Financed by the combined forces of the production houses of Alberto Grimaldi and Arturo Gonzales -- the same Italian-Spanish co-production team responsible for Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More” -- Sergio Sollima’s “Faccia a faccia” (“Face to Face”) is a heat-blistering, dust-blown Spaghetti Western outlaw flick made at the very height of the genre’s popularity in 1967. Sollima cut his teeth in the industry scriptwriting a succession of sword and scandal adventure epics and kick-started his directorial career behind the camera with several Italian James Bond-inspired secret agent spin-offs, before finding his niche with Italian Westerns in the sixties; his directorial debut in the genre, “La resa dei conti” (“The Big Gundown”), which he also wrote in partnership with Sergio Donati (who would go on to have a hand in scripting Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “A Fistful of Dynamite”), paired bounty hunter Lee Van Cleef against Mexican outlaw Tomas Milian and was a great commercial success in Italy at the time, setting Milian on the road to stardom and earning Sollima the sobriquet ‘The Other Sergio’ in reference to Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci -- the two giants of the Spaghetti Western genre.
Just before Sollima embarked upon the sequel to “The Big Gundown” -- with Milian reprising his role as Mexican thief Cuchillo in “Run Man Run” -- the two shot “Face to Face” together, on location in Spain and using free-standing Western town sets already built and in use at the Italian studios back in Rome. Like many of the Italian Westerns being produced around this time (“The Big Gundown” being a case in point, along with Damiano Damiani’s “Bullet for the General”), the film is in some ways a political allegory -- although its far less specific than many of the so-called ‘Zapata Westerns’, which often sought to make a Left Wing critique of then-contemporary issues (such as Vietnam) by using the Western genre as a populist metaphor.
Instead, Sollima crafts a lyrical meditation on the nature of morality and its connection to place and politics, inspired (as were many of the Italian directors of Westerns during the 1960s) by the filmmaker’s experience of the Fascist movement after the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s and ‘30s. The film plays out almost like a Biblical parable (an impression encouraged in no small part by the parched vistas of dusty, Spanish-filmed desert landscapes that stand in for North America and Mexico and which are punctuated with occasional verdant oases of forest greenery) but relocated to the Southern states and the Sierras in the nineteenth century at the time of the American Civil War – the conflict which establishes the context of political turmoil that makes up the background, here, to Sollima’s subject, which revolves around the theme of moral luck – how the constitutional goodness of a person is often dictated by vagaries of political circumstance; how the edges of what define the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ can blur until roles are swapped and those who once seemed to embody morality become the corrupted, and vice versa. It’s a considered character piece, both aided and abetted by stunning Techniscope landscape photography, yet another seemingly effortlessly brilliant Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and a collection of impeccable performances from a strong Italian and European cast.
Gian Maria Volonté -- usually to be found playing villains and bandits in the Westerns of Sergio Leone -- is top-billed here as University Professor Brad Fletcher: an intellectual New England history teacher who retires and moves South for the warmer climate of Texas in the 1860s, to convalesce while recovering from tuberculosis. By accident he’s captured by the injured, animalistic ‘half-breed’ outlaw Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennett (Milian), who takes advantage of Fletcher’s attempt to demonstrate kindness and fairness to the hard-bitten residents of the dirt-stop town-cum-way station he’s been recovering in, by offering the captured, parched and visibly ailing criminal a jug of water, while they all simply want to torture him for the brutality of his past crimes.
For his efforts, Fletcher’s reward is to be dragged away at gunpoint -- taken as a hostage on the battered, dusty stage-coach that brought Bennett into his life in the first place; but after it crashes and the apache-haired criminal is knocked senseless, Fletcher continues to stick around and even attempts to treat his captor’s wounds, although he admits that mostly, he stays because he just doesn’t know where he is or where else he can go. Gradually, the rough, brutish and hirsute Bennett and the urbane but tubercular professor come to form a strange kind of friendship: Fletcher’s intelligence and refined sensibility start to have an influence on Beau’s outlook, while the romance and freedom of the outlaw life in the wilds and wilderness of the South and the Mid-West, starts slowly to appeal to the previously bookish and sickly professor from the North -- and he continues to stay around while Bennett sets about reconstituting his partnerships of old -- collectively known as The Wild Gang’ -- and plotting to spring those who have been captured, all the while on the look-out for infiltration by members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Fletcher witnesses Beau finishing off in a shoot-out a crooked Sheriff and his cohorts in return for the release of one of his men, after being employed to do so by a crippled businessman in the appropriately named Purgatory City. Later, when a stranger called Charles Siringo (William Berger) rolls up asking to join the gang and proffering the duo his own ‘Wanted’ posters and a pistol-blasted Sheriff’s badge as his outlaw's references, Beau’s instinct is to suspect a trap, until Siringo rides to the de Winton Plantation, where Beauregard and his friends are hiding out, to warn him that the local Sheriff is on his way. In the ensuing gun battle, Siringo shoots the local law enforcer dead and is promptly accepted into the bosom of the gang – Beau ominously stating that he’s learned to use his head since meeting Fletcher, and so must accept the evidence of his eyes, whatever his heart may be telling him. In fact, Siringo is indeed a Pinkerton spy, who kills the sheriff partly to make his ‘cover’ look all the more convincing, and partly because the Sheriff previously refused to go along with Siringo’s plan of allowing and encouraging Bennett to rebuild his gang of outlaws first, before striking and bringing all of them to justice in one go -- rather than rushing to arrest the chief outlaw straight away, as the hasty Sheriff insisted on doing. The reformed gang travel on to the secret outlaws’ haven of Puerto Del Fuego, situated in a rocky pass in the Nevada Sierras, where they plot to spring Bennett’s former partner and closest friend Zachary Sean (Aldo Sanbrell) from a gaol cell in nearby Silvertown; but by now Fletcher has taken to the outlaw life to such an extent that he begins plotting his own bank jobs, correctly assessing that Sean’s imprisonment in the conveniently close-by and none-too-closely-guarded gaol, is almost certainly a trap ( he’s right -- Siringo has planned the whole thing with the Silvertown authorities). Beau defers to Fletcher’s reasoning and the gang set about planning the audacious heist instead, while Siringo simultaneously plots to sabotage it and get word to the authorities of the Wild Gang’s change of heart.
