Swallowing the Grub: Exploring Vincent Dell’Aquila’s Tequila Joe
From The Spaghetti Western Database
Revision as of 18:49, 15 April 2020 by Admin
Alcohol stands as something of a minor footnote regarding Western lore, at least on the cinematic landscape. After all, when compared to, say, the dashing romanticism of stampeding cattle, rampaging Indians, gunpowder and firearms, just how cinematic can a bottle of liquor be? But alcohol played an integral part in frontier life. Despite the ubiquitous, monosyllabic order of ‘Whiskey’ in many a western – American and Euro – as the hero slams down a silver dollar on a well-worn bar, the drink de jour of that period was actually brandy or rum, at least until logistical reasons (not to mention the influx of Scottish and Irish settlers and their own respective distilling traditions) saw the advent of corn-based liquor become the staple spirit of the pioneer and etched its name into popular culture as the drink of choice for the weary cowboy fresh off the trail. (The accepted cliché of whiskey as default choice of aperitif for any cowboy is brilliantly subverted during a moment in Paolo Bianchini’s excellent Quel caldo maledetto giorno di fuoco/ Gatling Gun (1968), wherein, upon being asked if he wants whiskey, the character of Chris Tanner (Robert Woods) somewhat incredulously replies, ‘Whiskey? At this this time of the morning? Are you crazy? Get me coffee – lots of coffee.’) In its own way, alcohol became as much an important weapon in frontier life as the Colt or the Winchester rifle, albeit in a very different way, against a very different kind of enemy – it being used to fend off boredom, failure, pain and a New World-loneliness, inducing a fleeting existential numbness amongst other things. Even more than that, though, alcohol served as a crucial social adhesive, a way of bringing men together and bonding them during a time of great change and prospective uncertainty. The saloon was – and remains – a staple of most Western films, the social fulcrum on which an entire town pivots with regard to both citizen relations and socio-economics (alcohol, gambling and whores being the cornerstone of any thriving frontier town, just ask John McCabe & Mrs. Constance Miller). Despite all this, the intrusion of alcohol – or any – addiction and/or dependency hints at an unwelcome character flaw when applied to the infallibly virtuous figure of the cowboy. This is, after all, a genre built on stoic, courageous men; those who suddenly found the geographical boundaries of the old world prohibitive and decided to traverse beyond them, with no real inclination or understanding as to what fate awaited them beyond the romanticized conviction of a better life. And yet it stands to good reason that alcohol would have served as a prevalent anaesthetic during a period in history when failure, disappointment, bitter regret and a herculean resilience proved the linchpin of progress. In fact, any serious consideration of that specific time and the hardships endured is likely to leave one wondering why anybody chose to remain sober, such was the struggle inherent.
But director Vincent Dell’Aquila’s E venne il tempo di uccidere/ Tequila Joe (1967) isn’t really a film about alcohol, nor the titular character’s dependency. It’s a film about incompetent men; about inept villains, equally ineffectual lawmen and absent, piss-poor fathers. (The film does have one competent man at its core, but mostly Dell’Aquila’s pic is happy to emasculate and ridicule any male foolish or unlucky enough to wander into Rino Filippini’s Panoramico frame.) Genre architect Sergio Corbucci’s most interesting contribution – at least with regard to his finest Italo-westerns – was his obliteration and patented re-assimilation of heroism, often via the injury and physical torture of his protagonists. Here, with Tequila Joe, Dell’Aquila goes one further, by undercutting masculinity itself. His film is populated with dopes, dupes and a self-pitying lead character who, by and large, do not well represent the masculine model; forget Lola Colt (Siro Marcellini, 1967), Lina Wertmuller’s Il Mio corpo per un poker/ The Belle Starr Story (1968), or Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder (1971) – Tequila Joe might well stand as the definitive feminist Euro-western, achieved without a strong woman in sight, no less.
