Those who are fans of The Dollars Trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – are fans of the spaghetti western even if they have not seen any others beyond them and the associated movie Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
The spaghetti western is a part of the past and an uncommon commodity on our screens these days even as repeats. Some people don’t even know what a spaghetti western is, including my fifty year old brother in law, who found out yesterday!
Director Sergio Leone was the master of the spaghetti western, or western themed movies made in Italy, usually in the time period of the early to mid-1960s to mid-1970s. They were co-produced often by Spanish companies, sometimes German, and were commonly lensed in Spain’s desert-like regions.
Apparently there were around six hundred westerns made in Europe from 1960 to 1978!
Apart from Leone’s Dollar Trilogy, the spaghetti western would often be a run of the mill affair with many ordinary films often dressed in extraordinary titles, for example, I am Sartana, Trade Your Guns for a Coffin (1970)… but there are still a number of exceptional films.
Two of these are the relatively early spaghetti westerns by Duccio Tessari (1926-94 cancer) entitled A Pistol for Ringo (1965) and its “sequel” The Return of Ringo (1965). Both were made and released within about a year of each other.
And for me, the best one is the sequel The Return of Ringo.
How I came to know this movie was by picking through the VHS one-dollar bin at the local video store in the 1990s. So, with my fistful of dollar videos to take home, one was a film entitled The Angry Gun starring Montgomery Wood. From its opening song through to its climax and reprise of the song – I loved it and watched it over and over again. It would be years before the mystery of the film and where it stood in spaghetti western history would be solved.
A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood, was made in 1964 and was a hit in Italy, where it was the biggest grossing film than any other film at that point. Thus the genre was firmly established for another decade, replacing the Italian muscleman epics which had been so popular since the late 1950s. The Dollars Trilogy didn’t make it to the United States for release, I understand until 1967, because of legal fears over the first film’s plagiarism of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s (1910-98 stroke) Yojimbo (1961). Anyway, Clint Eastwood was a star of the big screen in Italy long before he transferred this to the United States after his television success in the western series Rawhide (1959-66). Of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven ripped off Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) a few years earlier but that studio probably had the rights.
It was always seen as a step down in someone’s career to go to Europe to make a spaghetti western. Or a last chance at a career! This is echoed in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (2019) when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is offered a career there, much to his despair. By the way, one of the films DiCaprio makes is a fictional Ringo movie with an ornate title. There are several so-called sequels to Tessari’s originals.
The original A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo star Giuliano Gemma (1938-2013 car crash) something which made a great western star of him in Europe. He took the moniker of Montomgery Wood for the English speaking release of the movies. In The Return of Ringo, his character’s name is Montgomery Brown.
The two original Ringo films contain the same ensemble cast and while the main character played by Gemma is named Ringo they are two separate universes or separate stories with the the rest of the cast playing different roles in the both movies. Indeed Gemma’s Ringo character is different from the first movie also.
Gemma’s Johnny Ringo in Pistol is not like the Man with No Name in the Dollars Trilogy. Ringo is athletic, clean shaven and drinks milk. He also seems to have quite a sense of humour. In Return he is more stern and level-headed upon his return from war.
Gemma used to be a stuntman before he was adopted by Tessari for his film Sons of Thunder (1962) which was one of those Hercules inspired sword and sandal musclemen films mentioned. As a result, Gemma is nimble on his feet, leaping off the ground from his back as well as from the back of horses. His Johnny Ringo in Pistol is a wanted man whose reputation has him kill in self-defence and thus has him ending up in jail at the beginning of the movie.
Director Tessari helped in the genesis of the spaghetti western as he co-wrote Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Tessari also worked with the other of “the two Sergios” – Sergio Corbucci (1926-90) – co-writing the film Romulus and Remus (1961). Corbucci is also thought of as one of the great spaghetti western directors as he made the classic Django (1966), a film which like the Ringo movies ended up with countless Django “sequels”. Corbucci also directed another seminal western The Great Silence (1968) whose snowbound setting is probably an inspiration for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).
