If you are looking for the greatest Italian western directors, sooner or later you will come across the “three Sergios”. These three directors may share the same first name, but every single one of them managed to imprint their own distinctive style on the Western genre and formed the molds that literally hundreds of movies used from there on afterwards.
The first, of course, is Sergio Leone: His movies are usually among the first that come to mind when you think “Spaghetti Western”. The low-budget “A Fistful of Dollars” became an international phenomenon, it reinvoigorated (or, you might argue, truly launched) the career of Clint Eastwood, and follow-ups like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (one of my personal favorite films) or “Once Upon a Time in the West” are usually considered as some of the greatest Westerns of all time, but even among the greatest movies in general. Leone enriched classic Western archetypes with the classical Italian theatre method of the Commedia dell’arte to create fascinating, larger-than-life characters, and he was among the first directors to combine lengthy long shots with close-up-shots to underscore dramatic tension, creating some of the most memorable and thrilling scenes in Western cinema.
Next is Sergio Corbucci, and while some of you might not know his name in particular, it’s very likely you’ve heard of his most famous creation: Django, the grim angel of vengeance, has practically become synomynous with the archetypical silent, ruthless antihero out for revenge. Corbucci is mostly known for his dark, hyper-violent films – aside from the aforementioned Django, his most famous movie is “The Great Silence”, a gripping, but very bleak film about competing bounty hunters, corruption and death for profit. Later on he started to poke fun at the very archetypes he created, directing a number of parodies towards the twilight days of the Italian Western.
Finally, we have today’s subject: Sergio Sollima, who is usually considered to be one of the more ‘intellectual’ directors of Italian Westerns. Whereas most Westerns usually focussed on one or a handful of heroes protecting a peaceful community from sinister outlaws, Sollima was more interested in the outsiders: the dregs of society, the poor, the small-time crooks, the vagabonds… practically anyone who doesn’t fit in with a ‘civilized’ community. In his three Western movies, he liked to play with classic Western archetypes and turned them on their heads. His first movie, “La Resa Dei Conti” (or “The Big Gundown” as its known in english-speaking countries) took a typical villain character – the Mexican bandit – and turned it into the actual hero of the story, a charming scoundrel rather than a grubby, violent outlaw. That movie, as well as its sequel “Comi, Uomo, Comi” (“Run, Man, Run) also helped set the foundations for a subgenre of the Spaghetti Western, the Zapata Western, dealing with the Mexican revolution and turning characters who were usually relegated to bandit-types or cannon fodder for the protagonists into folk heroes, fighters for freedom and the disenfranchised.
When I say Sollima’s Westerns are considered to be more ‘intellectual’, that doesn’t mean that they are less violent – far from it, in fact. But whereas most other Westerns usually have a clear distinction between good and evil, black and white, Sollima’s films are throughly streaked with shades of grey. Before shooting “La Resa Dei Conti”, Sergio Sollima directed three agent films – spy stories – and these type of cat-and-mouse affairs clearly also influenced the themes of his westerns. Where does true evil really lie? How does it manifest? What constitutes freedom? What is, in fact, justice? Does might make right, or is it the letter of the law – or does it lie somewhere in between? These are some of the key questions guiding Sollima’s three Western movies, and nowhere do these questions become more apparent than his most acclaimed film: Faccia a Faccia.
The star of Sollima’s three films is Tomas Milian (born Tomás Quintín Rodriguez-Varona Milian Salinas De La Fé y Alvarez De La Campa – yes, really.), a Cuban-born American. Nominally a character actor, it was Sollima who discovered him for the Western genre, where the Cubano (coincidentally similar to the last movie I reviewed) generally portrayed Mexican characters in Italian Westerns. Not this time though: in Faccia a Faccia, he plays Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet – a notorious and vicious bandit feared throughout Texas and the leader of a savage band of outlaws. His opposite is portrayed by Gian Maria Volonté, whom casual Western fans might know as “Ramon”, the head villain in Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars”; he also played the antagonist in the sequel, “For a Few Dollars more”. Here though, he is playing quite a different character: a meek, mild-mannered and educated professor of history from the civilized East Coast, who’s suffering from tuberculosis and has come to a dry, savage country to seek respite from his illness. These two characters represent two polar opposites, clashing worldviews, which in this movie literally come Face to Face – but not in the way you’d expect.
