Saturday, July 05, 2014


Lee Van Cleef is one of the most recognizable actors in the spaghetti western genre. If he'd done nothing more than turn in his fantastic performances in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly he would have cemented his place in fans' hearts. But those two genre-defining films were just the beginning for Lee Van Cleef. A bit player in Hollywood for years, he had never been able to land any really big starring roles but a movie fan with sharp eyes can spot him in dozens of films starting in 1952's High Noon. He was the man tasked with shooting a radioactive bullet into The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a gangster in several 1950s Noirs and seems to have appeared in at least one episode of every western television series produced in the '50s and '60s. His one starring role in 'Hollywood' was as the deluded scientist who helps an alien from Venus attack our planet in Roger Corman's It Conquered the World in 1956. I'd love to know what he thought his chances for career enhancement were when he signed on to make westerns with crazy Italians but I bet Clint Eastwood's sudden rise to stardom caused him to think big things were possible. It certainly turned out well for him! After the huge success of the Leone films worldwide LVC went on to star in at least a dozen more westerns including two Sabata films, the brilliant Death Rides a Horse, the western/mystery hybrid The Grand Duel and even a Magnificent Seven sequel. With Take a Hard Ride Van Cleef entered into another sub-genre, the western/blaxploitation combination - a bizarre amalgam that deserves a book written about it though it was woefully short-lived. This was also his second collaboration with veteran Italian director Antonio Margheriti with whom he'd made The Stranger and the Gunfighter just the year before and would work with again in 1983 for Codename: Wild Geese. While Take a Hard Ride wouldn't rank near the top of either man's resume it is a solid movie even if its flaws are all too apparent and, all too often, silly.

Since they get the lion's share of screen time one could argue effectively that the real stars of this film are Jim Brown (Black Gunn) and Fred Williamson (The Inglorious Bastards). Indeed, after a brief sequence at the very start of the film to set up Van Cleef as cold-hearted bounty hunter Kiefer, it becomes clear that the focus of the tale will be Brown's character, Pike. Pike is the trusted right-hand man of rancher Morgan (Dana Andrews), who has just gotten a herd of cattle to market. The herd was a communal project for the small Mexican town Morgan is hoping to help become a stable ranching community. Sadly, the night after the sale the old man dies of a heart attack and with his final breath asks Pike to make sure the $86,000 gets back to the town. Pike takes this responsibility seriously and sets out to keep his pledge even as every criminally minded scumbag within 100 miles starts making plans to rob him. Among these dastardly folks is professional gambler and card cheat Tyree (Williamson). Being smarter than the average crook he meets up with Pike and first helps him fight off a group of bandits before informing him he wants the money just as much as anyone else. But having formed a mutual respect the two men decide to work together until they get to Mexico when all bets will be off.

Bounty hunter Kiefer decides to make a grab for the money but after witnessing the gunplay skills Pike and Tyree possess he opts to pull most of the criminals hunting for them into a group to have a better chance. Offing the few that don't want to join up or running them off the trail he follows along while the two black men trade verbal quips and sniff after the other's possible breaking points. In their trek across the desert landscape the two partners come across a stage under attack by some bandits. Killing the bad guys they rescue ex-prostitute Catherine (Catherine Spaak) but are too late to save her good hearted husband. She elects to travel with them until a town can be reached and in tow is her servant/bodyguard Kashtok (Jim Kelly), a half-Indian mute who appears to have studied under Bruce Lee. Will this group of four be able reach civilization alive and with the money or any combination of the two?

At one point Fred Williamson's character Tryee says, "Everybody has a sad story in their past." As Take a Hard Ride goes on we learn some of these sad stories and how they made the people we are traveling with tick. Pike is a formerly bad man trying to maintain his dignity even as Tyree asks him repeatedly why he would want to keep his word to a white man. Tyree is a man all too aware of the restrictions his black skin places on him and while keeping a smile on his face plots to get what he wants. Catherine is a sad lady unsure of her future and afraid she'll not be able to leave her past behind. Kashtok is a man of two different cultures who doesn't fit into either. And Kiefer is a black-hearted, intelligent and rational man pursuing money with little thought as to why. Placed into this scenario all the flaws and strengths of these people come out leading to some surprising actions. Even if certain sacrifices are never going to be understood by the survivors the influence these people have on each other will last a long time.

