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The majority of genre directors often tend to direct a lot of low grade schlock over even attempting to do something more than that in the hopes of turning out a quick profit on something that will likely never become a mainstay box office hit. And never was this as pronounced as in the period between the 1950s and 70s when genre films truly flourished in every conceivable genre, be it fantasy, crime, horror, Western, or any exploitation film you could shake a stick at. Thus when approaching a lot of this material it is relatively rare to actually find something of any real merit that could be considered as anything more than low-budget B-grade trash. Outside of the American filmmaking scene, however, few countries can boast as much on its genre film fixations as Italy in the sheer amount of such films that were produced there during this time, and if there is one such a genre that really emphasises this fixation more than any other in terms of Italianising something inherently foreign to them, it would be the so-called spaghetti Western. They were almost the definition of pulpy trash that were produced with less interest in quality and more emphasis on getting a movie out to theatres as quickly and cheaply as possible for a quick turnaround Lira. Which of course means that of the roughly 540 films made between 1961 and 1978, only around 30 or 40 are really even considered as being in any way notable, let alone good. Of the directors (who also often participated in the writing and developing of said movies), Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci undoubtedly are the most notable and best remembered of them all, but if there was one other director considered relatively highly as producing actual quality material, it would be the "Third Sergio", Sergio Sollima. Sollima's roots are very much where most other Italian genre directors' origins lie, namely sword and sandal movies where he acted as screenwriter, and likewise, he was also affected when interest in said movies came crashing down in the early 1960s. His directorial debut came after this with a handful of spy thrillers feeding straight off from James Bond's popularity, but it wasn't long before he, like many others, also turned his attention to the Western, which by 1966 was already one of the most prolific genres in Italian cinema due in no small part thanks to Leone's transformation of the Western into a more gritty and dirtily nihilistic affair than what the concurrent Hollywood alternative was.
Sollima, in the end, only directed three Westerns between 1966 and 1968 (The Big Gundown, Face to Face, and Run, Man, Run), but all three are considered as real classics of the genre with their political ideologies mixed together with accessible stories and smart plotting; and of these three, it is Faccia a Faccia (Face to Face) of 1967 that is perhaps his greatest contribution to the genre in featuring a gripping story, intricate plot, and better than average performances from all concerned. The film is basically a tale of two men (hence the title), the sickly, idealistic and civilised professor Brad Fletcher (played by Gian Maria Volonté) and the violent bandit and callous murderer Solomon Beauregard Bennet (played by Italy's new rising star Tomas Milian), and of how the changes in their situations of life can cause large behavioural differences from their prior modes of conduct. The professor, suffering from a lung ailment, is convalescing out in backwater Texas, when a coach pulls up in the isolated little motel, carrying within it the notorious bandit as he's being escorted in chains by U.S. marshals to face justice. Showing mercy to the ill-treated outlaw, Fletcher offers him a drink of water, but is quickly duped as the criminal takes an advantage of this and overpowers his captors, while taking Fletcher as a hostage. Though Bennet is wounded in the escape, he manages to get away in the coach, making his way out into the desert while holding Fletcher at gunpoint. The ride doesn't last long, though, as the carriage abruptly breaks down and crashes, sending its occupants painfully flying. But to the outlaw's great surprise, as he faints from his injuries, he wakes up alive to find his hostage having taken care of his wounds, assuring his survival, and thus beginning his slow development toward becoming his friend and, ultimately, rival. The majority of the movie is squarely focused on the relationship between the two main leads and their shifting perspectives on their own lives, which eventually leaves them diametrically on opposite sides from where they began.
The professor starts out as a pathetic weakling, who is humane, abhors violence, and generally is uncomfortable in scenes of brute force. And though Beau Bennet is certainly a well-known murderer, he can't help but appeal to his sense of justice in not harbouring any malicious thoughts toward him, even after seeing him gun down lawmen and then taking him as a hostage. But at the same time he is intrigued with his way of life that is so much more exciting and free than his own restricted life of a university professor with an incapacitating physique and expectations placed on by society. And despite Bennet several times telling him that this way of life is not suitable for the likes of him, Fletcher always feels somehow attracted toward not wanting to go back to his boring and sheltered existence and wanting to feel more alive than he ever has before. This is finally set firmly on his mind when he comes in contact with Bennet's motley crew of outlaws living in the mountains of Pietra di Fuoco, ultimately making him decide that this is the kind of life he wants to lead, beginning his descent into a life of crime and violence in hopes of finding some of the elusive happiness he wants to experience. On the other end, Beau Bennet is presented as a ruthless murderer and robber, who cares little for the lives of others and acts on almost animalistic instincts to survive as a massive reward hangs over his head every day of his life. Even his first instinct toward Fletcher is to eventually kill him, but abstains from it to save a bullet on the knowledge that he'd be a dead man anyway. It's only once Fletcher saves his life that he decides at the very least do the courtesy of not killing him and lets him tag along until he can drop him off in the nearest town. But despite not entertaining any lengthier acquaintance with the professor, the latter doggedly seems to just come back again and again, and even saves Bennet's life one more time during a shootout. In contrast to Fletcher, the further he gets to know him, though, the more the other man's sense of morals also begin rubbing off on him, and he starts to consider his outlaw life much more critically, something that he never had much reason to think about all that much before.
