Sunday, October 5, 2008


Spaghetti western helmer Sergio Leone worshipped American director Robert Aldritch, even though Leone's experience as Aldritch's second-unit director on the Biblical epic "Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) proved short-lived. After he attained fame and fortune with his "Dollars" trilogy, Leone said that he owed it all to Aldritch. The Italian maestro rhapsodized especially over an earlier Aldritch oater "Vera Cruz" (1954) with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. The best part of Aldritch's "Four For Texas" is the opening gambit. This exciting but abortive stagecoach robbery foreshadows everything that the Spaghetti western later espoused as its formula and ideology.

Matson (Charles Bronson of "The Dirty Dozen") and his gang are in hot pursuit after a stagecoach carrying $100-thousand dollars. Galveston entrepreneur Zack Thomas (Frank Sinatra of "Sergeants 3") lies sprawled atop the coach. He shoots at the bad guys with his Winchester repeating rifle, while Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin of "Rio Bravo") rides inside the vehicle. Joe pokes his head and gun arm out the window and racks up his share of kills. Our heroes dispatch at least six of Matson's gang before Matson calls a halt to the pursuit and withdraws to head back to town. One of Matson's cronies, Dobie (Jack Elam of "Once Upon A Time in the West), who appears in pre-Sergio Leone style close-up briefly, warns Matson that their boss, treacherous Harvey Burden (Victor Buono of "The Silencers"), won't be happy that they failed. Without blinking an eye, Matson guns down Dobie, blasting him out of the saddle with one lethal shot. Meanwhile, the stagecoach rider dies from a wound that he received from Matson's men and Zack has to stop a runaway stagecoach. He cannot and the vehicle rolls over with a crash. For the rest of the sequence, Zack and Joe engage in a contest of one-upmanship, the kind of games that Blonde and Tuco played in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." First, Joe gets the drop on Zack who no longer has his rifle and takes the money. Second, Zack retrieves an entirely different Winchester rifle that he found cached with the money. He waits until Joe has ridden far enough away so that he can open up on him with his Winchester without fear of retaliatory gunfire. When this occurs, Joe realizes that he is at Zack's mercy. Joe's six-gun lacks the longer more accurate range of Zack's rifle. Zack forces Joe to fork over the fortune. Third, Joe surprises Zack when he palms a derringer concealed inside his Stetson and appropriates the money for the second time. In the first instance, Frank Sinatra behaves like a Spaghetti western anti-hero might as he ignites a cigar and patiently allows Dean Martin to out of range before he wields the Winchester. Sinatra even wears an outfit roughly similar to the togs that 'the Man With No Name' sported. This entire scene is better than anything else in this otherwise mediocre western. "Four for Texas" indulges in the two themes that characterized Italian westerns: (1) a cynical disregard for human life, and (2) an obsession with money that amounts to greed. The setting with its sharply-chiseled mountain peaks rearing up majestically in the background and arid desert stretching for miles in every direction replicates the typical south of the border scenery in spaghetti westerns. Indeed, for all practical purposes, the opening scene in "Four For Texas" qualifies as the only scene with action lensed on location beyond the confines of the studio.

Meanwhile, gluttonous Harvey Burden acts like Zack's friend. What Zack doesn't know is that the President of the Galveston Savings & Trust Bank has Matson and his gang of cutthroats secretly on his payroll. Victor Buono's first scene in Galveston is wonderful. He explains to "Walton's" star Ellen Corby, a widow with another elderly woman in a wheelchair with her, that if he loaned them the money that they requested that eventually he might have to foreclose on them and earn a bad reputation in the process. At about that time, Joe Jarrett shows up in town with the fortune in money sewn into his suit jacket and deposits it in Harvey's bank. Joe and Zack have the oddest friendship that evolves over time once they meet each other's girlfriends. Zack keeps fashion designer Elya Carlson (the voluptuous Swedish beauty Anita Ekberg of "La Dolce Vita") as his main squeeze. Joe hooks up with scantily clad Maxine Richter (Ursula Andress of "Dr. No") who owns a rundown riverboat that Joe helps her convert into a floating casino. Roughly speaking, the time that elapses between Joe's arrival in Galveston until the climactic scene on the docks when Zack and he join forces is equivalent to the time it takes to refurbish Maxine's riverboat.

"Four For Texas" (** out of ****) conjures up few surprises to keep you guessing throughout its uneven 115 minutes. Zack and Joe play cat and mouse games, but you know that Frank and Dean couldn't remain at loggerheads for long. The chief bad guy here is Charles Bronson and it takes both of them to whip him. Bronson's death scene on the paddle wheel of the riverboat looks cool. The relationship between Victor Buono and Charles Bronson conceals the only surprise. An unbelievable moment occurs in Galveston that refutes the opening scene where our heroes ruthlessly tried to eliminate the outlaws. Jarrett wings Matson in a restaurant as the evildoer is poised to bushwhack Zack. That Joe and Zack would let Matson live is difficult to swallow, especially after their deadly shooting during the hold-up attempt. The brawl on the docks at the end looks like poor crowd control, but there is another surprise that comes out. However, by this time, "Four For Texas" has sacrificed any dramatic vigor as an interesting western. Unless you're a Rat Packer, skip "Four For Texas."

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