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December 01, 2011

10,000 Ways to Die

hellbenders.jpg
Hellbenders (Sergio Corbucci - 1967)

10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western
Alex Cox - 2009
Kamera Books

The Good: A chronological look at Italian westerns, as well as a few similar films of the same period, with discussions of some unfamiliar, but very intriguing titles.

The Bad: Discussing a producer making two films from the same novel, Cox writes, "Why does a producer do such things? Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can.".

The Ugly: Not that I'm a fan of IMDb, but Cox gets some basic facts wrong, like attributing Joe Kidd to 20th Century-Fox, when it was produced by Universal.

For myself, I was a little slow in discovering spaghetti westerns. My first exposure was For a Few Dollars More at a drive-in. This was definitely the "Summer of Love" for me, and I wasn't paying attention to what was happening on the screen.

Like others, I thought that the only films worth watching were by Sergio Leone. My first film was Once Upon a Time in the West. I caught up with the Dollar trilogy later. I also wrote a review of Duck, You Sucker! for the University of Colorado newspaper that supposedly boosted that film's run from one week to two. The only other films I recall seeing theatrically were Death Rides a Horse and My Name is Nobody, which I saw twice in two different double features.

The range of films that Alex Cox writes about range from the mostly good and great, to some bad, and some ugly. Where he brings his own experience as a filmmaker has more to do with the performance of the film actors. There is some discussion of the visual aspects, as when he describes one film as being lit like a television comedy. Most of the films analyzed were made between 1963 through 1969, with a few titles from the Seventies. Cox outlines the narrative, followed by his thoughts about both what happens on screen, and various aspects of the making of the film.

From a historical perspective, what are most valuable are the essays on the inspirations for the Italian western, including a look at the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. and Akira Kurosawa's period films. Cox also discusses at length the ways in which Sergio Leone helped upend the Hays Code, as well as the give and take between Hollywood and the Italian filmmakers. Cox also humorously includes quotes to begin each chapter, including those by Burt Kennedy and Jean-Pierre Melville bemoaning the popularity of the then popular genre. Cox is one who capable of simultaneously embracing both John Ford and the directors named Sergio.

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Fernando Rey, Iris Berben and Tomas Milian in Companeros (Sergio Corbucci - 1970)

As for the films themselves, some of the are available on DVD, some good, some bad, some very ugly. More often then not in cut, English dubbed versions. Best of all, but also frustrating, is to read about some of the less celebrated films that might require further research, and possible bootleg versions, for possible viewing. Among the more obscure, for me, films is Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant, with Pier Paolo Pasolini as a priest. There's also the Shakespeare inspired Johnny Hamlet. Cox also writes about a film, Closed Circuit, a murder mystery where the person sitting in a certain theater seat may have been shot dead by an onscreen cowboy.

Cox puts in a few words about a couple of his own films, as well as his own assessments of various actors and directors. Clint Eastwood is a notable target for Cox's barbs as both actor and filmmaker. On the other hand, Cox delights in the performances of Klaus Kinski, an actor infamous for putting down most of his own work. The title, by the way, is inspired by a line from John Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi. Cox spends some time comparing Italian westerns with Elizabethan era plays, both as popular entertainment and for the often violent stories. Best of all, what Cox accomplishes, as any good cinema book should do, is make you want to see films you might not have thought of seeing before.

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Dennis Weaver and James Garner in A Man called Sledge (Vic Morrow - 1970)

Posted by peter at December 1, 2011 08:30 AM

Comments

The dog ball-lick business makes me wary about subjecting myself to too much of Cox's prose... however, I'm curious if the shooting scene you mention from CLOSED CIRCUIT had any influence on a similar moment in Jerry Lewis's CRACKING UP. Click the 'trailers and scenes' link here:

http://www.wbshop.com/Cracking-Up/1000180064,default,pd.html?cgid=

Posted by: Flickhead at December 1, 2011 12:28 PM

The Lewis clip is funny. I don't know how Cox saw, or knew about Closed Circuit, as it had very limited screenings. The Italian Circuito chiuso (original title) preceded Lewis's film, but to the best of my knowledge never received any kind of showing in the U.S.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 1, 2011 03:04 PM