Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shoot First, Laugh Last

West Virginia-born Tony Anthony was a struggling actor in bit parts before he moved to Europe and found great success as the star of several so-called "spaghetti westerns"—Italian productions usually filmed on Roman soundstages and in the Spanish desert. A STRANGER IN TOWN received a major theatrical release in the U.S. in 1968 by MGM and made enough money worldwide to bring Anthony back for three sequels.

The plot is simple and a bit reminiscent of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which was made in 1964. A Bounty Hunter With No Name (aka The Stranger) rides into the tiny Mexican village of Cerro Gordo, where he witnesses bandits led by Aguila (Frank Wolff) slaughter a platoon of Mexican soldiers and steal their uniforms. Aguila's men plan to impersonate the soldiers and meet up with the U.S. Army, who is transporting two sacks of gold meant to be a loan to the Mexican government. The Stranger muscles in on Aguila's plan by claiming that he's the Army's advance man and, with his assistance, he can vouch for Aguila's authenticity and get the gold with no bloodshed. Aguila, not surprisingly, welches on the deal and beats The Stranger up. Unfazed, the American manages to swipe the gold from Aguila's hideout and stash it back in Cerro Gordo, where Aguila arrives for the blood-soaked finale.

From looking at him, Anthony seems an odd choice for a western hero. He's not particularly charismatic, and he's short to boot. He struck some sort of chord with audiences, however, or perhaps people just liked to pay to see Anthony shoot people. American Allen Klein, the Beatles' manager during the breakup, produced the film, though it lacks any kind of Hollywood gloss. Leone's influence on director Luigi Vanzi is evident in the occasionally slow pacing, as Anthony wanders slowly around town, giving half the rooms in Cerro Gordo a once-over. When the action comes, however, it's relatively exciting and well-staged. Benedetto Ghiglia's oddball score isn't exactly what you would call melodic, but it does fit Vanzi's weird vibe, and you'll be humming the theme out of repetition if not affection.

Anthony had a strong hand in his acting career, contributing the story for his next movie, THE STRANGER RETURNS. Like the first film, it was released in the U.S. by MGM in 1968, and they likely even played together on drive-in double bills. While influenced by Sergio Leone's westerns with Clint Eastwood, returning director Luigi Vanzi and Anthony add more humor and vulnerability to the leading character, making him easy to root for, even when he's acting like a scoundrel.

The Stranger poses as a murdered postal inspector to track a large gang of bandits led by the vicious En Plein (Dan Vadis, then a European star from many muscleman epics). The killers dry-gulched a stagecoach crew and made off with the entire rig, thought to be carrying a strongbox filled with gold. In actuality, the stagecoach is made of gold, which is a heckuva target for The Stranger and his nose for money. The bounty hunter teams up with a batty old preacher (Marco Guglielmi) with a pocketful of fireworks, who provides The Stranger with a super-cool weapon: a four-barreled shotgun.

Starting with Stelvio Cipriani's awesome score, THE STRANGER RETURNS is the most consistently entertaining of the four-film series. Vanzi shoots the violent climax with some wit, as The Stranger invades the bandits' town and blows them away one at a time. As usual, he takes plenty of physical punishment before laying some smack down on the baddies, who are well led by the sneering Vadis, who appears somewhat leaner than he did in his days making Italian sword-and-sandal pictures like SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS and HERCULES THE INVINCIBLE. I also like the unearthly vibe Vanzi and Cipriani provide for the golden stagecoach, really playing up its status as an oddball plot point.

Anthony went on to play the laconic, serape-wearing Stranger again in THE SILENT STRANGER, which was released in Europe in 1968 as THE STRANGER IN JAPAN. However, as a result of legal wrangling, MGM didn't release it in the U.S. until 1975. The plot is similar to other spaghetti westerns; namely, it's another ripoff of YOJIMBO (see: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS). The Stranger shoots down some bandits attacking a young Japanese man. The dying youth hands him a scroll and begs him to deliver it to Japan, where he will be paid $20,000. Once The Stranger gets there, he finds that two opposing factions lay claim to the scroll, and must play both against the other to ensure his own hide survives.

The Japanese setting provides a unique backdrop for the typical spaghetti trappings (swords replace guns in some action scenes), and director Vanzi and Anthony slather a good amount of sex and violence across it, despite its PG rating. Co-starring with Anthony as the main heavy is American actor Lloyd Battista, who provided the same function opposite Anthony in BLINDMAN.

You have to give Anthony his props. As the producer, star and occasional writer, Anthony, more than most working in the genre, wasn't shy about thinking outside the box. Returning to the iconic Stranger character he played in the 1960s, Anthony, who wrote the original story (co-star Lloyd Battista and Wolf Lowenthal receive screenplay credit), places 1976's GET MEAN firmly in the realm of fantasy.

The bizarre plot finds the Stranger accepting a $50,000 offer to return Princess Elizabeth Maria (Diana Lorys) to Spain, where a battle for her kingdom ensues between Moors and Vikings! The Stranger loses the princess to the Viking king, but negotiates his way into the warlord's good graces with the promise of a treasure hidden in a nearby temple.

Battista, who played the main heavy opposite Anthony in both THE SILENT STRANGER and BLINDMAN, is the Viking lord's hunchbacked sidekick with a RICHARD III obsession. GET MEAN is a strangely weird movie, even more so than THE SILENT STRANGER. It's somewhat effective, but it's pretty clear the spaghetti western genre was on its last legs. At least it's about time one of these Spain-lensed pictures actually set itself in Spain.

Anthony's next picture was probably his biggest hit, certainly in the United States. Another spaghetti western, COMIN' AT YA! was filmed in 3D and was an incredible success, kicking off a shortlived 3D craze that saw sequels to FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and JAWS, among many other films, play big screens across the country. But that's a post for another day.


John said...

TCM is airing both of Tony Anthony's "Stranger" films on Friday, May 27th. "A Stranger In Town" will air at 1 p.m. eastern time followed at 2:30 p.m. by "The Stranger Returns".
Earlier in the day, TCM has scheduled other Italian oaters with American stars. "Gunfighters of Casa Grande" (1964) with Alex Nicol airs at 6:00 a.m. "Son of a Gunfighter" (1966) with Russ Tamblyn is scheduled for 7:45 a.m. and "Hate for Hate" (1967) with John Ireland airs at 9:30 a.m.

John said...


The date is Friday, June 27 for these airings...not May.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, McKee.

John Charles