Friday 25 January 2013

Movie Review: The Stranger's Gundown (1969)

A revenge-from-beyond-the-grave Spaghetti Western, The Stranger's Gundown (also known as Django The Bastard) is a spookily stylish effort benefiting from artistic Sergio Garrone directing and a moody Anthony Steffen lead performance.

A mysterious man named Django (Steffen) shows up in town unexpectedly, dressed in a black poncho and a black hat low over his eyes, and carrying a cross bearing the name of his next victim and the date of death. Astoundingly fast with a gun, Django seems to be more of a spirit than a man, moving with the shadows and appearing and disappearing almost at will. He kills several men as he closes on his real target, the powerful Rod Murdock (Paolo Gozlino).

It transpires that Django was a Confederate soldier serving in Murdock's unit, when a group of officers including Murdock conspired to betray their own troops. Django either miraculously survived the subsequent onslaught by Union soldiers, or he is now a ghost. Either way, revenge is the only thing on his mind. Murdock is protected by a cadre of gunmen and mercenaries, including his half-crazed brother Jack (Luciano Rossi, doing his best Klaus Kinski impression). Jack's wife Alida (Rada Rassimov) seems to have married him purely for the money, and is eager to find a way out of the family. Rod establishes a thick ring of defence, but the undeterred Django sets about killing his way through, one man at a time.

Unrelated to the original Django (1966), The Stranger's Gundown proved to be the inspiration for Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973). But Garrone has a much better handle on the genre, and infuses The Stranger's Gundown with a Gothic, doom-laden vibe that elevates the material to sometimes poetic levels of artistry. Django's black-shrouded image is an unforgettable icon, and Garrone finds the unique camera angles, starting from the majestic opening scene of Django walking into a deserted town, to inject chills of death as the victims face their grim reaper.

Steffen, who co-produced and co-wrote (with Garrone), does his part: the methodical walk, deliberate long strides unperturbed and unrushed by the need to kill, keeps the man-or-ghost puzzle alive until late in the film. And Django's sudden conjuring of crosses readied in anticipation of the next death is a master-stroke of image-rich horror film-making. The English dubbing of Steffen's voice is a passable impression of Eastwood's laid-back delivery.

Luciano Rossi emerges as the most animated secondary character, creating in Jack a rather insane and highly-strung man living under the shadow of his brother and lucky to possess a trophy wife. The shock of white hair and over-the-topic antics can only channel Kinski, and Rossi does well to create a nervy counter-point to Django's overflowing volume of cool.

The original music by Vasili Kojucharov and Elsio Mancuso is an interesting hybrid of James Bond bouncy synth and Ennio Morricone genre standards. It's not a mix that is supposed to work, but it does succeed surprisingly well.

Django may straddle the vague line between avenging ghost and master gunslinger, but The Stranger's Gundown leaves no doubt: justice will be served, with ostentatious panache.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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