When Ace High was released in 1968, it had been four years since Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars became a hit and created the Spaghetti Western as a genre. It didn't take much effort for Italy to switch gears and spawn dozens of sequels, imitations and rip-offs – they'd done it the previous decade with the "sword and sandal" pictures inspired by Steve Reeves' Hercules – so Giuseppe Colizzi's film hit the theatres amidst an avalanche of Italian westerns, the vast majority looking like they were assembled from a shared dump of settings, scenes, plots and actors.
By conservative estimates, Italy produced over 500 westerns during the decade-long heyday of the genre's pasta period, an impressive number even if you consider that the country made 300 films a year to satiate its ravenous domestic market and hopefully export a hit to the rest of the world. If Ace High stood out from the crowd, it was because it starred an actual American actor, Eli Wallach, two years after he was one of the titular trio in Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Spaghetti Westerns had a strange relationship with America. When the first films appeared, they tried to pass them off as the work of American directors and stars – Leone briefly went under the name Bob Robertson when A Fistful of Dollars was released, composer Ennio Morricone as the slightly-less-Italian Dan Savio. The producers, directors and writers who made them were huge fans of the work of directors like John Ford, but they didn't share what they regarded as the moral certitudes that underpinned the plots of American westerns; most of them were leftists, some committed Marxists, and since they'd all lived through Italy's long Fascist period, they regarded authority figures as suspect and the rule of law as little more than the exercise of arbitrary power.
One French critic, Gaston Haustrate, theorized that this was sour grapes. In The Western From Silents to the Seventies, George Fenin and William Everson sum up Haustrate's theory that the Spaghetti Western "being the deliberate and destructive counter-mythology of the American Western, symbolizes the Latin jealousy for the splendid achievements that the Old World had not been able to perform. In other words, the Italian Western could be construed as the Revenge of Europe against the colossus of the U.S.A."
For their part, Fenin and Everson regard the Spaghetti Western as a response to the times: "The 'baroque' character injected therefore into the Italian productions relied heavily on violence, sado-masochism and a display of horrors that echoed current events in Vietnam, the Middle East, Biafra and so on. Considering this horrible background in its proper perspective, the Italian Western could have offered an extremely rich tapestry, interweaving beauty and ugliness, peace and war, goodness and cruelty, against a realistic background of the bygone days of the Far West, drawing the usual 'lesson in morality' characteristic of the American Western. But this moral message, present in even the most modest American production, has been strangely missing from the Latin opuses."
For Fenin and Everson, this is the major flaw in the Spaghetti Western, which they describe from the perspective of 1973 as "mere fads, exercises in mercantile terms". And they were undeniably right about the majority of the many Italian westerns – including Ace High – though not about the best films in the genre, Leone's pictures prime among them. In any case, this had no effect on the profoundly lingering influence of the Spaghetti Western on whatever westerns got made in the decades after the Italian fad played out, especially in America.
Ace High was actually a sequel to Colizzi's God Forgives...I Don't (1967), which ended with its heroes, Cat and Hutch (Terence Hill and Bud Spencer) riding off into the sunset with a wagon full of gold after blowing up Bill San Antonio, the film's villain. Hill was born Mario Girotti in Venice to a German mother and an Italian father. Bud Spencer was the screen name for Carlo Pedersoli, born in Naples to parents of Lombard descent. God Forgives...I Don't was the first film to team the actors together, and they went on to have a long onscreen partnership, at first in increasingly comic westerns (They Call Me Trinity; Trinity Is Still My Name), and then in a series of slapstick buddy films (Watch Out, We're Mad; Crime Busters; Odds and Evens; Go For It) often set in Miami as the '80s (and the spread of cocaine) made it a film location as iconic as New York or L.A.
Cat and Hutch try to collect the bounty on Bill from El Paso's bank president, but with nothing more than his boots and hat, they have to settle on threatening the man's life to get their share of Bill's gold they brought back in the wagon. The scene in the banker's office is the first hint of how surreal Italian westerns had become since Leone's first hit: the bank secretary is a tiny man with goggle-like spectacles, sitting behind a vast ledger book. Spencer's Hutch takes undue pleasure in intimidating the poor little nebbish – one of those hapless, eastern-bred poindexters who were perennial victims in westerns, Italian and American.
Seeking revenge – and the return of his gold – the banker visits Cacopoulos (Eli Wallach), a condemned man waiting in a cell for his hanging the next morning. The outlaw and the banker had been partners once, part of a quartet of criminals, just as Bill San Antonio had been the banker's most recent partner, stealing gold that would end up in the bank. He'll arrange for Cacopoulos to be freed that night if he'll track down Cat and Hutch and return his money, and perhaps take over Bill's old job, but it turns out to be another double-cross like the one that sent Cacopoulos to prison for fifteen years, so the outlaw kills his old partner and leaves town to find his other two former partners in crime.
