There’s very little wham or bam in French director Robert Hossein’s 1969 venture into spaghetti westerns. Always one to go his own way, he keeps gunplay and dialogue to an absolute minimum in an atmospheric and stripped down tale of revenge that doesn’t always lead to the most obvious of conclusions.
Hossein himself takes on the role of Manuel, the avenger in chief, who’s hired by lost love and recent widow Maria (Michèle Mercier) to extract her pound of flesh for husband Ben, shot and strung up in the opening sequence by the Rogers’ family. After winning their trust in a barroom fight, he’s hired on as foreman providing the perfect opportunity to kidnap Will Rogers’ (Daniele Vargas) daughter Johanna (Anne-Marie Balin).
A film that starts with a certain degree of moral ambiguity only gets murkier. There is no clear cut right and wrong; there are just people that have been wronged. The Rogers’ motivations for dispatching Ben are kept in the background, and Maria’s retaliation takes an unexpected turn. Ultimately, she wants an acknowledgement from her adversaries that they did wrong, but not before she’s let her two brothers lose on Johanna.
Manuel sits in the middle of this, seemingly impervious to the confusing winds blowing around him. There’s a deep connection with Maria, one that’s only made apparent later on, and a sense of decency in his dealings with Johanna that sit awkwardly alongside his willingness to gun down fellow avengers just to get close to the Rogers’. He remains inscrutable; the only thing laid clearly on the table is his ability with a gun. When Manuel puts on his shooting glove, it’s best to keep clear.
He does it rarely though. Hossein isn’t interested in extravagant shootouts. He spends most of the time framing his characters against the barren landscape, or zooming in for Sergio Leone style close-ups at moments of high tension. When guns are fired, it’s all over very quickly and with the minimum of excitement.
Leone is a clear reference point, not least because he actually directs a scene. A friend of Hossein’s, he came by to shoot a dinner sequence in which the entire Rogers’ estate gradually focus on Manuel, cranking up the tension until it reaches a surprisingly light-hearted conclusion. It fits in nicely with the overall feel that avoids explicit detail, building the characters through reaction shots and lingering stares.
Add in a stylish theme song from Scott Walker, and a score that oozes the cool of the wild west, and Hossein has delivered one of the better spaghetti westerns. He directed very little after Cemetery Without Crosses, which, on this evidence, is a real shame.
Cemetery Without Crosses is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 20th July 2015. Extras include a location report and new interview with Robert Hossein.
Director: Robert Hossein
Stars: Michèle Mercier, Robert Hossein, Guido Lollobrigida
Runtime: 90 mins
Country: France, Italy, Spain
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