Friday, May 4, 2018

Retro Review: A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) and THE RETURN OF RINGO (1965)

(Italy/Spain - 1965; US release 1966)

Written and directed by Duccio Tessari. Cast: Montgomery Wood (Giuliano Gemma), Fernando Sancho, George Martin, Hally Hammond (Lorella De Luca), Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas, Jose Manuel Martin, "Pajarito," Juan Casalilla, Pablito Alonso, Nazzareno Zamperla, Paco Sanz, Jose Halufi. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Following the blockbuster success of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in Italy in 1964, countless spaghetti westerns followed at a relentless pace for the next decade. An early hit in the spaghetti cycle, 1965's A PISTOL FOR RINGO made it to American theaters courtesy of Embassy Pictures in 1966, a full year ahead of FISTFUL's belated US release. However, its influences lie more with the '50s style Hollywood B oater rather than the trailblazing work of Leone or Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO, right down to Ennio Morricone's uncharacteristically Dimitri Tiomkin/Elmer Bernstein-like score. Written and directed by Italian genre journeyman Duccio Tessari (who had already scripted several post-HERCULES peplum and would latter dabble in everything from 007 ripoffs to gialli to crime thrillers), A PISTOL FOR RINGO is part of that first wave of spaghetti westerns--along with Ferdinando Baldi's TEXAS, ADIOS and Sergio Corbucci two-fer of MINNESOTA CLAY and THE HELLBENDERS to name just three--that were still emulating the Hollywood style before Leone's more influential FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY set the genre template, along with the more politically-charged Zapata spaghettis like Corbucci's THE MERCENARY and COMPANEROS, and Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. Corbucci would soon shift gears--the same year he made THE HELLBENDERS, he also cranked out the classic DJANGO--and it wouldn't take long for Tessari to make the change with PISTOL's much different sequel THE RETURN OF RINGO later in 1965.

A PISTOL FOR RINGO is an entertaining time-killer at best, the kind of Saturday matinee-type western with a wisecracking hero in Ringo, aka "Angel Face," played by Giuliano Gemma under the pseudonym "Montgomery Wood." He's an outlaw with a heart of gold who guns down four men in self-defense and is promptly thrown in jail by the sheriff (George Martin). At the same time, a band of outlaws led by Sancho (Fernando Sancho in his usual "Frito Bandito" persona that he embodied in seemingly dozens of these things) have robbed a bank and commandeered the outskirts-of-town home of wealthy landowner Major Clyde (Antonio Casas). They're holding his family hostage in exchange for the sheriff--who's engaged to Clyde's daughter Miss Ruby (Lorella De Luca, who would marry Tessari a few years later)--backing off and letting them go. Instead, the sheriff offers Ringo a get out of jail free card: pretend to be an outlaw just passing through and seeking refuge, and ingratiate himself into Sancho's gang, eliminate them all, save Miss Ruby and the hostages, and collect the reward money. Despite its vaguely DESPERATE HOURS scenario, A PISTOL FOR RINGO never takes itself too seriously. Gemma (dubbed by Marc Smith, who would later infamously revoice Franco Nero in ENTER THE NINJA) is loose and likable, but compared to where the genre would go under the leadership of Leone and Corbucci, Tessari displays all the technique, style, and pizazz of a random episode of GUNSMOKE or RAWHIDE. There is one underexplored subplot with Clyde almost being Stockholm Syndrome'd by falling for Sancho's woman (Nieves Navarro, the wife or producer Luciano Ercoli and frequently credited later as "Susan Scott"), and it's got a great theme song performed by Maurizio Graf, but it's so beholden to Hollywood westerns that it even borrows SHANE's ending with Ringo riding off alone. A PISTOL FOR RINGO was a huge hit in Italy in the summer of 1965, and by the end of the year, Tessari and most of the main cast would be back for THE RETURN OF RINGO.

Fernando Sancho as--wait for it---Sancho in A PISTOL FOR RINGO.

(Italy/Spain - 1965; US release 1966)

Directed by Duccio Tessari. Written by Duccio Tessari and Fernando Di Leo. Cast: Giuliano Gemma, Fernando Sancho, George Martin, Hally Hammond (Lorella De Luca), Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas, "Pajarito," Monica Sugranes, Victor Bayo, Tunet Vila, Juan Torres, Jose Halufi. (Unrated, 97 mins)

It's obvious that at some point between finishing A PISTOL FOR RINGO and starting the sequel THE RETURN OF RINGO, director/co-writer Duccio Tessari and writer Fernando Di Leo (an uncredited script contributor on PISTOL) saw A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. RETURN is an in-name-only sequel, bringing back much of the same cast (producer Luciano Ercoli even makes sure his wife Nieves Navarro gets a musical number) in different roles with Giuliano Gemma playing a character named Ringo, but clearly not the same Ringo from the previous film, much like Clint Eastwood's archetypal "Man with No Name" is similar in each installment of the Leone trilogy, but they aren't the same character. Here, Gemma's Ringo is a Union soldier returning to his home near the Mexican border two months after the end of the Civil War. He's devastated to find his entire family buried in the local cemetery after the town was taken over by a group of Mexican outlaws led by the evil Fuentes brothers, Esteban (Fernando Sancho, cast radically against type as "Fernando Sancho") and Paco (George Martin, who was the good-guy sheriff in the previous film). When Ringo learns that his wife Hally (Lorella De Luca) has been abducted, informed she's a widow, and is being forced into an arranged marriage with Paco and the useless sheriff (Antonio Casas) has no plans to do anything about it, he goes undercover as a Mexican peasant to wipe out the Fuentes gang and rescue his wife and the young daughter he never knew he had.

A loose spaghetti western reworking of The Odyssey, THE RETURN OF RINGO is a huge improvement over the OK but unremarkable A PISTOL FOR RINGO. It's significantly more atmospheric with its bleak, dusty Almeria desert landscapes, and this incarnation of Ringo is much more serious and driven, with a wife and daughter to save and vengeance to exact as opposed to the blithe and carefree Ringo from the first time around, whose only concern was reward money. It's a grimmer, darker, and more violent film, with Ringo introduced blowing a guy away in a saloon and blood splattering against the wall behind him. Tessari directs RETURN in a more Leone-like fashion, with some tense action sequences, one incredible shot of a silhouetted Ringo (in a great resurrection motif) revealing his true self to the Fuentes gang just before ruthlessly massacring the lot of them, and with music by Ennio Morricone that's still a bit Hollywood (again with a bombastically overemphatic Maurizio Graf theme song) but leaning more toward the distinctive sounds of a spaghetti score. Despite the American success of A PISTOL FOR RINGO, THE RETURN OF RINGO only received a spotty release later in 1966, though the first film was popular enough in the States for MGM to rechristen Sergio Corbucci's 1966 western JOHNNY ORO (starring Mark Damon) as the unofficial sequel RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL for its 1967 US release. A PISTOL FOR RINGO and THE RETURN OF RINGO have just been released in a double feature set from Arrow, with numerous extras, including archival interviews with Gemma (who died in 2013) and De Luca (who passed in 2014), who talks at length about the career of her late husband Tessari (1926-1994), and commentary tracks with spaghetti scholar Henry C. Parke and fan/cult screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (CLASS OF 1999, DOCTOR MORDRID). When viewed in succession, both films serve to show the transition taking place in the spaghetti western genre in its infancy, from the mimicking of old-school Hollywood to the new standards being set by the Italians in the formation of their uniquely original style that would soon be influencing American westerns in just a few short years.

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