26 February 2010

Movie review: Minnesota Clay

Minnesota Clay (1965)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Cameron Mitchell, Georges Rivière, Ethel Rojo, Diana Martin, Antonio Roso, Fernando Sancho.

Before the international success of Django turned him into the official “Other Sergio” of the Italian Wild West, Sergio Corbucci made an impression with Minnesota Clay. His previous Western, Massacre at Grand Canyon, did nothing particularly new with the U.S. Western formula, and the one he would direct next, Ringo and His Golden Pistol (Italian title: Johnny Oro), he abandoned to his assistants so he could rush off to start work on Django. Minnesota Clay was filmed around the same time that Leone was working on A Fistful of Dollars, so Corbucci had yet to see the movie that would revolutionize the genre; he was quite capable of changing the Western on his own, although Leone’s success would push him even harder. Minnesota Clay shows a director struggling to find his own style, and partially succeeding.

Minnesota Clay
is an enjoyable film on its own merits, but it’s the potential of the filmmaker and the beginning of an auteur body of work that make it most interesting to viewers today. It has similarities to Corbucci’s 1968 masterpiece The Great Silence, such as a hero suffering from a handicap (poor eyesight in this case, muteness in the later film), battling factions within a town, and the existence of two different endings, one happy, the other not so much. The hero also has dead lost love, a quest for vengeance, and suffers a brutal beating only to struggle back to victory—all of which would reappear in harsher form in Django.

An Italian-French-Spanish co-production, and filmed in Spain like most Eurowesterns, Minnesota Clay headlined a U.S. “star” to help foreign sales. Cameron Mitchell isn’t a Clint Eastwood or a Lee Van Cleef; he’s not even Steve Reeves. But he’s a skilled “Actor’s Studio” performer, and his leathery Hollywood face makes it easier to accept that the film is occurring in New Mexico instead of outside Madrid. Mitchell played romantic lead roles in minor films during the ‘40s and ‘50s, plus supporting roles in a few majors, before hopping over to Italy to work in genre pictures, including a few for Mario Bava. After this, he was principally a television actor, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans know him for his roles in Stranded in Space (a.k.a. The Visitor) and as “Captain Santa Claus” in the horrendous/hilarious Space Mutiny. He died of lung cancer in 1994 in Pacific Palisades, the suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up.

That Mitchell’s title hero, “the best shot in the world,” is slowly losing his eyesight doesn’t affect the story as strongly as viewers might initially think. The tagline, “The Sightless Gunman . . . Who Killed by Sound!”, makes it sound like the movie is a Western Daredevil. But only in the finale does Clay’s diminishing vision become a crucial part of the story, which is otherwise concerned with a standard revenge tale mixed with the town-at-war theme. Clay’s vision problem only pops up in an occasional blurry point-of-view shot until the shoot-out conclusion.

Clay is on a revenge mission, but one tangled up in the misfortunes of a New Mexican town under siege from within and without. Not only does this sound similar to A Fistful of Dollars, but the town looks eerily familiar . . . because it’s the same Western town set where Leone shot A Fistful of Dollars! Corbucci’s version is a livelier and bustling place compared to the sand-drenched ghost hovel in A Fistful of Dollars, and the director wouldn’t find that same look of desolation until his later pictures, although he preferred mud and snow to sand.
Clay begins the film swinging a hammer in a harsh labor camp, but he makes a surprisingly easy escape (do prison doctors frequently leave guns lying around where prisoners can grab them?) and heads to town to find the man he thinks is responsible for framing him and getting him sent to the rock pile: Fox (Rivière). Fox is one side of the town conflict. He’s gotten himself elected sheriff to protect the citizens from the raids of Mexican bandit Ortiz (Sancho). But Sheriff Fox is also extorting the town businesses and running a reign of terror. Playing a game between the two factions is Ortiz’s deceitful mistress Estella (Rojo), the film’s most mysterious and fiery character.