‘Tequila’ Joe Donnen, the film’s titular character and supposed lead, is an infuriating creation: a lazy, apathetic drunkard whom Dell’Aquila (as writer/director) and Fernando di Leo (co-writer) challenge us, the viewer, to not only tolerate for the better part of ninety minutes, but – more daringly – to get behind and root for. For 90% of the film, Joe is the total anthesis of what a traditional western hero should be – and that isn’t something that can be blamed or justified solely on his addiction. We’ve been here before, after all, in the presence of alcohol-dependent cowboys, whether that be via the classical American model (most notably Dean Martin in Howard Hawkes’ Rio Bravo (1959) and Robert Mitchum in Hawkes’ own quasi-remake, El Dorado (1967), the former of which appears to be of some influence on Dell’Aquila’s film, or Robert Ryan in Michael Winner’s criminally underrated 1971 revisionist downer, Lawman), or through the lens of our own beloved Italo-western (Anthony Casas in Il returno di ringo/ The Return of Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965); Jeffery Hunter in Joe…cercati un posto per morire!/ Find a Place to Die (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1968); Anthony Steffen in Salvatore Rosso’s 1968 flick Uno straniero de Paso Bravo/ Stranger in Paso Bravo, to name but a few). The fundamental difference between those films – and those characters – and the picture under review here, however, is one of rendered empathy and character arc. In stark contrast to, say, Dino as Dude in Rio Bravo, who elicits total viewer sympathy throughout and actively seeks self-transformation via redemption, placing the good of the group above the pain of the personal, Joe displays no evidence whatsoever of self-awareness or civic generosity. He just wants to drink. To call ‘Tequila’ Joe Donnen a drunk is no casual overstatement: this guy is pissed. From beginning until (near) end, Joe is inebriated to the point of incapacity; he staggers around in a state of total collapse, so desperate for a precious lick of alcohol that he’d gladly drink a puddle of stagnant goat piss if somebody poured a shot of rye into it (and the townsfolk don’t seem beyond that ploy, such is their amusement at Joe’s permanent state of self-degradation). When Dell’Aquila’s film begins, Joe hasn’t so much fallen off the wagon as accidentally doused it in rum during a bender and burned the damn thing to a charcoal cinder. As such, at least when we first enter into the film, ‘Tequila’ Joe might well stand as one of the most washed-up, laughably eremitic anti-heroes in the entire Spaghetti canon; affliction and addiction lend this man no such heroic dignity as afforded, say, Doc Holiday (essayed brilliantly by Victor Mature in the defining iteration of that legendary character) as he expires from consumption in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). Rather, this is a court jester reduced to public self-humiliation as personal repertoire.
Luckily, for both filmmakers and audience alike, the potentially objectionable character of Joe is played by the terrific Anthony Ghidra. Ghidra (born Dragomir Bojanic) was a Serbian actor of strong national repute. Unlike many Spaghetti Western leads who were simply assigned a major role – unproven with regard to worth, talent or presence, based, more likely, on sheer affordability, availability or a country’s level of financial backing and that actor’s respective territorial popularity – Ghidra was a trained actor of fair prestige, and had honed his craft for many years on both stage and screen, and thus, in hindsight, emerged as one of the most genuinely gifted and capable actors of all Spaghetti leading men. He certainly proved to be a rock-strong presence in all six Spaghetti Westerns he made (or seven if you count his early supporting turn in the 1964 German Winnetou production Amongst Vultures). I wish he’d done more. His legacy within the genre is minimal, but I find his contribution as performer to be both consistent and utterly convincing. Ghidra was blessed with one of those beautifully time-worn faces which look so grimly fascinating on camera; every line and crease of his distinct visage seemingly etched by experience, his craggy features and soul as worn as his saddle. There is a fervid legitimacy about Ghidra – something implacable which cannot be learned, copied, crafted or faked. For me, he remains the most authentic and plausible of all Spaghetti cowboys. Not the most hip or handsome, perhaps, nor the most devastatingly charismatic, but the most real. Many actors – no matter how gifted or enthusiastic – can be somewhat of an incongruous proposition when placed within a certain genre or historical period setting, but the Serbian actor seems in perfect synchronisation with not only the western period, but the context. And Tequila Joe is his finest western film, I think. The fact that the viewer never quite gives up on Joe – despite his seeming determination to exasperate and infuriate – is all down to Ghidra’s skilful underplaying.
But Tequila Joe isn’t entirely Ghidra’s show. In fact, as good as he is here, the Serbian could be seen to play second fiddle to his younger co-star, the French actor Jean Sobieski. Sobieski, then 30 years-old at the time of shooting, was a ridiculously handsome performer who had already made a splash on French television before segueing into Euro-genre cinema, most memorably by way of the subversive 1968 giallo film La Morte ha fatto l’uovo/ Death Laid an Egg. (That film, starring Silence himself, Jean-Louis Trintignant, was directed by Giulio Questi; just as he had done with his lone spaghetti credit, Se sei vivo spara/ Django Kill…If you Live, Shoot! (1967), Questi took the standard giallo blueprint and aggressively inverted it, creating something utterly bizarre and unique within the filone.) In theory, Sobieski should appear bland and inconsequential by comparison, but like, say, Gabriele Tinti in il Figlio di Django/ Son of Django (1967), the Cannes-born actor proves more than just a pretty face and several flavours removed from vanilla, delivering a performance which contrasts nicely with his more rugged elder. Besides, the film desperately need’s Sobieski’s Burt; without him, we’d be left with a kitchen-sink drama about a useless alcoholic and a failing small-town political infrastructure, devouring itself via an unchecked corruption.