Clearly belonging among the top tier Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s despite its not being anywhere near as well-known as many of the others, “Face to Face” is a subtle, beautifully written character study by Sollima and Donati, shot in majestic Techniscope widescreen splendour by Spanish cinematographer Rafael Pacheco. The film takes place among a variety of rural settings, its various dusty and/or mountainous Spanish shooting locations on the outskirts of Madrid capturing the arid, desolate atmosphere of their intended American counterparts, and thereby furnishing the film with its sense of the wandering, nomadic sensibility of its two primary protagonists. The screenplay brings into focus the difficult task of transforming a wild-eyed, violent and murderous brute clad in buckskins (Milian is great as the feral outlaw) into a principled man of nobility while a cultured, thoughtful, non-physical man of peace becomes a tyrant before our very eyes – each change seeming completely natural and a logical outcome of personality meeting the particularities of circumstance.
The first half of the film is primarily devoted to following the two leads, Volonté and Milian, as they traverse ramshackle towns and dust track wildernesses, each one all the while being more and more affected by the other’s influence, every stage on the continuing journey being yet another moment in their individual internal transformation. By the end, it is suggested that the harshness of Solomon Bennett’s background has clouded the nobler sentiments which were always there inside him, deep down but obscured, and created the selfish murderer we see at the start of the film; his gradual path to enlightenment, which comes about thanks to Brad Fletcher’s Good Samaritan-like willingness to overlook the wrong that’s been done to him in order to help his aggressor, eventually leads Bennett to a redemption that, ironically, sets him against the very same man who brought it about: Fletcher’s contention at the start of the film, that ‘each man can choose his place in history’ looks on the one hand to be a philosophy which completely overlooks the influence of the environment that each man is born into, while also being capable of itself becoming a belief that facilitates tyranny when it is applied by Fletcher among the outcasts and criminals of Puerto Del Feugo, to make him a violent dictator.
A key moment in Fletcher’s fall from grace comes when he rapes the pretty young wife, Maria ( Jolanda Modio), of one of the other Mexican bandits hiding out in the robbers’ colony. Fletcher is conforming to the ways of the harsh environment he has found himself transplanted into, but it is a lifestyle that clearly appeals to him and speaks to some part of him that was always there, buried beneath the civilised Bostonian exterior. Fletcher is ultimately without a firm moral centre – always merely conforming to the social conditions he finds himself in at any one time and, in each case, taking them to extremes of either good or bad. The sobering thought is that none of us know for sure how we would react if we found ourselves in an environment where the civilising norms were different or had been overturned by circumstance.
There’s an illustration of this early on in the film, when Fletcher finds him-self living on a Southern plantation with Bennett’s Confederate associates, and is shocked by the idea that these cultivated, apparently decent people are able to seemingly live comfortably with the idea of slave ownership. The symbolic break between Bennett and Fletcher finally arrives when their attempt to rob the Silvertown bank comes undone. A little Mexican lad discovers the screwed-up and discarded piece of paper on which Charley Siringo has scrawled his message to the Sherriff detailing the Wild Gang’s plan, and Bennett and Fletcher’s very different reactions, as the boy runs through the town shouting the news, finally brings home the change in dynamic that has occurred. All the characters find themselves morally changed by the traumatic events that then ensue, not only the tyrannical Fletcher, who ruthlessly tortures a Pinkerton spy he discovers in the robbers’ haven, but Charley Siringo and Bennett’s former partner Zachary each also find themselves forced to take arms on a completely different side of the divide between outlaw and lawman and good and evil, by the time the film’s tense three-way stand-off comes around at the end of the final act, than that which they were on at the start of the film.
The compellingly told story and the film’s lyrical photography are augmented by Morricone’s alternatively tense, often pounding, and sometimes tender score, conducted by Bruno Nicolai; it’s full of the august composer’s trademark effects: edgy strings, tolling bells, discordant keyboards and the distinctive voice of Edda Dell’Orso providing soaring coral intonations. Eureka Video bring the full 114 minute Italian version to UK DVD in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with a 15 minute interview with director Sergio Sollima, and several trailers as extras. Sollima, who seems to have been interviewed at home sitting on his living room couch, talks about the fraught relationship between the two lead actors (which he claims was perfect for the film) and about the genius of Ennio Morricone. The disc comes with an attractive little booklet featuring a nicely written essay overview of the film by Howard Hughes, author of the book “Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns and Cinema Italiano”, which details all the main points of interest concerning writer-director Sollima and the shooting of the film. The transfer is generally sharp and mainly free of noticeable blemishes, although the colour seems a little less vibrant than one would wish. It’s still a pleasing release though and an easy one to recommend to the Italian Western enthusiast.