(Again, this is the part where I will recap the plot, so click here if you want a spoiler-free synopsys).
“A man can resign himself to anything, but it is also possible to fight against it”. These are the parting words that Brad Fletcher directs at his students. When we meet the professor of history, he is already a sick man – and someone, as we soon learn, who always simply accepted his lot in life without ever really fighting for anything – not in love, not in his career. Now, plagued by sickness (which is never called out by name, but heavily implied to be tuberculosis), he once more has come to terms with his fate, and resigns his teaching post in order to move to dryer, potentially healthier climate.
As a teacher, Fletcher sees his lot in life as someone who guides his young students in their lives – though his farewell speech seems to be directed just as much towards them as it describes himself. “You will often have to choose between right and wrong, between lie and truth,” he states. “And each time you will have to look for the answer in yourself.”
Within a few short minutes we already learn quite a lot about the protagonist. Fletcher is considered to be an intelligent and exceptionally talented, but also quite meek teacher. “In our country, there is no limit to the ambition of a man who has the will to fight,” his Dean imparts on him as he bids Fletcher goodbye. “But those who do not want to fight are already defeated from the start.” These words set the stage as Fletcher, rather filled with dread, eyes the map of Texas, where he is about to set out towards the fringes of civilization.
When we see Fletcher next, he is spending his days all by himself in the middle of nowhere in Texas, where he is the sole lodger in a guesthouse run by a couple of Tejanos. The apparent tedium is interrupted however, when four men arrive in a stagecoach, dragging a bound, dirtied and injured man with them. That man is Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet, a man whose name alone already strikes fear into the tavernkeeper’s heart. Fletcher, however, only sees a hurt and thirsty man. Disgusted by the fact that the Sheriff and his men won’t care for their prisoner, he takes it upon himself, as a civilized man, to at least give him some water. Therefore he is completely taken by surprise when the savage uses that opportunity to escape: Bennet overwhelms and disarms his guard, shoots another, then takes Fletcher hostage and drags him into the stagecoach.
The daring flight comes to an abrupt end when the runaway stagecoach has an accident and turns over, killing the coachman and leaving Bennet and Fletcher stranded in the Prairie. With the outlaw too injured to continue on his own and the professor unable to survive or even to find his way on his own in the wild, Fletcher convinces the bandit that the two of them have to help each other out.
The learned man and the savage bandit form an unlikely partnership. Beauregard Bennet, a man who generally reacts instinctively and immediately (and whose first instinct is to literally reach for his gun the instant he spots someone or something unfamiliar), is bewildered by the mild-mannered professor from the east coast, who is willing to help out a total stranger who is helpless and at his mercy, but who also has a knack for plans and is always thinking one step ahead. Brad Fletcher, on the other hand, is fascinated by the wild outlaw who is capable of pushing both of them to and beyond their physical limits, powering through injury and pain by sheer force of will. Their time is not spent without friction: Fletcher, though intrigued by Bennets capabilities, is irritated by the latter’s lack of foresight, for example when the outlaw instictively starts to shoot game without need. Bennet, in return, doesn’t like to be lectured and berated, striking the professor to the ground, then taunting him what he would do if he were in the stronger position. Still, the outlaw isn’t ungrateful, and promises the good professor to bring him to the next town where he can return to civilization, while the bandit is trying to get his dispersed band of raiders back together.
Said town, Purgatory City, certainly is aptly named, seeing as it sits right at the frontier between salvation – the train back to civilization – and damnation. While Fletcher is waiting for the train, Bennet – who is looking for one of his former pals – gets hired by a Mr. Williams, an “upright citizen” claiming concern about the town being “terrorized” by the Sheriff and a couple of gunmen who work for a certain Mr. Taylor. Said Taylor is supposedly holding the town in his thrall, and there certainly are a few “subtle” hints that he is more or less running the place.
Bennet however doesn’t pick up on that – he’s enjoying that people seem to fear and respect him, he hears that defeating the Sheriff might allow him to liberate his old companion, and he’s also quite tempted by the promise of 10000 $ for running Taylor’s henchmen out of town. He doesn’t realize though that the “upright citizen” Williams and Mr. Taylor are just using him for their own entertainment – pitching hired gunmen against one another just to see who will end up on top.
