Guest reviewer Lee Broughton tackles Tonino Valerii’s Spaghetti Western-cum-political conspiracy thriller. By brazenly transposing key aspects of John F. Kennedy’s assassination onto the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881, Valerii gives both western and conspiracy film fans much food for thought. A career best performance by Giuliano Gemma, repurposed sets from Once Upon a Time in the West and great turns by a plethora of Sergio Leone’s regular supporting actors bring a sense of gravitas to this intriguing show.
A Bullet for the President
Region Free Blu-ray
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 112 min. / Il prezzo del potere, The Price of Power / Street Date November 25, 2019 / 18.45
Starring: Giuliano Gemma, Warren Vanders, Van Johnson, Maria Cuadra, Ray Saunders, Fernando Rey, Antonio Casas, Benito Stefanelli, Jose Suarez, Jose Calvo, Manuel Zarzo, Michael Harvey, Norma Jordan, Angel Alvarez.
Cinematography: Stelvio Massi
Film Editor: Franco Fraticelli
Original Music: Luis Bacalov
Production Designer: Carlo Leva
Written by Massimo Patrizi
Produced by Bianco Manini
Directed by Tonino Valerii
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
In 1881, President James A. Garfield (Van Johnson) journeys from Washington to give a speech in Dallas, Texas despite being warned by his top secret service operative, Arthur McDonald (Warren Vanders), that intelligence suggests that extreme danger awaits him there. As his open-topped carriage approaches an overpass in the city, the President is assassinated.
Conflicting autopsy reports and dubious eyewitness testimonies soon lead to an innocent black man, Jack Donovan (Ray Saunders), being apprehended and arrested. Donovan himself is duly assassinated while being escorted to a more secure jail. Donovan’s best friend, Bill Willer (Giuliano Gemma), sets out to prove his innocence by unmasking the President’s real killers and he soon finds himself at the centre of a high-level political conspiracy.
A Bullet for the President AKA The Price of Power is a really fascinating and, for the most part, a quite brilliant film. As far as Spaghetti Westerns go, its narrative is refreshingly original and daringly provocative in equal measure. In this review I’ll discuss A Bullet for the President’s merits as a film first before moving on to offer a reading of the show that will explore the ways in which its contents appear to resonate with events experienced — and public concerns expressed — in Italy at the time of its release.
The film’s impressively staged opening scene is unrelenting in its grim depiction of Dallas and it sets an audacious tone that is maintained throughout the show’s runtime. Genre stalwart Luis Bacalov’s melancholy and emotive front credits music (which has been playing over a sepia tinted map of Texas) takes on an ominous tone as the camera zooms in on Dallas before cutting to a close-up of a print of Abraham Lincoln. The camera pulls back to reveal an expansive and busy Western town centre and the two deputies who are seen to be holding the large framed picture of Lincoln toss it onto a fire that is burning in the middle of the street.
Another man throws a stars and stripes flag onto the fire before spitting on it in disgust. Posters of President Garfield’s face that also bear the text “wanted for treason” can be seen pasted on the walls of nearby buildings. Inside the sheriff’s office a restrained and bloodied Donovan is pleading his innocence while being brutally assaulted by a deputy who is following the orders of Sheriff Jefferson (Benito Stefanelli). When Donovan’s girlfriend Annie (Norma Jordan) tries to intervene, she is forcibly removed from the office, racially abused and thrown to the ground in the street outside.
Further examples of racial abuse and black suffering are encountered later on in the film but this content doesn’t play in an exploitative way. As I argue in my book The Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film (2016), political Italian filmmakers had long embraced the idea of employing black and African American characters as racial palimpsests whose allegorical suffering was intended to resonate with the Italian proletariat (particularly the dark-skinned southern Italians who were often referred to as “Africans” by lighter-skinned northern Italians) and other ethnic and marginalised groups around the world.
These ethnic characters’ subsequent acts of assertion and rebellion were often intended to be educational or instructional exercises (see Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!  for an example of this in action). To this end, African Americans such as Woody Strode, Brock Peters, Vonetta McGee and Lola Falana had made Italian Westerns during the 1960s in which their characters (or their loved ones) suffered racial abuse and harrowing physical harm. However, these black characters were able to hit back at their white oppressors — and in ways that would have been unheard of in Hollywood productions prior to the Blaxploitation boom of the early 1970s — without suffering narrative punishment.
