Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: The Stranger Collection: A STRANGER IN TOWN (1967); THE STRANGER RETURNS (1968); and THE SILENT STRANGER (1975)

While Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were game-changers in Europe and made Clint Eastwood a star, the US releases of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) were delayed for a few years (the first two hit US theaters in 1967 and UGLY was released in 1968). By that time, the spaghetti western explosion in Italy was completely out of control, with literally hundreds being made in the years following, with every handsome Italian and ambitious young (or coasting old) American actor heading to Europe to achieve the kind of fame that Eastwood was enjoying. By 1967, Eastwood was the biggest star in Europe but back home, he was still best known for his stint on TV's RAWHIDE as few were even aware of the massive popularity of the films he'd been making in Europe. That all changed when FISTFUL finally opened in America, marking the belated arrival of a phenomenon that had already been raging in Italy and the rest of Europe for three years. American westerns were now trying to emulate the Italian ones--even Eastwood's debut as a Hollywood headliner, 1968's HANG 'EM HIGH, is heavily indebted to the spaghetti westerns--in a rare reversal of the trend pattern that usually saw Italian genre offerings blatantly copycatting what was big in America (like the later Italian EXORCIST ripoffs and post-DAWN OF THE DEAD zombie movies). The spaghetti craze reached its artistic apex with Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), an elegiac examination of the American west that drew the iconic Henry Fonda into Italian westerns, completely shattering his Tom Joad image by playing one of the most evil figures in all of cinema, one who's introduced shooting a small child point blank in the face.

The list of American actors hopping on the spaghetti western bandwagon is endless--even a young Burt Reynolds got into the act with Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film NAVAJO JOE, and William Shatner starred in the Spanish WHITE COMANCHE (1968) during a break between the first and second seasons of STAR TREK. One such actor was Tony Anthony, a New Jersey native whose background was covered at length on this blog in a piece on his 1983 film TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. Born in 1937, Anthony had made a few independent productions and by 1967, through his producing partner Saul Swimmer, he had fallen in with Abkco Records head Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones manager who would also end up overseeing the Beatles after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. It could be argued that Anthony's career is a classic case of smart networking, knowing the right people, and plain old dumb luck, as over the next few years, he and Swimmer would become tangential members of the Beatles' inner circle, with Swimmer directing George Harrison's CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH and Anthony working on a couple of projects with Ringo Starr. With Klein's help and a distribution deal with MGM, Anthony starred in three STRANGER films, the first two of which became surprise hits in the US in 1968. There were four STRANGER entries altogether, but MGM only released the first three, and as a result, Warner Archive's just-released STRANGER COLLECTION only includes those initial three, all directed by Luigi Vanzi under the Americanized pseudonym "Vance Lewis." Generally well-regarded by fans in their day, the films have fallen into obscurity over time, with Anthony better known today for his hand in the early '80s 3-D revival, but they're available once again, in decent if not spectacular widescreen transfers. And one of the films in particular, is a cult classic that's waited decades for rediscovery.

(Italy - 1967; US release 1968)

Anthony's Stranger arrives in a Mexican ghost town and watches psychotic bandit Aguilar (Frank Wolff) mow down a group of military officers. The Stranger concocts a gold heist with Aguilar with the full intention of ripping him off and turning him and his gang in for the reward money, but numerous double crosses ensue, with both the Stranger and Aguilar alternately getting the upper hand. This first entry in the series looks and sounds like any other spaghetti western of the era, but like most, it lacks artistic majesty of Leone and isn't quite up to the level of Corbucci,  the other standard-bearer of the genre. A STRANGER IN TOWN is very laboriously-paced, with long stretches where not much happens, and the bland story lacks the kind of imagination and character of Leone's films and doesn't attempt any of the political subtext that was creeping into spaghetti westerns around this time, in films like Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1968). In its defense though, it finally gets cooking in the last 15 minutes when the Stranger starts killing Aguilar's gang one by one, usually by sneaking up on them and blasting a shotgun into their face at point-blank range. The climax is so good that it almost makes you forgive the middling mediocrity of the first 70 minutes. Anthony is much more appealing here than he was in his comparitively bland '80s action star incarnation, and American expat actor Wolff, a fixture in Italian cinema and best known for his role as the doomed Brett McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is appropriately dastardly as the ruthless Aguilar. Between Anthony's looks, Wolff's curly hair, and Benedetto Ghiglia's very Morricone-esque score, if 1968 moviegoers left their glasses at home, they might be tricked into believing that it was Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonte up on the screen. The killer finale gives it a nice boost, but A STRANGER IN TOWN is really only for spaghetti western completists and Tony Anthony stalkers. (R, 86 mins)

