09 March 2010

Movie review: The Hellbenders

The Hellbenders (1967)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Joseph Cotten, Norma Bengell, Júlian Mateos, Al Mulock, Aldo Sambrell, Ángel Aranda, Gino Pernice.

Prelude Paragraph: The Italian title of The Hellbenders is I Crudeli, which means “The Cruel Ones.” Usually, I defer to the official English title of a foreign film in my reviews, but in this case I can’t resist the beauty and clarity of the title I Crudeli. So from this point on, that’s what I’m calling the movie.

Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotten) is angry that the Confederate States of America lost the Civil War. But he’s going to do something about it. He has a vision to start it all over again—and let the South win this time. He and his three sons rob a Federal money shipment, and then head north to the Hondo river with plans to reorganize the Confederate Army and strike back to win the war. They stash the money in a coffin, and Kitty (Maria Martin), Jonas’s kept woman, pretends she’s a widow on her way to bury her dead husband so they can slip past government patrols. However, the hard drinkin’ Kitty doesn’t last long in the job, and Jonas’s crazed and rape-hungry son Jeff (Gino Pernice) kills her when she makes an impulsive run with the money. They need to find another woman to play the widow, and Jonas sends his most reliable son, Ben (Júlian Mateos), to the nearest town to find a candidate. After some rough poker and saloon fisticuffs, Ben corners the perfect replacement in Claire (Norma Bengell), a card hustler. Claire soon learns she’s trapped among murderers in a doomed enterprise, and only Ben is watching out for her. As the false funeral wagon passes through hostile territory and risks discovery with every encounter, Ben begins to turn against his father’s mad quest and side with Claire.

I Crudeli is the child of producer and co-writer Albert Band, born Alfredo Antonini. Band intended I Crudeli to stand as a companion piece to a film he had directed himself, The Tramplers. He exerted tighter control over Sergio Corbucci than the director was used to, and Band apparently helmed a number of the sequences himself and interfered in others. The movie was a sort of work-for-hire for Corbucci during the period before he hit his stride with his best films, and it lacks his distinctive stamp. It does feel more slick and controlled than some of his other movies, which probably reflects Band’s influence. The trouble is, “slick” and “controlled” aren’t what I really want from a Sergio Corbucci film.

I Crudeli acts more like one of the “psychological Westerns” that became increasingly popular in the 1950s in the U.S. It is mainly interested in the dynamic within the Jonas family on their deadly journey, and instead of shoot ‘em up action, the script has suspense scenes of the gang trying to disguise the loot from everybody they run into. In the hands of a director like Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher, a story like this might have made for a tense drama. But its lacks the unique Italian Western elements that would have made it a classic for someone like Corbucci. The action, the violent and mysterious lead character, and the excess that Corbucci does so well aren’t available to him here. He has a few shoot-outs to orchestrate, but even Minnesota Clay had bigger action set pieces. I Crudeli is about character, and Corbucci doesn’t seem very invested in the ones Band gives him to direct. You can feel a director on a leash, wanting to lash out, and never getting much chance aside from a few short leaps.
Those few moments show the homegrown Italian style. The idea of a coffin containing money is a powerful symbol, although Corbucci doesn’t fetishize the wood crate for the dead in the same way he does the one in Django. The characters digs into bare-knuckle sadism a times, especially Joseph Cotten, who slugs anything that disagrees with him, but the beatings never approach anything like the tortures in Django and many other Italian Westerns. The appearances of Aldo Sambrell (from Navajo Joe) as a Mexican bandit, and Al Mulock (who has memorable small parts in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) as a bizarre beggar, add a dollop more Italian spice into the mix. Both men are familiar faces in the genre, and Sambrell’s Mexican bandit a popular archetype. They also play accidental parts in bringing on the film’s interesting climax.

The opening massacre is brutal, but it’s the highlight of the film’s physical violence. Corbucci conducts the sequence in such a way that you believe this small band of men can wipe out a whole military caravan with just dynamite, shotguns, and clever placement in the trees. The film never finds a breakout physical scene like this again, although the ending manages something memorable as well.

Between those two points are far too many scenes that rely on tension, and few of them work—especially since it’s the same sequence repeating every ten minutes, first with Cotten and Co. meeting the army, then a civilian posse, then Mexican bandits, then the army again, then Indians . . . the parade turns predictable quickly.

I Crudeli concludes on a good twist, one that I didn’t see coming, but the build toward the finale is poor, with too many elements dropped in during the last five minutes, and then all of it wrapped up in moments. The episodic structure of the overall film hurts it the most here. If you feel the film could simply keep going and choose to stop whenever it feels like it, something has gone wrong.
What keeps I Crudeli together during its problematic middle is the chemistry between Norma Bengell and Júlian Mateos as Claire and Ben. Bengell, a Brazilian actress, is quite wonderful as a tough saloon girl and con artist who learns she has scruples and morals when thrust forcibly among a pack of murdering madmen. Even the poor dubbing job can’t disguise the pain and determination that comes across in Bengell’s performance. She also has a weathered and dried look that fits the real frontier and is leagues away from the schoolmarm stereotype of earlier Westerns. This was the most developed female character of Corbucci’s films at this point. Mateos as “good son” Ben provides a needed audience sympathy with Jonas family, which is otherwise composed of two bloodthirsty sons and a cruel father who has sunk their lives in a hopeless cause—a cause that wasn’t worth supporting in the first place.

Joseph Cotten is much older than the usual U.S. star in a Eurowestern, and he brings a gravely hardness to a part that must have seemed monotone on the page. Col. Jonas wants to revive the Confederacy, and he loves slapping and punching people for not following his orders; that’s about all that Cotten has to play with, but he executes the part with professionalism if not exactly enthusiasm. As Jonas’s enterprise slips closer and closer to failure, Cotten dances his role near to mad sadism, but never pushes enough. The actor delivers at the level required, but doesn’t bring as much to the film as he could.

Ennio Morricone’s second score for Sergio Corbucci is one of his least interesting. It does service well for the film, but isn’t there isn’t much to listen to if you subtract the film. The music consists mostly of a single theme with a mellow trumpet solo. That piece has grown on me, but the score as a whole is too low-key for classic Western Ennio Morricone music.

The outdoor photography is beautiful and classically composed. (The only important interior occurs in a saloon scene that’s strangely clean and tidy for Corbucci; Minnesota Clay managed a rougher looking tavern.) Enzo Barboni’s Panoramico 1.85:1 cinematography gives one of the best illusions of the U.S. frontier shot on Spanish locations that I’ve seen in a Eurowestern, which just again emphasizes how improved the story might have been if someone like Anthony Mann had made it.

I Crudeli is by no means a bad movie. It’s simply too ordinary for both its time—the enormous Italian Western boom—and its director. It will please non-fans of Italian Westerns much more so than fans, and that’s the biggest problem when you come down to it. Albert Band’s U.S. Western production found the wrong home.

Under the title The Hellbenders, the movie is easily available on DVD in the U.S. from Anchor Bay in a beautiful, clean anamorphic widescreen edition. No real extras to speak of, and it’s only available in the English dub, but this is still one of the better looking Corbucci discs on the Region 1 market.

Previously on our Corbucci series: Navajo Joe

Ennio’s Morricone’s “lonesome-n-smooth trumpet” main title: