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Death Sentence

by Lee Broughton Jul 02, 2024

UK correspondent Lee Broughton returns with coverage of a striking Spaghetti Western. High culture operator Mario Lanfranchi was primarily known for directing operas and the works of Shakespeare when he seized the opportunity to work on a Western in Spain. The result was a very personal film which featured a stylish look, an interesting narrative structure and a quite amazing cast.


Death Sentence (Django – Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne)
Region Free Blu-ray
Explosive Media
1968 / Colour / 2:35 / 94 min. / Sentenza di morte / Street Date, 25 April 2024 / Available from Amazon.de / £14.28
Starring: Robin Clarke, Richard Conte, Tomas Milian, Adolfo Celi, Enrico Maria Salerno, Lilli Lembo, Eleonora Brown, Monica Pardo, Glauco Scarlini, Luciano Rossi.
Cinematography: Toni Secchi
Art Director: Franco D’Andria
Film Editor: Franco Attenni
Original Music: Gianni Ferrio
Produced by Alberto Puccini
Written and Directed by
Mario Lanfranchi

A young alcoholic, Cash (Robin Clarke), is too drunk to help when four gunmen attack and rob his brother. When he sobers up he hits the vengeance trail, hunting four quite disparate killers who have split up and surrounded themselves with dangerous henchmen. Diaz (Richard Conte) is now a wealthy farmer while the cruel and perverse Montero (Enrico Maria Salerno) has set himself up as a professional gambler. Both men are dispatched with little real trouble but things get trickier when Cash takes on Brother Baldwin’s (Adolfo Celi) gang of pious enforcers and O’Hara (Tomas Milian), a demented albino who has a disturbing fetish for blonde women and gold.

It’s well known by now that the huge impression that Sergio Corbucci’s seminal Spaghetti Western Django (1966) made on cinema-goers in Italy resulted in some of the country’s canny producers and distributors attempting to cash in on the film’s success by rebranding their own new — and completely unconnected — Westerns as Django movies of some description or other.

However, this kind of activity wasn’t just limited to Italy and a number of West German distributors went on to take the practice to even dizzier heights. The name Django was crowbarred into the titles of countless Franco Nero films that were released there (be they Westerns or not) and several more unrelated anti-heroes were renamed Django when the German language dub tracks of their genre films were being prepared. This was the case with Mario Lanfranchi’s Death Sentence, here being marketed by Explosive Media under its West German release title, Django – Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne.

 

Lanfranchi was well known in Italy for his work in the fields of theatre, opera and highbrow television. So much so that he initially found it difficult to find a producer who would take his sudden desire to write and direct a Spaghetti Western seriously. When a production deal was finally in place, Lanfranchi’s professional reputation and contacts at Columbia Pictures in America helped him to secure an interesting and highly capable cast and he set about creating a very personal film.

As a result, Lanfranchi’s sole genre entry boasts a particularly distinctive look and an unusual ambience. The film’s art direction, set designs and narrative structure (the story is told in four distinct acts) all suggest that Lanfranchi endeavoured to bring some of his high culture and theatrical sensibilities to the show. There’s plenty of well-staged action on display here but Cash’s enemies are all clever and suspicious men, and he is ultimately forced to employ ingenious and novel psychological tricks to get them to lower their guards.

As such, all four of the film’s acts eventually become what are essentially quite wordy, character and dialogue driven, two-man psycho dramas that Lanfranchi chose to describe as “duels with words.” This approach works surprisingly well and the director gets some great performances from his talented cast. Furthermore, Lanfranchi and ace cinematographer Toni Secchi are able to employ some interesting close-up shots and distinctive editing strategies during these scenes of verbal sparring.

 

We’re aware that Lanfranchi is striving to do something a little different with the genre when he toys with an unusual narrative structure early on. The film opens with Cash pursuing his first victim, Diaz, through the desert. Both men are on foot and both men are nearly fit to drop. Diaz has two pistols but no water while Cash has a supply of water but no gun. As they call taunts to each other, Cash has a stylised flashback which details the actions that prompted him to hit the vengeance trail.

Diaz immediately follows this with a flashback of his own, which shows Cash arriving at his grand hacienda, threatening his wife and wiping out his men before chasing him into the desert. Richard Conte is convincing as an ageing bad guy who has reputedly turned over a new leaf, and he almost prompts a degree of sympathy for Diaz here. Diaz reckons that he has lived an honest life and has worked hard at building up a successful farm in the years following the attack on Cash’s brother but Cash remains unmoved.

