As we all know, when it comes to Christopher Lambert, there can be only one. However, writing about every movie in an actor's 30+ year filmography is a big job - too much for a single man who's got pizza buffets to wreck and tender love poems to compose. So for this installment of the colossal Lambertathon, John Cribbs passes the torch to film blogger Kevin Sturton.
In addition to writing about various Lambert-instensive obscurities like Music and Words and I Love You, our Lamberthathon authors (in this case Mr. Sturton) have selected a supplementary film to pair with each installment of the Lambertathon. Today, to pair with his piece on The Telephone Bar, Sturton weighs in on another cult action star's debut in Little Rita of the West (a.k.a. Crazy Westerners.)
This article supplements Sturton's Lambertathon piece on The Telephone Bar.
~ by kevin sturton ~
A spaghetti-western musical might seem an unusual choice to accompany The Telephone Bar but they do have one thing in common. Both feature an early supporting performance from a cult action star made before his international breakthrough. In this case Terence Hill, best known for his long-running on-screen partnership with Bud Spencer, and playing the easy-going drifter stalking Henry Fonda’s ageing gunfighter in My Name is Nobody. While Lambert was a relative newcomer in The Telephone Bar, Hill had been working in movies since childhood under his real name Mario Girotti until he changed it for the western God Forgives… I Don’t. Often cast in as a brooding Franco Nero type in his early westerns Hill would go on to develop his own screen persona, one more suited to his physical athleticism and talent for slapstick comedy. While Little Rita of the West is a comedy Hill plays it straight and we’re never really sure until the finale whether he’s a good guy or the film’s main villain.
Little Rita of the West is one of a series of films made starring Italian pop singer Rita Pavone*, who might be tiny in stature but has a voice on her to shake the heavens. Imagine Lulu singing in Italian but much much louder. The opening sequence establishes Little Rita’s credentials as a gunfighter and also lets us know in this movie death will almost certainly be followed by a catchy musical number. After gunning down Butch Cassidy and his gang as they rob a stagecoach Little Rita launches into a duet with Fitz (Lucia Dalla), a passing German traveler who witnessed the carnage and becomes her trusty sidekick. The plot retains the anti-capitalist bent common in Italian westerns albeit in a somewhat simplified form. Little Rita is working with Native American Chief Sitting Bison (Gordon Mitchell) to rid the world of gold, which they believe is responsible for the white man’s cruelty and greed.
Little Rita of the West may send up the western but it’s made by people with first-hand knowledge of the genre. Screenwriter Franco Rosetti ** and director Ferdinando Baldi*** worked together on the Franco Nero revenge western Texas Adios, while Rosetti also co-wrote Corbucci’s Django. Both have fun here making fun of genre tropes and undercutting the machismo inherent in the Western. Essentially a series of comic sketches and musical numbers the film is structured around a series of confrontations between Little Rita and several gunfighters, each offering a variation on the tough loner protagonist. Ringo and Django will be familiar to fans of spaghetti westerns although here they’re much less heroic than they are in their own movies.
Ringo originally appears in two 1965 films A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo played by the Adonis-like Guiliano Gemma, aka Montgomery Wood. In the first film, Ringo is a dapper young bounty hunter who agrees to hunt down the bandit Sancho (Fernando Sancho) and his gang for financial gain. In the sequel set seven years later, an older careworn Ringo returns from fighting in the Civil War to find he’s been declared dead and his hometown is overrun by bandits. In the various and un-official sequels to the Ringo and Django movies they’re rarely played by the same actor. Here Ringo is played by Kirk Morris, a bodybuilder better known for playing Hercules/Maciste in sword-and-sandal movies, and (unlike the soulful character played by Gemma) this Ringo is presented as a ruthless mercenary. Morris towers over the 5’2” Pavone and his size makes his aggressive interaction with Little Rita seem absurd. Every macho utterance is undercut and rendered useless by her skill. She even manages to fire a bullet down the barrel of his gun destroying it and essentially emasculating him.
