Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) - Directed by Robert Hossein

Robert Hossein’s only entry into the spaghetti western genre was this beautiful and fatally romantic masterpiece. His unique perspective and sense of subtlety allows the spaghetti western here to retain an interesting sense of restraint and pacing. As far as influences go, perhaps the film is more inspired by the likes of Visconti's impassioned melodramas than Leone or Corbucci. But by using the conventions of the traditional spaghetti western on the surface, he’s able to comment and build upon them through his emphasis on different aspects. He takes a tale filled with revenge, and the lone, hired gunman, but he’s able to delve into the psychological state of this character, among others, due to his insistence upon the emotional FEELING of the situation, which in its own way, is as exhilarating as any shootout that occurs in the film. There isn’t nearly as much overt violence though, as in The Great Silence, but the characterizations are passionate, moody, sexy and filled with a sensuality rare in this genre.

This film is a bit difficult to track down, but it is well worth seeking out if you can find a copy or can watch it on YouTube. Hossein makes his mark by infusing the plot of this film with a culpable sense of emotion, compassion, and sympathy. This level of intense psychology and humanism is what elevates this film above others in the genre. Cemetery Without Crosses concerns several elements we’ve seen in other films, but as I mentioned, the emphasis is shifted. A man named Ben is hanged by the rival ranching family, the Rogers, for a theft dispute, right in front of Ben’s house and in front of Ben’s wife Maria (a beautiful Michele Mercier). Maria seeks out Ben’s friend Manuel (Robert Hossein), a gunman, to exact retribution upon the rival family and there is a back and forth of revenge tactics, with Maria cold-heartedly seeking retribution. Despite Manuel’s apprehension of the situation, he can't help but become involved because of his pining love for her, which he’s unable to fully express. The film ends with a significant remorse for the cycle of revenge that is never able to be stopped. This fatalistic, gloomy tone is operatic to the extreme.

What I particularly love in this film is the way that the Maria character is fully responsible for the progression of the plot. It is her desires and her wishes that propel the cycle of violence as see seeks out retribution and this focus on the female experience is an important thing to note. Clearly Manuel is in love with her, and this is a significant reason for why he wants to please her, even though it goes against his own better judgement as he wants to express his love for her in this way. Michele Mercier is terrific in her role, contributing much through her dark eyes, as does Hossein as the melancholy and lovelorn gunfighter. A significant sense of mood is contributed by the soundtrack, which is a blending of 50’s style western pop music and also an overtly romantic Spanish flamenco guitar piece, apparently written by Hossein’s father Andre, which is lush, vibrant and often played while people are traveling over the desert landscape. Hossein blends all of these operatic and melodramatic elements with the typical gunplay, infusing the film with a fatalistic and romantic tone.

I think my favorite moment in the film though, is the final showdown between Manuel and the Rogers family in the middle of the street. In the terrific draw scene, one of my favorites in any western, we see Hossein facing, not 1, but 4 men…….and as quick as you can imagine, he blows each of them away before any one of them can get to him. But even this sequence is reserved in the way that the editing is put together, as the visual and sound almost occurs so fast, you just see the outcome of the dead men falling instead of the hand reaching into the holster and the full moment captured via the camera. In Hossein’s world, though, there’s always one more retribution around the corner and you can never run away from revenge. No one escapes from death once they've entered that cycle of doom. Cemetery Without Crosses is probably the most elegant and refined spaghetti western that I’ve seen, and proof that elegance is not mutually exclusive from the genre, it just takes the right approach to make it work. Hossein thus created a work that stands apart from the rest.


Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, the easiest way for people to find it on DVD, and for now probably the best way to see it, is under its alternate title The Rope and the Colt in Timeless Media's rather affordable "Best of Spaghetti Westerns" 20-film box set. As you argue well, it's definitely worth tracking down. Whatever we call it, it's one of the best spaghetti westerns.

Jon said...

Thanks for the reference point Samuel. I do know that you are a fan of this one and I hope more people seek it out. Thanks for the insight.

Sam Juliano said...

"As far as influences go, perhaps the film is more inspired by the likes of Visconti's impassioned melodramas than Leone or Corbucci."

I got to this film shortly after the spaghetti western festival at the Film Forum. I liked it well enough and nearly voted for it, but somehow it was squeezed out. You do such an authoritative and passionate job reviewing it here Jon, and I would absolutely agree that the specter of Visconti hovers over it. Great to see your mind is at least partially still in western mode.

Jon said...

Thanks Sam. I really enjoy the passionate melodramatic elements of the central love story at the heart of this film, which has a lot of cross-over appeal in my mind.