Minnesota Clay (1965)

Dir: Sergio Corbucci – Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Georges Rivière, Ethel Rojo, Diana Martin, Fernando Sancho, Antonio Casas, Nando Poggi, Antonio Roso – Music: Piero Piccioni

Minnesota Clay

A gunfighter named Minnesota Clay (Mitchell) escapes from a labor camp and starts looking for the man who framed him for a double murder. The main suspect, a man called Fox (Rivière), has been hired by the people of a small town to protect them against Ortiz (Sancho), a Mexican bandit, but Fox has started to run a protection racket, asking increasingly more protection money. The Mexicans try to hire Clay to kill Fox, but Clay is misled and lured into a trap by Ortiz' treacherous girlfriend Estella (Rojo) . When Ortiz and his gang attack Clay gets severely hurt but is rescued by Fox, who once again wants to frame him for a crime, but there's still this Estella, growing more treacherous by the minute …

With its two warring factions, one American, one Mexican, and a protagonist who must fight against heavy odds, Minnesota Clay, director Corbucci's second western, is in many ways a forerunner of his (in)famous Django (1966). Confronted with the misfortune of going blind, the disabled Clay also seems a cousin of the mute gunslinger of The Great Silence (1968). But although Mitchell is presented as the typical cynical western hero, 'who stands only with himself' he is a loving family father and a loyal friend. When he is confronted with a photo of his late wife, we see tears in his eyes and he conceals the fact that he is the father of the young girl who now lives in the custody of his best friend, because he is afraid that she might be ashamed of him. More plot-heavy than most spaghetti westerns, the film has also more emotional depth. But what is an asset, can easily become a drawback if the different elements aren't treated well. Argentine beauty Ethel Rojo almost burns the screen, but Diana Martin is completely colorless as Clay's daughter and her romance with her talkative and clumsy admirer is particularly corny, more forties Hollywood than sixties Cinecittà.

It's not the film's only flaw, some dialogue sounds hollow or simply stupid (Clay asking: Is there another way out? Answer: Yes, the back door – all this in a house not much bigger than a log cabin). But despite its obvious shortcomings, it's a nice little film, and a definite improvement over Corbucci's first western, Massacre at the Grand Canyon (1964). it's also of some historical importance as the first spaghetti western signed by an Italian director with his own name (Corbucci previously had signed with the Americanized 'Stanley Corbett', Leone had used the pseudonymous 'Bob Robertson'). It's beautifully shot, hiding the film's reduced budget very well, and Mitchell adds a distinctive melancholic touch to his character of the aging gunslinger-with-a-past. Unlike Eastwood, Mitchell only became a star after he had left Italy (and accepted a part in a TV-series, High Chaparral) and his financial situation at the time was deplorable. According to Corbucci he was afraid of Rojo, and avoided her as much as possible, because she had told him she was dreaming of a life as a Hollywood star and he felt ashamed he 'could not afford her'. Rivière was an acquaintance of Corbucci's, but he clearly isn't in his element in a western context: it would be his only spaghetti western. Fernando Sancho's appearance as Ortiz is a bit short, but he would make up for that in numerous spaghetti westerns to come. I found the score, by Piero Piccioni, completely unremarkable. Actually, I had to start the film again when writing this review to know how it sounded.

Many critics have noticed similarities with A Fistful of Dollars (1964)and/or Yojimbo, but Corbucci had not yet seen Leone's film and the idea of the disabled hero was probably lifted from Robert D. Webb's The Proud Ones (1956), in which Robert Ryan is a gunman with a past who slowly loses his eyesight. The film was shot in the month of September 1964 in the Spanish Balcazar studios and the town of Colmenar Viejo, near Madrid (where Leone had shot A Fistful of Dollars) and released shortly before Christmas the same year. Two different versions were made, a shorter one with an unhappy, and one with an added-on happy ending. In the first one Clay apparently dies in the hands of his daughter, in the second one an epilogue is added in which Clay wears glasses; in the final reels he throws them in the air and shoots both lenses. Most people seem to prefer the sad ending, but I would say they both work equally well.

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