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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Retro Review: THE UNHOLY FOUR (1970)


THE UNHOLY FOUR
(Italy - 1970)

Directed by E.B. Clucher (Enzo Barboni). Written by Mario di Nardo and Franco Rossetti. Cast: Leonard Mann, Woody Strode, Peter Martell (Pietro Martellanza), Luigi Montefiori, Evelyn Stewart (Ida Galli), Helmuth Schneider, Lucio Rosato, Alain Naya, Giuseppe Lauricella, Dino Strano, Andrew Ray (Andrea Aureli), Enzo Fiermonte, Luciano Rossi, Salvatore Billa, Romano Puppo. (Unrated, 94 mins)

A spaghetti western mostly by virtue of being Italian, THE UNHOLY FOUR is a throwback of sorts and more in line with the psychological, character-driven 1950s westerns of Anthony Mann than with the more distinct 1960s spaghettis of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci. Even Riz Ortolani's score sounds like it came from an older Hollywood western, unlike the groundbreaking, iconic cues of Ennio Morricone. The film opens with a Dodge City asylum being set on fire as a distraction for an overnight bank robbery by a gang of miscreants led by Tom Udo (Lucio Rosato), the son of a wealthy landowner (Giuseppe Lauricella). Four inmates escape the burning jail: slow-witted, God-fearing strongman Woody (Woody Strode), intimidating card cheat Hondo (Luigi Montefiori, better known as "George Eastman"), loony Silver (Peter Martell), and Chuck Mool (Leonard Mann), an amnesiac with no idea who he is or why he's in the asylum until one of Udo's dying cohorts sees him and exclaims "Chuck Mool!" With his three unlikely compadres in tow, Chuck Mool (a name concocted by the English dub team--the Italian version was titled CIUKMULL, so everyone constantly refers to him as "Chuck Mool" on the English dub track) embarks on a quest to uncover the chain of events that led him to being locked up in Dodge City






But there's more to the story than the plight of Chuck Mool: the Udo family is fighting off an attempt to take over their land by John Caldwell (Helmuth Schneider), another rich asshole who's buying up everyone's property and wants the Udos out of the way. Caldwell believes Chuck Mool is his son, presumed dead in a fire three years earlier. Learning that Chuck Mool is alive and heading their way with three presumed-dangerous madmen, Old Man Udo devises a scheme to convince Chuck Mool that he's his father and that he's supposed to kill the Caldwells. Udo's daughter Sheila (Evelyn Stewart) isn't happy about the scam and tries to warn Chuck Mool after he arrives. Tensions escalate as Chuck Mool, Woody, Hondo, and Silver are forced to take on the duplicitous Udo family and a bunch of their hired killers (among them ubiquitous Eurocult stalwart Romano Puppo) and shoot their way out of town.


THE UNHOLY FOUR was the directing debut of veteran cinematographer Enzo Barboni, who shot Sergio Corbucci's influential 1966 classic DJANGO, as well as Corbucci's THE HELLBENDERS (1967) and American director Don Taylor's spaghetti western THE FIVE MAN ARMY (1970). Adopting the pseudonym "E.B. Clucher," Barboni (1922-2002) would go on to direct the enormously popular spaghetti western comedies THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1971) and TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1972), which led to international fame for stars Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Barboni's experience as a cinematographer is put to excellent use in THE UNHOLY FOUR, with some expertly choreographed gunfight sequences and some--for the time--unusually fluid, almost Steadicam-like camera movements throughout the action scenes. For the most part, it doesn't really play like the more stylish and violent Leone westerns or the politically charged genre offerings from Corbucci, but rather like something out of the 1950s or early 1960s and more beholden to the Hollywood western. There's one wacky, comedic bar brawl that hints where Barboni's career would soon head with the TRINITY movies, but THE UNHOLY FOUR gets darker and more downbeat as it goes on, making Ortolani's incongruously upbeat music cues sound somewhat inappropriate. There's occasional flashes of genuine unpleasantness scattered throughout, none more shocking than the jaw-dropping moment when a leering, lip-smacking Tom Udo tells Sheila "You got a hell of a lot to offer...too bad we're brother and sister...I could show you what it's all about."


In just his second film, Mann, an American actor who spent the bulk of his career in Italy before retiring from movies in 1989 at the age of 42 (his few American gigs included 1981's NIGHT SCHOOL, 1987's FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and his final film to date, 1989's SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT) to become a teacher and playwright under his real name Leonard Manzella, is good as the lost hero in an existential crisis. Things slow down a little too much in the sluggish midsection, which seems to just be killing time for the undeniably ass-kicking last 20 or so minutes, where Barboni really starts firing on all cylinders and the titular quartet bands together to take on Udo's army. Though it was dubbed in English by the usual suspects (Ed Mannix, Robert Spafford, and others can be heard), THE UNHOLY FOUR was never released theatrically in the US and pretty much fell into obscurity, a curio known only to the most devoted spaghetti western completists. Wild East released a gray market double feature DVD that paired it with Ferdinando Baldi's 1969 western THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO, which also starred Mann and Martell, but it was was recently issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in another textbook example of the death of physical media being greatly exaggerated.

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