Dell’Aquila’s film opens with a snazzy little title sequence shot against green baize. As the title credits appear, rendered in a striking yellow paint, a series of images are shown (pistols, bullets, sheriff’s star, holster, saddle bag et al) whilst Raoul belts out ‘A Man Alone’ – another of his insanely catchy theme-songs (in conjunction with maestro Francesco De Masi, whose excellent score will be addressed later). It’s a strong opening – genre shorthand as visual montage. The film begins proper in an unnamed town, where children play at cowboys with wooden replica guns which they purchase from the local coffin maker (a nice touch on the by-now overused staple). The kids argue over which of the townsfolk they get to play; everybody wants to be Trianis – the local heavy – whilst nobody wants to be sheriff ‘Tequila’ Joe, a character so seemingly pathetic that even the town youngsters acknowledge his total lack of worth. This is an interesting attitude, both relevant and redolent with the so-called modern gangster culture; in this already-decaying New World, the youth aspire not to decency and upstanding citizenry, but to the easy money and paper-thin notoriety that being a criminal provide. (Although, having said that, at least Trianis is sober, so maybe the children are backing the right horse after all, queasy morality aside.) The character of Burt then rides into town, seeking out the sheriff; he is summarily play-shot by the kid and his newly acquired wooden rifle. (At this point in the film, we are also introduced to a small, chained monkey. The animal appears to belong to a local prostitute. The inclusion of said simian seems rather incongruous for a western milieu, and neither Dell’Aquila nor the film itself seem terribly bothered with regard to explanation. The monkey will appear throughout the film for no discernible reason, but it certainly adds a touch of the surreal to proceedings.) We then meet the town fathers, who prove predictably corrupt. There is no pretence or duplicity here from Dell’Aquila as to criminal identity; no red herrings or late-in-the-day reveal – the film announces its villains immediately and up front, and so a nervous Rodriguez (Mimo Billi) informs Mulligan (a solid Furio Meniconi) that their former associate Trianis is at a local artist’s house. It seems these two men have pooled their resources in order to have Trianis killed; as of yet we do not know why, although it seems likely that Trianis is a man who has apparently outlived his use.
The film then cuts to the introduction of Manuel Trianis, played by genre regular Mimmo Palmara (credited under his Americanized name Dick Palmer). This scene is genuinely – intentionally – funny, and a true standout. Italo-westerns normally reverted to crude (and unfortunate) slapstick for levity, but here Dell’Aquila shows a deft hand for bona fide wit. Like any would-be despot worth his salt, desperate to have his tenure both documented and immortalized, Trianis is having his portrait painted by a local ‘artist’. Our villain is understandably restless at having already been made to sit for some three hours whilst the Mexican artist attempts to capture said posed grandeur; in his frustration, Trianis studies the artist’s work which covers the walls, the camera panning across a gallery of scrappy, childish pictures which appear to have been painted by the monkey from the previous scene. The effect is both jolting and hilarious (again, we do not expect such precise visual comedy spliced dead-centre into a spaghetti western). Trianis then goes one further with his critique, mocking the artist for his piss-poor perspective: “The donkey is as tall as the man! The church is as small as the donkey!” he bemoans before laughing mockingly. It’s a brilliant, surreal moment, expertly played (and dubbed). At this point, Mulligan and Rodriguez’s paid killers arrive, but – much like every other male in the film barring Burt – prove to be a pretty inept bunch. Outnumbered but not to be outdone, Trianis fights back; Palmer looks very good here – he has physical presence to burn, what with those huge shoulders and that barrel-chest. He makes Trianis appear genuinely imposing, a force to be reckoned with despite his mirth and ridiculous stick-on moustache. The artist is killed (no great loss to Mexican culture) and the hired guns are left to bask in their failure. Trianis rides off to a cry of ‘Hasta la Vista!’, heading straight back into town, and is made aware of Rodriguez and Mulligan’s deceit by the monkey-owning prostitute (for whom, even after multiple viewings, I am unable to ascertain an audible character name).
