aka FACE TO FACE
(Sergio Sollima, 1967)
Sollima is arguably the most interesting of the major Spaghetti Western directors; mainly due to the contradictions and dissonances in his work. Faccia a Faccia is a great case in point. Here is a spaghetti western - a sub-genre famed for its shocking violence - which, for most of its running time, actively shuns action and bloodletting. Sollima cuts right into the middle of one gunfight, just after the shot has been fired (the shot sounds almost as if it was timed to signal the cut), cuts away from another to focus on the faces of two spectators, and doesn't show anything (save the aftermath) of the epic battle which most films would be keen to use as the climax.
Sollima was, in other words, a director with quite peculiar instincts. Which may be what makes his work so fascinating. When he does film violence here, he makes sure that it counts. The biggest action scene is a gunfight that erupts after a bank robbery goes wrong, and Sollima ensures that the deaths in that fight are earned and have some emotional weight. He seems far more interested in the planning and build-up to the robbery. That he captures in one amazing sequence as Brad Dexter (Gian Maria Volonté) describes his plan to the gang in voiceover, and we see them arrive and take position in town, one by one - all in a single take. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of Sollima's style is the subtle dynamism and effectiveness of his blocking in tandem with the few, minor camera moves he executes. Another great scene sees the Bandit Beauregard Bennet (Tomas Milian) watch as six gunmen arrive to kill him. He is sitting on a porch and the camera pans around from behind him as the men arrive in pairs from three separate directions. There is an appealing grace and musicality to moments like this which is the real joy in Sollima's work.
The other element that makes his work seem so distinctive is his interest in politics - this is very much a political Western. Not quite in the way that the "Zapata Western" films written by the great Franco Solinas are, but Sollima ensures that his characters, Dexter in particular, have obvious political stances.
The plot is basically a slow identity-switch. History Professor Dexter moves to Texas to aid his tubercular lungs, where he encounters bandit Beauregard. They form an uneasy alliance, become friends, and slowly effect the way one another think. In time, Dexter becomes the leader of the gang and displays marked fascist inclinations - his orders must be obeyed unquestioningly, and he expects decisive, strong men to follow him. Meanwhile Beauregard begins to see moral dimensions to his actions, and his hesitation to kill a child is what bungles a crucial bank robbery. All the while the two are being pursued by the undercover Pinkerton Siringo (William Berger), setting the stage for a quintessentially Spaghetti three-way desert showdown.
Sollima is a more old-fashioned director than his revered Italian peers Leone, Corbucci and Damiani. His pacing is more deliberate, and more classical than is common in much of this sub-gnre (he has spoken of the influence of Samurai film on his approach). But he makes fantastic use of some stunning Spanish locations and he draws good performances from his leads. While Berger is a touch wooden, Milian is all method sneer as Beauregard, doing his best in a role that is perhaps a touch underwritten (there is no establishing scene showing us quite how despicable he is as an outlaw - we only hear about it - robbing his journey of some of its potential emotional power). Volonté, meanwhile, moves from a quiet, slightly fragile figure to the more familiarly fearsome performer by the end of the film, raping, murdering and torturing with abandon. His face loses its sickly pallor, he begins to strut, and becomes a magnetic presence.
The final element which makes Faccia a Faccia quite unmissable is Ennio Morricone's strident score, from an era when he was churning out several masterpieces a year. Like the film, his work here doesn't quite reach that status, but it is still typically brilliant.