Arrow Video USA gives the deluxe treatment to the long-neglected French Escargot Western CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES on Blu-ray/DVD combo.
After her husband Ben Caine (Benito Stefanelli, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) is strung up by members of the cattle-rustling Rogers family, widow Maria (Michèle Mercier, BLACK SABBATH) is left to fend for herself when Ben's brothers fearful brothers Thomas (Guido Lollobrigida, AND GOD SAID TO CAIN) and Eli (Michel Lemoine, SUCCUBUS) cross the border to the Rogers boys and the sheriff's (Pierre Collet, GOTO: ISLAND OF LOVE) paid-off deputies. Bent on revenge, Maria takes her share of the money from the sale of the cattle to Ben's best friend and her former flame Manuel (Robert Hossein, THE WAX MASK) who has retired to a ghost town. Although he warns her of the consequences of revenge, Manuel nevertheless achieves the confidence of Rogers patriarch Will (Daniele Vargas, THE ARENA) by saving his sons – Larry (Serge Marquand, BLOOD AND ROSES), Frank (Pierre Hatet), and Bud (Philippe Baronnet, THE SICILIAN CLAN) – from the vengeful Vallees (SO SWEET, SO DEAD's Ivano Staccioli and THE CANNIBAL MAN's Charly Bravo) – and is hired on at their ranch as the new foreman. Arranging a diversion, he snatches Rogers' daughter Diana (Anne-Marie Balin, JUDGE ROY BEAN), or Johanna on the Italian track, and brings her back to the ghost town for Maria; but the diverging plans of Maria and the returned Caine brothers' for the girl – along with Manuel's loyalty to Maria – lead to tragedy.
Long overlooked as one of the few examples of the French western, the French/Italian co-production CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES was the brainchild of Robert Hossein who was a popular actor in French from the fifties through the seventies, although he often took roles in high profile French films (including four of the five Angélique films with Mercier based on the historical novels of Anne and Serge Golon) in order to fund his directorial efforts. The script was co-written by Hossein and regular collaborator Claude Desailly with Dario Argento; the extent of Argento's collaboration is not known and may have been a co-production concession, although Argento is credited with collaboration on the westerns THE 5-MAN ARMY, TODAY WE KILL TOMORROW WE DIE!, and Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
Hossein's wish to make a western was long-standing and, despite his admiration for Sergio Leone, wanted to make one that did not imitate Italian westerns. Although shot in spaghetti western capital Almeria, Spain, cinematographer Henri Persin (EL CONDOR) favors compositions in depth over sprawling vistas while the only spaghetti western aspect of André Hossein's score are the various orchestral iterations of Scott Walker's fantastic theme song "The Rope and the Colt" (which was the film's French title). The cast is also largely unfamiliar when it comes to spaghetti westerns apart from a few Spanish regulars. The plot is fairly straightforward, but it is all masterfully conveyed in such a fatalistic manner that one cannot feel cheated by the perfect downbeat ending (which may be more moral than one usually encounters in a genre known for its amoral worldview and protagonists).
CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES was overlooked for distribution theatrically and on video over here and in the UK. Diehard spaghetti western fans probably saw the film first on some of the foreign-subtitled VHS bootlegs, with the first English-friendly DVD release being the Japan edition from SPO separately and in one of their Macaroni Western box sets in 2004 with a PAL-converted anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. This version was bettered by a 2007 German limited edition from Buio Omega/Anolis Films – who released that first 16:9 transfer of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE with the black felt slipcover – in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and packed with extras in a wooden case. Arrow Video's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 transfer comes from a 2K scan of a film element that has its share of scratches and few emulsion digs but it is otherwise a stunner with fine detail and excellent handling of the night and day-for-night sequences. While the previous transfers had sepia-tinted opening and closing sequences, the Arrow transfer's versions of these scenes are in black-and-white. While the Italian version of the film was presented with sepia sequences, the French version of this Italian/French co-production did indeed have black and white opening and closing sequences. While this in some ways makes the choice valid, it is unknown if this was the intent or a mistake like the black and white opening of THE BEYOND on Arrow's recalled first Blu-ray edition. Audio options include clean uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono tracks in English and Italian and optional English subtitles for both tracks. Sadly, no French track is included as the subtitles for the Italian track reveal some differences between it and the English track (and it would have been interesting to see how the French differed).
"Remembering Sergio" (5:19) is a 2015 interview with Hossein in which he expresses his admiration for Sergio Leone who wanted to cast him in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (his contract with Gaumont required him to make MADAME with Sophia Loren instead). He reveals that Leone was on the set and directed the dinner scene. Also included in a 1968 French TV on-location news report (7:57) in which Hossein talks about the mythology of the West (and how it is not a requirement to be American in order to make films about it), Marquand (who broke his leg during filming) reveals that he had a stand-in for long shots and riding, and Mercier says that the film offered a different kind of character for her even if it was unglamorous and physically demanding. An archival interview with Hossein (2:27) finds him returning from Rome after a costume fitting for Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and reflecting on CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES. The disc's Italian theatrical trailer (3:51), but it would have been nice to see a French version too. Also included are a cover with reversible sleeve featuring original, as well as newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and an illustrated collector's booklet containing new writing by Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young that was not supplied for review. (Eric Cotenas)
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