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The duo of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (real names Mario Girotti and Carlo Pedersoli) are perhaps the most famous pair of Italian cinema (though don't quote me on that as I'm not THAT familiar with the Italian film industry). I'd see them in popularity around the same as Laurel and Hardy, or better yet, Abbott and Costello, who have even managed to carve a reasonable following to themselves outside of Italy. Ever since hitting gold with their 1970 buddy comedy They Call Me Trinity as two contrasting brothers ending up reluctantly working together, the two went on to essentially reprise their roles in multiple other movies in many different scenarios without really ever shifting away from the general recipe of Hill being a likeable annoyance, Spencer being the grumpy brute, and through various escapades they team up just in time to take part in a comical beat up scene with the bad guys of the films while spending any excess time they have as a possibility for banter and stuffing their mouths full of food. But to people only familiar with their abundant comedies it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that their very first collaboration together was a very different beast entirely to their more famous light hearted adventures. This film was Giuseppe Colizzi's 1967 Western suspense-actioner Dio Perdona... Io No! (God Forgives, I Don't), the first in a trilogy of films also encompassing Ace High (1968) and Boot Hill (1969). Instead of being a comedy, this film was entirely designed to be a serious and gritty movie that was long time in development and is clearly inspired by Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More in its general idea.
The film's plot is somewhat convoluted due to its numerous additions and re-writes, bobbing its way between numerous plot strands and flashbacks, so it may require some extra attention to not loose the main thread if you only watch with half the interest. The story goes somewhat like this: As a train pulls up to a small desert town where the townsfolk are anxiously expecting its arrival with throngs of people and even a brass band, to their great shock they discover that every occupant in the train has been viciously massacred right down to the last man and woman, and the gold the train was carrying has been stolen. However, one of them manages to survive long enough to impart the knowledge that the person responsible was an outlaw by the name of Bill San Antonio (Frank Wolff), a man who has been rumoured to have been shot dead in a duel by the gunfighter/gambler Cat Stevens (Terence Hill). Saddled with this information, the insurance investigator Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer) goes off in search of this gunfighter in order to recruit him to find this supposedly dead man and the gold... except that Cat isn't interested in working with anybody except himself. Instead Cat takes it to investigate on his own and gets more and more deeply embroiled within the deceptions of San Antonio's deranged plans as Cat and Hutch become unlikely partners in both greed and killing.
Now the first thing that any Hill/Spencer fan will probably notice is just how different Terence Hill is in this film from the roles he usually is best remembered from portraying. He is ultra-serious, doesn't shy away from brute violence, and definitely looks a guy you don't want to mess around with. There's no sign of the likeable rogue of Trinity or the whimsical fanboy of Nobody, Cat Stevens is a hard-boiled cardshark and actually bares a close resemblance in demeanour to Franco Nero's Django character (in fact, he went on to star as Django the following year in Django, Prepare a Coffin). This is a man who is assured of his own skills in both cards and shooting, barely ever cracks a smile, and doesn't spare his punches or bullets when fighting. Bud Spencer as Hutch on the other hand remains pretty recognizable to his later roles and while he's not playing the part of comic relief by any means, he also isn't as serious as Hill in his part. Particularly the banter between the two already shows some of their future friendship developing, though Hill is less of a buddy buddy here rather than coaxing Spencer into doing things with more harshness such as scolding him for whining about the box of gold being too heavy for him to carry on his own despite him bragging how strong he is even if Spencer seems to be close to breaking his neck carrying it. But they do have their lighthearted moments as well, such as when they are making their getaway along flowing rapids, Hill's reluctance to ride ashore on the back of Spencer despite the former's lack of swimming skills even in face of being headed toward a steep waterfall is classic comedy material.
However, it is the arguably Frank Wolff as the villainous Bill San Antonio who steals the show in one of his seminal Western roles. Wolff is simply great as the devious head bad guy in straddling between the line of callous murderer and a deranged psychopath. His demeanour is largely amicable with him often saying he likes to play jokes that only he is allowed to laugh at, while there is a continuous feeling of tension to him as you never really know what he will do next. His introduction in a flashback as he challenges Cat to a duel with a pleasant smile on his face, carelessly bantering about as if he was just chummily hosting a dinner party, is wonderful in how he seems to be just on the verge of killing anybody at a blink of an eye without ever having to change expressions. And to drive the point home, he insists on fighting Cat alone while the barn they are in is set on fire so that nobody would ever get to see the losers body. And while he occasionally tends to disappear from the main action, there's a certain mythic threat of his influence that is always tantalizingly in the background, particularly considering his supposed death in that duel with Cat. The rest of the cast plays lesser roles, but there are a couple of standouts. Bill's Number One henchman Bud (Jose Manuel Martin) is another complication who is about as greedy as the other gang members, but is a lot more cunning, clearly abiding his time when he can make a profitable move for himself, even if he must oppose the threat that is Bill. Also the prostitute Rose (Gina Rovere), who only plays a small part, still impresses with her lackadaisical and dry demeanour as a former gang member's girlfriend. The way she tells an over-eager drunk to piss off in particular is just hilarious, as is when said drunk gets angry and decides to break down the door only to sail right through and straight out the window. And of course there are the random gang members and other miserable souls wandering around the movie that add their own little extras to the topography and body pile of the film.