Cash’s next victim, Montero the gambler, is a pretty despicable character whose introductory scene shows him accepting a desperate opponent’s young and beautiful wife (Eleonora Brown) as his stake in a make-or-break card game. Montero tells Cash that he doesn’t play for money, he plays for the sake of playing. Put simply, he gets a smug feeling of superiority when he takes on and beats the forces of destiny at the card table. The only money that really excites Montero is that which he purposefully sets out to win from poverty-stricken gamblers as he knows that the poor really value their meagre stakes.

 

Cash in turn uses his own gambling skills to push Montero to the limit psychologically. Enrico Maria Salerno, who does an expert job of bringing the slimy Montero to life, was the voice of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name character in the original Italian version of Sergio Leone’s  A Fistful of Dollars (1964). But he is perhaps best known to fans of Italian popular cinema for his appearances in a number of well-regarded crime films.

Things take a decidedly gothic turn when Cash goes after his remaining two victims. Brother Baldwin dresses like a parson and he affects the language and the mannerisms of a priest. But he’s actually a callous enforcer who uses his gang of black-clad killers to terrorise innocent Mexican villagers. Cash’s refusal to repent his sins and reveal the whereabouts of a mythical case full of stolen military gold drives Baldwin to distraction, giving the battered Cash the edge that he needs to turn the tables on this particularly nasty individual.

 

Adolfo Celi is perfectly cast as the physically powerful and brutal pseudo-holy man. Brother Baldwin’s megalomania, his pretensions of superman status and the ways in which Lanfranchi and Secchi frame him all work to bestow Baldwin with the aura of a fascist figurehead and it’s probably no coincidence that Baldwin’s silent and wholly obedient men all wear homogenous black uniforms.

In the film’s final act, genre stalwart Tomas Milian brings a touch of deranged magic to the proceedings with his portrayal of the disturbed albino, O’Hara. The manic and twitchy O’Hara makes a real impression dressed all in white except for a pair of black leather gloves, a black neck-tie and a dark brown gun belt. Cash tries to snare O’Hara by pretending to re-open a dying town’s bank with the assistance of a local vagabond, Paco, who is played by fan favourite Luciano Rossi. However, O’Hara escapes from this trap and flees to his foreboding house that sits at the top of a bleak and craggy rock face.

 

Deciding to target O’Hara’s secondary fetish, Cash employs a blonde beauty (Lilli Lembo) to share his horse as he slowly rides through O’Hara’s barren territory. O’Hara takes the bait, setting us up for a spooky night-time shoot-out in a reputedly cursed monastery and its attendant graveyard. Ever a man of the people, Milian apparently felt that Lanfranchi’s mindset was too elitist to make a Western and the actor clashed with the director on set. But Lanfranchi liked what Milian was doing with O’Hara and kept extending his scenes in order to keep the impressively deranged performance flowing.

On paper this might sound like a fairly standard revenge flick but it isn’t. Lanfranchi stated that he set out to create an experimental one-off Western and in many ways he succeeded. One of the most obviously different things about this show might be its soundtrack score by Gianni Ferrio. Ferrio’s music sounds like a Spaghetti Western score that was recorded by a bunch of jumpy Jazz musicians who were just itching to leave the score behind and do some improvisational blowing (which they actually appear to do in a couple of spots).

The use of instruments and musical time signatures associated with the Jazz and Loungecore movements makes some sense when the first appearance of Richard Conte immediately prompts memories of his film noir past. And these musical sounds are also reasonably well-suited to the sequences that play out in the dilapidated saloon where Montero spends his days gambling. Perhaps in recognition of Tomas Milian’s status as a genre icon, the music does take on a more traditionally Spaghetti Western-like vibe for the show’s final act: some appropriate organ work, vocal chants and choral voices are effectively thrown into the mix here.

 

But, good as the music is, it generally fails to generate the kind of deep emotional response that we associate with the genre’s best scores. Lanfranchi stated that he wanted to make a Western that was completely unsentimental and he certainly succeeded in this respect. There’s very little room for any emotional investment on the part of the audience here. So much so that it’s tempting to assume that Lanfranchi’s status as a high culture operator had some influence on this outcome.