Here the film introduces us to the eponymous ‘Tequila’ Joe, ejected from the town saloon for having no money. Joe stumbles and falls into the dirt, and it is here that Ghidra allays any viewer fear about poor ‘drunk’ acting. (Is there anything worse than bad screen ‘drunk’ acting? There is certainly nothing more embarrassing.) Ghidra sells his inebriation from the get-go, stumbling and mumbling convincingly as if sozzled on cheap rye. The townsfolk mock Joe mercilessly, their cruel sport standing something akin to enabling behaviour, which makes one wonder why Joe should sober up; who in their right mind would want to protect such a bunch of callous, unempathetic arseholes? Luckily, Sobieski’s Burt arrives, still searching for the town sheriff. Joe charges a dollar to reveal his badge, buying himself a bottle (the most paid work he’s done in quite a while, one would assume). Sobieski’s impossibly blue eyes – second in the genre only to Terence Hill – hint at a boyish nobility, prompting a reaction from both viewer and the Sheriff. Ghidra looks ashamed, even now, at this early stage in the picture, unable to betray a deep-rooted decency no matter how pickled or stewed. Burt then identifies himself as the new deputy. Incredibly, Joe’s ego is bruised (‘They think I can’t handle this town alone!’ he laments, failing to grasp that should the town pin the sheriff’s badge to a stray rooster it would undoubtedly uphold law and order in a more dedicated fashion). He goes to hit Sobieski but falls, breaking his precious bottle, an occurrence both funny and sad in its illustration of incompetence. The townsfolk roar with laughter, immovable in their amusement. Joe is clearly the town joke; they crowd to watch his ritual humiliation, no doubt routinely familiar with said act. Joe attempts to explain away his professional apathy as a self-preserving caginess, which Sobieski infers as cowardice. “What’s the difference?’ asks Joe.
Meantime, wise to his deceit, Trianis goes to visit Rodriguez, and summarily murders him by throwing the poor bugger off a cliff (rendered via a great dummy fall sequence, obvious yet not laughable). Palmara does lovely work here – all venomous squints and knowing pantomime villainy, as if the actor is working toward a collective booing from his appreciative audience. For an exemplary Spaghetti Western, Tequila Joe is surprisingly lacking in attitude and swagger, but what little élan exists is courtesy of Palmara.
In the next scene, Burt forces the sheriff to clean up the jail at gunpoint, another genuinely funny scene. The art department seem confused, as if they thought they were working on one of Margheriti or Freda’s b&w gothic horror films. One can only assume that Joe is subsidising his meagre government wage by running some kind of tarantula breeding farm on the side, such is the comical overload of spider-webbing in the jail. Seriously – the amount of faux-webbing on display here is incredible, straight out of one of Corman’s AIP/Poe adaptations. The jail doesn’t need cleaning so much as it needs fumigating (of all Joe’s many issues, arachnophobia clearly isn’t one of them). Suspect art design aside, though, Dell’Aquila’s eye for composition and filling the frame is exemplary. There’s an image here where Burt stops, aware that Joe has made for his gun. Dell’Aquila places Sobieski in the foreground, on the left of the picture, relegating Ghidra to the rear of the right. It’s instantly iconic, worthy of freeze-frame, a genre-defining tableaux in-and-of itself. The film is crammed with such images. Ghidra seems to have the perfect cowboy posture, and the film is littered with iconic poses which could easily be lifted from any of the great Spaghetti poster art. The film has a terrific visual shorthand, maybe more than any Italian-western I’ve seen beyond Leone, and speaks intimately to the viewer via those motifs, akin to key frames lifted from western fumetti. Burt then steps outside, trying to get a feel for the town to which he has just been assigned, where he first lays eyes on Trianis. Ghidra, meanwhile, swiftly returns to the bottle. Again, the title is no misnomer – Ghidra drinks his way through this film like a goddamn fish, sucking on bottles like a new-born pulling on its mother’s tit. Sobieski, for his part, is a pretty good sponsor; he is forever knocking bottles from Ghidra’s hands, much to the sheriff’s chagrin (and the viewer’s amusement).
Meanwhile Mulligan, sore that his men failed in their attempt on Trianis’ life, vows revenge, and plots to kill him during the funeral of his fallen compatriot, Rodriguez. As the funeral procession for both the Mexican artist and Rodriguez pass by, Trianis is duly set upon by Mulligan’s men, leading to the films first big action sequence. Unfortunately, this scene is rubbish, a crudely stitched patchwork of failed action beats and perfunctory camera coverage. The gunman hiding behind the coffin should have led to something interesting and blackly comic, but the scene is flat and uninteresting; it has no sense of geography or character placement. It plays out as an extended sequence of close-ups on random characters firing pistols haphazardly. The editing is sloppy and continuity poor, too (the man who brings Trianis his horse in order to escape is shot and killed, yet his body is no longer there in the wide shot). As all this bloodshed plays out, Ghidra continues to luxuriate in his apathy, roused into feeling only when he discovers that a baby has been killed in the crossfire. The notion of such innocence lost is unrelentingly grim, yet the film seems oblivious to such tragedy. Burt demands that he and Joe make a stand. Joe contests, knowing they are outgunned and outnumbered – a prospect fabulously exciting for the audience. Burt counters this by threatening to bring in government troops, which would mean certain death to a small town operating by its own governance, no matter how badly.