Bennet is a skilled gunman, but even he finds himself almost outmatched by the sheer number of his opponents. Not one for strategizing and more a “meet them head-on” type of fighter, he almost allows himself to get flanked and shot, when he gets some unexpected help.
With the gunfight (and the bet between Williams and Taylor) settled, Beauregard Bennet frees his partner and even escorts Fletcher – whom he now owes his life twice, technically – to the train which should bring him back to civilization. However, for the first time, Fletcher receives something he apparently never had experienced before: Awe and respect from the townsfolk. Granted, this is mostly reflected glory, stemming from Bennet’s reputation and the fear that Fletcher might be part of his gang of raiders. Still, the train would be his chance to leave the danger and violence behind, and head back to civilization – and his old life. Instead, he steals a horse and darts after Bennet and his friend as they are leaving the train station.
The outlaw is now more welcoming to the professor’s presence, acknowledging and even appreciating his intelligence. Getting the raiders back together means more to Bennet than just commanding a gang of bandits, as the professor is prone to witness: bandits they may all be, but they are also held together by bonds of cameraderie and friendship – bonds that the learned man from the east coast apparently had never known, at least not to such a degree.
Along their way, Bennet and Fletcher repeatedly cross paths with a man called Siringo – an apparent outlaw who wishes to join the Raiders as well, but whom Beauregard instictively mistrusts – at least initially. His insticts aren’t wrong: Only claiming to be an outlaw, ‘Chas’ Siringo is really a detective of the Pinkerton Agency, hired to put an end to Bennet and his raiders – all of them. He intends to wait until the gang is back together in order to arrest them all in one fell swoop. This puts him at odds with other lawmen, who would rather try and catch Bennet himself at any opportunity. Siringo, though, is willing to take drastic measures in order to get his target’s trust. When the detective shoots a Sheriff in front of Bennet’s eyes (granted, the Sheriff had gone against Siringo’s warning and was walking directly into an ambush himself) the outlaw relents; trusting the actions he saw with his own eyes over his own instincts – and thus following an earlier advice given by the professor – he allows the allegedly fellow outlaw to come with him.
The raiders head on to Pietro Di Fuoco, a village hidden in the mountains, a place without law and order, a “Ghost town” filled with the dregs of society: former outlaws that the law forgot, as well as people that progress left behind: “Hunters without buffalo, cowboys without cattle, and prospectors without prospects”. It is a poor, but also a very lively and, yes, peaceful place, and one whose virility leaves an impression on the otherwise restrained Brad Fletcher. Here, Beauregard Bennet is well-respected and even revered, practically considered a hero. It is a very loose community with loose rules, one of the few being that while outlaws are welcome, nobody shall form a gang here, in order not to draw any unwanted attention.
However, surrounded by all of the carefreeness and virility, it is also the place where the professor sheds his last shreds of civility: Irked that Bennet still won’t take him along for any raids and frustrated by the women in his past that seemingly always toyed with him, he decides to take drastic action. In a (very uncomfortable) scene he forces himself on a woman that is another bandit’s girl, provokes a fight with him and, by moving himself into a strategically better position, manages to kill the physically superior man by brutally bashing his head against a rock. With one man less in his gang, Bennet is now more or less forced to allow Fletcher to tag along.
The professor immediately puts his intellect to use, laying out a meticulous plan for a bank robbery. But Bennet has different ideas: He received word that Zagarri, the last remaining member of the original raiders, is being transported to a different prison, and intends to liberate him. He doesn’t know, however, that this is a trap set up by Siringo: by using the incarcerated bandit as bait, he plans to lure the entire gang out in the open and capture them redhanded in one fell swoop. He didn’t count on the professor though: Unlike Bennet, Fletcher isn’t emotionally attached to Zagarri and recognizes that the sudden news of a prisoner transport sounds too convenient to be true. The other men also seem more intrigued by the prospected bank robbery. This dent in his authority doesn’t sit well with Beauregard, who asks Brad to step outside.
