Tuesday, June 8, 2010


“Payment in Blood” qualifies as a violent, above-average Spaghetti western shoot’em up with a high body count. Like director Sergio Leone’s bigger budgeted “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the lower budgeted “Payment in Blood” (**1/2 out of ****) concerns the quest for buried treasure. The outlaw villains embark on a search for a fabled fortune, approximately $200-thousand, stashed at an undisclosed location by Confederate General Beauregard. Of course, anybody who knows anything about Civil War history knows Beauregard had no such loot. Typically, most westerns that appropriate this plot attribute the lost Confederate gold to President Jefferson Davis. Ironically, during the opening credits sequence, which contains a montage of Civil War photographs, Beauregard’s portrait is conspicuous by its absence, while pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant proliferate. The protagonist, Stuart (Edd Byrnes), has a grudge to settle with the head villain (Guy Madison) and his gang of bloodthirsty gunmen.

Primarily known overseas as “Seven Winchesters for a Massacre,” “Payment in Blood” was writer & director Enzo G. Castellari’s third western. Castellari’s first western as a director was "Few Dollars for Django" for which he received no credit, and “Any Gun Can Play” was his second oater, with a bigger, better cast. “Payment in Blood” isn’t as good as either “Any Gun Can Play” or a later Castellari Civil War western “Kill Them All and Come Back Alone” with Chuck Connors. Long-time screenwriting collaborator Tito Carpi of "Few Dollars for Django" and "Bullets and the Flesh" scribe Marino Girolami penned the formulaic plot with Castellari for “Payment in Blood.” The difference between “Payment in Blood” and “Any Gun Can Play” is the latter is more elaborate than the former. “Payment in Blood” amounts to a rather contrived western that uses the venerable plot about an individual who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of homicidal criminals and thwart them. The dialogue is neither as amusing as “Any Gun Can Play,” but “Payment in Blood” boasts a surprise ending. Although it seems like scores of men wind up with bullet holes during the numerous shoot-outs, “Payment in Blood” lacks the titular element that became such a fixture in later westerns like “The Wild Bunch.”

The action takes place in Texas in 1867 after the conclusion of the American Civil War. A renegade Confederate officer, Colonel Thomas Blake (Guy Madison of “Drums in the Deep South”), refuses to give up the cause. During the opening moments of “Payment in Blood,” writer & director Enzo G. Castellari introduces us to not only the pugnacious Blake but also the hellspawn riding with him. Included in this notorious gang are Chamaco Gonzales (Ennio Girolami of "The Hellbenders"), knife-throwing Rios (Aysanoa Runachagua of “El Cisco”), Fred Calhoun (Federico Boido of "Planet of the Vampires"), bullwhip wielding Zeb Russel , and Mesa Alvarez (Attilio Severini of “Massacre at Grand Canyon”) who likes to kill with his spurs. Blake and his marauders carry out indiscriminate raids. They steal horses, loot homes; kill men, women and children without a qualm. Nameless supporting players standing around wanted posters of Blake’s men impart most of this information when they aren’t complaining about Blake’s depredations. The reward on Blake’s head has risen to $5-thousand. Chamaco rides into a town one day and eavesdrops on a conversation between a crippled, former Confederate soldier and a cowboy. “What can you expect from a rotten war like ours? Brother against brother. When you teach a man it’s right to kill, how can you unteach him?” The other man observes about Blake’s killers: “They have learned to like being heroes. They’ve learned to like killing.” Chamaco confronts the crippled Southerner, Jeremy, because the latter had ridden with General Beauregard and may know the location of the lost treasure. Before he can learn anything from Jeremy, Chamaco has to kill him. A military tribunal sentences Chamaco to die in front of an army firing squad. Stuart surprises the military and rescues Chamaco just as the soldiers are about to execute him. You see, Stuart is driving a covered wagon past the firing squad when he delivers his ultimatum to the army. He shoots the tip off the officer’s sword and several Winchester rifles spring out from the wagon, suggesting that several riflemen are aiming those repeaters. As it turns out, nobody has their shoulders against these long guns, and Stuart has packed a crate of dynamite in the wagon bed so when one of the soldiers opens fire on the vehicle, the wagon vanishes in an explosion.

Chamaco takes Stuart to Blake’s camp after they sneak across the Rio Grande. The place is like a natural fortress and Blake has a Gatling gun covering the entrance. Chamaco and Stuart pass inspection by the various sentries. It seems that Stuart rode with Beauregard, too, and served as one of the general’s chiefs of staff. The scenes where Stuart meets each of Blake’s gang and matches them at their own expertise are entertaining. The filming and editing of Zeb snatching the revolver out of Stuart’s holster with a bullwhip is exciting. Interesting, Mesa doesn’t perform one of his trademark flips using his spurs as deadly weapons. Each of Blake’s men has something distinctive about them from their look, heritage, and choice of weapon. After he arrives in Blake’s camp, Stuart refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the loot to the cunning colonel. Instead, Blake and his men leave the sanctuary of Mexico, cross the Rio Grande again, but with inevitable bloodshed, and ride into Texas. Along the way, they run into their first surprise and her name is Manuela (Luisa Baratto of “"Bloody Pit of Horror"). She keeps them pinned down with gunfire in one scene before they get the better of her. Feisty women are not a convention of the Spaghetti western. Before Blake’s men do anything else, they orchestrate the massacre of all the men in Durango. Castellari does a good job of staging this massive gundown. What makes the gunfight memorable is that one of Blake's men bites the dust. Eventually, Stuart does reveal the location, but only after Blake has turned his men loose on him and beaten Stuart to the point of unconsciousness. Stuart mutters the words ‘White Eagle’ and they set fire to the room and leave Stuart to burn alive. Blake’s men find a strong box buried in an Indian cemetery. Blake’s men are poised to take the loot when their commander kills Zeb for insubordination. When they finally open the strong box, Blake and his men are disgusted to learn that the $200-thousand was in worthless Confederate bank notes. Meantime, the survivors of the Durango come after Blake for killing their husbands.

Edd Byrnes appears out of place with his clean-shaven features among a cast who sport some form of facial hair. The off-beat casting of heroic Guy Madison as the murderous, tight-lipped villain isn’t as delectable as Henry Fonda’s dastardly turn in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but it represents a considerable change of pace for Madison. The first time that we see Madison as Colonel Blake, Blake rides out of a cloud of gunfire in a town that his men and he are shooting up. Blake’s favorite words are “kill them.” As savage as this western strives to be with its high body count, there are moments such as when Blake’s men tickle their prisoner’s feet with a feather that really stand out in this above-average oater. "Few Dollars for Django" lenser Aldo Pinelli creates several interesting shots of riders-on-the-skyline with his widescreen, color cinematography. Composer Francesco De Masi provides a charismatic orchestral score that perks up this western. Once you’ve heard De Masi’s flavorful score, you won’t forget it.

You need to get the Wild East DVD copy of this movie, because all other copies are going to be defective.