While Donovan does ultimately die here, the depictions of his unjust suffering remain politically charged. Willer tells the inquest into Garfield’s death, “Jack loved the President because he told him blacks and whites are equal. And he got killed by whites who think differently.” Donovan’s girlfriend Annie also appears in a scene that seems to feature a symbolic appeal for racial inclusion when she performs a routine on the local saloon’s stage. It initially looks as though the stage is empty save for a huge stars and stripes backdrop. However, it is soon revealed that Annie is actually an essential part of the flag (and thus by extension the nation) as she is dressed as its stars.
Elsewhere, the President tells Southern plantation owners that they can expect “more taxes and less privileges.” He also advises them to pay their black workers “an adequate wage” before adding “treat them with dignity and respect … be satisfied with a little less profit.” The President’s assassination and the moments that follow it are assembled quite brilliantly and Maria Cuadra does fine work when she telegraphs Lucretia Garfield’s reaction to the horror that is unfolding around her. The sense of panic, chaos and urgency that Valerii, cinematographer Stelvio Massi and editor Franco Fraticelli generate is palpable and these scenes are genuinely shocking and upsetting. The same goes for Donovan’s sad and undignified end later in the film. His demise possesses a distressing sense of inevitability but it is pathos laden too.
Luis Bacalov’s majestic music successfully covers all generic bases and heightens the film’s emotional ambience in all of the right places. My only criticism of the music, which features some great choral vocals and fuzz guitar work, would be that one of its action cues sounds just a little too similar to one of Bacalov’s cues for Damiano Damiani’s earlier genre entry, A Bullet for the General (1967). The film’s cinematography, art direction, sets and costume designs are all top notch too.
A Bullet for the President is a political film and its excellent production values suggest that it is a film that wants to be taken seriously. The show does indeed work as a serious piece of cinema that should be filed alongside the best of the Spaghetti Western genre. Interestingly, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, A Bullet for the President possesses a pedigree that can be traced directly back to Sergio Leone in a number of ways.
Director Tonino Valerii (Day of Anger , A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die  and My Name is Nobody ) was Leone’s assistant director on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Valerii never tried to mimic Leone’s style but the influence of Leone can perhaps be felt in Valerii’s best films in terms of their thoughtful blocking and compositions, good coverage of scenes from a number of angles, impressive art direction and neat camera moves.
I think that A Bullet for the President is Valerii’s best looking and best-written Western. Stelvio Massi’s cinematography works really well: every shot here feels like it’s the best it could be and a few well-placed shots even use a split diopter lens that allows for some striking deep focus-enhanced compositions. Massi was the camera operator on A Fistful of Dollars and he went on to direct a number of the 1970s crime/cop films that I will loosely refer to later in this review.
This is one of those Spaghetti Westerns that looks like its action could be taking place in the same diegetic world that we encounter in Sergio Leone’s films. That feeling is encouraged by the fact that recognisable elements from Leone’s films can be found here. A Bullet for the President makes good use of the McBain ranch, the Flagstone town set and the interior of Morton’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) train from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Furthermore, iconic key actors from that film (Leone regulars Benito Stefanelli, Frank Brana, Lorenzo Robledo and Michael Harvey) and others (Pepe Calvo from A Fistful of Dollars, Jose Canalejas from For a Few Dollars More and Antonio Casas from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ) are employed to good effect. Stefanelli has a pretty big and pivotal role here and he acquits himself very well.
Under normal circumstances, the film’s star Giuliano Gemma (Arizona Colt , Day of Anger and Ben and Charlie ) might be considered to be something of an interloper in this deadly serious, Leone-like Spaghetti Western world. Gemma was known for his matinee idol looks and the ebullient and slightly jokey approach that he sometimes employed when bringing his genre characters to life. And some of his genre entries looked more like classical American Westerns than contemporary Italian Westerns.
However, his performance here is remarkably restrained and he plays his role totally straight. As such, this completely convincing turn is one of Gemma’s very best Spaghetti Western performances. As a matter of fact, the whole film is really well acted. This show features scenes that take place in locations that are not often seen in Spaghetti Westerns (e.g. newspaper offices and print rooms, shady rich men’s drawing rooms, political conference rooms, impromptu inquest rooms and so on) and everybody involved rises to the occasion.
