Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Pistols Don't Argue / Pistole non discutono

Correctly surmising that most of the town will be busy with Sheriff Pat Garrett’s wedding, Billy the Kid takes the opportunity to rob the town bank. When his younger brother George accidentally drops his mask, Billy tells him to silence the bank tellers with his knife – partly to punish his brother, partly because gunshots would likely alert the townsfolk. With George proving unable to kill the men in cold blood, Billy shoots them anyway.

Thus alerted to the crime, Garrett and his deputies go in pursuit, but are unable to catch the Clanton brothers before they cross the border into Mexico.

Garrett decides to continue on anyway, while his deputies turn back. To simply give up, Garrett rationalises, would lead to a wave of similar robberies all along the border.

Apprehending the brothers proves relatively straightforward for the wily Sheriff. His greater challenge is returning them and the stolen gold back to the US. For Mexican bandit leader Santero has now become aware of the gold, forcing Garrett to take it and the Clantons back across the desert...

Directed by Mario Caiano, Pistols Don’t Argue was the bigger-budgeted portion of the two film package that also gave rise to Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. If this explains why Pistols isn’t terribly well known, except among spaghetti western enthusiasts, it also makes it a significant film in other ways: Simply put, what did Fistful do that Pistols didn’t, or vice-versa?

Logically, after all, Pistols should have been the more successful film. It had more money behind it along with a more recognisable – albeit still B-list / fading – star in the form of Rod Cameron. It also had more familiar characters in Garrett and the Kid, as the clear-cut hero and villain respectively, plus romance and plenty of good old fashioned “a man’s gotta do...” isms.

A number of reasons can be advanced for Pistols’ relative failure and Fistful’s massive success. Most revolve around the distinction between the Italian western, represented by Pistols, and the Italian western, represented by Fistful.

Around twenty westerns had been produced or co-produced by Italian companies prior to them. All, like Pistols, had been made in imitation of the Hollywood western, with producers seeking to hide their Italianness to convince domestic audiences that what they were seeing was “the real thing”.

While it is true that Leone, Volonte, Morricone and others hid their identities behind Anglo-sounding pseudonyms on Fistful, the film itself looked, sounded and was different, principally in attitude.

As Morricone also scored Pistols, we can start by comparing his work on the two films. The score for Pistols contains suspense and action cues that would not be out of place in one of Leone’s films, while the cues that are used to convey the oppressive desert heat could easily have fitted into The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’s desert scenes. Strings, piano and percussion are used in an recognisable way. What is missing are the more distinctive touches and timbres: There is no whistling, no hammer and anvil percussion, no whip cracks, gunshots or vocalism. What is present, in the “Ballad of Lonesome Billy” is precisely the kind of thing that Leone encouraged Morricone to get away from.

Visually, Pistols is a lot brighter looking, with things lacking the lived-in ness of their counterparts in Fistful and the colour palette being more varied, less drab. Indeed, a deserted ghost town in the desert looks to be in almost as good a condition as the still sort-of inhabited town in Leone’s film. In fairness to Caiano and cinematographer Massimo Dallamano, Pistols’ night work is however better than Fistful’s; inasmuch as Dallamano worked on both films, this discrepancy may then be attributed to having more time and money on Pistols than Fistful. Though explained in part by the fact that it was his wedding day – a traditional romantic element that Leone took pains to avoid in his films, and which is reprised here in the developing relationship between George and a frontier homestead family in need of a man – Garrett starts off clean and gets dirtier as the film progresses, rather than being scruffy and unshaven from the off.

Whereas Leone’s films are about unstable meanings, that the Good is good only in relation to the Bad, Pistols presents straightforward 1930s Hollywood style characterisations for Garrett and the Kid. George is the more interesting character, in that he’s torn between idol-worshipping his brother and his growing realisation that Billy really doesn’t care about anyone except himself.

In relation to the 1930s western, meanwhile, those familiar with John Ford’s Stagecoach will see a couple of familiar tropes come in at the end, with the 11th hour arrival of the cavalry to save the day – albeit reconfigured spaghetti style with Mexican bandits rather than Indians – and the lawman’s willingness to let the sympathetic lawbreaker go free to settle down with a good woman, one Agnes (of) Goddard.

I would normally label this a spoiler, but to me a spoiler implies that a film of this sort does something that you would not expect, whereas here we are dealing with convention.

Besides the killing of the innocent who could identify someone (Once Upon a Time in the West) and the forced march through the desert (The Good the Bad and the Ugly), a third trope which re-appears in a Leone western is a trick Garrett plays on the Kid, of removing the bullets from his gun (GBU again). The distinction in each case, and elsewhere, seems one of Leone’s cynicism against Caiano’s romanticism, that Garrett’s forced march is not a vengeful attempt to torture a foe to death, for instance.

Another key difference between the filmmakers is their treatment of the Mexican: Other than a couple of Mexican labourers on the Goddard stead (or those who know their place in the Anglo-dominated hierarchy?) all the Mexicans seen in Pistols are corrupt and villainous. As such, Garrett’s territorial intrusion along with his justification for it, are vindicated. Leone would again be more questioning: Yes, the Rojos are worse than the Baxters in Fistful, but we’re dealing with shades of (dark) grey.

In sum, a fascinating failure.


Samuel Wilson said...

A fascinating essay. It would be interesting to compare works from directors who made westerns before and after Fistful. I'm not sure of the chronology, but the differences between Corbucci's Minnesota Clay and Django would probably be quite telling.

K H Brown said...

Minnesota Clay was made before Django. Interestingly it had two endings, one more traditional and one more 'Italian' - much like The Great Silence a few years later, though there Corbucci was clear on the ending he wanted.