In the first of many ostensibly noble but woefully misguided attempts at professional proactivity, Burt goes to see Mulligan but is beaten by his flunkies. The men mock the badge, as if the very notion of law and order has long ago passed into the realm of myth. Sobieski, all six stone of him, isn’t the most physically threatening presence, but he’s young, handsome and the only sober half of our heroic duo, so we buy the fact that he can hold his own against much larger, more authentically capable men. In the first act of defacto law enforcement the town has likely seen in a good long time, Burt demands Mulligan meet with the sheriff at the local jail (Trianis will be given the same summons). Sobieski is cool and unflappable here, Ricky Nelson to Ghidra’s Dean Martin. Burt then takes on Trianis’ men in another dubious scene of featherweight chicanery, before taking another good hiding. Talk about dedication.
Mulligan and Trianis reluctantly arrive at the jail for some sort of attempted mediation. Joe attempts to straighten himself out for the meeting, his professional standing now in question, as if he is beginning to sense the faintest encroachment of a second chance. Sadly, Joe emerges as more ineffectual parent than effective lawman here. Trianis leaves, but not before threatening rape at Mulligan’s wife. At this point, we get the first clue as to what drove Joe to the bottle – the death of his brother, although the full reason will be revealed throughout the film in layers. Burt rewards Joe for his first bit of legit policing by giving him a bottle of booze, a dubious prize if ever there was one, tantamount to giving a heroin addict a rusty needle full of smack to celebrate his first month of being clean.
The whore with the monkey once again tips Trianis off, informing him that Mulligan’s beloved wife will soon be travelling cross-country. There follows a lousy stagecoach scene – actors wobbling unconvincingly whilst stagehands rock the cart – which is so in inept and uninteresting that you wonder if the director is playing it for laughs (at one point, the stagecoach driver turns the rope in his hands as if mimicking a car steering wheel). Stopping to assist an overturned cart and somewhat distracted by the presence of the whore’s seemingly omnipresent monkey, they are ambushed by Trianis’ men, who kidnap Mulligan’s wife. The following scene confused me somewhat, I must confess: Trianis rapes her, or begins to, but Mulligan’s wife seems only too happy to submit. So willing is she, in fact, that I briefly suspected her of being complicit with Trianis. However, that notion was quickly dispelled when Trianis, having had his wicked way with the poor woman, allows her to be gang-raped (off-screen, mercifully) by four of his henchmen. It’s strange that a film such as this, which has featured both infanticide and gang-rape before the half-way point, should feel so neutered and bland with regard to its violence; Dell’Aquila shows no interest in the ramification of such grotesque acts, which thankfully softens the blow.
There follows a nice scene with Burt and Joe discussing family; although nothing is overtly stated, any viewer worth their salt will by now be suspecting there might be something more resonant to their relationship. Here, Ghidra affects Henry Fonda’s iconic pose from My Darling Clementine – chair tilted back, feet resting up. It’s a nice touch, as is the next scene in which Trianis is strumming on a guitar, playing an actual piece from De Masi’s beautiful, bucolic score in a brief flash of meta. Two nice little details, obvious but unshowy. Dell’Aquila then cuts to the aftermath of the rape; Mulligan’s men arm themselves, with Mrs. Mulligan present, leaving the viewer to ascertain that she has shared her misfortune with her husband (although one wonders just how much she told him; would she have admitted to enjoying that first – consensual – part of her ordeal, or did she merely report the gang-rape?). So too do Trianis and his men lock and load, pre-empting retaliation for their defilement of the wife.
Burt attempts to wire the army in Dayton city, warning them of impending bloodshed. Joe, meanwhile, continues to stew within his drunken lethargy, his mind stuck somewhere in the past. Again, the filmmakers really do commit to the notion of Joe as a lush – Joe drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks, to the point that when the film hits the 55 minutes mark, you wonder if it’s building toward a showdown between Ghidra and his liver. Undeterred by both the odds and his useless superior, Burt remains remarkably pro-active. Unwilling to wait for Joe to do the right thing, cognizant to the fact that said epiphany may never come, he calls on himself as contingency and sets about rigging the main street with a liquor-filled trench booby trap. Causing panic via flame, he then proceeds to run around the Elios set, navigating the buildings, weaving between the close-knit facades which are strategically positioned in labyrinth fashion. Like Hill, Sobieski is slim and lithe, his athleticism as integral to the action as his pistols; at one point during this stalk-and-subdue set piece, Sobieski is seen ripping men from out of the frame and leaping from rooftops. Mulligan, too, stalks the streets, his men falling prey one-by-one to the wily young deputy. At one point, the resourceful Burt even carries off the fallen men in a wheelbarrow, literally delivering them to the sheriff’s door.