Was Milian’s assumption that the inherently highbrow and aristocratic Lanfranchi simply lacked the (popular) cultural competencies needed to produce an emotionally charged, populist and crowd-pleasing Spaghetti Western correct? Or did Lanfranchi consciously dispense with the genre’s populist form in order to produce a kind of ‘high culture’ variant that would demand to be viewed from an unemotional and uninvolved critical distance? I’m sure only Lanfranchi could have said for certain.

Robin Clarke turns in a good performance as the reformed alcoholic vengeance-seeker but Cash by design isn’t really a character that we’re meant to feel much for. He is a completely driven killing machine akin to Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) in Guilio Petroni’s  Death Rides a Horse (1967) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Sergio Leone’s  Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) but he doesn’t possess the same kind of sympathetic and emotionally involving back-story as those characters.

 

Cash’s flashback tells us nothing about his brother and we never really get to know anything about Cash. If Diaz is to be believed, Cash’s brother wasn’t a wronged innocent: he was a greedy and dangerous criminal who tried to dupe his four outlaw partners out of the proceeds of some nefarious joint venture. And Diaz even indicates that he and Cash had been known to happily socialise together under dubious circumstances at some point in the past. The idea that the film’s plot simply details a falling out between Spaghetti Western gangsters means that the show never really develops much in the way of a clear-cut sense of moral dualism and there is no need for noble, Sergio Leone-style duels when it comes to the settling of accounts.

Lanfranchi’s representation of the West itself is equally unromantic. Most of the film’s impressively designed sets consist of buildings and interiors that are poverty stricken and badly in need of repair. Interestingly, some of the show’s spacious interiors are arranged, dressed and lit in ways that serve to bring to mind stage productions. The film’s costume designs and art direction more generally are really quite distinctive too. Designed by Giancarlo Salimbeni Bartolini, much of the effectively aged and worn clothing on display here comes in interesting-if-untypical shades of green, red and brown while being fashioned in noticeably theatrical and flamboyant styles.

Toni Secchi’s cinematography remains both excellent and stylish. There are some magnificently fluid camera moves on display here and Secchi and Lanfranchi repeatedly make their static shots interesting by using door frames, arches, pillars, windows, leaning ladders, lounging bodies and so on to create striking frames within frames. Secchi had previously worked as the director of cinematography on Damiano Damiani’s classic political Spaghetti Western A Bullet for the General (1966) and he went on to direct the genuinely funny comedy Spaghetti Western Panhandle Calibre .38 (1972), which featured a charming, career-best performance from its leading star Keenan Wynn.

 

When they are taken in isolation, all of the individual elements that make up Death Sentence are revealed to be of a noticeably high standard and the show’s bold aesthetic qualities certainly help it to stand out from the crowd. But I can’t help thinking that Lanfranchi’s desire to create something so noticeably different might have resulted in a film that was just a tad too un-generic to be fully appreciated by the contemporaneous patrons of Italy’s popular cinema circuits. Somehow I get the feeling that Lanfranchi would have regarded such an assessment as a real compliment.

 


Explosive Media’s Region Free Blu-ray presentation of Death Sentence is excellent. The film’s interesting colour schemes are pleasingly rendered and the presentation’s sound quality is excellent too. There is no English language soundtrack on this disc but it does sport English language subtitles that support its Italian language and German language dub tracks (I used the Italian language dub track when viewing the film). Materials for the film’s English language dub appear to be missing in action at this time though contemporaneous reviews of Death Sentence do confirm that the show did have a British cinema release albeit in a shortened English dubbed version that ran to 82 minutes.

In terms of extra features a major plus here is the presence of two key features that first appeared on an earlier DVD of the film that was released by Koch Media in 2005. The first is an English language interview with Mario Lanfranchi that contains some fascinating background information about the director and the film itself. The second is the director’s English language commentary track which works to offer some insight into just what Lanfranchi was trying to achieve with his unusual take on the genre. The disc’s other extra features include an English language commentary track by me (Lee Broughton), a German language commentary track by Leonhard Elias Lemke and a really comprehensive image gallery. Initial copies of this release come in a limited edition slipcase.

Reviewed by Lee Broughton


Death Sentence  (Django – Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne)
Region Free Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
The shorter (89 min.) German cut of the film
Mario Lanfranchi interview
Three audio commentaries:
Mario Lanfranchi [English language]
Lee Broughton [English language]
Leonhard Elias Lemke [German language]
Textless title sequence
English-language title sequence
Restoration featurette
Image gallery
Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 26, 2024
(7154leedeat)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Lee Broughton

CineSavant Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

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