Snow & Spaghetti: Nevada (1972) aka The Boldest Job in the West
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Revision as of 16:06, 30 March 2019 by DGBell
A review of Nevada and the work of its director Jose Antonio de la Loma. By David Bell.
‘What could go wrong, huh?’ – Jeremiah (Piero Lulli)
Perhaps more than any other cinematic genre, the western was – is – defined by milieu; there exists an unmistakable aesthetic shorthand carved from towering buttes and rolling dunes; the desert plains spiked with cacti and parched by searing sun. Visually, no other environment is so readily identifiable with type; story inextricable from setting. Of course, John Ford even went so far as to effectively patent said backdrop with his near-deification of Monument Valley, establishing further convention and birthing an inexhaustible intertextuality in the process. But in art – as in life – convention must be broken, or at the very least perverted, in order for the form to evolve. Thus, the tweaking of the standard and the violation of dramatic formula, just as Sergio Leone had done to radical effect with A Fistful of Dollars (1964): reinvigoration via inversion. But such modification doesn’t always have to be so loud or revolutionary. What better –simpler – way to distort such established iconography, then, as extracting the cowboy from his acknowledged locale and supplanting him in an equally inhospitable landscape, albeit one forged from ice and snow? There is something so incongruous about that very image – tantamount to lifting the vampire from the Gothic tropes of the horror film and have him stalk a crowded public beach in daylight. And yet, more often than not, the outwardly seditious blend of snow and cowboys often made for a rejuvenating cinematic cocktail. And so, just as the great American western had been sporadically reconfigured – reinvigorated – by snowfall in such subversive entries as Andre De Toth’s outstanding Day of the Outlaw (1959), Altman’s despairingly elegiac McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), and Antonia Bird’s brilliantly bizarre 1999 horror-western Ravenous (surely the closest us Spaghetti fans will ever get to an [unofficial] Cut-Throats Nine redux?), so too did the Italo-western occasionally venture into colder climates, often with startling results. Notable snowbound Spaghettis include Sergio Merolle’s excellent Taste of Death (Quanto Costa Morire, 1968); Vic Morrow’s A Man Called Sledge (1970), which had a gorgeously evocative winter opening before (regrettably) moving on to warmer climates; the afore-mentioned and notoriously bloody Cut-Throats Nine (Condenados a Vivir by Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent, 1971). Whilst Sergio Corbucci’s masterwork Il Grande Silenzio (1967) is rightly regarded as the snowbound spaghetti par excellence, Spanish director Jose Antonio de la Loma surely warrants honorary mention for Nevada (aka. Boldest Job in the West aka El Mas Fabuloso Golpe Del Far-West), his worthy winter work from 1972.
Barcelona-born Loma was a prolific, multi-talented filmmaker whose career in cinema spanned five decades, and whilst his name may not be instantly familiar, his significant contribution to the European genre film ought to be acknowledged. Writer, producer, director, production manager – like many of his contemporaries, Loma was familiar with all facets of the industry, allowing him freedom of movement through a variety of productions during a time when the Italian film industry was at its zenith with regard to output and export. Loma made his directorial debut in 1957 with the Spanish-Italian melodrama Las Manos Sucias (although the film is credited to both Loma and Marcello Baldi). From there, Loma worked across a wide range of popular genres, including espionage (The Magnificent Tony Carrera , a generously budgeted action film shot on 70mm and starring Thomas Hunter from Carlo Lizzani’s 1966 spaghetti gem The Hills Run Red); war (1970’s Golpe de Mano, with Fernando Sancho); and crime (with the British-Spanish co-production Barcelona Kill, 1973). In between such assignments, Loma also directed a series of short documentary travelogues for the company Promofilms S.A. (the very same production outfit which provided financial backing for Nevada). It was within the realm of the Euro-western, however, that Loma proved most proliferant, and his work within the Spaghetti cannon – though rarely heralded – deserves due consideration, given that Loma was heavily involved in many of the key films of the so-called golden era. He was, of course, credited director on the 1965 film Why Go on Killing? (aka Perché uccidi ancora?), although many genre enthusiasts now posit that Edoardo Mulgaria most likely directed that picture (a notion this writer is not entirely sold on). Ancora was amongst the first glut of post-Leone Euro-westerns, and remains notable as the first starring role for Brazilian actor (and bona fide aristocrat) Antonio De Teffe (aka Anthony Steffen), who would, of course, go on to own a good portion of Spaghetti lore.
