Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sam Cooper's Gold (Italy, 1966)

A half-forgotten spaghetti western that may not be an undisputed, forgotten classic, but is an interesting entry of its genre with a clear theme that it trumpets without ever being overly didactic. The original Italian title is Ognuno per se, but it plays on late-night television under various other titles, including The Ruthless Four, The Goldseekers and Every Man for Himself. Good cast, good acting and a relatively interesting story save what for some unexplainable reason is an at times almost dull film – but for all the moments that drag, the film not only quickly manages to regain your interest but also haunts the mind long after the final credits roll.
Sam Cooper (Van Heflin) is an old codger prospector who, along with his partner, finally hit the big vein deep in the desert of Nevada. In no time flat, his partner tries to kill him and, after turning the tables, Sam almost doesn't even make it back to the god-forsaken town from which they had come. Unsure whom to trust, he sends for a youth he once knew as a virtual son, Manolo (George Hilton), but when Manolo ends up bringing along his less than sympathetic friend Blond (Klaus Kinski of The Big Silence [1968 / trailer] and much, much more), Sam calls upon Mason (Gilbert Roland) an old but hostile friend who has a score to settle with Sam. The less-than-harmonious group of four set out for the mine, but (spoiler time!) only one makes it back.
The theme of Sam Cooper's Gold is not a particularly complicated one – the evil that greed (i.e., gold) drives one to do (see The Treasure of Sierra Madre [1948 / trailer] for an earlier treatise on the topic) – and the story development is likewise straightforward and simple; unlike many of its genre, however, Sam Cooper's Gold is often most interesting when there isn't a shoot out. The nature of the relationship between Manolo and Blond is as obvious as was possible for the generation in which the film was made, but as to be expected of a film of that time the sausage lovers are not nice guys: Blond is a blood-thirsty psycho and Manolo is sorta wimpy and without a backbone. (Just how little backbone Manolo has is indicated by the fact that his relationship with Blond is due more to an inability to stand firm than actual desire, for he believably indicates that he would in fact rather be cuddling the one deep cleavage found in town; thus, his very sexuality is less innate than a reflection of his lack of will.) Carlo Rustichelli's music, but for the opening scene, is oddly annoying for a spaghetti western, lacking the sense of elegy that infuses the best soundtracks of the genre – but then, the west of Sam Cooper's Gold is far more pathetic and dirty than it is in any way mythic.
Both Heflin and Roland, two seasoned and mostly forgotten actors of the Golden Years of Hollywood, do an exceptionally fine job, giving their roles a rounded sense of solidity and sincerity that neither Kinski or Hilton manage. (Roland, whose career actually went back to the silent films, was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso and took his movie moniker by combining the names of two of his favourite actors, Ruth Roland and John Gilbert. Like Heflin, he was always in regular employment and took part in more than a few memorable projects, but never achieved lasting great fame.) Kinski, as so often, acts less than walks through his stereotypical part as the psychopathic wacko while Hilton is simply the handsome man of the film – in other words, both are (well) cast by type.
The film itself could have been a lot more than it is, for the sum of its parts – actors, setting and script – promise a lot. Regrettably, director Giorgio Capitani is no great master of mood, composition or rhythm, and his relatively lackluster and by-the-numbers direction keeps the movie from becoming something truly special. A shame, really, for although Sam Copper's Gold is a pleasantly depressing, cynical and existential film, it had the stuff to be a truly great, depressing, cynical and existential film.
This is not at all surprising, seeing who helped write the script: Fernando Di Leo. Di Leo went on to a long career making hard, cold-blooded and violent crime films and is supposedly one of Tarantino's fave (forgotten) Italian directors. Di Leo began his career co-writing spaghetti westerns such as Django (1966 / trailer), The Return of Ringo (1965 / trailer) and Navajo Joe (1966 / trailer) before moving onwards into directing. Amongst his more memorable films (though not necessarily the best) are the cheesy Klaus Kinski horror flick Asylum Erotica (1971 / trailer), the multi-violent crime "drama" Murder Inferno (1972 / trailer) and the uneven crime-comedy Loaded Gun (1974 / trailer), which basically stars Ursula Andress's love pillows (entertaining, one and all – the films, I mean). Di Leo's scripts usually feature a somewhat nihilistic view of the world, and Sam Cooper's Gold is no exception.
In the hands of a good director, the film might have been great. In the hands of Giorgio Capitani, the film is merely interesting and engrossing – which gives indication of the strength of the film script and acting. Well worth watching, even if you are not a fan of the genre.

The whole film:

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