Sunday 24 August 2008

The Mercenary (1968)

There was no way this one wasn't going to be great fun. It's a spaghetti western, directed by the second name in that genre, Sergio Corbucci, who was more prolific than his namesake Sergio Leone. The music is by Ennio Morricone, the premiere name in the genre. The three lead actors are Franco Nero, Jack Palance and Tony Musante, with Giovanni Ralli as the wild and exotic lady who has to be present to add a little sex into the violence. Corbucci, a masterful director, knows exactly what to do with them too.

The macguffin that they all initially revolve around is seven tons of silver, which we never see. It comes out of a Mexican silver mine and the mercenary of the title called Sergei Kowalski is paid to transport it into the United States. He's known as the Polack and he's played by Franco Nero with his blue eyes wonderfully highlighted, often in extreme closeup. Here he comes off as half Robert Redford and half Viggo Mortensen. He has great fun with the role, as much as Kowalski has being the Polack, and he affects a habit of striking a match on whatever is to hand: the boot of a hanged man, the girdle of a prostitute, the teeth of a man with a gun to his head, the shirt of the man who hires him...

That man is Paco Roman, a peon who worked at the silver mine before mounting a revolt and hanging all his bosses. The silver has been buried at this point by dynamite and Paco has to escape the regulars outside. The Polack helps him to escape, notably bargaining price at every step of the way. Paco means well and he certainly has balls but he doesn't have much of a clue, so he hires the Polack to effectively run the show. As he explains to someone, 'He's one of my employees: he tells me what to do.'

Palance is Curly, because of his shock of curly black hair that makes him look somewhat like John Vernon. He's after the silver too and is quite happy to kill whoever needs be killed so that he can get to it. By the time he realises that the silver isn't there for the taking, his men are dead and hes stripped naked and sent packing. Therefore he stays in the game for revenge, siding with the regulars so that he can get to Paco and the Polack. His hair is just wrong but I'm sure the ladies watching appreciated his bare butt.

This actually has quite a lot to say about what revolutions really are. Corbucci was a communist so you can imagine where many of his sympathies lie, but it isn't all as clear cut as that. The hero here, an anti hero as always for a spaghetti western, is really the Polack because whatever excesses he gets up to, he's always honest about what he does and why. However it plays out even better as a riotous exploitation film. Only a couple of scenes, like the grenade in the mouth shot, come off leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Most of it is just spaghetti western bliss.

Corbucci's direction and the cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa are just wonderful. The composition of frame, the colour balances, the way things like gun barrels move into view is top notch, as are the various twists and turns of the plot. The music is just as superb, with Morricone on top form. Corbucci and Morricone turn the rout of a town and its command post into an opera. Best of all is the humour. There's too much that's serious here to make it a straight comedy but there's a huge amount of humour in it. I laughed as much here as I sat back in admiration at the way the film was shot.

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