Ancora and Nevada aside, it was as writer that Loma was most prolific within the Euro-western, with such credits on his résumé as Alfonso Balcazar’s excellent Five Thousand Dollars on One Ace (Pistoleros de Arizona, 1964), starring Robert Woods and Fernando Sancho; The Last Tomahawk (Harold Reinl, 1964, and no doubt the film Loma first encountered his future Ancora star, Steffen); Balcazar’s The Man from Canyon City (L’Uomo che viene de Canyon City, 1965), again featuring Woods and Sancho; Audie Murphy-starrer The Texican (1966); and, perhaps most notably, Nando Cicero’s Professionals for a Massacre (Professionisti per un massacre, 1967), featuring the Spaghetti triple-threat of George Hilton, Edd Byrnes, and George Martin. But it is the little-known Nevada which stands as the crown jewel in Loma's career – with sole story, screenplay, and director credit (and unhampered by rumour of ghost interference, as with the afore-mentioned Why Go on Killing?), the film appears to be every inch Loma’s achievement.
Set against a brutal winter backdrop in an unspecified northern state, the film is a bleak and heartless affair, populated by immoral and unlikable characters who crawl all over each other like scorpions drowning in a barrel of oil, clawing and stinging at their own kind in order to proliferate. Such dark territory was always the domain of the Spaghetti Western, but in 1972, when the Italo-western as a cinematic movement was on the precipice of slapstick comedy (talk about perversion of form!) and cheap parody, such blatant misanthropy as contained in Loma’s film was – and remains – most welcome. Nevada is a heist film masquerading as a western. Not a wholly original idea in itself, but the director does his best to subvert both expectation and execution, even going so far as to infuse the second half of his film with a muted giallo sensibility. It is this protean shift in tone, the film seemingly reluctant to set up camp in any one genre, which lends Nevada its distinct and disorientating air. Indeed, Nevada is some twenty minutes into its running time before the film slyly reveals its hand as a ‘specialist crew’ picture; that is to say a film in which a wildly disparate group of men – each with their own individual skillset (and, likely, agenda) – are recruited in order to pool said know-how and pull off a so-called ‘impossible job’. (Think Rififi  or Odds against Tomorrow  in spurs – or snowshoes. Indeed, it can be no coincidence that Loma was one of five credited writers on Grand Slam (Ad Ogni Costo , Giuliano Montaldo’s terrific heist-caper film, wherein Edward G. Robinson assembles one such group of ‘professionals’ [perennial fruitcake Kinski included] to steal a fortune in diamonds.) Prior to that belated reveal, the film unfolds in somewhat meandering fashion; a rambling mess of visual non-sequiturs with no identifiable clear thread. That is until the director allows the audience in on the plan, making the viewer complicit to the impending crime, and it becomes clear that what initially seemed like a sloppily disconnected opening was actually an exordial work of canny precision. Credit to Loma, also, for refusing to pander and follow the slavish mould of other such films, wherein our core group of assembled professionals would have been introduced via the nominal series of stock character vignettes (the brains, the muscle, the safecracker, the wild card et al). This is not to say that Nevada’s rogues are free of caricature or cliché, but Loma – taking his cue from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that ‘Action is character’ – is smart enough to let his characters bloom via deed and decision, as opposed to mere trait.
The film opens with the obligatory theme song, here a catchy little number entitled They Call it Gold, wherein vocalist Don Powell warns against the (insultingly obvious) corruptive lure of gold. As the opening credits play out, genre stalwarts Fernando Sancho and Piero Lulli convene against a snowy backdrop – a most promising opening by any spaghetti standard. These men obviously have a shared history, as they embrace upon meeting. This gesture of affection is incredibly rare for the genre – one built on taciturn men for whom emotion is not merely impractical but more a downright liability – and a small, wonderful detail. Hell, Lulli even picks up a fistful of snow and throws it playfully at his friend! (For the record, there is no hint of homoeroticism here, although that would certainly have lent proceedings an extra dimension of tension.) Here, Loma is going against the grain, as he will for most of the picture. Only two-minutes into the film, and we are already a long way from the cold, silent archetype that Clint Eastwood so memorably established; these cowboys appear both jovial and gregarious, traits not overly identifiable with the traditional Spaghetti anti-hero. Both men also refer to their pocket watches throughout this opening scene, hinting that their meeting was not necessarily fortuitous, but planned. On they ride, arriving at the town of Sun Valley, where both characters are further established. Sporting an eye-patch, Sancho – here playing a bandit named El Reyes – has a somewhat atypical character introduction, intervening in the beating of a young boy and immediately ingratiating himself with both the boy’s pretty elder sister and the viewer. By contrast, the always-dependable Lulli (who, buried beneath his hilariously pristine white fur coat and matching hat, looks like he’s wearing a dead polar bear carcass) is on far more familiar ground as the suitably ambiguous and enigmatic Jeremiah. The camera then proceeds to float around the town of Sun Valley, jumping location in epileptic style from saloon to boudoir to a supposed pharmacy under construction, with Loma, somewhat guardedly, offering only the briefest snapshots of this seemingly thriving town. But all is not what it seems, and said pharmacy is duly revealed to be a mere façade; it is actually being used as a dugout by a band of motley outlaws, who have ingeniously tunnelled beneath the town and aim to rise like predatory moles within the confines of the Sun Valley National Bank, fixing to steal the safe. How about that for a set-up?