The brilliant turning point of these two very different men, and how each learns something from the other, for better of for worse, is one of the most fascinating aspects to be found from the film, and is relatively rare to find from many other Italian Westerns. What initially starts out as a trusted friendship, then quickly develops into a power struggle between the two males over the leadership of the band of outlaws as Fletcher starts to assert his intellectual prowess in the decision making over Bennet's more emotional approach. The big change comes when Fletcher devises a bank robbery, suggesting a more subtle approach to simply storming the place with guns ablaze, and which eventually goes horribly wrong much because of Bennet's hesitation in silencing a young boy before he raises an alarm that leads to his capture, an event that Fletcher takes full advantage of in showing how unfit he is as leader and uses it as leverage in taking the top spot as the new criminal mastermind. It's all a very interesting and, in many ways, subtle change, the development of which takes place throughout the duration of the movie, and which is wonderfully sprung through the performances of Volonté and Milian generating a great deal of tension between each other (they didn't get along with one another very well from the start). Due to this the characters become all the more believable in undergoing this shift in their individual ethos, Bennet finding redemption in abandoning his ruthless life, while Fletcher degenerates into a cold, heartless outlaw drunk on the romanticism of his own delusions and losing sight of his own stringent sense of ethics he valued so highly before. On top of this, the plot is also intricate on its own, featuring many subplots that factor into the lives of the two main characters, the most notable of these involving the Pinkerton agent Charley Siringo (William Berger) who infiltrates Bennet's gang as a means of taking the entirety of "Bennet's Raiders" into custody, and who secretly plots their downfall. However, he also has to answer to higher ups and often finds himself in disagreements on operating procedures with them, coming to eventually show much more respect toward Bennet as Fletcher's corruption starts to become more and more plain, and shows much more disdain in the way Bennet's former gang crumbles down in the wake of Fletcher's command.
Faccia a Faccia stands as a high water mark for Sollima's Westerns, and the interaction between the actors, and the general intricacy of the story itself, make it his masterpiece in the genre over either The Big Gundown and most certainly Run, Man, Run, while plot wise standing favourably over even most of Sergio Leone's entries, who himself was never one to indulge in particularly complicated plots in his own, more well-known Westerns. Sollima's initial cut of the film was a whopping 150 minutes long, much influenced by the pacing of Japanese cinema, but with the production company PEA not wanting to bank on such a lengthy film, they cut it down to 107 minutes for a speedier, more action oriented film. However, despite cutting out over 40 minutes of movie, the film still remarkably doesn't feel messy or "scissored down," but holds up its internal logic very well. And while the film isn't visually as stylish as some other famed examples, rather opting for a more down-to-earth approach to flashy camera angles and editing tricks, the film still holds itself up as a fairly well-shot and constructed entity that places much more importance on the plot, the characters, and the direction than simple eye candy. Like in Sollima's previous film, Ennio Morricone once more provides the score, and while not as instantly memorable as in The Big Gundown (this one bears much closer resemblance to the dissonant Death Rides a Horse), it still provides another rollicking and at times epic soundtrack with many Morricone trademarks evident throughout. The DVD presented by Eureka features the full, uncut 107 minute film dubbed in Italian with English subtitles. The film was also dubbed into English, but only in an abridged version, which is why no English language track is included on this release. This is not that much of a big issue, unless you're particularly pedantic about subs, and I found them easy to read, something much helped by the wide 2.35:1 Techniscope aspect ratio. The film's transfer is as good a quality as you can hope from these films which, while the colours are not particularly vibrant, still looks good enough considering the usual film stock (there's also a Blu-ray, but I highly doubt a film like this really benefit's a lot from HD), and the audio is crisp and clear.
So, for any fan of the genre, this is a must-have film - it's definitely Sollima's unmitigated Western masterpiece - and is a high watermark for spaghetti Westerns in general with its significantly more intelligent plot than usual and gripping performances from Volonté and Milian. It goes to show that even genre films can have good days, and in the hands of a capable director can produce something of great interest amongst all the muck the few gems are usually surrounded by. For this the film comes highly recommended, though non-fans may be more critical in certain aspects of the film.
© berlioz, 2012