"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Barquero (Universal, 1970)

Injecting new blood?

.The reverse-engineering that took place in the ‘spaghetti comes to Hollywood’ period of the late 60s and early 70s is very interesting and Barquero is perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It has Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe as cynical tough guy doing good despite himself. It has garish color, corpses a-go-go and lots of close-up squints and grimaces. But unlike spaghetti westerns it has good acting, interesting characters, some thoughtful moments, Colorado scenery and tension. It’s actually a good film, which no spaghetti ever was (except perhaps A Bullet for the General but that wasn’t really a Western at all).

It was to have been directed by Star Trek maestro Robert Sparr but went to interesting director Gordon Douglas instead when Sparr was killed in a plane crash scouting Star Trek locations. Douglas is described by French film boffin Bertrand Tavernier as “a part-time auteur”, by which he meant that he cheerfully did a lot of bread-and-butter stuff the studios handed him, putting up with the one-take trash Sinatra kept churning out and doing many less-than-epic comedies, but he had a vision and occasionally was able to stamp his personality on some quite interesting films. As far as Westerns go, he directed The Iron Mistress, The Fiend Who Walked the West, Gold of the Seven Saints, Chuka and Rio Conchos, for example, all curious in their way. And Fort Dobbs in 1958 was verging on the very good.
In Barquero we have an essentially static plot in which bandido leader Warren Oates (splendidly sliding into madness) wants to cross the river but is stuck because sturdy Lee Van Cleef has the ferry on the other side and won’t bring it back. The lack of movement is compensated for by early action as we see the violent robbery which causes the pursuit that Warren is fleeing from (the army’s behind him and that’s why he needs the barge) and a guerrilla raid as Lee and a perfectly splendid Forrest Tucker as Mountain Phil swim across to rescue a hostage. And in fact the inaction in the rest of it builds the tension.
Warren and Lee spend some time staring meaningfully at each other across the river, adepts of two rather different kinds of Western. The bandit chief is contemplating his Charon. Marie Gomez is Lee’s cigar-smoking gal, a crack shot with a revolving rifle like Arthur Hunnicutt’s in El Dorado, although that's where her similarity to Arthur ends, fortunately. Mariette Hartley is good as the wife of the hostage who loves her husband and will do anything to save him but whose lust for Lee also drives her. Some of Warren’s henchmen are also well done, notably Kerwin Mathews as his intelligent and dandy French lieutenant and John Davis Chandler (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, etc) as the unfortunate villain Fair. Forrest takes the biscuit, though. It’s a juicy part.
Warren smokes dope like Gian-Maria Volontè and shoots the river that he cannot cross. This was one of his best roles.

Say what you like about the spaghettis (and I do), they did inject some new blood (rather a lot of it, in fact) into the mainstream Western and ‘heroes’ like Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates replaced the noble Pecks and Fondas and Coopers. They weren’t better, but they were different. .


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