But I'm making this out to be a glum tale and its not. Besides the banter between Brown and Williamson there are some great chases, fantastic gun battles and some well choreographed fights. Hollywood legend Hal Needham was the stunt coordinator for the film and it shows in the exciting and believable actions scenes. Director Margheriti has all the elements in place to make a good western and does a damned good job with the material. Margheriti's westerns never reach the mindbending highs of Leone or Corbucci but he also never seems to be aiming for those highs. His westerns are more low-key, less arch with their pleasures usually more subtle in their effect. I almost always enjoy a Margheriti western more the second and third time I watch it. I fear this is because I'm so used to Spaghettis being such 'big' entertainments that, when I see one that aims at a different target, I have to adjust my expectations to notice what's in front of me. That's not to say Margheriti's films aren't entertaining — they're just not entertaining in the same way that the often tongue-in-cheek spaghettis sometimes are. I think this stylistic difference accounts for the general low regard fans of the genre have for his westerns, which is a shame. Watching this film more than once shows an intelligence behind the camera that is easily missed on first impression. Nearly every shot is framed with a skilled eye to position each character in relation to the others for an effect. Someone will be foregrounded at the beginning of a scene as the character tries to argue against something and then advance into frame becoming smaller as they lose the argument until they are smallest object in the scene. This kind of thing occurs repeatedly in Take a Hard Ride, and even if you don't notice it these techniques have their intended effect. That's just excellent filmmaking and it's rarely talked about in this genre with its focus on action and violence. Westerns can be artistic even if most hardcore aficionados would sneer at the idea.

Another great thing about this film is the beautiful location work. Filmed in the Canary Islands off Morocco's coast, the movie looks fantastic and forbidding at the same time. Being an Italian/American co-production, there are more Hollywood players in the cast and crew than most spaghettis usually sport. Besides the short performance from Dana Andrews (Curse/Night of the Demon), there's a small part for the great Barry Sullivan and juicy bad guy roles for recognizable character actors Harry Carey, Jr. and Robert Donner. The score is by the brilliant Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes), who turns in a damned good suite of music that I think I'll have to obtain on CD eventually.

Not that the film is without problems. Most viewers will enjoy the rousing, explosive final battle but will be unsatisfied with the fate of Lee Van Cleef's Kiefer. I loved this odd, poetic turn but its 'scorpion-stinging-itself' aspect will turn off those looking for a more conventional ending for such a bad guy. Another troubling element is Kashtok the mute halfbreed played by athlete Jim Kelly (Enter the Dragon). Kelly does what he can with the role but the inclusion of a martial arts bad ass makes it hard to take some scenes seriously. High kicking like a Navajo Jackie Chan, it becomes silly and throws off the tone of a few of the fight scenes. The truth is that the film would have been just as good and maybe better without this character at all. A simple rewrite of a few scenes could have eliminated him altogether and made Catherine's predicament in the desert even more troubling.


Armand40 said...

dear Ron,

thanks for pointing out this interesting mix of genres of which I never heard before!
I just started watching some well-known blaxploitation flicks ("Black Caesar" "Slaughter", "Three the hard way") for the first time and are usually really entertained by the pure charisma of actor like Brown and Williamson, the amazing clothes and sometimes gritty or over-the-top bad guys and action.
I will look out for this one for sure!

warm regards


Rod Barnett said...

It is well worth your time and attention. I'm a huge fan of both Blaxploitation and westerns so this is a dream combo. The charisma is often the main draw for these movies and your right to hone in on the OTT bad guys as well.