The first thing to note about this film is the implications of its Italian and English titles. The Italian title translates as The Bastards, whereas the English title and the English lyrics to the theme song (“he’s a bastard”) refer to The Bastard. This plural/singular distinction is an important one, since the English version is likely to make the viewer think that the titular bastard is Jason (Giuliano Gemma) whereas the Italian is likely to make the viewer also think of Jason's older, hypochondriac, half-brother Adam (Klaus Kinski) and perhaps also Jason’s girlfriend Karen (Margaret Lee) and the rest of their gang.
The narrative begins in medias res as Jason flees with a bright yellow bag filled with jewels into the waiting getaway car. Having got out of town, Jason and his two accomplices find their way blocked by a police car. Jason encourages his driver to slowly go forwards and then suddenly accelerate. The stratagem works, but the police car pursues and eventually traps the robbers. The three men get out and the two accomplices are then summarily gunned down by the two cops, who prove to be other associates of Jason’s in disguise.
Jason is the bastard.
Then, however, the cops in turn seek to betray Jason.
Everyone is a bastard.
Jason, however, had predicted as much and, having chained the bag to the floor of the car, manages to take them out.
Having disposed of the getaway car and removed the false fittings from the ‘police’ car, Jason arrives in the next town, stops off for a glass of milk – this an apparent nod to Gemma and co-writer/director Duccio Tessari’s earlier collaborations on the Ringo spaghetti westerns – and then meets up with the waiting Karen.
After dealing with another attempted betrayal in a night club – Karen turning the music up so Jason’s shots will not be heard – the duo rendezvous with Adam, their mother, and the other members of the gang.
At this point also we get a more diegetic explanation for Jason’s avoidance of alcohol, his mother being an alcoholic. This said, he later sends his mother a crate of whiskey as a gift; Adam, whether out of concern for his mother and/or a desire to discredit his half-brother, has the bottles watered down. When Jason learns of this, he gifts his mother another lot of the proper, good stuff. Amusingly, this time we see the bottles, complete with telltale J&B labels.
Rather more important in relation to the narrative, however, is that Jason announces he is not going to share the loot with his brother and the others, instead intending to use the $100,000 to bankroll setting up his own gang. To this end, he has hidden the loot; it may be significant that we do not see him do this.
Jason is the bastard.
What Jason proves not to have foreseen, however, is Karen’s betraying him to Adam. Worse, Adam has his surgeon associate (an unrecognisable Umberto Raho) shoot Jason up with drugs and sever the tendons in the wrist of his gun hand.
Jason is taken in by ranch-owner Barbara (Claudine Auger) who helps him to recover (Gemma here displays his athletic prowess by jumping backwards and somersaulting into the swimming pool, apparently on the first take). Barbara’s kindness makes Jason begin to question his previous life, but not to the extent of foregoing revenge.
Jason may not be the bastard, but he is still one of the bastards.
It is somewhat ironic that, having made some comparably Hollywood-style westerns in Spain, Tessari and Gemma should go to New Mexico to do a crime film with a contemporary setting. This said, the trope of the gunman with a maimed hand is a common one in the Italian western (cf. Django, The Great Silence) and a scene of Jason practising by shooting out the strings of a harp and his donning of a leather wrist-guard seem inspired by A Fistful of Dollars.
Tessari makes good use of the landscape, contrasting its brown and green exteriors with some yellow, blue and red interiors (Dante Ferretti has an early design credit here). Tessari's direction is similar, the obvious stylistic flourishes in some scenes (e.g. Jason’s flashbacks/hallucinations as he stumbles deliriously through the near desert landscape) forming a nice contrast with the less emphatic functional approach elsewhere.
Gemma, Kinski and Lee each acquit themselves well, even if none is being called upon to deliver anything outside of their comfort zone. Hayworth's performance is harder to judge, on the grounds that she was afflicted by undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease at the time. Without seeing the original script, it is thus difficult to know the extent to which her character's drunkenness was there from the outset or was improvised during filming as a response to difficulties.
One aspect of the script, as written or rewritten, that comes across as rather unsatisfactory is the somewhat deus ex machina ending with its rather too-neat settling of accounts (this term, referenced within the dialogue, is yet another spaghetti westernism).
In sum, a film that starts off well, but loses its way a bit towards the end – much like its lead character, admittedly.