Even if you didn't know that there was a whole other film preceding Ace High, there's a powerful amount of exposition going on during these introductory scenes, which barely take up a quarter of this two-plus hour picture. While Leone's westerns were famously short on dialogue, with scripts not exceeding a few dozen pages for films longer than Colizzi's, it's a hallmark of lesser Spaghetti Westerns that, even if they're stuffed with violence and spectacle, there's still a lot of telling, not showing.
Posing as a poor Mexican riding a donkey under a vast sombrero, Cacopoulos gets the drop on Cat and Hutch and takes their money and horses, stranding them in the desert. The duo are forced to walk for hours under the scorching sun until they come across a farmhouse where a family of redheaded Irish settlers are having a party thanks to the largesse of Cacopoulos, who's making like Robin Hood and gifting their money to the poor while he seeks his revenge.
Eagle-eyed viewers can't help but notice that the youngest members of the Irish clan (real life brother and sister Enzo and Simonetta Santaniello) also appeared as two of the unfortunate McBain children massacred by Henry Fonda's gang in Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, released the same year as Ace High. Frank Wolff – an actual American working in Italy – played Brett McBain in Leone's film, and had played San Antonio in God Forgives...I Don't. This déjà vu happens all the time if you watch enough Spaghetti Westerns.
Cacopoulos' trail leads Cat and Hutch across the border into Mexico, where they meet Thomas (Brock Peters), a high-wire artist and former slave who turned down the outlaw's money. It feels like a random encounter – an opportunity for the pair to establish themselves as good guys when they defend Thomas and his wife from a group of gunmen, and as white Americans free of the taint of racism, pinning the film in time while civil rights battles were turning hot in the U.S.
Their next stop is a village in the throes of a fiesta paid for by their quarry, who separates them when he sends Cat off on a wild goose chase and taunts a drunken Hutch. Crossing the border ramps up the film's surreal visuals; one scene has the pair riding past a line of beehives unaccountably painted in brightly coloured stripes, while the villagers at the fiesta sport grotesque masks.
Sergio Corbucci, the director of Django (1966), was probably the second greatest director of Spaghetti Westerns after Leone, and he would ramp up the violence and surreal spectacle present in Leone's far more austere films to spectacular levels. There's a solid argument that Corbucci, not Leone, was probably the more influential director in creating the genre's style. Colizzi, very much in the lesser tier of Italian western directors, took his cue eagerly.
Eli Wallach, whose Cacopoulos is largely a reprise of the squirrely, unpredictable Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, gets the screentime you'd expect from having his name on the top of the movie's posters. He ends up sidelining Hill's Cat, who is entirely missing for long stretches of the picture; Spencer would recall that he and Wallach became fast friends during shooting, and that the American actor helped him hone his future performances.
Once across the border, Ace High slips into the Zapata mode of Spaghetti Westerns, where the political instability and non-stop revolutions that convulsed Mexico for the century after it achieved independence creates a setting full of non-stop menace and bloodshed. Cacopoulos tracks down his old partner Paco, now a revolutionary sitting at the head of a kangaroo court engaged in non-stop execution of innocent civilians who neglected to fight "for country and freedom." Hutch and Cacopoulos are captured and put in front of the firing squad; just in the nick of time, Cat returns with Cangaceiro, a rival revolutionary and his army, who assault the town.
The gun battle that follows is an orgy of violence, like the climax of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, complete with Maxim Gun, albeit with none of Peckinpah's discipline or vision. It's an unholy mess, and it's nearly impossible to follow who's winning or losing in the rain of bodies until Cacopoulos finally corners Paco – and guns him down without getting the money he's owed.
The three men are locked up, awaiting their "trial" while Cangaceiro and his men convene another kangaroo court and begin executing people for fighting "for country and freedom." They escape, and just as they outrun the revolutionaries, Cacopoulos shoots the saddles off of Cat and Hutch's horses and rides off, telling them that his grandfather once told him that one partner is too few, two too many.
The pair chase the outlaw back across the border, as he leaves behind a trail of dead revolutionaries. You know Cat and Hutch are supposed to be back on the American side when they ride past a field full of black field hands harvesting wheat under the watch of white overseers on horses. Presumably set after the Civil War, Colizzi notably presumes that emancipation meant little to nothing on the ground.
Riding into Fair City, where Cacopoulos was heading to confront his final ex-partner, Cat and Hutch ride past a sign that reads "Law and Order" – a callback to a similar sign glimpsed by the gallows being erected in El Paso back at the beginning of the picture. The implication is that neither town has much of either, despite the reassuring words on display.
