Price of Power (1969)

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Price of Power

Tonini Valerii, a former assistant to Sergio Leone, has made some pretty good (if not perfect) contributions to the genre, including such well-regarded films as My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die, the latter two being two of my favorites. I'd heard a lot of good about the subject of this review, Valerii's 1969 contribution, Price of Power, and although not a bad film by any means, it does have some flaws that made it rather disappointing.

Giulano Gemma as Bill Willer in Price opf Power

Giuliano Gemma as Bill Willer

Before getting into the details, just a word about Giulano Gemma, who stars as the hero Bill Willer in this film; this is the third film I've seen with him, and I think that what makes Gemma so appealing as an actor in these films is that his boyish, clean-cut looks as well as an innocence he usually coveys stands in marked contrast to the deadliness of his character. When you see Eastwood or Garko, you know right off the bat that they're a badass; with Gemma, it's not so apparent. There's something about his acting style that could easily come across as cheesy or annoying, yet he somehow manages to pull it off. I think he's definitely one of the few actors in the genre that is really a fantastic actor.

Anyways, Price of Power is a bit of historical fiction, with modern political overtones, and that is where both its successes and failures reside. The plot revolves around a time in the late 1800's, where President James Garfield is going to visit Dallas, Texas, and therein resides an insidious plot to assasinate him, led by a banker, ably acted by Fernando Rey, as well as a sheriff named Jefferson, well-done by Benito Stefanelli. Stefanelli has a rather impressive genre resume, having had parts in some of the most famous films in the genre; I'm sort of surprised that he didn't have a more successful career as a leading man in the genre, he's got that rugged, badass appeal that is somewhat similar to Garko. The conspirators hope to exercise control over the vice-president when he takes power with the hopes of sympathies to slavery, with the ultimate goal of restarting the Civil War. They apparently have some documents to blackmail the VP with.

So, the assasination attempt (at first, to blow up a bridge that the President's train is crossing) is thwarted by Willer (whose father was recently murdered for revealing knowledge about the plot). So, the conspirators come up with a new plan to frame Willer's black friend, McDonald (superbly acted by Warren Vanders) with the assassination.

President Garfield in the sights of the sniper

Their plan succeeds - Garfield is killed, McDonald is framed, and Willer gets revenge and justice. Things are complicated by the President's aide, who, at times, we can't seem to tell if he's in on the conspiracy or trying to get to the bottom of it.

Obviously, not your typical spaghetti western plot, other than the fact that there's some revenge involved. Now, first off, this is indeed a work of historical fiction. President Garfield was indeed assassinated, but it was in Washington DC in 1881, not Dallas in 1890 (for the real story on Garfield, one of the shortest-serving presidents, go here). That alone doesn't work against the film; there have been lots of good movies based in history that take a principal fact and change it. However, the film's ambition falls somewhat flat when they construct the events to mirror the Kennedy assassination: there's the whole patsy/set up/conspiracy thing, as well as a Jack Ruby-esque turn when McDonald is killed on the way to the prison. The assassination itself mirrors the famous Kennedy Zapruder films at times.

And the biggest failing is the political aspect of it. Garfield, portrayed by Van Johnson, is written as a really, really bad stereotype of a liberal president. Way too often throughout the film , we hear him go on and on about how he's really concerned about the poor and working class, as well as the black population, not at all concerned about the monied capitalist interests. You have to remember that this was a period in history where the hypercapitalist robber barons were starting to amass a lot of power, both financial and political. This idea that Garfield isn't concerned about them at all is absolutely ridiculous. Just about everything out of the guy's mouth had me rolling my eyes, especially the time, for no apparent reason, he turns to his wife and says, "I wonder if we'll ever overcome slavery.. for everyone." If you check your Civil War history, it's pretty well known that Lincoln's primary concern wasn't freeing the slaves; it was preserving the Union.

Van Johnson annoyingly portrays President James Garfield

Van Johnson annoyingly portrays President James Garfield

I can understand the subtext here... Valerii obviously wanted to cement in our minds the idealistic leader deeply concerned about civil rights who was mercilessly cut down by the forces in opposition (once again, overplaying the Kennedy thing). It's just that it's done so poorly and so heavy-handedly that it ultimately comes across as phony and patronizing.

And, basically that's what frustrated me about the film. Gemma, Stefanelli, and the others were fantastic. The concept of the story itself is brilliant; it just took too long to get going, and as I said before, the Garfield character was annoying and unbelievable.

Valerii is very talented, and this was obviously a very well-produced film. Stelvio Massi did the camera work (as he did in my last two reviews), and as always, the man knows how to frame a really good shot, like so:

Another thing I've noticed that seems to be a regular occurrence in some of these films; there's often an annoying and too-long sequence of the bad female cabaret singer in the saloon, who's singing a song in a style that wasn't popular for another 30 or 40 years, and usually is a lousy singer. There was one of those in here, and it was pretty awful. But I'm just nitpicking, I guess. Bacalov's score is unremarkable, as well.

Giuliano Gemma

Now, I didn't hate this film at all; it's thoroughly watchable. It's just frustrating, because it has what is undoubtedly one of the most original storylines of any film in the genre, but it just wasn't executed very well, and it's even more frustrating, considering the high quality of Valerii's work overall. This was the Japanese Macaroni Western version and it looked and sounded good. So, overall I have mixed feelings about this film. I can't wholeheartedly recommend it but can't say it should be avoided, either.

 

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