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Crows

Wild East Productions of New York have included a Craig Hill Double Feature in their ongoing Spaghetti Western collection. Perhaps best known for his role as P.T. Moore in the popular American television series Whirlybirds (1957-1960), Hill moved to Europe in the mid-1960s and starred in a number of popular Italian and Spanish-made Westerns. The two films featured here are And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave and The Dirty Fifteen.

The Dirty Fifteen (Italy/Spain, 1967), 100 min. Directed by Nunzio Malasomma.

A gang of rustlers raid a ranch and get away with a corral full of horses. The ranch’s owner O’Connolly pursues them and is shot down in the process. Bill Mack (Craig Hill) and his men – who were planning to steal the horses themselves – observe the killing from a distance before retrieving the rancher’s body and taking it to his wife.  They know that his killer was an old acquaintance of theirs called Cassel (George Martin) and they take on the job of getting the horses back.

Elsewhere the widow Cook (Margarita Lozano) and her daughters Anne (Maria Montez) and Liz (Eleonora Brown) are preparing for Anne’s wedding when a new neighbour, Clark Benett (Tomas Blanco), unexpectedly calls by to introduce himself.  Benett subsequently takes an interest in a photograph of a local man, Danny (Aldo Sambrell), which is hanging on the kitchen wall but his visit is interrupted by the arrival of Cassel and his men who are seeking water and shelter for the night.

Mack’s gang track Cassel and his men to the Cooks’ ranch and the two groups cut a deal: Mack will take the horses back and get paid for their return and Cassel will then be at liberty to steal them again. Both gangs bed down in the Cooks’ barn but during the night a mysterious figure enters the farmhouse and slaughters the family.  Anne’s fiancé Steve (Howard Ross) calls by the next morning and finds their bodies and when he subsequently spots the sleeping gang members in the barn he heads back to town and gathers a posse together.

In the meantime Mack and Cassel have also found the bodies but all of their men deny any wrongdoing.  Unable to prove their innocence, the gangs team up, take two hostages – Barbara Ferguson (Susy Andersen) and Juan (Ricardo Palacios) – and make a desperate bid to reach the Mexican border. The posse Steve assembled is led by Barbara’s husband (Andrea Bosic) and it remains in hot pursuit of the gangs, whose members soon find themselves trapped and under siege in an old Mexican fort. At this point the gangs’ hostages begin to cause major problems for them and the two factions begin to fight amongst themselves. Meanwhile, back at the Cooks’ ranch, an intriguing giallo thriller-like mystery is beginning to unfold.

The Dirty Fifteen was director Nunzio Malasomma’s only Spaghetti Western. Which is a shame because it’s something of a quirky minor classic that features a highly original storyline. It’s also a pretty good looking and stylishly executed show, thanks to Malasomma’s thoughtful direction and cinematographer Stelvio Massi’s sure handed camerawork.  Despite being a relatively low budget film, The Dirty Fifteen clocks in at 100 minutes. But while it’s longer than most similarly budgeted genre entries there’s absolutely no padding present here: the film’s many narrative twists and turns all unfold at a measured and even pace.  And there’s even a truly surprising revelation at the show’s end that neatly – and credibly – ties up the mystery aspect of its giallo thriller-like subplot.

The show’s large cast – which assists in giving the film the look of a bigger budgeted genre entry – allows for plenty of well-staged action scenes and a huge body count. Furthermore, The Dirty Fifteen is a well-cast film that is chockfull of fan favourites who provide good turns as well-drawn and interesting character types: a number of the film’s quite diverse characters are linked by some fairly complex relationships and their actions are guided by a range of plausible motivations. Indeed, there are lots of finely observed character details and plot points present here and some well-designed sets and art direction. When all of this is combined, the result is a fully formed and convincing diegetic world and storyline.

Beyond those actors already mentioned, The Dirty Fifteen also features other well known genre faces, such as Frank Brana, Antonio Molino Rojo, Jose Manuel Martin and Ivan Scratuglia. The film is further enhanced by the presence of a pretty good soundtrack score by genre stalwart Francesco De Masi, which also includes a neat front titles song that is sung by the legendary Raoul. All in all, The Dirty Fifteen is something of an overlooked gem that should please Spaghetti Western fans who are looking for a film that successfully takes the genre in some new and unexpected directions.

And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave (Spain/Italy, 1972), 82 min. Directed by Juan Bosch.

And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave opens in a quite novel and unusual manner. A montage of sketches that depict bandits holding up stagecoaches is presented onscreen while what appears to be a documentary-like voiceover explains that, in the years following the US Civil War, feral bandits increasingly targeted gold transportation outfits such as Wells Fargo & Company. The final picture in the montage is revealed to be on the wall of a Wells Fargo office and the voice that we heard is seen to belong to a company official, who goes on to assert that the government has given Wells Fargo permission to create their own private police force.

The official is actually addressing members of this new force and Jeff Sullivan (Craig Hill) and Pancho Corrales (Fernando Sancho) are among their number. The official stresses that he wants them to bring the notorious bandit Glenn Kovacs (Frank Brana) to justice. Sullivan travels to a labour camp and arranges for a prisoner, Dan Barker (Angel Aranda), to be released into his custody since he’s aware that there’s an outstanding bounty on his head in Lost Valley.

Out on the trail Barker gets the drop on Sullivan and takes off for a nearby town where he sets about prising $10,000 out of Donovan (Ivano Staccioli), a former partner who double-crossed him.  When Donovan reveals that Barker is Glenn Kovac’s half-brother, Corrales and his men become keen to get their hands on him.  Sullivan is also seeking to recapture Barker and it seems that he knows more about Barker’s past than he’s letting on.

And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave is a fairly low budget genre entry that takes a while to get going.  The events depicted during the first forty minutes or so of the film could easily have been told in half of that time. However, once the rivalry between Sullivan and Corrales has been established, the show’s tempo is stepped up a gear and some pleasing generic scenarios come into play.

Barker is captured by Corrales initially but Sullivan’s interventions result in the prisoner changing hands a few times during the latter half of the film. This section of the show is further enlivened by the presence of a young woman, Susan (Maria Pia Conte), who Sullivan adopts when her father is killed by Corrales. She soon becomes sympathetic to Barker’s plight and starts acting in his interests.

Glenn Kovacs is introduced fifteen minutes from the film’s end, as is a local sheriff (Raf Baldassare) who assists Sullivan. Some unexpected details are revealed when Barker is finally reunited with Kovacs and they serve to set the film up for an interesting and action-packed finale.

This isn’t Craig Hill’s best Spaghetti Western but he really looks the part here. Costume-wise, Sullivan is a bit of a Sartana-like dandy but Hill’s scraggy beard serves to give his face the look of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name character at times. Fernando Sancho brought colour and spirit to every Spaghetti Western that he appeared in and he provides good value for money here. Other familiar faces, such as Frank Brana, Raf Baldassare and Antonio Molino Rojo are on hand too but their work here amounts to barely sketched cameo roles.

The film’s music was composed by genre stalwart Bruno Nicolai but it’s not his best work. It functions well enough for the most part but many of the cues here sound like uninspired re-workings of cues from other better-known genre entries. Similarly, director Juan Bosch’s work here isn’t as stylish as it might have been. All told, And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave is a fairly unremarkable Spaghetti Western but fans of Craig Hill and Fernando Sancho will undoubtedly find something to like here.

Extra features: Chief amongst this release’s extra features is a documentary-cum-interview with Craig Hill, which is entitled From Hollywood to Almeria. Running to 29 minutes, this interesting and entertaining feature provides a comprehensive overview of Hill’s career. The disc also features the theatrical trailers for eight of Hill’s Spaghetti Westerns and two image galleries whose contents relate to the films that are double-billed here.

© Copyright 2017 Lee Broughton.

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