A Stranger in Town (1967)

Original title: Un Dollaro tra i Denti - Dir: Luigi Vanzi – Cast: Tony Anthony, Frank Wolff, Gia Sandri, Aldo Berti, Jolanda Modio, Raf Baldassare – Music: Benedetto Ghilglia

poster for Stranger in Town

A stranger arrives in a sleepy Mexican border town. The first person he meets is already dead, the second one, the bar owner, he kills himself … with a whiskey bottle. Obviously the world described here, is not a friendly one. A Stranger in Town, also known as For a Dollar in the Teeth, is a close as the spaghetti western genre ever got to a minimalistic film experience. Not even a handful of sets are used, only few lines are spoken, the film seems to be made on a shoestring, and still it was co-produced by Allan Klein, the man who would save The Beatles from bankruptcy.

After having killed the bar owner, the stranger (Tony Anthony)witnesses how a regiment of the Mexican army is slaughtered by Mexican bandits, who take their place in a lucrative deal with the American army. He offers his services to the sadistic leader of the gang Aguila (Frank Wolff) - who needs somebody who can ‘identify’ him as an officer of the federal army – but of course he is double-crossed by him. The stranger manages to escape when Aguila tries to eliminate him, but shortly after he is trapped and brutally tortured, first by Aguila’s men, then by the bandit’s fiancée (Sandri), a 19th century SM dominatrix with a 20th century fifties coiffure, timeless jodhpurs and a whip. But she gets sexually aroused when torturing a man, and the stranger uses this ‘weakness’ to get the better of her, in a mesmerizing and – for the time – very daring scene. Finally he faces the entire gang in a bloody showdown in the town’s street.

For some obscure reason I had never seen this film before, and having read a lot of negative things about it, I had low expectations. To my surprise I was enthralled from the moment the stranger rides into the dusty town of Cerro Gordo. Often called a poor man’s A Fistful of Dollars, director Vanzi uses a simplified version of the plot, and some elements are taken directly from Leone’s landmark movie, but his style is decisively different . The ultra-slow pace may seem Leonesque, but like Frayling has pointed out, Leone was above all interested in the ritualistic build-up to typical western elements like shootouts, while Vanzi’s style is lingering, with sudden, unprepared outbursts of violence. As a film-maker he is closer to Eastwood, especially in the protracted sequence in which Anthony eliminates Aguila’s men one by one in the small streets of Cerro Gordo, that seems to have influenced the finale of Eastwood’s Pale Rider. I was impressed by the atmosphere of decay Vanzi manages to create with a few simple means. The stranger wears an old blanket instead of the poncho … a damaged railcar still runs on tracks down the main street … Punctuated by those sudden outbursts of violence, his film becomes a bizarre, surreal, almost nihilistic spectacle. A priest is drowned by one of Aguila’s henchmen, called Marinero (Sailer, mariner), who says he owns his name to his love of water. The same man has to confirm repeatedly that his boss is a fair man, a qualification the stranger finally adopts.

As said, the film wasn’t received well by critics and still isn’t popular among them. British art critic Howard Hughes thinks it’s ‘so poorly executed that its success, especially in America, is difficult to fathom’. Furthermore he thinks Frank Wolff’s performance is appalling. Well, I do not agree with him. Of course the film has it’s flaws. The ultra-slow pace occasionally flirts with catatonia, and when Aguila executes the federal soldiers, he shoots holes in their bodies and the wall behind them, but not in their uniforms … but hat all part of the genre and in my opinion performances are really fine. Unlike most actors playing Mexican bandits, Frank Wolff turns in a rather restrained performance, only occasionally bursting out in those inevitable laughs. Anthony doesn’t have the virile looks of Clint Eastwood, but he sure knows how to take a beating and his doggy-like, faithful eyes and whispering speech hide an inner rage that can emerge at any moment. Benedetto Ghilgia’s score is mainly a fuzzy guitar, seasoned with some whips, bells and flutes. It’s a wonderful score, even if the main theme is used a few times too often (but when the film is over you want to hear it again!).

Essential viewing.

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