(1968 – Dir: Antonio Margheriti – Cast: Richard Harrison, Claudio Camaso Volonté, Spela Rozin, Werner Pochat, Alberto Dell'Aqua, Pedro Sanchez, Ivan G. Scratuglia, Guido Lollobrigida, Paolo Gozlino – Music: Carlo Savina)
Antonio Margheriti, also known under the pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson, was one of the most prolific genre directors of the golden age of Italian cinema. Although most productions were B-movies, some of his titles, like the horror movie Castle of Blood (Danza Macabra, 1964) have become semi-classics over the years. However, some other titles are mainly known to fans of ultra-bad cinema, such as the ridiculous science fiction travesty Wild, Wild Planet (I Criminali della Galissia, 1965). Margheriti also made five spaghetti westerns, among them the enjoyable mess The Stranger and the Gunfighterand the not-so-enjoyable mess Take a Hard ride, both with Lee van Cleef. He also made two gothic spaghetti westerns that are much better, and secured him a small cult following. And God said to Cain is probably the better known of the two, because it stars the great Klaus Kinski. Vengeance stars Richard Harrison, a name primarily identified with B-movies, just like the name of his director.
Vengeance is not a classic, but it's good revenge movie. It's also one with a nice twist: the avenger is himself an outlaw who is betrayed by his partners after a successful robbery. Two of his friends die as a result of the betrayal, Nicky (Dell'Aqua), a young acrobat, and Mendoza (Camaso), the brilliant leader of the gang, nicknamed 'the professor', who had contrived the ingenious robbery. Harrison tracks his former partners down, at the same time trying to find out who masterminded the betrayal. He is trailed himself by a mysterious man in black, who turns out to be a Pinkerton agent. Harrison gets his revenge in the end, but like James Garner in Sledge (1970) he'll loose the loot of the robbery, which is confiscated by the Pinkerton agent. But unlike most spaghetti western heroes, he gets the girl in the end.
Vengeance is slightly more plot-heavy than most revenge westerns; like Death Sentence it tells its story episodically, with Harrison confronting his opponents one by one; a detective element is also added, but the identity of the traitor is a bit too obvious for the movie to be effective in this aspect. But Margheriti uses his experience in the giallo/horror genre to create a great gothic atmosphere. His direction only falters during the protracted finale, set in a sulphur mine. The sequence is not that bad, but it goes on too long and lacks a real climax. The opening scene, on the other hand, is particularly strong: from above we see a man (Dell'Aqua) in distress, lying in the mud, trying to right himself. For a moment it looks like people are trying to give him some assistance by throwing ropes in his direction. But then we see that his arms and legs are tied to horses: this man is about to be quartered! The actual brutality is not shown, but Dell'Aqua's death scream sure goes to the bone. For a film made in 1968, the violence shown in Vengeance is quite graphic. Harrison kills a man by slitting his throat with his spurs, and he himself is nearly blinded by his opponents in a gruesome torture scene.
Muscle man Harrison was one of the young American actors who was lured to Italy to star in sword-and-sandal pictures (peplums). He is one of the numerous people sustaining that it was he who told Sergio Leone to take Clint Eastwood for A Fistful of Dollars (1964). In Vengeance Harrison does his best to give a good Eastwood impersonation. His bovine looks seem more suited to the peplum genre than the western, but it's not a bad effort, I've seen far worse in the genre. Still Camasio, Gian Maria Volonté's younger brother, has no problem stealing the film from him. He turns in a flamboyant performance as Mendoza the professor, a character that wouldn't be out of place in a Batman movie. Actually, I couldn't help thinking about the late Heath Ledger in the recent The Dark Knight. The score by Carlo Savina is very unusual. It is alternately romantic and melancholic, without the vigorous outbursts spaghetti westerns scores usually are identified with. The title song (referring to the English title) sung by Don Powell is wonderfully cheesy. It almost feels like a Caribbean tune, background vocalists whispering 'vengeance, vengeance' and singing 'ay-ay-ay-yaay'.
The original title of the movie, Joko, invoca Dio... e muori! means Joko, invoke God... and die! In other words, Joko is the name of the protagonist. In most export versions he is called Rocco. Remarkably the film was given a 'Django title' in France, but not in Germany, where otherwise nearly every revenge movie got a Django in the title. I watched the French release of the movie, called Avec Django, la mort est là (With Django, Death is all around). This release has excellent image quality, but only French audio. However, there are several English friendly releases (both R1 and R2); be sure to watch a release that respects the original aspect ratio, because Margheriti use the widescreen to good effect, and the film will suffer a lot when watched pan & scan. You can watch the magnificent opening scene, in Italian, and listen to the title song (complete with ay-ay-yaays) in English, on You Tube:<