Wild Westerns, part 4

Greatest Robbery in the West locandinaRead part one of this article

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The porch scene ended and the group scattered. It was lunch-and-siesta time. The extras, stunt men, grips and workers had pasta, red wine and cheese, and flaked out in the shade with their hats over their eyes. A lighting technician and I had a cup of coffee together. “No one can keep an Italian quiet,” he said. “I’m Italian and I ought to know. You’ve got to shoot with no sound.” He recalled a scene shot with sound in which the cowboy and the leading lady got on their horses to ride off into the sunset. At the last minute a group of extras and workers who’d forgotten about the microphones leaped to their feet and began cheering and applauding.

Hunt Powers, a member of the Actors Studio since 1957, joked about the hard facts of Roman movie-making. He told about a sensitive American “method” actor who came over to play “meaningful” roles. After learning his own lines and those of everyone else in his scenes, the actor was ready for the first day’s shooting. It was a Western. In his first scene, he was to rush into the colonel’s office and describe a massacre. The colonel, played by one of the biggest stars in Rome, was supposed to calm him down, tell him that his wife was safe, and then give him instructions about how to protect the fort. The camera began rolling. The actor raced in, delivered his breathless report in fine dramatic style, and waited. The colonel, in full-dress uniform and standing before the American flag and a photograph of Lincoln, snapped to attention, looked him dead in the eye and then slowly and expressively began counting to ten.

Hunt talked about Italian flesh and sex shots, about how they’d show a scene the day before in which he spread the monk’s robe out near a church alter and made love to an actress named Sonia Romanoff. Said it was certainly an Italian first, but Lucidi and Mattei were playing it safe; they had taken away the monk’s robe and the altar for a second shooting. He said Italy was tame compared to Spain . In Spain, horses are actually blown up, their entrails thrown at the camera for close-ups. A wounded gunman will writhe on camera, flourishing a handful of bleeding scrap fresh from the butcher shop.

Hunt fanned himself with his 10-pound winter-weight monk’s robe. “I’ll tell you the clincher. They were doing a scene about a man shot with a gold bullet. The doctor was probing for it, and the guy was sweating and biting down on a piece of rawhide. All of a sudden the director had a brainstorm. He had the doc find the bullet, hold it up, and shout ‘Gold!’ Then someone else shouted it, and nine men stampeded over and started clawing into the poor guy’s stomach looking for more.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. I think they finally cut the scene for export, but they like plenty of blood over here.”

My last day on The Greatest Robbery in the West set, I took along Bob Silverstein’s wife, Geraldine, a professional photographer. While she kept her camera in a tote bag, no one paid any attention to her. But when she pulled it out to take stills, the actors began moving into the right light. George Hilton, the Uruguayan star, leaned moodily on a saloon post. Hunt Powers looked off into the middle distance, wearing a Western-wise frown-with tricky lighting and enough distance, Hunt resembles Clark Gable. Erika Blank and Katia Christine, who hadn’t seemed to be getting on with each other too well, were suddenly friends, bubbling away in a perfectly arranged two-shot. Director Lucidi jumped into it and clowned around, upstaging them both.

Later Hunt and his manager, Chester Foley, took me over to a projection room to see the Hunt-Sonia Romanoff love-scene rushes. As Hunt silently stalked the girl, there was no sign of either the monk’s robe or the church altar. Lucidi and Mattei had apparently decided to go for the Vatican Seal of Approval.

I got ready to leave the lot. The sun was dropping, and a low wind tumbled a polystyrene coffee cup down the wooden sidewalk and flapped the poster on the sheriff’s office: WANTED DEADS OR ALIVE: JIVE JAMES. (Americans call him “Jesse.”) At the end of the street Jennings Clayton’s car was parked in the shade of the church.

Chester Foley wanted to give me a stack of 8-by-10 glossy prints of Hunt and a supply of four-color lithographs from Sugar Colt, his new big-budget movie just finished in Spain. Hunt took them back. “Don’t load him up. We don’t want him thinking we want anything as crude as publicity.”

Erika Blank had no glossies, but told me she would love to come to America to act and live. Cuddling her rust-red corgi, which matched the color of her long hair, she told me that she sees all the American films she can, that her favorite star is Kim Novak, her favorite movie Pal Joey. Wanted to know if I knew Frank Sinatra.

Katia Christine is pretty, wide-eyed and blonde. She played it cooler. I had to go to her to say good-bye. Languishing on a barroom-set couch, she was teaching herself English. At her feet was Les Miserables in French. Her favorite stars are Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Has seen Gregory Girl twice and loved Darling. Agreed to send me some glossies of herself. We said adios .

Shook hands with Mr. Mattei, who looked as if he needed some sleep, and finally with Maurizio Lucidi. Lucidi was dead serious with me for the first time. “Americans are wrong, thinking we’re just copying their Westerns. It isn’t so. We’re adding the Italian concept of realism to an old American myth, and it’s working. Look at Jesse James. In your country he’s a saint. Over here we play him as a gangster. That’s what he was. Europeans today are too sophisticated to believe in the honest-gunman movie any more. They want the truth, and that’s what we’re giving them. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but when you write this article, I hope you’ll explain what we’re trying to do over here.

It was time to go. Geraldine Silverstein used up her film on long shots of the saloon, the store, the Jive James poster and the crooked cross on top of the church. I sat on a jump seat in Jenning’s limousine and looked out the rear window. Lucidi was helping the crew lift the camera and the lights onto the store porch. Mr. Mattei, in white pants and dark-blue coat, was pacing back and forth, looking as if he had a taxi meter inside him and was in heavy traffic. Erika Blank and George Hilton were waving.

As we pulled away, and I watched the crowd get smaller and smaller, I felt like Admiral Byrd leaving the South Pole. And then, like Byrd on the bridge of his ship, I tossed a soft salute to the penguins standing at the edge of the ice, quacking and flapping farewell, and promised that my dedicated mission would be to spread their feathered message to the world.

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