If the plot sounds like a typical Italian Western, the appearance and feel of Minnesota Clay are much closer to the U.S. model. The emphasis on a family and their homestead is something the genre would later drop in favor of harsher settings. Clay is a sentimental tough hero: he’s not only after revenge, he also wants to aid his daughter (Diana Martin) and the family growing up around her. The scenes at the ranch where Diana lives with Uncle Jonathan (Antonio Casas) have a John Ford touch to them, especially the romance between Diana and an aw-shucks suitor. There are a few direct visual quotes of The Searchers and Stagecoach. The Stagecoach moment is so obvious that it has to be intentional. Nonetheless, it works . . . far better than the silly romance provided for Diana.

Stylistically, the most important innovations on display here are the hero’s super-fast draw and clever kills, and the exuberant violence. The gunplay is nearly bloodless, but the camera and the editing make the unseen killings feel gorier and crueler than they actual appear on screen. It must have seemed brutal when the crew was filming it . . . and how quickly it would look antiquated!

The action climax is the point where Sergio Corbucci the Auteur makes his presence known. Clay must face Fox and his goons in a hide-and-shoot duel on the nighttime town streets, in the same spot where the Stranger faces Ramon in A Fistful of Dollars. Clay’s fading eyesight finally comes to the front as a story element. The hero has to conduct the gunfight entirely through sound, finding ways to make his opponents give away their positions. It’s thrilling material, and the sort of gimmick that a more mature Corbucci might have used for an entire movie. (Another Italian Western would eventually use this premise, 1971’s aptly titled Blindman. Featuring, no fooling, Ringo Starr in the supporting cast.) Here the blindness is only for the pay-off, but the execution of the fight makes up for much of the middling material in the rest of the film. The coda, at least in the shorter preferred version, is a bittersweet tragedy that hints of the nihilism to come in The Great Silence.
The sultry Argentine actress Ethel Rojo gives the film’s most captivating performance, while Diana Martin’s sweet little thing, an archetype that would soon vanish from the Italian-Spanish West, is pretty much a null. Georges Rivière plays a villain who seems tailored for Lee Van Cleef, but Rivière come across a touch too nice to be the corrupt sheriff who’s extorting an entire town and kills at the blink of an eye. The French actor was a friend of Corbucci’s, but apparently he felt uncomfortable in the frontier setting and never appeared in another Western. By contrast, Spanish actor Fernando Sancho would go on to make more than fifty Italian Westerns, usually in the role of the boisterous Mexican bandido that he plays here with customary natural charm.

Cameron Mitchell has a good look for the character of an aging gunfighter, a persona more akin to the 1950s stateside Western. But he sleepily underplays the role most of the time and appears bored with affairs. His performance is the second biggest problem with the film.

Problem Numero Uno is the disposable dialogue. Perhaps the strings of clichés, nonsensical replies, and “gee whiz!” tone of much of it is the fault of the dubbing script. But there’s also far too much yapping going on, and the excessive chitchat is usually to no purpose. The Italian Western hadn’t learned the importance of clipped and sparse dialogue, but Corbucci would pick it up fast. By 1968, he had a hero who never spoke.

The score shows why the work of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov was so revolutionary: Piero Picioni’s music is gray wallpaper, almost like stock cues from a TV Western.

Minnesota Clay is available in the U.S. on the Mill Creek Spaghetti Western set, a public domain release that packs twenty films onto five discs for about nine bucks—or a few dollars more. As usual with public domain films on DVD, the quality ranges from “quite good” to “somebody spilled beer on the film, then transferred it to Betamax, and then to VHS.” Fortunately, Minnesota Clay is the best-looking transfer on the collection, letterboxed in its original Panoramico 1.85:1 aspect ratio and from a decent print. Until Blue Underground, Anchor Bay, or Wild East presents us with something better, it’s an adequate way to watch this early Italian Western from a future master. Serious buffs with a regionaless DVD player might want to get the Region 2 Japanese disc, which is in anamorphic widescreen with English and Italian audio options and English subtitles.

Interesting bit of trivia: This was the first Italian Western where the director used his own name on the credits, instead of an Anglicized pseudonym.

Next in our Corbucci series: Navajo Joe

Here is the extremely hyperbolic U.S. trailer: