Giovanni Fago’s ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (1967) opens in a deceptively stereotypical fashion as rugged bounty hunter, John Forest (the always awesome Gianni Garko), dispatches a group of bandits led by prolific character actor Fernando Sancho (a performer many Italian Western fans would presume is going to be the film’s main villain) using only his wits, his pistol and a bulletproof coffin. Looks like we’re in for the usual shenanigans of mercenaries, outlaws, gunfights and a bundle of money, folks! Yet whilst ‘Vengeance is Mine’ certainly contains all those familiar elements what it does with them is a little bit different and unexpected because this film’s less a Spaghetti Western and more a full-on melodrama… and a pretty good one at that.
Collecting his bounty Forest notices a new wanted poster offering $6,000 for the capture of former Confederate soldier turned traitor Clint Forest (Claudio Camaso), John’s brother. A series of flashbacks informs us that years ago Clint, after discovering from his mother that John is actually illegitimate, had killed their father in a fit of blind rage and pinned the blame on his half-brother resulting in the innocent John serving ten years in jail. However, because John had promised his dying mother not to exact lethal vengeance on his brother John now sees bringing Clint in for a lengthy imprisonment a fitting alternative. Or is there, possibly, another option for the two of them?
What follows is a sort of spin on Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) with John and Clint forced into forming an uneasy alliance after some gold is introduced with each never fully trusting the other whilst the most western reaches of the Civil War intrude on their adventure. Yet with the stakes being loyalty, redemption and love (the gold is almost irrelevant) means Fago’s film has a surprising amount of emotional depth and clout.
Garko’s John isn’t just a gunslinger but a wounded man attempting to save a brother who betrayed him. He has a girlfriend, an inner emotional life and at one point even cries! Clint, meanwhile, is riddled with insecurity, jealousy and guilt so there’s a level of complexity to his character beyond pure greed. With these two men, almost Cain and Abel, psychologically crashing against each other the results can’t help but be melodramatic and the intensity between the two siblings where one is attempting to save the other means ‘Vengeance is Mine’ frequently has more in common with the histrionics of Visconti’s ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ (1960) than anything by Leone. And it’s great stuff with both actors really sinking their teeth into their respective parts.
Not that director Fago and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi skimp on all the expected Western goodies so there’s still plenty of explosions, double-crossings and shootouts, including a particularly impressive one set against a burning building that could easily have functioned as the climax for any other movie. There’s also a fantastic sequence where Garko is strung upside down and his escape attempt is genuinely riveting especially as, again, it involves an element of emotional impact accompanying it.
Fago’s direction keeps everything moving along nicely (this film crams quite a bit into its tight 90 minutes) and although his style could justifiably be accused of leaning towards the gimmicky — slow motion, layers of focus, etc — his artistic flourishes are always applied for a specific reason and to had clarity or impact to a particular moment. Combine that with a very nice score by Nora Orlandi and the aesthetic experience available here is extremely pleasurable.
‘Vengeance is Mine’ is, obviously, nowhere near as good as Leone’s epic but its emphasis on the emotional gives it a level of substance that’s refreshingly unique in the Italian Western genre. Taken purely as a Western it could be a little too melodramatic for some but taken as a melodrama with Western elements — explosions, shoot-outs and bulletproof coffins — it works a treat.