Johnny West

Johnny West posterCast: Dick Palmer [Mimmo Palmara] (Johnny West), Diana Garson [Dada Gallotti] (Ginger), Mike Anthony [Adriano Micantoni] (Frederick Jefferson), Mara Cruz (Anna Rose), Roberto Camardiel (Dusty), Roger De La Porte (Don Trent), André Bollet (Brad McCoy), Barta Barry (McIntyre, the sheriff), Bob Felton (Jimmy Bryan), Angeles Lee, Fernando Bilbao, Joseph Matthews [Giuseppe Mattei] (Red, Jefferson henchman), Alfonso Rojas (bar owner), Alfonso De La Vega (Mist, Jefferson henchman), Audry Fisher, Josephina Serratosa, Edy Dentine, Polly Grouck, Spanny Convery [Spartaco Conversi] (Jefferson henchman)

Uncredited: Bruno Arie (Blackie, Jefferson henchman)

After dabbling with the spy film in Cave of Diamonds, Gianfranco Parolini turned to another genre that was just coming into vogue, the spaghetti western. Although westerns had been being made in Europe, primarily in Spain, since the early sixties, the success of Sergio Leone’s 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars opened the floodgates for producers wanting to make a quick buck, and Parolini was quick to seize the opportunity. Johnny West was a French / Spanish / Italian co-production distributed by Titanus and, although undoubtedly a flawed film, it does hint at the much better westerns that the director would later make.

Johnny West (Mimmo Palmara) is a travelling gunman, famed for his sharpshooting prowess and the unusual characteristic of being left handed. While riding through the middle of nowhere, he stumbles across a stagecoach robbery and, with a Sartana style flourish, wipes out all the bandits and takes the loot for himself. Jefferson (Adriano Mincatoni), the urbanely villainous dude behind the robbery, is understandably non-plussed and, once he’s finally managed to track him down, has his revenge by beating him to a pulp, killing his girlfriend and smashing his left hand to smithereens. His final gambit – having the poor sap jailed for his girlfriend’s murder – doesn’t work quite so well, and Johnny’s able to escape and go into hiding.

Jefferson, meanwhile is up to all kinds of mischief. His latest wheeze is forcing an old prospector to sign over his goldmine to ‘the Melrose Charity Association’; who he just happens to be the managing director (and sole beneficiary) of. In fact, the only cloud on his silver lining is the sudden reappearence of his brother, Jimmy, a sharp-suited character who’s even more urbane and even more villainous then him. Jimmy, however, thinks that Jefferson is a bit of a buffoon, and starts interfering with all his plans, killing the odd person here, unnecessarily complicating matters there.

And one of his crazier schemes is to ensure that Johnny is put out of the picture properly this time: he has his men rob the bank, planting the cash in Johnny’s saddlebags and setting a posse on his trail. Johnny, however, is clever enough to realise what they’re planning, and decides that it’s time to have his revenge.

Johnny West has a number of positive aspects. It features some great cinematography and music from Parolini regulars Francesco Izzarelli and Angelo Francisco Lavagnino rescpectively. The Almerian locations are well used, looking a great deal colder than usual, and there are a number of idiosyncratic plot elements that add a bit of interest. You can certainly tell it’s a Parolini film, as there’s a lot of action, numerous fist-fights and an aura of matey humour about it all. In some ways, there are a number of similarities to his later films: as with Sartana the protagonist is an outsider, is first seen interrupting a stagecoach robbery, comes up against some smooth, fraudulent crooks, has a number of tricks in his armoury (such as a gun concealed in his hat) and a distinguishing ‘shot’ (he likes shooting people through the hands). There are some great moments – such as Johnny appearing in the doorway of a cave, wreathed in gunsmoke and blasting away at the assorted bad guys – and some scenes that simply couldn’t have come from a film made by anyone else. Who, apart from Parolini, could have had the gall to include a climax in which the villain attempts to bamboozle his opponent through the use of a ‘trick’ coffin?

Unfortunately, though, despite all of this, Johnny West simply doesn’t work. The key problem is that is has a disastrously uneven tone, and feels almost like two different movies unconvincingly knitted together. On the one hand you have Johnny West and his problems with the Jefferson brothers, all of which is told in upmost seriousness. On the other you have the antics of two travelling salesmen, Mr. Trent and Mr. McCoy, who pop up every five minutes to have a fight and totally disrupt the flow of the plot. This is a directorial flaw, with Parolini’s love of physical humour allowed to run wild, much to the detriment of the film; in his later work he’d work out how to incorporate it into a more compulsive narrative, but here it simply doesn’t work.

Some of the reason for this whole schizophrenic feel lies in the film’s genesis. According to Palmara: ‘Parolini asked me to read a script that focused on two characters who were wrestlers, to be played by Alan Steel and me. I told him it was shit. I said: “You’re wanting to make a western where there are two characters who beat each other up from beginning to end?” Instead, there was a minor character, the son of an Indian woman and a white man, who as a result wasn’t accepted by either the white or the Indian people, and he was much more interesting dramatically. “Develop this person into the protagonist”, I said to Parolini. He bought the script to my house in Ostia in the Summer, and there we started to rewrite it. Then I had to leave to shoot a film in Madrid and Los Vegas. He had only to follow this route that we had begun together. But then I returned for the shoot and found that he’d kept these two characters that had been the leads, but he’d made them into minor characters.” It’s certainly interesting to think what Parolini’s original vision would have played like. Unwatchable, probably, but it also anticipated the huge success of the comedy westerns, most particularly They Call Me Trinity, which were to come some five years later and were heavily reliant of physical humour. Similarly, it’s also interesting to note that Palmara picked up on a character who actually wasn’t a great deal different to a later, more successful western protagonist, Keoma, as played by Franco Nero in 1975. In other words, there was some potential in both ‘strands’ of the script, but when put together they merely conflicted.

Palmara was certainly unhappy with the results: ‘The story that I’d thought of was more like a Greek tragedy, with this half-cast who was hated by both the Indians and the whites and had as a result become a misanthrope; a potent character, dramatically. But Parolini ruined all this by putting in all these comic scenes that didn’t fit in at all.’ The director, meanwhile, dismissed it merely as ‘a film I did as a favour for my friend, Mimmo Palmara’, although he has also claimed responsibility for making the Johnny West character more prominent.

It also has to be said that another problem is the casting of Mimmo Palmara. Palmara is a decent actor, and very effective in certain roles, but he really doesn’t suit the role; it needed someone a bit less chunky, a bit more ephemeral and, above all, someone who actually looks like they have some Indian blood. His performance isn’t bad, it just isn’t right. In fact, he would much more have suited either of the villainous roles (the guy who plays Chris Jefferson isn’t even credited, while Adriano Micantoni lacks a certain volatility). Trent and McCoy, meanwhile, are played by a pair of successful French wrestlers, Andre Bollet and Roger Delaporte, probably as part of the co-production agreement (Bollet also appeared in The Three Fantastic Supermen a few years later).

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