Monday, August 31, 2009

If Sergio Leone Met Stan Lee

Well, maybe the blog heading is a bit hyperbolic, but this 1966 Italian western does play very much like a Marvel comic of the period. In fact, STARBLACK is quite similar to The Ghost Rider, a hooded western hero introduced by Vincent Sullivan and Dick Ayers in Magazine Enterprises comics of the late 1940s and ‘50s and reintroduced to comics by Ayers at Marvel in the 1960s (and no relation to the flame-faced motorcycle-riding antihero who followed in the 1970s).

Or if you're not familiar with the Ghost Rider, you can look at this fun western as Django meets Zorro, though I'm sure director Giovanni Grimaldi was influenced as much by Republic serials as he was comic books.

Johnny Blyth (Robert Woods) returns to his hometown, along with his deafmute sidekick Job (Howard Ross), to find venal banker Curry (Franco Lantieri) running roughshod over the townsfolk. In typical masked hero fashion, Johnny pretends to be a wimp. But when trouble is afoot, he dresses entirely in black, including a mask that covers his entire face, and goes into action as Starblack with guns, lassos, and throwing knives. The Starblack costume is very cool, and he leaves a black badge as a calling card.

Like Batman, Starblack’s mere appearance strikes fear into those who oppose him, but not the coldhearted Curry, who had Johnny’s father murdered so he could take over his mine. Starblack is ruthless in his crimefighting; in one scene, he silently hands his pistol to a rape victim, so she can empty it into her unarmed attacker. American actor Woods does a good job in the lead, assuming he’s playing both parts. The story’s resemblance to HAMLET is unmistakable, but done more faithfully and more stylishly a year or so later by director Enzo Castellari in JOHNNY HAMLET.

Yeah, I mean, who would have expected to see a Shakespeare classic reinterpreted as a spaghetti western? All the staples of the Bard’s play are here in 1968's JOHNNY HAMLET—mystery, betrayal, a mother’s intense love for her son—bolstered by plenty of flashy western action and dripping with Gothic style, courtesy of genre great Enzo G. Castellari, directing the third film of his long and distinguished career.

Johnny Hamilton (Andrea Giordana) returns home after the war to visit his father’s grave in a visually stunning cemetery within a cave, where he encounters bandits Ross and Guild. At the family ranch (named Elsinore, of course), he discovers his mother Gertie (Francoise Prevost) has married his father’s brother Claude (Horst Frank), who claims to have avenged Johnny’s father by gunning down his killer, a man named Santana. Johnny doesn’t believe Claude’s story and sets out with his old friend Horaz (Gilbert Roland) to investigate.

The first twenty minutes or so are outstanding, opening with Johnny dreaming of his father in a sequence right out of a Mario Bava film like HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. He awakens on a beach surrounded by a theatrical troupe and rides into town—accompanied by fantastic Francesco de Masi music—and to the afore-mentioned cave, which is let entirely by candles. One amazing shot has Castellari’s camera swirling slowly around a kneeling Johnny in a way that will have you wondering how it was accomplished.

The rest of the film is nifty too, if not quite up to the zing of its opening. The deaths of two young females are skillfully portrayed offscreen, and German actor Frank (THE GRAND DUEL) is properly sinister. Giordana, whose career petered out after a handful of ‘60s westerns, lacks the presence of a Franco Nero or Richard Harrison, but he plays impetuous youth well enough. Ennio Girolami, something of a regular in Castellari films (he somewhat resembles Lee Van Cleef), and Pedro Sanchez are hateable as the film’s wormy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Is this the same Robert Woods who'd later be on "One Life to Live"?