The screenplay was devised by Giuseppe Colizzi himself and, as mentioned, took a long time in development. The links to Leone's films are quite obvious as the two were friends and particularly the director's last two films - For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - shine through, the former in its general story, and the latter particularly in the final Mexican standoff with Cat, Hutch and Bill, that is made even more unique in that Cat has set a fuse on fire to blow the losers body to smithereens along with the gold buried at the site. Also the film's original projected title was Il Gatto, il Cane e la Volpe (The Cat, the Dog and the Fox) as a reference to compare the three leads with their respective animals (Cat as the cat, Hutch as the dog, and Bill as the fox) in a similar idea as Leone's seminal Dollars film featured the three leads with their own musical identities, and in a way this idea still remains encapsulated in the characterisations of Hill, Spencer and Wolff. But don't get me wrong, God Forgives, I Don't is not just a cheap Leone knock off and it does feature some truly great oppressive atmospheres and grittiness (the poker scene near the beginning is a fantastic introduction to Cat) that raise it separate from Leone's more fanciful views. Also the plot truly is good and complex, with swaths of intelligence that you don't often see in many other similar films, even ignoring its occasional convoluted nature. The result is a full-blooded spaghetti that is both entertaining and sinisterly dark with performances (particularly Wolff's) that are on average pretty strong from what you usually get from these sorts of films. Bonus goes for the visible pain of the actors acting under Almeria's scorching sun.
Visually the film remains true with usual spaghetti Western stylistics with its extreme close-ups of character faces (sometimes getting so close that only the eyes remain to fill the screen; just check out how blue Terence Hill's ogglers are), while there are also the usual expansive romantic desert scenes of people riding around in the middle of nowhere as sunset approaches. There's never anything truly that remarkable about the direction and there's no particular inventiveness in camera usage that hasn't either been ripped off from Leone with less convincing results or just featuring rather straight forward camera drives, but there are a handful of scenes where the film does get to be rather immersive, like the opening shots of the train massacre that is truly quite chilling, the poker scene I mentioned above, or Bill's posturing in the flashback scene. The music of Carlo Rustichelli tends to be poorly recorded, but has a distinctly more elegiac, symphonic quality than your usual Morricone quirkiness that works quite well, particularly when the tragic choir comes out. As a funny little side note to this, the film also features some jazz players straight from New Orleans it seems that have been booked to play at a funeral, which in its quirky oddness and happy swinging music they play makes for quite a fun detail. Other than these, the film looks pretty average on the iconography scale of spaghetti Westerns, but it works.
The DVD situation is a bit daunting, though. The film has been released several times in different versions, and in different cuts and formats to make it a bit difficult to gather what you're going to get with any one release. The DVD I have is a case in point how horrible a DVD release can be with the picture being cropped to an incongruous full frame with zero remastering, leaving every single scratch and speck of dust in it that would make even an old VHS tape look like it's in Hi-Def. And the back even dares to say that the DVD is in anamorphic widescreen, both equally untrue! But what I've read of existing Region 2 releases, the best seems to be a Dutch DFW issue that runs 108 minutes (largely uncut I believe), features an English dub, and is in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but searching for it you must really be sure you'll be getting exactly what you want as the market is also littered with clunker releases with their own problems. Regardless, on the whole, even though I wouldn't call God Forgives, I Don't as an undisputed masterpiece of the genre, it is nevertheless one of the better middle tier spaghettis that is particularly noteworthy as being the first Hill & Spencer movie (it is also the first time they used their aliases in a film aside from their real names). If you have never been a fan of the duos comedies like the Trinity films, then this will most likely appeal to you a lot more, though the opposite is also true, and I've read people being disappointed in seeing this when expecting more comedy mayhem they're more used to. To me personally, I liked this a lot better than the Trinity films, but I'd still be a little hesitant in saying its among the very best Italian Westerns. Perhaps if I one day get to see the film presented in the way it's supposed to be instead of the dismal DVD I have right now I might get even more out of it. Right now, I'd still rate it as a ***½, devolved down to ***.
© berlioz, 2010