Fair City is in the grip of a gambling mania, a place where the centerpiece of one saloon is a pair of men playing billiards – on horseback. The heart of the town is a casino run by Drake – Cacopoulos' ex-partner, played by American actor Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Best Man, Hotel, Twilight Zone: The Movie). They find Cacopoulos washing dishes in a kitchen alongside Thomas and his wife, after losing all of their money playing roulette in the casino.
Cat guesses that the roulette table is fixed, and after Thomas does his high wire act to get them into the loft of the casino at night, they discover a spy hole in the ceiling above the table connected by a speaking tube to a platform in the basement under the wheel, where a magnet is used to attract the ball to set numbers.
They need a stake to take on Drake's crooked game, so Cat enters the bear-like Hutch in a bare-knuckle boxing match. Brawling was Bud Spencer's onscreen stock in trade, his signature move a combination of open-handed slaps and a closed fist coming down on his opponent's heads like a hammer. The brawling would get more slapstick as Hill and Spencer pointedly moved away from graphic onscreen violence to more comic stories, but in Colizzi's film the humour gives way quickly as Hutch and his opponent – and equally large black fighter – interminably punch each other in the face until the opponent falls, their eyes locked together in a mutual acknowledgment of the fight being one of a smaller, shared number of limited options life on the frontier offers men like them.
The boxing match, like the gory battle between the Mexican revolutionaries and the showdown in the casino at the finale of the picture, is obviously a showpiece for the director, and you can't escape an intuition that Ace High's sprawling plot was designed to get his characters to the setup for each scene.
At the roulette table after Cat, Hutch and Thomas overpower Drake's men and take over the fixed table, Cacopoulos puts his money on thirteen and lets it ride, breaking the bank and letting the townspeople know that the wheel is gamed. McCarthy's Drake arrives with full villainous flourish to confront his old partner, tossing sneering racial remarks at Thomas to underline the blackness of his black hat. If he had a moustache to twirl, he'd be twirling it non-stop.
The final shootout is the stuff that makes us love Spaghetti Westerns – as improbable as it is stylish, with the townsfolk lying on the casino floor while the four "heroes" face off against Drake and his numerically superior men, Wallach insisting that the casino band play a waltz, since every time he imagined his revenge there was music in his dream. The two groups of gunmen slowly walk backwards over the prone bodies of the citizens, waiting for the roulette wheel to stop spinning before they open fire.
Ace High was probably the best film Colizzi made, though it barely appears as more than a passing mention in books about the history of Spaghetti Westerns. It had a different title in Italy - I quattro dell'Ave Maria; roughly "The Four of the Hail Mary" – and was also called Have Gun Will Travel and Revenge in El Paso in the UK.
In Brazil it would be released as Assim Começou Trinity, or Thus It Began Trinity, to capitalize on the popularity of My Name Is Trinity, Enzo Barboni's hit 1970 western comedy starring Hill and Spencer. This was hardly unusual; just as Italian Westerns were released all over the world with different edits and run times, their titles would vary and change to capitalize on other hits in the genre, with countless films released under titles featuring Django, Ringo, Nobody, Trinity, Clint or Sartana, even when neither the character not the actor who popularized these characters appear in the picture. You need to remember that while a handful of Spaghetti Westerns aspired to the status of art – and that only Leone ever really managed to climb to that pinnacle – they were produced and released as exploitation pictures.
And yet, if you get bitten by the Spaghetti Western bug – usually after a screening of a Leone or Corbucci picture – you'll find yourself seeking out the abundant chaff left behind after the decade-long creative flowering (if I can be permitted to use the phrase) of the Italian Western.
In 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western, his appreciation of the genre, Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) writes that "when Italian Westerns first appeared in England and the United States, they were derided; they were considered low brow even by low-brow standards. They were accused of being misogynistic and gratuitously violent, which they definitely were."
Cox describes growing up in England in the '60s, "in an atmosphere of moderately mindless violence...So when a series of films appeared which depicted an atmosphere of mindless, incessant, childish, arbitrary violence, I was hooked – especially when these films, like the banned Mars Attacks bubblegum cards, annoyed the cultural establishment."
Cox sees a parallel between the bulk of Spaghetti Westerns and Jacobean Revenge Tragedies – grim, bloody stories full of improbabilities and grisly spectacle, created in the shadow of work understood to be objectively, creatively superior – Leone in the former case, Shakespeare in the latter. He thinks he knows why they flourished, and why they ultimately faltered:
"In both cases, several decades of original work in a new creative form led to works of exceptional brilliance, which were condemned by 'right-thinking' critics as immoral and degenerate. Renaissance drama was crudely but efficiently curtailed, by legislation and war. Italian Westerns consumed themselves, in a sprawl of self-parody and uninspired genre-breaking."
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