It’s at this point that the viewer might begin to take umbrage with the Sheriff. We are past the hour mark now, and our alleged hero still shows no signs of action, with deputy Burt doing all the work. Shouldn’t the film be named after this blue-eyed badass instead of the inebriated lug sat glugging down liquor in a perpetual state of ennui? Joe is nothing like Martin in Rio Bravo or Mitchum in El Dorado. Those characters were broken men, like Joe, but still conscious of the cancer infecting their town. As if such apathy wasn’t enough, Joe even has the temerity to criticize Burt for ‘catching only the little fish’, further distancing himself from any audience support. Jesus, Joe – you don’t want to pitch in, fine, but don’t then criticize your deputy.
The film hits another bizarrely funny beat during this action sequence, with Mulligan accidentally shooting one of his own men. ‘Sorry about that, John,’ he says upon recognizing his folly. ‘It’s alright,’ replies John, before promptly dying. I was unsure as to what kind of response Dell’Aquila was striving for here. Was the filmmaker inviting me to laugh with him, or leaving me with no other choice but to laugh at him? Given what had gone before – in particular that brilliantly droll artist scene – I think the scene was intentional in its badinage.
Cut to Trianis strumming his guitar in awful fashion. Taken by surprise, one of the strings snaps back to comedic effect. ‘You don’t play very well,’ says Burt, climbing through an open window in order to apprehend his quarry. What? Only a few scenes prior to this, Trianis was playing the guitar like Django Reinhardt, breaking down the fourth wall (in a fashion) by playing the very score to the film in which he appears. Now, all of a sudden, he’s strumming the guitar as if he has frostbite in his fingers whilst fending off an involuntary hand spasm. What does all this mean? Is Dell’Aquila taking the piss, or is each scene here acting independently of the film as a whole? It’s hard to tell, and yet – incredibly – the film somehow manages to retain a remarkably consistent tone. It’s also worth stating that, by this point in the film, Burt really is a cool bastard. This essay is based on my ninth, maybe tenth viewing of Dell’Aquila’s picture, but – so enthralled am I to Ghidra’s weathered charm and downbeat persona – that I’ve never really acknowledged Sobieski’s contribution to the picture as second lead before now. But Ghidra looms in the wings, waiting for his cue, whereas Sobieski charges through the film like some fey rhino, determined to honour the pointed piece of metal pinned to his chest. It’s a casually forceful performance from a slight figure, and one wishes Sobieski had done more Euro-westerns. Again, this is exciting casting which subverts expectation; the prototypical Marlboro man does absolutely nothing, whilst the asexual doll cleans up the sewer. The sexual ambiguities of the SW were always very loose to say the least (Milian, Nero, Gemma, Garko – all had slightly effeminate qualities save perhaps for Steffen, who alone best represented the stoic American model of granite indifference of Cooper, Wayne, Scott et al), but here Sobieski takes tough-guy androgyny and resets the bar. He’s terrific.
As Sobieski rounds up Trianis’ men, Francesco De Masi’s score kicks in proper, and it’s here that we should probably acknowledge the maestro’s contribution. Here, in this particular scene, De Masi gives Morricone a run for his money in terms of expressionistic noise and offbeat motifs. Whilst somewhat lost within the film itself, one need only consult the CD soundtrack to see just how rich and experimental the music for this film actually is. Odd as it may seem, in this glorious age of Beat Records, Digitmovies and the Hillside Collector’s Series, De Masi’s full score for Tequila Joe has never had a proper release; the only legitimate avenue being the select compositions appearing alongside his scores for Man from Cursed Valley (1964) and Challenge of the McKennas (1970) on the compact disc from Beat. (Why Beat didn’t release the complete Tequila Joe recordings in a stand-alone version as part of their excellent run of De Masi soundtracks is a mystery. One can only assume the entire masters have not yet been made available or aren’t in satisfactory shape.) Regardless, it’s a great score – alternatively mournful and eclectic, operating well beyond the boundaries of the Deguello-type facsimile to which we have grown accustomed. De Masi fully deserves his place within the top-tier of composers working in Italian genre film during the so-called golden period.
And so – backed by De Masi if not his drunken gaffer – Burt finally secures Trianis and his men. The deputy parades them through the city whilst the denizens look on, fitfully amused, as if seeing for the first time that Trianis is fallible, and just as prone to looking stupid and downtrodden as they are. Burt marches them into Joe’s jail and waits on federal assistance. Joe is still stumbling around, slave to his tremens. He heads to the cantina, where his informant, Chico, tells him that Mulligan has sent for help and hired the notorious Crawford brothers, who are now on their way. But Burt won’t run, and the scene culminates with Joe on the floor, threatening to kill the younger deputy, who demands to know how a once-proud man could fall so spectacularly far from grace. Just like Joe’s introductory scene, his humiliation is played out before a crowd, the prisoners seemingly spellbound by this piece of grand melodrama, as if it were some kind of state-provided theatre production put on for their entertainment. The film is soaked in such conflict: good guys versus bad guys; good sober guy versus good drunken guy; bad guy v badder guy and so forth. There is scant relief within the film as a whole, save De Masi’s aforementioned score. Thankfully, Ghidra’s playing is so adroit, so effective, that we don’t hate Joe or fully give up on him. Burt holds up at the jail to the sound of coyotes howling, waiting on further ambush. Dell’ Aquila and his cinematographer, Rino Filippini, film this at dawn, during the magic hour, and it’s wonderfully atmospheric, rendered in cobalt-blue and artificial, low-level light emitting from studio-set windows. This part of the film is vaguely reminiscent of High Noon (1952) – you really get the feeling Burt is going up alone against insurmountable odds, the clock counting down to a terrible and lonely fate, whilst the gutless townsfolk cower in their insouciance, action and heroism the responsibility of others. Sobieski’s character is one of the very best lawmen in SW; he wears his badge plainly, it means something to him, he intends to honour it – not always the case in a sub-genre which tended to view Johnny Law as corrupt, weak or downright impotent.