The only elements of generic frivolity found here are a number of dangerous looking stunts that the athletic former stuntman Gemma clearly performed himself (jumping to the ground from great heights and climbing around the under-track supporting structures of a very high railway bridge in order to defuse a bomb), a couple of indoor duels that involve the participants clenching a lit cigar between their teeth while the room is plunged into darkness and a functioning crutch that has a rifle built into it.
The novelty aspects of some of these elements don’t adversely affect the serious tone of the film at all. Indeed, writer Massimo Patrizi knew precisely which buttons to press when he wove the intricacies of the film’s conspiracy theory elements together: at an emotional level, the film successfully offers a very similar viewing experience to the better-known, contemporary world-set political conspiracy films of the 1970s. As such, A Bullet for the President remains an intriguing, compelling and essential genre entry.
The remainder of this review is largely a condensation of a paper entitled ‘Tonino Valerii’s The Price of Power (1969): Hysterical historical allegory or proto-poliziottesco posturing?’ that I presented at the Cine-Excess IX conference in 2015.
This last section contains mild spoilers.
Surface readings of A Bullet for the President have tended to prompt two divergent responses amongst casual viewers over the years. The first response is that the film is littered with glaring historical inaccuracies and should therefore be ridiculed and dismissed outright for being an exercise in poorly researched hokum.
Certainly the film does have some major historical inaccuracies at its centre. President Garfield was assassinated in 1881, but the shooting took place in Washington. He wasn’t travelling in an open-topped carriage; he was waiting for a train. And he didn’t die immediately; he lived on for almost three months albeit in a state of increasing ill health.
Maybe such responses will become less commonplace given the historical inaccuracies that Quentin Tarantino openly flaunted and seemingly got away with in Inglourious Basterds (2009)? Given that Tarantino is a self-confessed fan of the genre, it might well be that he was actually emboldened by the content of A Bullet for the President when he was writing that film.
But there are in fact some interesting minor parallels between actual history and A Bullet for the President’s content. In the film, Garfield is assassinated because a motley collective of Southern conspirators led by Pinkerton (Fernando Rey) are angry about his pro-emancipation and pro-civil rights agenda and they want Vice President Chester A. Arthur (Jose Suarez), who they will be able to control via blackmail, to take his place.
In actuality Garfield did favour civil rights for freed African Americans and his real life assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, wanted Vice President Arthur to take power because he believed that Arthur would give powerful positions of office to members of the Republican Party’s minority — and mostly Southern States-based — Stalwart faction.
The second response to A Bullet for the President is that the film is obviously referencing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and that its contents should be accepted as provocative allegorical comments that offer insight into the conspiracy theories that surround Kennedy’s death. Again, this response has generated a degree of viewer ridicule too.
A Bullet for the President does of course reference the Kennedy assassination but you’ll have to watch the film yourself in order to judge how closely its contents chime with the conspiracy theories associated with that tragic chapter in America’s history.
However, I would like to propose a possible third response by exploring how A Bullet for the President’s contents might actually be understood to resonate more readily with local events and concerns.
When the film was released domestically on 18 December 1969, Italy had already experienced two years of political protests that had seen demonstrators coming into conflict with an increasingly heavy handed Italian police force. In addition, the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan on 12 December 1969 had marked the commencement of the troubled “years of lead” that would last until the early 1980s.
With the country beset by terrorist acts and political paranoia, a wave of early 1970s Italian crime/cop films would soon feature pointed scenarios that repeatedly addressed a number of public concerns relating to high-level political conspiracies, terrorist activity, corrupt law enforcers, the partisan press and its ability to spread misinformation, coup plots by political extremists and government operatives who effected cover-ups that best served their own agendas.
A Bullet for the President presciently features all of these elements and themes, albeit allegorically transposed to the Spaghetti West. Thus the film would seem to have more to say about Italy at the time of its release than it does about American history or the Kennedy assassination.
The film opens with Donovan’s brutal interrogation and his subsequent death while in custody is a key narrative plot point. The idea that law enforcers might be mistreating those who they arrested was a hot topic in Italy in 1969 and it became a particular point of focus following the death in custody of the chief suspect in the Piazza Fontana bombing on 15 December 1969.
In addition, A Bullet for the President’s narrative revolves around allusions to precisely the kind of political conspiracy theories that would soon envelop the investigations into the Piazza Fontana bombing and other terrorist acts. Indeed, it was popularly believed that sponsors who held powerful official positions were protecting some of Italy’s terrorists by using their influence to ensure that their terror attacks were blamed on their political and ideological opponents.
