Those Who Can’t, Kill

In the spaghetti western “Sergio” sweepstakes, novices are quick to always cite Leone as the king of the (boot) hill.  This is mostly because they are unaware of the gaggle of other Sergios lying in wait, the dual rivals of Leone (Sollima, Corbucci).  These men are not to be trifled with, as all have created formidable horse operas (with the accent on opera) that often equal and (for many hardcore genre fans) even best the maestro of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.  Chief among this later claim is Sergio Sollima’s superb 1967 entry FACE TO FACE (aka Faccia a Faccia), now, finally, available in an official release – on Blu-Ray, no less – from the groovy folks at Kino Studio Classics.

FACE TO FACE has all the elements necessary for the success of a spaghetti western (including what the B-western disgruntled denizens from the underrated 1985 comedy Rustler’s Rhapsody correctly identified as “better clothes and music”).  But it goes miles further into the sunset than a mere grand entertainment.  FACE TO FACE is a complex Pirandello-esque saga, rife with political overtones of the 1960s (and earlier) to match each gunshot and large-scale action sequence.

What keeps this epic so engrossing is the terrific cast, headed by three icons of the genre: Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian and William Berger.  While all are excellent, and, indeed Volonte captured the lion’s share of the reviews, it is (for me) Milian’s picture – possibly his finest performance.

This picture opens in late 19th-century Boston, where a revered professor Brad Fletcher(Volonte), plagued by tuberculosis, is being forced to resign.  Unless he fills his lungs with the arid, dry air of the West, his survival odds are nil.  The dean of the school, a smug bully autocrat of the Erich Maria Remarque variety, backhand compliments him out the door with, “Each man chooses his own part in history”).  Fletcher, who lacks the stamina to tell the bastard off, is equally at sea when confronted with the cold beauty whom he loves, but cannot muster the courage to talk to; she simply sneers at his awkwardness.  Inadvertently, these two are fanning the flames of a human tinderbox.  End of Act One.

Act Two.  Fletcher is recovering nicely, baking in the sun, enjoying the stunning scenery and his beloved books.  This sagebrush paradise is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a posse and their prisoner, the notorious bandit leader Solomon Beauregard Bennett (Milian).  Seeing their horrific treatment of their captive, Fletcher begs to give the parched felon some water along with a tincture of mercy.  They reluctantly agree and Bennett, viewing kindness as weakness, uses the opportunity to murder his captors and escape with Fletcher as his hostage.

Wounded in his flight, Bennett is cared for by Fletcher.  Bennett also becomes fascinated with Fletcher’s knowledge, and his New England life.  Tracked by Charley Siringo (Berger), who wants to help Beauregard recruit a new gang, Bennett quickly falls back into his old ways and, now piqued by the perks of mercy, decides to escort Fletcher back to a railway station where the teacher can arrange his return to Massachusetts.

But the violence and freedom of the Darwinian-based “survival of the fittest” mantra have piqued something in Fletcher as well.  He eschews civilization and begs to join the gang, much to Bennett’s shock.

The beautiful women of the camp ultimately unleash the beast long harboring in this closet sociopath; Fletcher brutally rapes a girl he desires.  Offering up a series of strategies based on ancient Greek and Roman tacticians, Fletcher (his misogyny now melding with full-blown sadism), seamlessly takes over the gang, leaving nothing blocking his lust for power, including the murder of children.

In true Devil’s Disciple form, Bennett, outraged by the formerly gentle teacher’s masochism, renounces violence and gradually fades into the background, taken prisoner during a raid.  An old ally (the always welcome Aldo Sambrell), also a prisoner, turns out to be a traitor, as does Siringo, actually a Pinkerton agent, assigned to infiltrate and destroy the Bennett Gang.

In a biblical parable, a pilgrimage into the desert sets the stage for the final act, comprising an inventive twist on the classic showdown.

I can’t praise this movie highly enough.  It’s not only one of the top spaghetti westerns ever made (rated by a poll as one of the Ten Best), it’s easily one of the 1960s greatest westerns.

The acting and terrific photography (in Technicolor and TechniScope by Raphael Pacheco) encompasses a visual feast and a primer for screen acting (Milan uses his body and eyes rather than dialog to convey his amazing transformation).  Add sound to the mix, via a brilliant score by (who else?) Ennio Morricone; it’s one of his best too (and think about that!).

This leaves us with the direction and writing, both due to the inspired creativity of Sergio Sollima.  Sollima, who cowrote the screenplay with Sergio Donati, doesn’t miss a trick.  FACE TO FACE is the last word on the adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s also a thinly veiled comment on the rise of fascism, as valid a cinematic statement on the subject as Bertolucci’s 1900.  That said, don’t let the deep-dish stuff scare you off.  FACE TO FACE is a rousing, thrilling adventure.  Sollima’s direction is always notches above the genre’s standard of excellence.  One of his other two entries, The Big Gundown, is, likewise, a magnificent example of how unique the spaghetti western can be.  While many rate 1966’s Gundown (also with Milian) as his masterpiece, FACE TO FACE must be given serious consideration, especially now in lieu of this wonderful Blu-Ray.

Kino’s 35mm transfer is all that spaghetti western fans could ask for and more.  The platter includes the truncated American version (93 minutes), as well as the full-length Italian cut (112 minutes, w/English subtitles).  Of course, the elongated edition offers a more logical progression into the lead’s loathsome transformation and his costar’s regeneration (albeit in a little rougher physical shape).  And it’s fantastic to have them both available for comparison.  For years, I had a bootleg DVD, copped from an intermediary Japanese print (running 107 minutes), which I spun endlessly.  Kino has even enclosed the trailers for FACE TO FACE and their other recent spaghetti western release, Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (which I also love).

I had mentioned the Devil’s Disciple connection earlier, and, through the years, had heard that this movie was actually based upon a true incident; if so, it’s a lesson in American history that apparently will never be learned.  Certainly, Charley Siringo was a real character, who did work for Pinkerton in exactly the way depicted in this movie.  So, who knows?

To say that this title is one of my favorite Blu-Ray releases of the year (or any year) would be an understatement. In pure spaghetti western (as well as anatomical) terms, FACE TO FACE is head and shoulders above the competition.

FACE TO FACE.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition.  2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K1710.  SRP:  $29.95.




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