‘A man never stops being a man,’ say Burt when Joe asks for reformation that he had handled the Trianis and Mulligan meeting with skill. It’s an abysmal line of dialogue, completely nonsensical, even as cliché, but for some reason it seems to galvanize Joe somewhat (although not that much). The cavalry duly arrives and arrest all prisoners, but Joe and Burt still have to deal with Mulligan and the three summoned Crawford brothers. Mulligan and co. attack the cavalry train and Mulligan kills his own men in order to get at Trianis. This is very disappointing – Trianis is denied neither a fitting death scene nor a showdown, and is dispatched in cavalier, anonymous style which leaves the viewer most dissatisfied. Mimmo Palermo did fine character work here bringing such a flamboyant and ostentatious villain to life, yet Dell’Aquila affords him no payoff or reward – a poor decision from a directorial stance. It’s a shame, and probably the one major, jarring misstep in the film.
Burt returns to town, where Joe sulkily reveals that Mulligan killed his own brother, the catalyst for his prolonged descent into alcoholism and nihilism. It’s a facile, tenuous reason for this wreck of a man – a lazy bit of screenwriting from the normally sharp and economical Di Leo. Burt goes out to face Mulligan and the Crawfords alone whilst Joe suffers yet-another crisis of faith; he opens Burt’s wallet and finds an old photograph which reveals the young deputy to be his grown son. The timeline here is somewhat confused (has Joe been this drunk for the best part of thirty years?), not least due to the fact that Ghidra was only four years older than Sobieski at the time the film was made(!). And so Joe becomes a ‘man’ again. (It’s of dubious note that the film seems to equate being a ‘man’ with committing acts of violence, albeit in the name of law and order, but a worrying and misguided correlation all the same.) This is pure fantasy, of course. Joe is seemingly cured of his addiction by emotional recall; no shakes, no puking or soiling himself, no gruelling period of cold-turkey for Joe (no longer having any use for the titular sobriquet ‘Tequila’, one would assume), just back into the fray. His reawakening is long overdue; the original Italian (and American) title for the film, translated as ‘And Then a Time for Killing’ strikes one as some kind of literal, ironic jibe.
The final gunfight is excellent and exciting. Sobieski once again zig-zags through the byzantine sets with ease, killing off faceless villains (there are countless terrific rooftop falls throughout the sequence) until wounded in the leg himself, his thigh drenched in that wonderful red paint-type blood, so uniquely effective in its sheer artifice. Thankfully, Joe appears, manifest as avenging angel; very late in the day but back in the fight. Burt tells Joe to shoot straight – again, is Dell’Aquila taking the utter piss here, or, at this late stage in the day, teetering on the edge of climax, has the film finally proven itself as some kind of deadpan comic masterpiece? Burt still appears to be worryingly obsessed with the notion of masculinity, telling his father once more to ‘Be a man.’ (By this point, the notion of a homogenized masculinity has been hammered home ad nauseum and is beyond parody, reminiscent of some naff aftershave advertisement circa 1985.) Joe and Mulligan face off in the livery stable, opting for a fist-fight finale as opposed to the expected gun-down. Said scrap is expertly staged, with Ghidra and Meniconi both committing and convincing with regard to the physical stuff, with little sign of stunt-double intervention. There is also a startling use of primary colour in this particular scene, with the vibrant red of Ghidra’s jumper and the painted stable walls contrasting loudly with the remaining mute palate and abundance of shadow. (To be fair, this has proved a constant throughout the film: Rino Filippini’s cinematography has done wonders in bringing such a rich colour-scheme to life – see Sobieski’s green jeans – and it is no overstatement to say that at certain points in the film I was reminded of the sterling work Russell Metty did for Douglas Sirk on his acclaimed run of Universal melodramas in the 1950s).