In the film Wallace (Michael Harvey) is a former Confederate military man who now leads a band of right wing terrorists who are seeking to restart the Civil War. Wallace is wanted for desertion, murder and robbery but a cabal of powerful Southerners who hold political, administrative, judicial and financial power are happy to grant him his liberty and bankroll his gang’s nefarious activities while also ensuring that his ongoing crimes are covered up.
Indeed, the leading conspirator Pinkerton owns the local newspaper and he is able to order the publication of fabricated stories that blame the liberal Willer and Donovan for Wallace’s terrorist activities. A Bullet for the President also acknowledges the worth of investigative journalism when a liberal reporter, Nick (Manuel Zarzo), defies Pinkerton and begins assisting Willer. Before long it is revealed that the cabal’s plan is effectively a political coup that is taking place in the Spaghetti West.
Interestingly, in 1967 investigative journalists had revealed that a coup planned by General Giovanni de Lorenzo had been foiled but covered up by the state in 1964. De Lorenzo’s planned coup was eventually ruled to have been motivated by a desire to safeguard Italian democracy but rumours relating to further coup plots planned by more politically extreme parties circulated throughout Italy during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the film, Willer and Donovan are ideal patsies for the conspirators. These two liberal southerners chose to fight for the Union during the Civil War but there is circumstantial evidence that suggests that they might hold a grudge against the President: they were courtmartialed and jailed by Garfield (in his role as a Unionist Colonel) when their actions resulted in their regiment being massacred by Confederates. In a flashback we see the pair on sentry duty but refusing to kill a Confederate scout when they realise that the scout is Willer’s father (Antonio Casas).
Depictions of the US Civil War that appear in Spaghetti Westerns are often ridiculed by critics and viewers for being implausible or historically inaccurate but, as I argue in my analysis of Sergio Garrone’s Django the Bastard (1969) in my book Reframing Cult Westerns: From The Magnificent Seven to The Hateful Eight (2020), these depictions usually have more to say about Italy’s own historical North-South conflicts than they do about American history.
The fratricidal fighting that is manifested in civil war scenarios had been experienced in Italy on a number of occasions in the country’s past and it was present in the contemporary moment when the political right and the political left were literally at war with one and other on the country’s streets.
A Bullet for the President features a secret service operative, Arthur McDonald, whose motives and agenda remain vague much of the time. In seeking to maintain the status quo, McDonald is seemingly happy to let Donovan take the blame for the President’s death if it allows him to quietly deal with the real conspirators without their existence or the details of their planned coup becoming public knowledge. McDonald’s approach thus smacks of the official cover up of de Lorenzo’s planned coup in Italy in 1964.
In the final analysis, we’re not sure whether all of the high-ranking conspirators in A Bullet for the President will ever be punished and it’s unclear what McDonald will do with the sensitive documents that the conspirators were planning to use to blackmail Chester A. Arthur.
At the film’s end the viewer is simply left with the overriding impression that one conspiracy might well beget another. Key players come and go but bigger concerns and influences are seemingly always at work, unseen in the background. And all of this goes on without the general public being fully conscious of it. One can imagine that this idea would have resonated with Italian audiences at the time of A Bullet for the President’s release.
As such, those judgemental casual viewers who focus on A Bullet for the President’s glaring historical inaccuracies or apparent obsession with the Kennedy assassination are perhaps being hasty when they seek to dismiss the film or ridicule its narrative worth.
A Bullet for the President is a film that successfully captures the contemporary zeitgeist of Italy by presenting a telling political conspiracy narrative — albeit in an allegorical form — that had much to say about the country at the time of its release. And in doing so its plot prefigured the similar political conspiracy narratives that would soon become a staple of the Italian crime/cop films of the 1970s.
Mild spoilers end
Wild East’s Region Free Blu-ray of A Bullet for the President features a very pleasing presentation of a film that has been quite hard to find on home video up until now. Picture quality here is excellent: the image is sharp, its colours are nicely balanced and the elements used are free from damage of any kind (the images used to illustrate this review are taken from an older source and do not reflect the excellent quality of Wild East’s new blu-ray). The presentation’s sound quality is near enough excellent for the most part. Two or three scenes have a touch of noticeable background hiss at their outset but this isn’t problematic. Included in the extra features is an impressively comprehensive image gallery.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
A Bullet for the President
Region Free Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Very Good / Excellent
Supplements: Image gallery and trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Lee Broughton
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson