Black Jack (1968)

Dir: Gianfranco Baldanello - Cast: Robert Woods, Rik Battaglia, Mimmo Palmara, Lucienne Bridou, Dahlia Lavi, Nino Fuscagni, Larry Dolgin - Music: Lallo Gori

There are no heroes in Black Jack, not even anti-heroes, only villains, and they're mean bastards. Robert Woods is Jack Murphy, the leader of an outlaw gang, who masterminds an ingenious bank robbery. All goes to plan, but then Jack wants to keep the lion's share of the loot for himself. When he notices the members of his gang aren't happy with this decision, he decides to take all the money and run. Of course the duped villains try to catch up with their fraudulent leader. Jack has taken shelter in a ghost town, with his sister Susan and her fiancé Peter, but he's betrayed by his associate, the evil Indian Joe. Jack is so brutally tortured by his former companions, that he is crippled for life, and his sister is raped, murdered and scalped by the sadistic Indian Joe.

This would have been enough to turn Black Jack into one of the darkest, most cynical spaghetti westerns ever, but it gets worse. After some time, when he's able to walk again with the help of a cane, Jack starts looking for his former companions. He tracks them down one by one and takes revenge in the most gruesome ways: One of them, a Mexican, is killed by his fellow-villagers, who are paid to do so by Jack, the Indian is strangulated with the scalp of Jack's sister, and when he finally catches up with Skinner (called Sanchez in some versions), the new leader of the gang, he abducts the man's daughter and offers her to Peter, his murdered sister's fiancé, and asks him to give the girl the same treatment...

Where do you find a western with a crippled hero? In the Israeli desert maybe, where this film was shot. It was the twin movie of Execution, also shot in the Israeli Desert Studios, albeit by a different director and with a different cast and crew (Mimmo Palmara - who plays the Indian in this one - is the only actor who appears in both movies). There are some similarities to movies like Sledge and Cemetery without Crosses, that both transmit the idea that obsessive feelings of greed and revenge may lead to a person's downfall, but both Luther Sledge and Manuel (the character played by Robert Hossein in Cemetery without crosses) are tragic heroes, Black Jack is a beast. His only excuse is he's driven half mad in the course of the movie, as his manic laughter will tell you.

Black Jack was obviously made with a limited budget. Gianfranco Baldanello had been working as assistant director on a number of peplums before he started to direct his own movies, including spy movies, comedies and westerns, among them the enjoyable low-budget entry This Man Can't Die (with Guy Madison). Black Jack is no doubt his best movie. Baldanello makes the best of the arid locations and sets of the Israeli Desert Studios, creating an dusty, bone dry atmosphere that suits the oppressive tone of the movie quite well. Some sequences, like the bank robbery and the finale, are inventively staged and well-shot. Palmara is frighteningly believable as the Indian, one of the most despicable characters in the history of the genre. Israeli actress Dahlia Lahvi adds a welcome sensuous tone to the otherwise pretty nasty atmosphere.

This is definitely a movie for those who like their spaghetti westerns violent and nasty. It's not perfect, it suffers a little from that low budget, but it's quite unique in its bleakness and brutality. So why, then, is Black Jack so little known? Like some other movies starring Robert Woods, it's pretty hard to find. There are official French and German releases but both are fullscreen and neither of them is English friendly. Cinemageddon offers a fandub made with the help of the German release. * Spoilers ahead * The German DVD is slightly cut: a scene in which Peter stabs Jack in the gut is missing. It's a quite bizarre scene: Peter stabs Jack accidently - because he thinks Jack is the Indian - when he's asked to rape Skinner's daughter; subsequently a dying Jack shoots Skinner. It's not clear why this scene was cut. Far more brutal and nasty scenes were left intact and what's more: the ending is very confusing without it. There's also a VHS-version in which Jack rides off after Skinner is killed.

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