Various members of said ‘crew’ are then introduced, chief among them Mark Edwards as conniving gambler and de facto leader Michigan; Poldo (Charly Bravo), a cad caught between two sisters; and a couple of ex-Union soldiers in army blue, Sergeant Jess Calloway (Frank Brana) and Little Steve (Fernando Bilbao). As with Sancho and Lulli, all characters teasingly consult their pocket watches during this section, the film obviously building to something, although Loma is clearly in no great haste to reveal his hand. The pocket watch had, of course, by this point, become something of a minor Spaghetti motif, with countless films tipping their hat to Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965), but here Loma goes beyond mere tribute or homage (or, more bluntly, a creatively bankrupt-based theft) to legitimize their presence by visually unifying a bunch of characters that we – the audience – have barely gotten to know. Sancho and Lulli are, of course, along for the ride, with Sancho shacking up with the persecuted siblings he helped save earlier in the film. (Lest we, the audience, have forgotten that this is a Spaghetti Western, the film then promptly pisses away any goodwill previously levelled at Sancho’s character by having him force himself upon the boy’s sister, stopping short of rape only after the girl protests. ‘I’d like to ask for your forgiveness,’ says Sancho in the typically harried English dub track, and then quickly adds, ‘Now get the hell out of here before I change my mind!’ Is Sancho impotent? Schizophrenic? Both? We’ll never know, but the scene makes good in providing the character with a healthy ambiguity that will be tested throughout the film.)
Meanwhile, a handful of secondary characters – such as the Sun Valley sheriff and various city fathers – hover on the periphery of proceedings, blathering about nothing in particular, as if waiting, like the viewer, for some kind of recognizable narrative to kick in. Finally, though, the film begins proper, with our band of would-be-thieves being addressed by top dog Michigan, who informs his colleagues of their nefarious plan, dutifully chewing through a huge chunk of expositional dialogue in the process. Thankfully, what could have been a chore (for actor and viewer alike) turns out to be quite a nifty little sequence, with Loma cross-cutting between Edwards’ soliloquy and a sequence of relevant visual references used to reinforce said speech. Again, what could have been an expository lull is turned into a swift, punchy sequence highlighting the various intricacies of the job ahead. We are informed that the Sun Valley National Bank is all but impenetrable, and that many famed outlaws having already attempted – and failed – to relieve the vault of its valuables. It is interesting to note here that Michigan insists on a strictly pacifistic approach to the robbery, with nobody to be harmed or killed. It seems unlikely that anybody carrying a firearm and fixing to rob a bank would take such a morally-resolute stance with regard to human collateral, but it’s a welcome touch nonetheless, and earmarks Michigan as probable conscience of the group (and therefore prime candidate for ‘hero’ of the piece at this early stage of proceedings). Perhaps inevitably, such instruction will go ignored by at least one member of the group, triggering a cataclysmic chain of events, but more on that later.