The apparent duel is just a front, however: Bennet, showing more foresight and thoughtfulness than when we first met him, merely wished to test the mettle of the professor, who earlier had flinched even at the thought of drawing blood. Convinced that Fletcher now would not hesitate to draw a gun when it came down to it, the gang leader decides to postpone Zagarri’s liberation in favor of the professor’s bank robbery plan.
The plan almost goes off without a hitch – but due to Siringo’s interference, the Town Marshal is alerted by a Mexican boy who earlier happened to chat up a disguised Bennet. When the shooting starts, said boy is caught in the crossfire, which seriously distresses the bandit: the man, who hadn’t really cared about bystanders before, is now visibly shaken by the death of an honest, innocent boy that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. His distress allows Siringo to overwhelm Bennet and knock him out. Fletcher, however, coldly sticks to the plan. While his fellow bandits get caught or gunned down, he makes his getaway with the loot.
Beauregard Bennet lands in jail, facing execution for his crimes. He dejectedly even rejects a plan to break out, his fire burned out after being so immediately confronted with his actions leading to the death of an innocent. Fletcher on the other hand, now truly thrives and puts his intellect to ruthless, but efficient use. As the last remaining member of Bennet’s raiders, he installs himself as a new leader, turning the lawless yet peaceful Pietro di Fuoco into a harshly organized den of outlaws. Bennet had been a violent bandit, true, but he was also a jovial comrade among kindred spirits, a man willing to fight for his friends. Flechter shows no emotional to anyone attachment whatsoever, and his sharp intellect combined with his newfound the ruthlessness turns him into a cruel tyrant. Bennet considered himself as an equal among his band of bandits – Fletcher seeks to establish himself as the leader of an army. Thus, Bennet and Fletcher have one more ended up on different sides of the spectrum, only with their roles sort of reversed: Now, Bennet is the one who’s listless and defeated, while Fletcher is spurned to cruel, violent action.
However, whereas Bennets Raiders were feared, they were more of a nuisance – dangerous, yes, but a danger that people could bear out… or even use as tools to further their own agenda, like the men in Purgatory City earlier. Fletcher though is too smart, but also too ruthless for that. The citizenry now considers these new raiders a not just as a danger, but as a major threat – one that needs to be destroyed, root and branch. The ‘good people’ therefore hire a bunch of bounty hunters and mercenaries to wipe the place off the map. Both Bennet and Siringo refuse to give up the location – Bennet out of loyalty, and Siringo because he knows that leading a band of marauders into the raider’s hideout would put innocent men, women and children living there in danger as well.
There’s one man who doesn’t have such qualms: Zagarri, Bennet’s former comrade-in-arms and still very much an unrefined version of the latter, gladly accepts the offer of freedom and wanton destruction. Learning this spurns the outlaw back into action again. He escapes to his cell and tries to come to the rescue of the endangered innocents in Pietro di Fuoco.
The mercinaries, as Siringo had feared, mercilessly cut through Pietro di Fuoco, not even sparing women and children. A handful of survivors try fleeing through the desert, mercilessly driven by Fletcher who is willing to leave the weakest behind. Bennet manages to catch up with the escapees, and together with the professor he tries to hold off the pursuing marauders. Their motivations are quite different though: Fletcher just intends to save his own skin, planning to rebuild his ‘army’ once he overcomes the threat. Bennet, meanwhile, does not care whether he’ll survive: He just wants to make sure his people make it out alive.
The two men still are vastly outnumbered, when they receive help from another unexpected source: Siringo arrives and orders the mercenaries to turn back. When Zagarri and one of his men try to attack regardless, he guns them both down, though the Pinkerton gets injured in the progress. Now leaderless, the band of marauders suddenly lose their bluster; not wishing to stick their necks out any further, they disperse, leaving our three leads alone in the desert.
With a bullet stuck in his shoulder, Siringo faces the outlaws. Always the lawman, he orders the men to give up their weapons. Fletcher doesn’t answer: he just shoots the weakened man in cold blood. Bennet, on the other hand, gives up his rifle without hesitation. He walks up the the downed but still alive lawman, intending to do what he thinks is ‘just’.
“What is just?” bellows Fletcher. “There is no justice! It is something you invent if you are the one who is in power!” Fletcher tries to convince Bennet to reform the Raiders, but the former outlaw angrily refuses: He believes in justice now, he feels it exists, he looked into himself and has now found it, in his heart. He wants Fletcher to leave him alone now, as there is nothing more left to be done.
