Tuesday 12 November 2013

Boot Hill [1969]

BOOT HILL is an Italian spaghetti western that was written and directed by Giuseppe Colizzi and originally released in December 1969 under the title La collina degli stivali.  It stars Terence Hill, Lionel Stander, Woody Strode, Bud Spencer and Victor Buono.  As with countless other spaghetti westerns (and indeed many Hollywood westerns) this one deals with greedy, land-snatching businessmen who are making a fortune out of fleecing poor working men before a kind-hearted gunslinger intervenes to even up the score. What makes this particular socialist fantasy memorable is its supporting cast and circus setting.

Yes, I know it says BootS Hill but that just shows you how slapdash the approach to film distribution was in the 60s
But let's deal with the star first.  Terence Hill (or Mario Girotti, to use the name his mother gave him) was a pretty big star in Italian cinema of the 60s and 70s.  He had already made plenty of films using his real name, including a small role in Luchino Visconti's masterful THE LEOPARD [1963], before changing it in 1967 at the behest of the producers of another spaghetti western he was making at the time.  It must have been somewhat confusing for Italian audiences to see an actor they knew as Mario Girotti suddenly getting star billing as someone else.  Off the top of my head I can't think of any English-speaking actors who have changed their name midway through their career but then the Italian film industry works to a different set of rules.

Terence Hill as Cat Stevens (no really)
Anyway, the film Girotti was making was the brilliantly titled GOD FORGIVES... I DON'T! and in it he starred alongside an actor called Carlo Pedersoli who had also changed his name, to Bud Spencer.  The film was successful enough to spawn a couple of sequels, 1968's ACE HIGH and then BOOT HILL.  The three films qualify as a trilogy in that they all feature the same two actors in the same two roles but there's no narrative link between them, not unlike Sergio Leone's 'Man with no name' trilogy which I suppose was the intention.  Hill and Spencer proved such a popular double act with Italian audiences that they racked up 18 appearances together, perhaps most memorably in the two TRINITY films of the early 70s.  (Italian cinema being what it is, after the success of the TRINITY films BOOT HILL was re-released under a new title to make it appear another entry in that series.)

Bud Spencer (R) as Hutch Bessy.  And in the background is Luigi Montefiori.

The mention of Leone brings me to this film's supporting cast.  One reason I love Italian genre movies is the absolutely brazen approach they have to ripping off films whose success they want to replicate.  You have to admire the naivete / breathtaking stupidity of thinking that merely casting a couple of the same actors will be enough to see the money start flowing in.  Usually it's successful American pictures that get plundered for 'ideas' but not always, as BOOT HILL demonstrates: the casting of Strode and Stander is of course a direct nod to / steal from Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST [1968].  But it paid dividends in this instance because as pretty as Terence Hill is and as much as he looks like Franco Nero minus the moustache he's not very charismatic.  So it's left to the grizzled veterans to provide the interest with Hill basically showing up whenever someone needs shooting.

Lionel Stander and Woody Strode

That's no bad thing because Woody Strode in particular was a tremendous screen presence: he managed to carve out a pretty decent film career for himself at a time when that was no easy thing for a black man to do. Moreover, he did it playing strong, proud black characters that were a world away from the humble servants or workshy layabouts that had proliferated in US cinema up to that time.  Had he been born a couple of decades later I have no doubt that Strode would have become an action star to rival Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown.  He's well cast in BOOT HILL as a circus trapeze artist.

Woody Strode

Circus films were popular enough and therefore plentiful enough in the 50s and 60s to qualify as a cinematic sub-genre in their own right.  I suspect their emergence was due to the requirement for large-scale spectacle to fill the new widescreen lenses but aside from that I reckon they're a natural subject for movies.  You have lots of characters - many of them slightly shady - gathering together, performing thrilling and funny acts, and a constant change of location.  All human life is here, as they say.  They've died a death of late though.  Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY is the last one that occurs to me although there was an intriguing HBO TV series called CARNIVALE a few years back, albeit one which only lasted for two seasons.  In BOOT HILL, Colizzi utilises the circus setting to good effect in one memorable sequence, a Hamlet-esque 'play within a play' that is used to prick the conscience of the bad guy.

A few other names worth mentioning briefly are, firstly, Victor Buono, a shifty-looking, corpulent and sweaty character actor who plays the shifty-looking, corpulent and sweaty boss man.  I've mentioned Buono before (in my review of THE EVIL) and he was very good at basically playing one part, a kind of American Roy Kinnear.

Victor Buono as Honey Fisher

The second name to mention is Luigi Montefiori, also known as George Eastman, one of the busiest names in Italian genre cinema both in front of and behind the camera.  He's probably most famous / infamous as the beast in Joe D'Amato's ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (also reviewed on this website), for which he also wrote the screenplay.  Finally, the circuit judge is played by wizened old Eduardo Ciannelli quite rightly slumming it for easy money in the twilight of his career.  Ciannelli was in dozens of Hollywood pictures from the 30s to the 50s before settling down to TV work.

Eduardo Ciannelli (L) as Judge Boone

I'd like to be able to tell you lots of interesting things about director Giuseppe Colizzi but I'm ashamed to say I know next to nothing about him and there is very little available on the internet.  What little I do know is that he only directed six films and that three of them were the trilogy discussed here; one of the remaining three was also a Terence Hill / Bud Spencer picture.

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