And so our motley crew rob the bank (minus Sancho, who is incarcerated by the sheriff prior to the crime in a plot point so trite and unimportant as to warrant no further mention). Unlike most western film bank robberies, which rely pointedly on the threat of violence or physical harm, Nevada’s featured heist is cleverly based on the engenderment of mass confusion and panic. Having rigged the town with dynamite (ingeniously mounting the lengths of fuse with pockets of mud), our ‘heroes’ seek to distract the denizens of Sun Valley via a smokescreen of chaos, including a saloon brawl (with typically inconsequential violence) and multiple explosions, all of which serves to divert attention whilst the group tunnel beneath the safe and snatch it. There is also a decent group mêlée staged in mud, captured with some nice and scrappy handheld camerawork, and an impressive detonation which destroys an entire school house, resulting in the rare sight of an actual set (or façade) being burned and an unusually high number of background artists converging to extinguish the inferno. More explosions, punches and gunfire follow as the thieves execute their task. The Sun Valley water tower is summarily blown to pieces. All of this chaos is impressively staged. Sancho is sprung from jail, innocent people are killed (despite Michigan’s instruction), and the gang make their escape with a wagon full of gold. The entire robbery is realistically portrayed and capably shot with a keen eye for detail – the men struggle to get the safe on the wagon during the aftermath; a lesser film would have bypassed this welcome element and jumped straight to the obligatory rendezvous. It is here that the film shifts into its second act, as the group reconvene post-crime to split the loot. Whilst the first to arrive at the designated spot warm themselves over a thawing fire and a pot of hot coffee, erstwhile clown Jeremiah jokingly posits a scenario where the men yet to materialize might have betrayed them and took off with the spoils. He won’t know how close he is to the truth until it’s too late. Gone now is the muddy civility of Sun Valley, only to be replaced by heavy snowfall, bitter cold, and a sustained melancholy, as if the filmmakers shot the remainder of the film during the so-called magic hour of twilight.
That’s pretty much it for plot, the film streamlined to a basic before-and-after scenario. But any true fan knows that greed and duplicity are Spaghetti staples, and, sure enough, treachery and murder rear their ugly heads. Cue much bloodshed, as somebody in the group begins to make short work of his equally amoral friends, killing off his accomplices in order to claim the spoils for himself. And so begins the slaughter, which Loma orchestrates in expert fashion. Welcome here is the added element of paranoia: beyond the robbery itself, the crux of Loma’s film is one of mystery: just who is the traitor within the group? That question provides an unexpected – and expertly sustained – frisson to proceedings, morphing the film from heist-western hybrid into a Ten Little Indians-style bodycount whodunit before our very eyes. An outwardly odd comparison, perhaps, but then, as previously mentioned, Nevada represents an odd kind of cross-pollination with regard to genre.
In a sustained climax of gunfire and elemental struggle, Loma whittles down his cast one-by-one until his Judas is finally revealed. This is all very exciting, the final half-hour thundering along at a forceful pace as the group look inwards and bicker amongst themselves in order to identify the traitor within and thus reclaim the stolen haul. Powell’s theme song is here repeated against a montage of snowfall, burial and frantic scrabbling through a hostile terrain, all of it shot and edited with a rare clarity of purpose. Some of Loma’s compositions have a stark beauty to them, the camera often peering out from beneath loaded branches or from behind gnarled tree trunks, much of this captured via a striking use of negative space. Indeed, so handsomely rendered are some of the shots that Nevada registers as a much more polished and well-funded production than it probably was.
But what of the seasonal landscape, and just how intrinsic is the snow to Loma’s film? Well, firstly, beyond the obvious aesthetic quality, it would seem the wintry setting was no mere cypher on which the director hung his yarn. As one of the thieves comments – the very reason the location of the rendezvous was selected was due to the inhospitable nature of the terrain; it would be foolish, nigh on impossible, for the law to follow them into the blanketed mountains. And would Corbucci’s Il Grande Silenzio be half as affecting had that film unfolded under a scorching sun rather than snowy, wintry Utah? Certainly, its overall power and singularly hypnotic spell would have been greatly diluted, and so it is that the snowy landscape of Loma’s film adds much by way of atmosphere and murky ambience. Like Corbucci, Loma utilizes the snow and landscape to highlight both literal and metaphorical hardship – emphasizing a certain physical struggle true to the hard-living settlers and pioneers of the time whilst simultaneously mirroring the defectively cold moral centre of his characters. On a more pragmatic level, Loma’s film trumps Corbucci’s in at least one department by having real snow feature throughout. Whereas Silenzio (famously) utilized gallons of shaving foam to sell the illusion of snow during certain studio-shot sequences, Nevada appears far more authentic in its appropriation of the actual white stuff. Surely, then, as strong as the film stands, Nevada would not have worked as well had the film played out in a more traditional western environment.
