A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West Part 5
Sergio Leone’s picture Fistful of Dollars struck a vein ushering in the Italian Gold Rush of westerns. One of the first very pictures released shortly after Fistful was the other Sergio film, Sergio Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay. I’m going to discuss that one in a later installment, where I’ll be writing about Corbucci’s Django and it’s “sequels” but for now I’ll be going over another western that was made by one of the writers of Fistful of Dollars…
Tessari started out as a screenwriter, he first worked with Sergio Leone on the screenplay for The Last Days of Pompei along with still another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci, this was his second writing gig after the comedy Always Victorious staring highly acclaimed filmmaker Vittorio De Sicca! Tessari would go on to write some of the better Sword and Sandal pictures including Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and The Vampires and Mario Bava’s Hercules and The Haunted World before helping Sergio Leone on Fistful of Dollars.
Not long after his work on Fistful, Duccio Tessari would direct his first spaghetti western Un Pistola Por Ringo, which he co wrote with Spaniard Alfonso Balcázar. The main character is named Ringo/Angel Face. Tessari originally wanted to call Clint Eastwood’s stranger character Ringo but Leone rejected that idea. Ringo is bit of a clichéd western name that originally came from Johnny Ringo a gunslinger who may or may not have been killed by Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday, if you’ve seen the great Kurt Russell picture Tombstone Ringo is played by Michael Bein. John Wayne’s character in John Ford’s Stagecoach was named Ringo, Bonanza’s Lorne Green had a hit son called Ringo and there was a late ‘50’s TV show called Johnny Ringo. Leone was right to lose the name Ringo.
The Ringo character was very much different than Clint’s but one has to wonder how much, after all. Tessari wrote both. Clint took pages of dialog out of the script telling Leone he felt the character would be better played with an economy of words and again Leone rightfully agreed. Ringo on the other hand chats it up and quite a bit of the dialog is often corny and comical with a phrase he uses very often “It’s a matter of principle.” He drinks milk instead of whisky, alcohol makes your hand shaky “it’s a matter of principle.” This character was brought to life by Italian actor Giuliano Gemma, here billed as Montgomery Wood.
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Gemma got his start in small roles on big Hollywood productions that were shooting in Italy like William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. The great Italian director Vittorio De Sicca took a liking to him and cast him as Hercules in his anthology picture Boccacchio ’70, Lucino Visconti, who also directed a segment, cast him in a more sizable role in The Leopard staring Burt Lancaster, who was a hero of Gemma’s. Gemma knew Tessari from an earlier film, the Sword and Sandal picture Arrivano i’ Titani aka Sons of Thunder. He had just stared in a couple Spaghetti’s that same year, One Silver Dollar and Addios Gringo, before staring as the titular Ringo (they really banged these pictures out!)
For the antagonist, Tessari cast Spanish character actor Fernando Sancho, probably best known by American viewers as the vile Turk who held down Peter O’ Toole’s Lawrence while José Ferrer raped him in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, here he plays the Mexican bandit Sancho in all his slapstick glory.
A Pistol For Ringo tells the story of bandit Sancho and his gang robbing the local bank, in the process he gets shot and they decide to hole up in a hacienda outside of town (this same hacienda is in Fistful, it’s the ring area in For A Few Dollars More and the opening home in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) a widower and his daughter who live there are held prisoner, but the wealthy widower falls for Sancho’s main squeeze Dolores, Spanish actress Nieves Navarro, something his daughter doesn’t take kindly to. In the meantime the town sheriff, Spanish actor George Martin playing the sheriff as a squared jawed American b-western type, knowing that Dolores saw prisoner Ringo while she held off the sheriff as her gang robbed the bank, asks him to infiltrate the gang and return the money for a 30 percent reward.
A Pistol For Ringo plays very much like a b-western from the 30s and 40s, which is about as far as you can get from Fistful of Dollars. Ringo is not the laconic stranger of Leone’s picture but instead Ringo is, slick, charming and highly likable, much like Gemma’s cinematic American hero Burt Lancaster in pictures like Vera Cruz.
The sheriff’s a good guy which you won’t see too often, if all, in later Spaghettis. The bad guys here, like the good guys, are funny a bit dumb and bumbling, but once you realize it’s not going to be gritty, cynical or violent you get used to the style and it’s rather entertaining. The cinematography isn’t the greatest with its high key lighting, think 60s TV shows like The Big Valley, another interesting bit is that it takes place during Christmas, again not something you’d see in a Spaghetti.
The action is good and the picture moves along briskly. The best part though is the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Morricone wisely stayed clear of any Leone type themes, for Pistol, instead went a bit more traditional. The main theme sung by Maurizo Graf called “Angel Face” is one of my favorite spaghetti ballads. It’s a gentle, breezy pastoral almost a lullaby, beautifully composed by Ennio Morricone. Throughout the picture he returns to it with variants, some with a Ranchero flavor others with a Dimitri Tiomkin flavor.
A Pistol For Ringo opened May 12 1965, just eight months after Fistful of Dollars and was a huge hit and the Maurizo/Morricone theme Angel Face shot to number one on the Italian charts and Ringo with the Angel Face. The picture became the talk of the town and producers right away jumped on the band wagon with Ringo pictures (I guess there weren’t copyright laws in Italy) pictures like 100,000 Dollars For Ringo, Five Dollars For Ringo (what, only five dollars?!) 3 Bullets For Ringo, Ringo and His Golden Pistol, Ringo’s Big Night, Woman For Ringo, and more, yes MORE!
Ol’ Ringo did have a legitimate sequel though The Return of Ringo and directed by Duccio Tessari. The Return of Ringo has much of the same cast Fernando Sancho, Lorella De Luca, Nieves Navarro, and of course Giuliano Gemma again billed as Montgomery Wood but his character is no longer called just Ringo it’s Captain Montgomery Brown, director Tessari insists its not the same character much like Leone says in the dollars pictures Clint is not the same character in the three films. Then why does he dress the same? Anyway, in The Return of Ringo he’s clearly not the same character.
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Return is a much superior film and despite being made just a couple of months after Pistol this one is most definitely different in tone and much closer to Fistful in style. For starters “Ringo” here doesn’t talk much nor drinks milk and has a head full of very blonde hair. After the civil war Montgomery Brown/Ringo returns home to discover that after a gold strike two Mexican brothers have killed his father and taken his wife (lovely Lorella De Luca, Duccio Tessari’s wife until his death in 1994) after meeting with an Apache medicine man Ringo disguises himself as a Mexican peasant and tries to take back what’s rightfully his.
The atmosphere is much better as well, with dusty wind blowing, Catholic imagery and subtle use of sound effects on the soundtrack.
Return of Ringo was another big hit, with two big Ringo hits Giuliano Gemma’s name made his other pictures that year profitable, he made four pictures that year! But the biggest hit of 1965 was Sergio Leone’s sequel to Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More…
Next: The Return of Clint Eastwood the making of A Few Dollars More.
Sources: Once Upon A Time In The Italian West by Howard Hughes