1966 - Dir: Alberto Cardone (supervised by Mario Sicialiano) - Cast: Anthony Steffen, Fernando Sancho, Roberto Miali, Loredana Nusciak, Elisa Montes, Spartaco Conversi, José Manuel Martin - Music: Francesco de Masi
An essential film of the early days of the genre. The bulk of the movie was shot in 1965, when the production of spaghetti westerns was not yet at its zenith, and it was supposed to be the first production to use the new western town of the Elios film studios in Rome. But for obscure reasons the production was suspended, and when the work was resumed, director Cardone had to wait for his turn: meanwhile no less than fifteen western were in production. 'Essential' doesn't mean 'good': for more than an hour, Seven Dollars on the Red is merely average, a cheap looking, undistinguished western movie with an occasional spark of inspired action. It's interesting as an early genre outing, still tributary to a more classical style of film making, but with some of the characteristics of the spaghetti western genre beginning to shine through. Still, nothing sets it apart among the stream of spaghetti westerns that deluded the market in the mid-sixties, until the last twenty minutes, that are truly memorable.
When Johnny Ashley (Anthony Steffen) is away from home, his ranch is attacked by the gang of the notorious bandit El Chacal/the Jackal (Fernando Sancho). His wife is killed and his son Jerry is kidnapped by the bandit, who raises the boy as his own blood. Steffen spends all his energy traversing the West, in a fifteen years quest for his son and the man who ruined his life. What he doesn't know is that his son, now called Bill (Roberto Miali), has become a ruthless bandit in imitation of his foster parent. Inevitably the final confrontation, between a father and his long lost son, will be a very dramatic one...
It's clear that director Cardone (and his supervisor Siciliano) tried to add a psychological dimension to Steffen's character. He is an obsessed man, a captain Ahab desperately looking for his Moby Dick. This intention is also underlined by De Masi's rather obtrusive score, which suggests far more tension and emotion than we experience on the screen. It all could have worked, but the script is way too shallow to give the idea much of a chance. Moreover Steffen is too limited as an actor to suggest any psychological depth to the character he performs. He could be rather effective, if cast as a taciturn, stoic anti-hero, but it's significant that many think his performance in Django the Bastard was his best: in that movie he played a ghost.
At least Seven Dollars on the Red provides a large dose of action, and if most action scenes are standard fare, some of them are really good. Best of all is a scene in which Steffen (or more likely his stunt double) jumps through a closed window to shoot the villains inside by surprise. Sancho does his usual impersonation of a Mexican bandit and both Loredana Nusciak and Elisa Montes lighten up things with their presence, even though for once sweet Loredana is not whipped (which might be a let-down to some of her admirers!) and lovely Elisa has quite a hard time as Miali's love interest.
What really is a pity, is that the film could have been so much better, if only they had paid a little more attention to some details. Steffen's quest is supposed to last some fifteen years, but a few grey hairs at the temple are every sign of the passing of the time. I guess many viewers will be quite surprised when they're all of a sudden confronted with Steffen's son as an adult (What? Fifteen years have passed?). What makes things even look more slovenly, is the fact that Steffen doesn't even change clothes in all these years: he's constantly wearing the same jacket. Probably that's the reason Sancho managed to run away from him for such a long period: he could smell him from a distance!
But, as already mentioned, the film redeems itself in the last twenty minutes, when Steffen accepts a job as deputy in a town that is expecting Sancho to rob the local bank. The gang is ambushed in Wild Bunch style and subsequently Steffen meets Sancho face to face for a fight in which both play Dr. Hook (but without the Medicine Show). With Sancho ending up dead in a water tank, his adopted son, still thinking Sancho is his natural father, announces his arrival in town for the next morning to take revenge on Steffen. Set during a heavy thunderstorm, the dramatic confrontation between father and son almost reaches gothic dimensions, as if the vaults of heaven have burst open. Like Marco Giusti has put in his Dizionario del Western all'Italiano the grand finale seems a separate short movie, a small masterpiece in an otherwise indifferent movie.
If you're relatively new to the genre, there are a lot of films to watch first. But if you're a fan, you will want to check it out. The Japanese SPO disc has English audio, but it's out of print and it might be a bit difficult to trace a copy (and those SPO discs are overpriced anyway); the French disc, called Gringo joue sur le Rouge, is cheap and has acceptable image quality, but only French audio. So the best way to watch it, most probably is the German Koch Media disc, released recently, called Django, die Geier stehen Schlange; while lacking an English audio track it does provide English subtitles.
Note: The original Italian title, Sette Dollari sul Rosso (Seven dollars on the Red) refers to the dollars Sancho throws on the red skirt of Steffen's Indian wife: with those dollars Steffen can buy himself a new squaw. The alternative English title, Seven Dollars to Kill, is therefore nonsense. They killed almost everything out there in the Italian West, but dollars, no.