(Italy - 1968)

Released in Italy in January 1967, A STRANGER IN TOWN proved to be a surprise hit for MGM when they released it in the US in April 1968 to appreciative American audiences for whom the spaghetti western was still relatively new. By that time, Anthony and Vanzi had already made the sequel THE STRANGER RETURNS, which appeared in US theaters just four months after A STRANGER IN TOWN. The sequel is an improvement over the first film, though it also suffers from a flabby midsection that could use some serious tightening. But it opens and closes strong, and Anthony imbues the Stranger with even more quirky characterization, including a Roy Rogers & Trigger-type relationship with his faithful horse Pussy (yes, Pussy), and a sometimes whimsical attitude that almost looks like a prototype for the slapstick antics of Terence Hill in the TRINITY films and MY NAME IS NOBODY. Without ever crossing the line into outright comedy, Anthony plays the Stranger here in a decidedly offbeat way--he's not quite as sharp as the Man with No Name, and often gets himself into situations where he's unquestionably the intellectually inferior party. But there's a very amusing sequence early on that Vanzi lets play out to a comically absurd length, where two bad guys force the Stranger to dig his own grave at gunpoint, and he keeps digging and digging until the grave is twice the size it should be. One of the guys asks if the hole is too big, to which the Stranger smiles and says "No," as the two villains remain blissfully and cluelessly unaware that they're going to be sharing the double-wide grave in matter of moments. Here, the Stranger runs afoul of a gang led by El Plein (Dan Vadis), who kills a postal inspector who was their inside man on the heist of a gold shipment being transported by stagecoach. The Stranger ends up impersonating the postal inspector, again with a half-assed plan to keep the gold for himself while turning El Plein and his men in for the reward money.

It's almost the same plot as A STRANGER IN TOWN, and like that film, there's a lot of walking around and noisy mayhem that never leads anywhere until late in the film when, once again, the Stranger is pursued by an outlaw gang and does the "sneak up on them and blow them away with a shotgun" act, which is just as illogically silly and crowd-pleasing here as it was in the first film. The occasionally light tone doesn't always gel with the film's hard-hitting violence, still worth an R rating today, with Vadis' El Plein being as nihilistic a bad guy that's been in any spaghetti western. In addition to Pussy the Horse, the Stranger gets another sidekick in the form of a drunken, crazed old street preacher (Marco Guglielmi) looking for one last shot at redemption. There's also one returning character, Army Lt. George Stafford, played here by an uncredited Ettore Manni (Lars Bloch played Stafford in the first film), though he and the Stranger don't seem to know each other like they did in A STRANGER IN TOWN. THE STRANGER RETURNS suffers from a meandering middle that drags badly, but Anthony conceived the story and he was clearly attempting to take things in a different direction and make the Stranger not so much the Man with No Name/Django clone that we saw in the first film. (R, 95 mins)

(US - 1975)

After the success of A STRANGER IN TOWN and THE STRANGER RETURNS, MGM decided they wanted a STRANGER trilogy and went all in on THE SILENT STRANGER. This third film in the series took Anthony's Stranger (and Pussy the Horse) to Japan to deliver an ancient scroll to its rightful owner. Of course, being that this is a western, the Stranger ends up in the middle of a longstanding battle between two rival samurai clans--exacerbated by the meddling of an Ugly American (Lloyd Battista, a Cleveland native who would become an integral part of Anthony's stock company starting with this film), who introduces modern gatling gun technology to the samurai--in what's essentially the earliest example of an "east-meets-western" offshoot that finds the way of the samurai clashing with the American west (and naturally, the Stranger sneaks up on various samurai to blow them away with a bizarre front-loading sawed-off cannon). This would be popularized by the likes of Terence Young's RED SUN (1971), which paired outlaw Charles Bronson with samurai Toshiro Mifune, and later, during the post ENTER THE DRAGON craze, when gunslinger Lee Van Cleef teamed up with kung-fu warrior Lo Lieh in Antonio Margheriti's THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (1976). In addition, samurai and elements of Japanese culture made it into other pre-RED SUN spaghetti westerns like Tonino Cervi's TODAY IT'S ME...TOMORROW YOU! (1968), co-written by Dario Argento, which had Brett Halsey and Bud Spencer assembling a posse to avenge the rape and murder of Halsey's wife by a sadistic Japanese outlaw chillingly played by Akira Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai, and Don Taylor's THE FIVE MAN ARMY (1970), which counted samurai Tetsuro Tamba among its titular band of heroes.