Having dealt with Ringo, Little Rita sets out to find her next target, Django. Acting on a hot tip from Sitting Bison, “he’s been running around with a bimbo in Tucson,” Rita finds Django on the road to Tucson having come straight from the climactic battle at the end of his own movie and still dragging his coffin behind him. Only this time it’s filled with gold coins as well as a Gatling gun. Franco Nero was presumably busy, so Django here is played by Lucio Rosato. Natali’s Django is a sadder version of the gunfighter we saw in Corbucci’s masterpiece. With his hands still broken and bloodied he is incapable of defending himself and lets Little Rita take his gold. As with Ringo this version of Django has a cowardly streak and ambushes Little Rita later on. In a scene mirroring the final sequence in the Corbucci film Django uses a cross to rest his gun, but Little Rita is too fast for him. Django makes a dying request for Little Rita to listen to his tale of woe but she rolls her eyes when he starts reminiscing about his childhood. A Morricone-style lament plays for Django and Baldi cuts to Fitz who’s actually whistling the tune to send the gunfighter on his way.
With Ringo and Django gone Terence Hill makes his first appearance as the enigmatic drifter Black Star, leading a herd of cattle across the plain. “Where are you headed?” asks Fitz. “Far away,” is the cryptic answer and one that will inextricably link Black Star to Little Rita as we see later towards the end of the film. She’s quite taken with this handsome stranger. “Did you see his eyes? He’s beautiful. That cowboy’s one good-looking hunk of a man” she says while cartwheeling around a field, too love-struck to notice Fitz and her are now surrounded by bandits led by Sancho, the villain from the Ringo movies and this time played by the original actor, Fernando Sancho. Sadly, Little Rita becomes a much more passive protagonist at this point. Django will be the last man she kills in the movie, although she does blow up Sancho’s men with a golden hand grenade but they seem fine afterwards returning to raid the town at the end of the film. Having won her trust by helping Little Rita and Fitz escape Little Rita takes Black Star back to meet Sitting Bison. Suspicious at first Sitting Bison sets a cunning test for him by asking Black Star the question “Do you like gold?” Black Star feigns indifference and is therefore accepted into the camp, but while everybody else performs an elaborate song and dance routine in praise to the Gods, his eyes are firmly on the side of the hill where two tribesmen are taking the gold to be stored.
Little Rita sings a love ballad as the Natives slow dance and dreams of marriage but her hopes are shattered when Black Star is caught trying to steal the gold hidden in the mountain. Facing execution Black Star is instead handed over to the white man to face justice but they hand him back when he refuses to plead guilty and they might actually have to hang him. Little Rita persuades Sitting Bison to let Black Star go but instead of being grateful he mopes around the saloon drinking whisky and feeling emasculated because he owes his life to a woman. Little Rita ends up being sidelined in the third act of her own movie despite Sancho returning to rob the bank and terrorize the town. Instead Black Star faces down Sancho and his men alone, showing little regard for his own life as he guns them down before returning to his whisky bottles. Little Rita only returns when she learns Black Star has demanded his original death sentence should be carried out by the court and has put himself in jail. Finally convincing him to wise up and admit he loves her, it seems they will be riding off into the sunset together but there’s a surprisingly melancholy epilogue which works as a commentary on the western gunfighter as a mythological figure, an elemental force which can only exist in opposition to chaos. Early in the film Sitting Bison predicts Rita’s future telling her the night she sees a red star in the sky “you will return to nothingness, because from nothingness you came.” The Chief is clearly baked on his own supply but Rosetti and Baldi follow through with this in the final moments of the film as Little Rita rides away from the town and ascends into the heavens taking her place among the stars.
Films starring pop stars tend to be quickly forgotten once the singer/band’s popularity fades which may explain why Little Rita of the West doesn’t have much of a reputation despite the presence of Terence Hill. I was skeptical at first but the film hits most of its targets. Lucio Dalla is the most valuable player with his expressive reactions to every situation he encounters meaning lines dubbed into English by a journeyman voice actor are still funny. Hill looks terrific and clearly has presence, but watching him act saturnine doesn’t feel right. It’s not his style and he’s much more fun in his other movies bitch-slapping gunfighters in saloons, or getting in bar-fights with Bud Spencer. It’s like watching Jackie Chan when the producers of New Fist of Fury realized they had found a potential movie star but try to make him act like Bruce Lee instead of doing his own thing. Rosetti and Baldi would team up again the following year to make Django, Prepare a Coffin, reuniting with Hill when Franco Nero was too busy filming Camelot to return as Django and setting him on the path to becoming Italy’s biggest box-office draw in the 70s’.
~ JANUARY 4, 2017 ~
IN THE INDETERMINATE FUTURE: John Cribbs will theoretically write another Lambertathon piece, perhaps one about La disparue de Deauville (but certainly nothing trivial.)