Monday, August 3, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES (1969)

(Italy/France - 1969)

Directed by Robert Hossein. Written by Robert Hossein, Claude Desailly and Dario Argento. Cast: Michele Mercier, Robert Hossein, Lee Burton (Guido Lollobrigida), Daniel Vargas, Serge Marquand, Michel Lemoine, Anne-Marie Balin, Pierre Hatet, Philippe Baronet, Pierre Colet, Ivano Staccioli, Beatrice Altariba. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Rescued from obscurity by Arrow Video's Criterion-quality treatment on a new Blu-ray/DVD combo release, CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES is a rare example of a French spaghetti western, directed by and starring Robert Hossein, a popular French actor from the '50s and '60s, who co-starred in Jules Dassin's 1955 classic RIFIFI and was a go-to guy for directors like Roger Vadim and Claude Lelouch. Hossein, now 87 and looking at least a decade and a half younger in a new interview on the Blu-ray, was a huge fan of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. He wanted to make his own western in the same style, but he didn't resort to simply mimicking the trailblazing auteur. CEMETERY is one of the most unusual entries in the spaghetti western craze, with long passages of silence where facial expressions and glances convey all the necessary information. Shot in the usual spaghetti stomping grounds of Almeria, Spain, CEMETERY also looks like no other of its genre: the town is a desolate wasteland in ruins, with Hossein paying particular attention to the grimy details: you can practically smell the perpetually sweaty characters, the town is unrelentingly dusty, and the saloon is probably the smokiest you'll see in any western. It's a grim and bleak film, choking with malaise, with Hossein's sad-faced anti-hero so glum and stoical that he makes Harmonica, Charles Bronson's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST character, seem like the class clown by comparison.

The plot itself is rather standard, involving a feud between two outlaw clans that escalates beyond everyone's control. When her husband Ben (Benito Stefanelli) is strung up and hanged right in front of her by the Rogers family after he steals and sells some of their livestock, Maria Caine (Michele Mercier, from the "Telephone" segment of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH) hires loner gunman Manuel (Hossein) to help her in her quest for revenge. Manuel ends up infiltrating the Rogers gang but he's got no love for the Caines, who are just as despicable as the Rogers. That's especially true with Maria's two dirtbag brothers-in-law Thomas (Guido Lollobrigida, credited as "Lee Burton"), and Eli Caine (Michel Lemoine, also known as "Antoine Saint John," and best known to Eurocult fans as Schweik in Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND), who take turns raping Johanna (Anne-Marie Balin), the virginal daughter of Rogers patriarch Will (Daniel Vargas). Manuel obviously has feelings for Maria but can't stomach her involvement in the increasingly ugly situations that keep getting worse with the back and forth vengeance between the warring factions. Almost no one is innocent in CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES: even Manuel is culpable when he looks the other way, ignoring the screams of Johanna--the one wholly good character in the film--as Thomas and Eli have their way with her.

CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES often looks like what might happen if Jean-Pierre Melville or even Alain Resnais made a spaghetti western. A pervasive sense of melancholy haunts every scene, and with his odd shot compositions and eye for strange details, Hossein could be a gifted filmmaker who's never been given his due. Hossein was friends with Leone, who visited the set and, according to Hossein, guest-directed the almost absurdist dinner sequence at the Rogers house. Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST co-writer Dario Argento shares a screenplay credit on CEMETERY, though Hossein has downplayed his involvement. Prior to making a name for himself with 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, Argento was a busy hired-gun screenwriter on spaghetti westerns (1967's TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE, 1970's THE FIVE MAN ARMY) and WWII macaroni combat adventures (1968's COMMANDOS and 1969's BATTLE OF THE COMMANDOS), and it's likely he was in charge of writing the dialogue for the version dubbed in Italian (Arrow offers both Italian and English audio tracks, even though French was the dominant language on set), but the Leone-directed dinner scene has an almost macabre quality to it that could easily have been concocted by the soon-to-be icon of Italian horror.

CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES marked the seventh pairing of Mercier and Hossein, which included four 17th century historical adventures in the ANGELIQUE series, beginning with 1964's ANGELIQUE, MARQUISE DES ANGES. Based on a series of books by Sergeanne Golon, the five ANGELIQUE films (Hossein sat out the second film) were box office smashes in France and the rest of Europe, but were only given spotty releases in the US until Lionsgate released an ANGELIQUE box set in 2008. Born in 1939, Mercier was a French starlet who arrived on the scene with a small role in Francois Truffaut's 1959 film SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Shortly after appearing in BLACK SABBATH, she made her American debut in the 1964 Bob Hope comedy A GLOBAL AFFAIR before beating out the likes of Virna Lisi, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda for the first ANGELIQUE film. By 1969, Mercier was ready to move on from ANGELIQUE and the series came to an end. She stayed busy in the early 1970s but her career eventually slowed down as she approached 40. From 1977 to 1998, she was in semi-retirement and only appeared in five films, but the now-76-year-old Mercier has since become sporadically active on French television, including several 2009 episodes of VENUS AND APOLLO (sort-of the French SEX AND THE CITY) that had her crossing paths with Hossein once again.

Born in 1927, Hossein's first big break came with RIFIFI, but he starred in a number of successful French films that rarely made waves outside of Europe. He appeared in a few international co-productions, like the 1965 anthology espionage thriller THE DIRTY GAME, with Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, and Vittorio Gassman, and the same year's MARCO THE MAGNIFICENT, with Horst Buchholz, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif, but similar to Jean-Paul Belmondo, he stayed in Europe and never made any attempts at crossover success in Hollywood like contemporaries such as Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Alain Delon. Throughout his seven-decade career, Hossein also directed 17 films going back to 1955's THE WICKED GO TO HELL. Most of his directing efforts were in the 1960s (like 1967's RASPUTIN, with GOLDFINGER's Gert Frobe in the lead), but he also helmed a 1982 version of LES MISERABLES with Lino Ventura as Jean Valjean and Michel Bouquet as Javert. In 1995, Hossein appeared in Claude Lelouch's WWII-set updating of LES MISERABLES, with Belmondo as Jean Valjean, and he also starred in the 1997 Italian horror film WAX MASK, a remake of THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX produced by Dario Argento. WAX MASK was supposed to have been directed by Lucio Fulci, who dropped out of the project shortly before his death and was replaced by Italian special effects king Sergio Stivaletti, making his directing debut. Still hearty and sharp at 87 on the CEMETERY bonus features, Hossein acts and directs infrequently these days, with his last major role being in 1999's VENUS BEAUTY INSTITUTE, where he played a lonely widower who becomes a sugar daddy to a pre-AMELIE Audrey Tautou.

A long-forgotten gem unearthed, CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES has typically been dismissed and ignored by spaghetti historians (Arrow's liner notes even mention it being derisively referred to as a "baguette western" by REPO MAN director and spaghetti western superfan Alex Cox). Also boasting a very Ennio Morricone-esque score by Hossein's father Andre, featuring the ballad "The Rope and the Colt," sung by Scott Walker (the cool Scott Walker from the '60s), it's an offbeat discovery that spaghetti western fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to observe how all the genre conventions and styles just look slightly different from a French perspective.

No comments:

Post a Comment