Thursday, October 18, 2007

Close-Up Blog-A-Thon: The Creature is Sly

The film is A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, a politically-charged late 1960s Spaghetti Western starring Lou Castel as an American who joins up with El Chucho (Gian Maria Volonte) and his gang of marauding bandits. Highly regarded by critics, Eurotrash fans and directors like Alex Cox, BULLET is considered by some to rank among the greatest Spaghetti Westerns ever made. Me? I like THE GREAT SILENCE.

Though my first viewing of BULLET left me underwhelmed (perhaps due to the build-up from fellow Eurotrash fans and my lukewarm response to the whole western genre), the flick does feature one outstanding scene that not only makes the film worth watching, but also points to the brilliance of Klaus Kinski.

Kinski co-stars as El Santo, Chucho's half-brother (the two bear little, if any resemblance, to one another) and a revolutionary fueled by a religious fervor. This zealous rage spills over into what one critic suggests "may be one of the most fantastic sequences in any western." Frankly, I disagree... there's no "maybe" about it.

In the scene, Kinski – dressed in a monk's robe – leaps atop a fortress wall and looks down upon a medal ceremony honoring Mexican soldiers. His hair wild, his blue eyes flaring, several days worth of stubble covering his face, El Santo howls at the soldiers gathered below, all of whom seem terrified of this madman staring down at them. As he recites The Lord's Prayer, El Santo begins lobbing grenades at the troops, punctuating the prayer with ear-splitting KABOOMs!

Watching the sequence, which concludes with El Santo taking up a rifle and firing on the soldiers with his fellow rebels, it's hard to rationalize this wild performance with the money-hungry pain-in-the-ass Kinski would appear to be during the filming of flicks like VENOM (listen to director Piers Haggard's commentary track) or REVENGE OF THE STOLEN STARS (see our interview with Barry Hickey at the Online Guide to Klaus Kinski).

The period of the late 1960s and early 1970s were a Golden Age of sorts for Klaus. His international fame had not spread yet – the career-defining AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD didn't come out until 1972 and Kinski was free to flex his acting chops in a wide variety of roles.

There were more Spaghetti Westerns, including THE GREAT SILENCE (1969), perhaps the greatest example of the genre and Kinski's greatest performance, this time as a the aptly-named Loco, a ruthless bounty hunter squaring off against a mute gunslinger. One of his most robust performances of the era came in GRAND SLAM (1967), an elaborate caper flick co-starring Edward G. Robinson and Janet Leigh. And let us not forget krimis like DOUBLE FACE (1969), the soon-to-be-released on DVD war flicks SALT IN THE WOUND (1969) and CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS (1970) and the sexually charged giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL (1971).

Prior to his major international score, though, Kinski appeared in a handful of flicks for Spanish director Jess Franco. While some directors that worked with Kinski relished the opportunity to take pot-shots at him after his death, Franco appeared to love working with the star, casting him in roles both small (such as his standout turn as a memorable, silent Renfield in EL CONDE DRACULA) and large (a titular turn in the director's gory JACK THE RIPPER).

In the existential VENUS IN FURS (1969), Kinski stars as Ahmed, one of a trio of sadists that may or may not have killed a beautiful young woman in front of Jimmy, a jazz trumpeteer played by James Darren. When Jimmy arrives in Rio he meets a woman who is a dead ringer for the young beauty and he wonders what's going on. In a series of hypnotic episodes the three pervs find themselves encountering the "victim" as well, though without the same results as before.

Kinski's role in the film is brief and his voice is dubbed by that of another actor. But fans will be hard-pressed to complain, because he's never looked better on film. In the scene where he's introduced, Franco has the other actors "freeze" while Kinski is free to move in the background. Decked out in a black tux and looking like he could be getting ready to play the villain Le Chifre in a 1960s Bond adaptation, Kinski steps toward the camera and is framed against a red background (the color is predominant throughout the film).

A complete 180 from his look in BULLET, Kinski is nothing but the suave, sadistic playboy on the make and Franco captures the gaunt features and penetrating, icy eyes that would serve the actor so well in the many, many villainous roles to come.

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