However, THE SILENT STRANGER is the forgotten film of the east-meets-western fad, though it was the earliest to actually take its hero east as opposed to bringing the east to the west. MGM was so pleased with the success of the first two films that they fully backed THE SILENT STRANGER with a big Hollywood budget and even let Anthony, who was taking a more creative role in the series and took over as producer with Klein, keep his same core group of partners, including director Vanzi (from Vanzi and Battista here to Ferdinando Baldi and Gene Quintano later, Anthony preferred to work with a close-knit circle of collaborators). Filmed on location in Japan, THE SILENT STRANGER boasts production values that are leaps and bounds ahead of the same old Almeria, Spain sets seen in the first two films and every other spaghetti western. The battle scenes between the samurai clans are staged with the enthusiastic fervor of any Kurosawa throwdown. THE SILENT STRANGER was a troubled production that used its problems to its advantage: filmed in the fall of 1968, the shoot was hit by no less than 13 typhoons in a horrifically awful weather season, but they worked it into the story and whole sequences play out in a jawdroppingly torrential downpour very reminiscent of the final battle in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). And when it's not raining in sheets, the whole area is muddy from the rain that just fell, which adds significant atmosphere and gritty, harsh realism to the proceedings. The cast and crew are battling the elements and as a result, THE SILENT STRANGER almost comes off like it's Tony Anthony's FITZCARRALDO.

So why then, was the film not released until 1975?  A management shake-up at MGM ended with the ousting of studio president Robert O'Brien--a strong supporter of Anthony and a big fan of the STRANGER films--and Klein aggressively taking his side, which didn't endear him or Anthony to the new people in charge. They responded to Klein's support of O'Brien by abandoning THE SILENT STRANGER and shelving it for seven years. It's a tragedy of sorts, because THE SILENT STRANGER is so good, and coupled with the momentum generated by the first two films--which aren't nearly as good-- it likely could've led to Anthony being a much bigger mainstream star than he ever would be, and the film might be cited as a great example of a Hollywood spaghetti western. Instead, by the time it opened in the summer of 1975, with new, MGM-ordered voiceover narration recorded under duress by Anthony that makes Harrison Ford's in BLADE RUNNER sound enthusiastic, the Stranger's time had passed. The buzz around Anthony had already died and the film was greeted with shrugs and dismissed as a RED SUN ripoff, when in fact, it was shot three years before that film.

After the shelving of THE SILENT STRANGER, Anthony moved on to BLINDMAN (1971), his first film with Italian director Ferdinando Baldi, who would eventually become his go-to director for his brief early '80 renaissance with COMIN' AT YA! and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. BLINDMAN, thanks largely to the presence of Ringo Starr as one of the villains (Battista was the other), would become Anthony's biggest hit in America up to that time, but again, he marched to the beat of his own drum and made a seemingly deliberate effort to avoid the mainstream machine. His next film was the departure gangster drama 1931: ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK (1972), which reteamed him with Vanzi. In 1975, he decided to revisit The Stranger, this time with Baldi directing, as Anthony and his co-writer, co-star, and buddy Battista took the offbeat and increasingly surreal touches of the Stranger films and steered them straight into all-out insanity with GET MEAN, which pitted the Stranger against Vikings, barbarians, and the supernatural in what might be a dry run for TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS.  After the big Hollywood-backed SILENT STRANGER, GET MEAN was released in the US on the grindhouse circuit in 1976 by the small-time Cee Note Films. Never a prolific actor and not one to take hired gun jobs, Anthony stayed offscreen for five years until he returned with sleeper hit COMIN' AT YA!, and it's the early '80s return of 3-D for which Anthony is best known. But with these STRANGER films returning from obscurity courtesy of Warner Archive, and Blue Underground set to release GET MEAN on Blu-ray later this year, 2015 seems to be the year of the Tony Anthony renaissance, a time to re-examine a genuinely uncompromising and strangely endearing maverick who never seemed very interested in playing Hollywood games. If nothing else, it's time to discover the minor masterpiece that is THE SILENT STRANGER. (PG, 90 mins)

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