò in the role of Mother Douglas. Calò was, of course, the fearsome matriarch of Sartana and Johnny (Anthony Steffen) in Mille Dollari sul Nero; it was a snarling, angry, unforgettable performance, and it’s good to have her back on screen here, albeit in diluted form.
All said and done, I like I vigliacchi non pregano a lot. The film is well paced. Some spaghetti fans have complained about a mid-section sag, but the considered approach works just fine. It builds to the predicted, afore-mentioned showdown, but here again Siciliano dares to tamper. The dénouement takes place not in the town street or a drawn arena, but within the murky, claustrophobic confines of a railway tunnel. (In his review, Simon rightly notes this milieu more befitting of a horror film; it is also somewhat reminiscent of a Eurocrime, reminding me specifically of the final scene in Sergio Martino’s 1975 poliziotteschi-giallo hybrid Morte sospetta di una minorenne/ Suspicious Death of a Minor.) Brian and Daniel confront each other in total darkness, firing blindly as if conceding to the Moirai to deliberate the outcome. It’s a good scene – exciting and well shot, much of it playing out in complete blackout. One wonders how Siciliano can be so daring and experimental with his work here, and yet so uniformly banal with regard to his other spaghetti westerns. It’s a memorable climax. The action, generally, is nicely staged and shot, although gunplay generally plays second fiddle to character dynamics and the overall drama. Tonally, the film is totally devoid of humor. This is normally a huge positive; I like my spaghettis espresso-black and hard-as-coffin-nails, and I don’t much care for what the filone ultimately became with regard to hollow slapstick and shameless self-parody. But a moment – just a flash – of levity would have gone appreciated amidst all this heroic tragedy. Rassimov, for one, looks incapable of even smiling, as if he traded in his cheek muscles for his lawman’s badge.
Minor quibbles aside, there is much to enjoy here. Another major plus is the film’s musical score, although that in itself remains somewhat controversial. As previously addressed on this very site by other – more authoritative – contributors, the on-screen opening titles list Manuel Prada as the composer, but the GDM compact-disc soundtrack is credited to Gianni Marchetti. Whilst Parada was certainly the more prolific of the two with regard to Euro-western scores, Marchetti served as composer for Siciliano on various other projects, so the truth is anybody’s guess (certainly, the music itself gives little away with regard to authorship). To my knowledge, this confusion is yet to be clarified (if any SWDb member knows different, please let me know and I will modify this piece accordingly).
I vigliacchi non pregano remains a strong film, then, justifiably lauded by those familiar with it. It’s a tough, ultra-serious picture that lends itself to varied interpretation. It probably won’t rank on anybody’s top ten list but it’s a surprisingly accomplished film, and certainly Siciliano’s finest hour. Cool poster art, too.