Night of the Serpent (1970)

Ringo Kill / Nest of Vipers / Ringo uccidi / Ringo uccidi e... le notte dei serpenti / Nest of Vipers - Ringo Kill

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An alcoholic gunman, Luke, is living with a group of Revolutionary Bandidos after giving up on his life as a gunfighter on account of a terrible accident. Mexican policeman Hernandez is after the fortune of Manuel, a small boy, so to kill him, Hernandez indirectley hires Luke who will take a fall. But Luke's acquiatance with the boy trigures flashbacks to the terrible incident and Luke decides to fight for what is right.

I love spaghetti Westerns. And being a big fan, one naturally familiarizes onesself with directors of the genre: best, worst, and capable yet average. My favorite is Giulio Petroni, who made five classic Spaghetti Westerns between 1967 and 1972. But by far, my favortie of all of this great director's films is his 1969 effort, Night of the Serpent.

Spaghettis are dark, mean, and violent, but some films have some heart in between all of the mean spiritedness. This is one of those films. And as such, it left me with a very satisfied feeling at the end. This can be due to the strong plot, great character study, deliberate pacing, and strong sense of mood which creates the atmosphere.

A lot of Italian westerns deal with vengeance, but this film has a script that is far more engaging and original than others. Elements such as murder, sexual desire, conspiracy, and redemption greatly spice up the film's child murder plot. Some have said that the plot's unraveling is very obvious. That it may be, but it still shocks the viewer. Often, the film has similarities with film noir, with femme fatales and murder, detective work etc. These elements, along with Riz Ortolani's jazzy score, emphasize this feeling, though the hero lacks a Bogart-esque persona. This is not a problem.

In fact, the hero is far different than Bogart. The main character here is a drunk who was once a great gunman. But due to a horrible accident, he turns to the bottle to obscure the memories he so often suffers from. He is living with a gang of Mexicans and is sent to kill a man. When he finds out the truth of his assignment, he must sober up to face what's coming. So, a great amount of time is spent as the hero, Luke (played by Luke Askew), battles the bottle. During the course of his assignment, he suffers increasingly from the flashbacks. These scenes are the pivotal moments of the film as they are the most emotionally charged and emit emotion from the viewer as well, which is the best thing a film can do to establish an unbreakable bond with the audience's attention.

Since the film deals with the melancholy subject of alchoholism, and battles with said problem, the pacing for this film is deliberatly slow, but never boring. Petroni takes more time to deal with characters and atmosphere. It is his main focus and with a recuring sad Mexican guitar theme, the scenes are easy to watch and listen to. The music here is brilliant and sets a melancholy mood. The pace is not as excruiatlingly slow as Leone's epics. Petroni does quicken the pace in the second half and proves that he is great at filming action. This half is not as good as the first but still does not shift moods completely, stays true to the atmosphere, and remains just as great yet not as emotional, though the mood is rightfully replaced with suspense and thrills.

This is a mood film and a great one, too. I have seen so many great movies that when I watch them, I have to turn off because the mood is not right. I watch them when I have a certain feeling and then they are great. But this one is a mood film that I can watch anytime and never get bored of it. Giulio Petroni is a master at mood. Death Rides a Horse and Tepepa are both dark, melancholy films. Even his comedy western, A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof, has moments of extreme sadness. (though when sandwiched between the comedy, it is rather akward.) I am a hardened viewer of the saddest movies but only a handful make me choke up. And to be honest, this is one of them. Just thinkning about it brings a tear up. The feeling of torment and regret is so strong, you can only dream of what the hero must be going through. When these scenes are played with the aforementioned score, the feeling is greatly satisfying.

One curious aspect of the film is the strange casting of little known American Character actor Luke Askew. You won't know the name but anybody whose seen the great Easy Rider will know him as the hippie hitchhiker early on. Here, you either love him or hate him. I am one of those that loved his underacted performance which sits very appropriately with the film. Others have compared his acting here to Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber. To put it mildly, I disagree. His pathetic character is great and his portrayal of him is equally great. Italian actor Luigi Pistilli stars as the villain. Mexican police officer Hernandez. He is the sort of villain who is very comfortable in his position against the hero. He has authority, power, and strength, but he underestimates the hero's change of character. He, along with everyone else, thinks he's a drunk, but when he starts gunning down Hernandez's men, he soon realize, he has made a mistake. Finally, the most appreciation in acting here should go to child actor Luciano Casominica. His performance as the kid is neither irritating or cliched. Often, you will be irritated with children in westerns as I was in Shane, but here, the kid never whines, never complains, he is simply a normal kid and for us not to wish his death is great.

Giulio Petroni has dismissed this film as a minor effort but he clearly shows passion in his work. He creates this well made spaghetti western as if it were like breathing. Nothing feels pushed and he lets the film flow easily at it's own time. He balances all the lements f a great film evenly. He doesn;t overdo the action nor does he under do it. His characters are great and tormented. It is simply a great job at directing.

The score here was provided by Riz Ortolani. He is known for his jazzy crime film sounding scores or his grandiose Hollywood imitation scores for westerns. Here, he gives his normal twangy crime film tunes but the best tune is the slow, sad Mexican guita tune played throughout the film. It is usually played for the emotional scenes and adds the right amount of sadness. This tune is expanded later into a full theme with electric guitars, horns, and drums. When this song is played, it marks the films transition into the more action oriented second half or third. A great score.

It's an obscure film but very good and if you want to be surprised with this little known yet superbly made Italian Western, buy the South African release. It is a perfectly balanced film. I cannot say a one bad thing about it. It is exciting, engaging, and beautiful.

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