In one bravura segment of the fight, Ghidra is slapped viciously around the face some twenty times by Mulligan, the film still working from a place of cruel emasculation. Finally, Ghidra terminates Mulligan via an-axe to the gut, giving the denouement the unexpected air of a Friday the 13th film. It’s a fine pay-off, nice and pulpy. Victorious, the reformed Joe returns to the wounded Burt in a scene which threatens to undermine the whole picture. Now aware of each other’s familial identity, the young Donnen explains that he rode into town because his mother told him to, ‘Go get your pa. Go get Joe Donnen’.
What? Such a notion is borderline ridiculous and does not stand to scrutiny. Why did she wait so long? What prompted her belated action? We have already seen that Burt is a man of action and gumption – why did he himself wait so long to ride off and reclaim his father from the clutches of the bottle? ‘Let’s go home,’ says Joe, apparently stone-cold sober now, unaffected by all side-effects commonly associated with alcohol addiction. There follows a banal coda in which yet another seemingly worthless lawman arrives in town, identifying himself as the real newly-appointed deputy, Burt having been an imposter all along. ‘I was wondering when he would arrive,’ laughs Burt. How did he even know that said town was expecting a new deputy? Is he actually affiliated with law enforcement in any real capacity? We will never know. Joe promptly promotes this bumbling clown to Sheriff, ensuring the town will be in an even worse state than when the paralytic Joe was in charge. No wonder the west was so wild if this was what stood for law enforcement. One would assume that Dell’Aquila and Di Leo think this to be an uplifting, rewarding epilogue, but it’s actually extremely depressing. The town populace as collective made no stand or offered any help, meaning it made no progress at all with regard to civic reform, and will likely remain a town built on convenient ignorance and fear, with no ability to self-govern or grow. It’s a rotten outcome which the filmmakers rather fraudulently attempt to pass off as upbeat, like dogshit dipped in sugar, but I’m not buying it.
Production-wise, Tequila Joe demonstrates an odd pedigree. The film was co-produced by Renzo Renzi, who made his name writing and directing a handful of short documentaries focusing on social – and architectural – reform in Italy during the early 1950s before quickly disappearing off the cinematic landscape, and Otello Cochi, whose own resume is equally sparse (although Ochi both produced and served as production manager on Demilo Fidani’s cult 1970 curiosity Quel maledetto giorno d'inverno... Django e Sartana all'ultimo/ One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana!). Likewise, Dell’Aquila’s career as director is also regrettably brief, as if Tequila Joe cursed all major contributors and somehow curtailed their careers. Having contributed a directorial segment to the ultra-obscure 1964 comedy portmanteau gli eroi di ieri...oggi...domani (alongside Fernando di Leo, which may explain their dual-participation on Tequila Joe) and having helmed the romantic melodrama il ragazzo (1967), he never directed another film following Joe, although he dabbled briefly in television. That’s a shame, as he seems to possess a genuine flare for visual storytelling, at least as evidenced here.
Tequila Joe is a good film, then, and a high-ranking Spaghetti Western. It is all faux-melodrama and half-buried wit, somewhat shy of total anarchy yet wholly reluctant to conform. It’s a real ‘middle’ picture in that sense and yet one of the very best second-tier Spaghetti Westerns, with an enjoyment factor equal to Joe’s blood-alcohol level. The story is negligible, maybe even redundant, but the details are sharp and the individual components sufficiently appealing. The pace should drag – this is essentially a film about people waiting – yet the film moves at a nice clip, crammed with incident and character. The film remains a head-scratching paragon in-and-of itself; it is all build-up and zero release – a mammoth disappointment which, somehow, doesn’t disappoint. Dell’Aquila and Di Leo ask the viewer to wait patiently for some 85-minutes, promising some sort of salvific bloodbath on Joe’s part, a cathartic relief for both protagonist and audience alike. But when Ghidra’s sleeping behemoth finally awakes…nothing much happens, the pay-off decidedly lacklustre. Was Joe ever really bothered about revenge? Not on this evidence. It seems to me that the bottle was driving Joe far harder than any harboured notion of retribution. In a genre built on men governed by an unquenchable thirst for revenge, intent on settling blood debts and life scores no matter the cost, here we have a real anomaly: a lead character decimated by loss and grief but too weak to do anything about it. And so, Tequila Joe stands, in essence, as a 95-minute revenge drama about a man with no inclination toward payback. And yet – and this is paramount to the film’s charm – we don’t feel cheated. As Joe reverts back from belligerent, lazy, insufferable jerk to the man he was before tragedy struck, I was reminded – of all things – of the closing scene of Cocteau’s La Belle et Bete (1946). Just as that magnificent brute returned to a princely human form, so too does Joe, in a fashion. Here both films must end – not because we have reached a point of natural narrative resolve or achieved a so-called happy ending, but because we no longer wish to be in the company of our hero, the monster being infinitely more interesting than the man.