But back to Tessari and it is his wife, former Italian starlet, Lorella De Luca (1940-2014 brain tumour) under the Anglo name of Hally Hammond, who plays the good girl in both Ringo movies. Or good woman, as she is quite mature in her roles, especially in the second movie. Resisting violent passes from a serial sexual predator in Pistol, any attempts to make an icon of Hammond is thwarted by the actress who plays the bad girl in the Ringo movies – Nieves Navarro (1938-) – who I find the more interesting actress. Navarro changed her name to Susan Scott in 1969 and appeared in Sergio Martino’s giallo All the Colors of the Dark (1972).
The plot for A Pistol for Ringo was cooked up by four writers and concerns a bank robbery by a gang of Mexicans a couple of days before Christmas, something which leads to them holing up in a remote property owned by one of the local landowners. Ringo is in jail but is seen as a possible saviour by the authorities who must pay him 30 percent of the stolen funds if he can recover the money and in this case save the hostages at the mansion who are getting executed one by one by the head gunman played by Fernando Sancho (1916-90).
The Spanish born Sancho, like several of the actors in the Ringo movies, is iconic, and made a career out of playing portly Mexican bandits. In Pistol he is at his best and like Gemma in this and The Return of Ringo, there has been a good choice made in the dubbing voices – the same were used for both films.
When Ringo arrives at the ranch, which is essentially under siege in a valley surrounded by mountains, he immediately demands a bigger cut of the money than the authorities are offering, from the bandits. Apparently playing one against the other, while essentially being the good guy – we know he’s really for the authorities but with a secret agenda. Gemma has a long fistfight with the sexual predator, who keeps calling him “cockroach” before killing him in “self defence”. Later, he tells the sheriff he’s “as sentimental as a schoolgirl” to think any of the bandits are going to come out of this experience alive… I won’t go further into the plot points of Pistol, check it out as it’s a good movie with an interesting plot, a friend even called it “a classic” – but its sequel is more iconic.
One of the great first impressions when I saw The Return of Ringo, was the opening song of the same title that is sung by Maurizio Graf (no info). The musical score for both films is by legendary composer Ennio Morricone and indeed the second score is the best of two memorable ones, even if they are not as iconic as his work on The Dollars Trilogy. The song The Return of Ringo is presented in English although it was obviously written by someone who doesn’t grasp English terribly well as the lyrics don’t quite make sense. That doesn’t detract from the song which is as beautiful as Graf’s voice. Pistol also has a catchy song by Graf and both were apparently popular enough to make the music charts in Italy at the time of their release.
So Return starts with that iconic song with Ringo returning from the American Civil War. Whereas Pistol was set circa 1896, Return is set in 1865. Montgomery Brown is Ringo’s real name in Return, although he is known locally as Ringo. In Return he is blonde, whereas the character in Pistol is brown haired. So, yes, it’s a totally different universe in terms of the narrative. The bad guys again play the bad, and the two ladies play the respective good and bad roles, while there is one major change… The guy who played the sheriff in Pistol plays the head bad guy Paco Fuentes in Return. The actor’s name is the Anglo George Martin (1937-) although he is another Spanish born thespian. Martin plays the evil Paco very well and the dubbed voice is one of the rare changes from the original voice cast.
The plot for The Return of Ringo kicks of loosely as a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. This is reflected by Ringo returning home from war to find his father’s hometown and mansion overrun, in this case by Mexican bandits, and his wife in the clutches of a “suitor”, played by Martin. So Ringo dyes his hair and skin colour and goes by no name or “nobody” to enter the community and do what he must… The first thing he witnesses is the murder of the town’s judge on main-street which whistles and blows with a ceaseless wind, something which continues throughout the movie that is a little unsettling. They probably use a little too much straw in the first scene!
But it is the beginning of the movie where Morricone’s score is at its most potent and eloquent as Ringo transforms his flesh and hair from Gringo to Mexican upon hearing of his father’s death and his wife’s apparent dalliance in his absence – discarding his wedding ring.
Ringo was famous in the town and his apparent disappearance during the civil war was felt but is now apparently forgotten…
What is also beautiful and iconic about Return is the cinematography, with several shots of people’s eyes throughout the movie in extreme close-up. Used also in the Dollars Trilogy at times. These close-ups of eyes, are often to Morricone’s brooding score, which at times uses an almost chilling choral element.
Let’s break here before we go into the final shoot-out in PART TWO.