The film also boasts a fine, familiar cast of genre regulars, although even here director Loma subverts that familiarity, most notably with Spanish actor Fernando Sancho. Although he spent much of his spaghetti tenure milking a singular persona, Sancho never coasted on a certain professional apathy like, say, Kinski. He may have played the rogue bandit ad nauseam, but here, the actor delivers a richly nuanced performance that suggest a blossoming conscience within the character – one which the audience glimpses long before the robbery. Lulli, probably one of the Italo-westerns most underrated and invaluable performers – along with, say, Frank Wolff, Horst Frank and Luigi Pistilli – also registers strongly in the role of Jeremiah. Wearing his ridiculous white fur combo throughout the picture, Lulli looks like he tumbled out of Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets (1951) and landed smack bang in the middle of Loma’s opus, wintry camouflage at the ready. Beyond this world-class pairing, the whole cast are just fine; with no clear headliner, it really is anybody’s guess as to who will fall victim (and in what order) and who will finally be unveiled as the killer. Indeed, Loma does his best to wrong-foot and mislead, with several likely heroes falling victim prior to the action-crammed climax. Without dipping into unnecessary detail (it would be unsporting of me to divulge specific plot points), the film ends on a grimly upbeat note. As the lone survivor is proclaimed a hero-of-sorts by the inhabitants of Sun Valley, the actor (or character?) obliterates the fourth wall by glancing directly into the camera and engaging with the viewer head-on, the film effectively winking at the audience. Is this De Loma’s nod to Mario Bava, a la the brilliantly self-deprecating coda of Black Sabbath (I tre Volti Della Paura, 1963)? Or was this merely a brief and inspired moment of improvisation on the actor’s part which the director chose to retain in the final cut? Whatever the reason behind its inclusion, that final freeze-frame typifies all that is right with Loma’s winning film: non-conformist, unshackled by cliché and often downright insolent.
Beyond the performers, the photography and the unexpected irreverence of that closing sequence, Nevada has many merits, not least its flavourful soundtrack. The film’s treachery and gunplay are perfectly augmented by maestro Stelvio Cipriani’s wonderful music – possibly his finest spaghetti score, and certainly his most atypical. Suitably gloomy and melancholy, the lush orchestrations of Nevada match the bleak visuals beat for beat. Part of the Hillside Collector’s Series (GDM) on Compact Disc, the score is most definitely recommended. But, lest this piece sound like an unconditional recommendation, the film also has its share of shortcomings which ought to be addressed. The plot strand regarding Poldo and the two sisters is tedious, and undeserving of its inclusion within the film. Loma should’ve taken Leone’s cue, excising all trace of romance and bedroom politics from his picture in the name of pace and momentum. So, too, the sheriff’s quasi-racist harassment of Sancho in the first half of the picture; whilst it establishes Sancho’s character as the persecuted underdog and threatens to side-line him from the robbery, it really adds nothing overall to the main thread of the film. These are minor quibbles, however, and in no way detract or threaten to derail the picture. Ultimately, Nevada stands as an exceptionally well-made morality tale, with greed and corruption inviting nothing but the just-dessert of death. As writer and director, Loma neither glorifies nor condemns his characters, but rather documents their downfall as if their fate(s) were preordained. Bad things will happen to bad people, the director seems to say with a shrug. Devoid of politics, allegory or sanctimony, Nevada is an entertainment piece, and all the better for it. You want to see bad men do bad things and die horribly as a result? This is that film.
To this day, Nevada remains scandalously ignored within the Spaghetti Western sanctum. Like an untapped vein of gold, it remains hidden, just waiting to be unearthed and (re)discovered. Remarkably little has been written about the film, too, even amongst the most authoritative of volumes (in Kevin Grant’s otherwise exhaustive reference book, Any Gun Can Play [FAB Press], the film receives little mention beyond a cursory name-check), and it remains incredibly difficult to find. Nevada’s lack of legitimate availability means my only experience of the film was via a severely compromised video version; the picture crudely cropped (to fullscreen) and robbed of vital information. The film positively screams out for a serious restoration in the correct aspect ratio and the application of an Italian language track, where it would hopefully find some level of appreciation and become eligible for reassessment. Oddly, many reviews or published notes on the film erroneously list Nevada as a comedy of sorts, presumably by people who haven’t actually seen it but are likely familiar with box art of certain home video releases, the artwork of which suggests bawdy humour and camp enterprise (‘A tale of the safest bank in the west… and the oddballs who rob it!’ runs one such tagline), all of which is about as accurate as pitching Gianfranco Baldanello’s uber-grim Black Jack (1968) as a frivolous musical.
Forget the dubious mis-marketing, then, and ignore the (frankly mystifying) accusations of any post-Trinity self-reflexivity. This is Loma’s finest Spaghetti contribution, and a very fine cocktail of snow & spaghetti. All said and done, Nevada is a tough, exhilarating little film – as cold, mean, and unforgiving as its snowbound terrain and the characters that inhabit it. Corbucci’s Silenzio may well be Grande, but Loma’s Nevada is never anything less than impressive.