Monday, September 19, 2016

Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977)

Quite possibly Italy’s most popular contribution to the world cinema landscape, the spaghetti western was certainly one of the most lucrative subgenres to be born during a time of intense productivity in the Italian film world. There may have been an innumerable amount of films made in other popular Italian genres, namely giallo and poliziotteschi, but in terms of the sheer volume of films made during a specific time period, the spaghetti western trumps them all. While there were European westerns made before, clearly the film that jumpstarted the Italian western craze was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and from then on until the mid to late 70’s it seems as if virtually every Italian director tried they're hand at the western genre. This included many who would go onto to become horror maestro’s such as Giulio Questi, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi. Dario Argento even received a writing credit on Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Being the gene chameleon he is, naturally Sergio Martino spent some time in the wild west. Following his two mondo oddities Wages of Sin (1969) and Naked and Violent (1970), Martino made his narrative film debut with Arizona Colt Returns (1970) and would return to the west 7 years later with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, one of the best and more unusual films the spaghetti western genre has to offer.

A mysterious, hatchet wielding bounty hunter ominously known as “Blade” (Maurizio Merli) arrives in Suttonville, a corrupt mining town to collect the reward money for capturing a wanted man. Almost immediately after arriving however Blade runs afoul of Theo Voller (John Steiner), the ruthless right hand man to Ed McGowan, who rules both the mines and the town with a fanatically religious iron fist. Blade confronts McGowan, although things aren’t what they seem as Voller is soon discovered to be disloyal, kidnapping McGowan’s daughter with plans to take over the town which prompts McGowan to plead with Blade to deliver the ransom money Voller is demanding in order to save his daughter. Reluctantly, Blade agrees and sets out to get rid of Voller all the while confronting his own personal demons.

Mannaja is a deceptively unconventional film. To be sure, as far as western canon is concerned, Martino covers quite a few of the bases with the character of Blade being a fairly archetypical western hero, i.e. the mysterious nomadic drifter with a dark past who’s arrival disrupts the order of the town, plenty of bandits (which leads to a brilliantly composed stagecoach ambush) and vendetta’s to be settled. At the same time however Martino makes the genre his own and what really sets Mannaja apart from the majority of westerns, spaghetti or otherwise, is its mood, visual design and atmosphere. There is downbeat esotericism to the film with the preverbal dark cloud trailing both behind and in front of Blade and Martino essentially lenses the film as if it were a horror film which gives the film an air of surreality, with the town of Suttonville shrouded in rain, fog and copious amounts of mud. In proper western fashion, it’s a landscape as unforgiving as its inhabitants and one particularly unforgettable method of torture employed in the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jodorowsky or Arrabal film. Martino also masterfully utilizes slow-motion during the films memorable opening and a haunting shot of a near death driver manning the aforementioned stagecoach. A literal “phantom carriage” so to speak. The films odd theme song also bears mention as it features some of the most bizarre vocal styling’s heard in any spaghetti western theme song fitting in perfectly with the films other offbeat tendencies.

By the time Mannaja was made the spaghetti western was beginning to decline and interestingly Mannaja was one of the very last spaghetti westerns made. Martino assumes it was either the second to last or the very last of the cycle that began in the 60’s. Martino also insists that his casting of Maurizio Merli was not simply because of Merli’s resemblance to Franco Nero, a common criticism but rather because Merli was also an established genre star and was the right fit for the role of Blade. Martino has also explained that the films unique visual design relied heavily on environmental factors as the film was shot at Elios Studios near Manziana which was in a state of decay and rather than spend the money to repair it, Marino shot it as is which allowed him, in his own words, to portray a "ghost town". The weather also played a major hand with the constant rainfall leading to even more mud and fog. Despite the technical difficulties the area posed, in the end it contributed to the films singular look and feel. Despite being made when the spaghetti western was beginning to die off, Mannaja doesn’t at all feel like the product of a dying era. Thanks to Martino’s original stylistic approach and the films interesting tone, Mannaja is a must see for spaghetti western fans and a fairly essential Martino title.

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