“Yes, there is one more thing”, Fletcher dissents. And prepares to shoot the helpless Siringo. Justice is about to be served.
With Fletcher out of the way, Bennet throws his gun to Siringo, offering himself up to the lawman. The Pinkerton picks up his gun, but instead of arresting the outlaw, he instead uses it to shoot the downed mercenary in the face, making him unrecognizable. With this, he sets the outlaw free – or rather, the former outlaw, allowing him to chase after the fleeing villagers of Pietro di Fuoco. It is what he, in return, considers as justice.
“The law will have to make do with a fake Beauregard Bennet,” Siringo states. “The old one doesn’t exist anymore”.
On the surface, Faccia a Faccia is a movie about the contrast betweeen intellect and instinct, the temptation of violence, and how easy it is to succumb to its allure. Scratch a bit deeper though, and the film becomes about much more than that. It is a parable on strength and weakness, not just physically but mentally and character-wise. It is a story about falling from grace and redeeming yourself, about the use and abuse of power, fighting for a reason versus fighting for your own sake, and last but not least, about the difference in believing what is just and believing in justice. Each of the main characters comes to different conclusions on what justice truly means for them, and it is that difference that leads to their respective doom or salvation.
It is also, like many other Westerns of its ilk, a movie about the contrast between wilderness and civilization. Unlike many other though, when the educated civilized man and the wild savage meet, that doesn’t mean that progress is unavoidable. Brad Fletcher and Beauregard Bennet represent two absolute opposites, people from different walks of life that have been brought together through extraordinary circumstances. Normally they would never interact with one another – but being brought Face to Face, they inevitably rub off on one another, and none of the men is left unchanged from their chance meeting. Also, while they certainly meet “civilized” people quite often along their way, this civility is, more often than not, just a front, a facade barely covering base instincts and purely self-serving interests. Nobody, not even the “concerned citizens” inhabiting the Western towns, are really free of guilt. So where, the movie asks, is the justice in all of this? Does it even exist? As Brad Fletcher himself states at the very beginning: Everyone will have to look for the answer within him- or herself. That goes for the audience as well.
All the earlier talk about savagery should make it clear though that this is quite the violent movie still. The body count is quite high, there are shootouts aplenty, and while the violence is usually there to make a point, it occasionally comes off a tad too gratuitous. It is a movie where intellect meets raw instinct, after all, and there are a few moments which can best be described as savage. (Tensions must have been high on the set itself as well: Sollima once stated in an interview that the co-stars, Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volonté, really did not get along, a fact that he himself intentionally exacerbated to get more raw emotion out of them. Apparently the strategy paid off, but it also culminated in the two of them coming to blows for real). Most of the fight scenes are well choreographed – the film may be more intellectually inclined than “A Fistful of Dollars” or “Django”, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting to watch.
It also serves to de-mystify the romantic allure of the outlaw – at least to a degree. While there certainly are scenes where the gunfighter is revered and some bandits are worshipped, it also shows the other side of the coin: the outlaw as a ruthless thief and murderer, who doesn’t care about anything else than power and who is willing to make innocent people suffer if it advances his own personal agenda.
What left a bit of a sour note for me was the movie’s treatment of women. Unlike some other movies discussed here on this blog, it doesn’t have the tendency to kill off any strong, independent female characters (thank god!), but they certainly aren’t shown in a particularly good light. There are hardly women of note in this movie to begin with, and what few there are are either unfaithful minxes or seductresses, or serve only for the men to fight over as property – sometimes both. There is one particularly ugly scene where a woman gets raped, but when “her” man hears about it, he tries beating the name of her assailant out of her – as for herself, she gets no further incentive or any say in who she actually wants to be with. It is a very unfortunate blemish on an otherwise well-rounded and thought-provoking movie.
If you’ve never seen “Faccia a Faccia”, I heartily recommend checking it out. It certainly isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, not just because of its violent nature. But the movie definitely is deeper in its message than your average Spaghetti Western, while never being too cerebral as to not be entertaining. The only major downside is the movie’s unfortunate portrayal of women – in a genre that’s generally known as overtly chauvinistic, it takes some real effort to come across as particularly mysogynist.