The Stranger Collection DVD Review: The Man with No Shame Trilogy

With the exception of those sick individuals who mimic the patterns of serial killers, most copycats can be incredibly amusing. If you’ve ever walked through a crowded urban marketplace to discover a suspiciously underpriced and slightly odd-looking designer handbag or watch – and you weren’t dumb enough to buy whatever it was under the belief it was the real deal – you know what I mean. And how ’bout those epically awful Turkish Star Wars action figures? Or perhaps you recall that one glorious instance in recent history wherein China earnestly attempted to convince Americans of their superior Air Force via footage lifted directly from the American motion picture, Top Gun.

Yes, the world of the cinema certainly comes into play quite a bit when it comes to copycatting. Though I never saw it, I remember a mail order company in the ’90s marketing some bizarre Hong Kong flick that somehow managed to combine two distinctly different American hits: Three Men and a Baby with Blown Away (or something along those lines). Of course, America is certainly not terribly innocent in this department: Three Men and a Baby, after all, was one of umpteen bazillion motion pictures Hollywood filmmakers have graciously borrowed (albeit, usually, legally) from France and Australia in order to sell tickets to moviegoers tired of the same old shit.

But, if I was down to my last couple of bucks (a situation I have found myself in more times than I can count – which could very well be part of the problem) all one would have to do to sell me a ticket to a movie was to say “It’s an Italian rip-off.” Yes, whether they’re taking copyright infringement-worthy cues from more popular movies about the living dead taking over the planet, the aftermath of society following a nuclear apocalypse, or the very same George Lucas title that resulted in some truly hilariously poor action figures in Turkey, the Italians almost always seem to know best. And the same goes for Italians ripping off their own successful work, such as when they set the entire world on fire with spaghetti. Westerns, that is.

It wasn’t long after pioneers such as Sergio Leone reinvented the long-suffering genre – which was about as American as could be – in the first half of the 1960s that even their own countrymen soon jumped on-board in order to mimic. For several years, Italians – often with the assistance of their European cousins – cranked out so many neo-cowboy pictures over the next ten years or so, that an accurate count has still yet to be determined (which makes me feel slightly better about my check balancing skills, but not by much). And, for what must have seemed like a small eternity, the spaghetti westerns all-but dominated cinemas near and far, before eventually bowing out to the ’70s martial arts craze that would follow in their wake.

And, much like those kung fu and samurai flicks that infested grindhouse theaters well into the ’80s, the one surefire constant in the European western was usually the lone wolf protagonist: an admirable antihero of amazingly apathetic means whose motive was either revenge, greed, or – sometimes, depending on the back story (where applicable) – both. He is primarily a man with a suspiciously anglicized name, whose vernacular may be quite reserved (which could often be attributable to the fact he’s European, and the filmmakers hope he doesn’t sound too terribly poorly dubbed), but who can outdraw the worst of ’em – all the while keeping his eyes and wits as sharp as the blades in your average ’70s martials arts movie.

Another constant is the element of timing. On-screen and especially off. And in the instance of the films I am taking forever to touch upon here, an American actor named Tony Anthony found himself working in Europe after Clint Eastwood’s famous turn as the now-legendary Man with No Name trilogy had become an international sensation in every part of the world except the United States, where all three films had still yet to be released (because we don’t like change). So, smelling the strange, exciting, dangerous scent of dollars (only spaghetti western lovers will get that one), the Yankee actor with the reduplicated moniker called an MGM stockholder pal to propose investing in a western he was lucky enough to land the lead role in.

So, the first title of one of many “Man with No Shame” series, A Stranger in Town, came to pass; its Italian debut coinciding with the late American release of 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars in January ’67. An unexpected success in international (read: not American) markets, several sequels were commissioned – including The Stranger Returns (which was released in America in-between the stateside unveilings of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood trilogy, precisely when Americans were introduced to and going nuts over the new subgenre, because we’re actually OK with change), and The Silent Stranger, which added a heavy dose of the forthcoming martial arts kick to the formula.

While its original Italian title, Un dollaro tra i denti (A Dollar Between the Teeth), is more befitting for the genre (if nothing else, the Italian/Euro westerns had some of the most original titles imaginable), the first film in this franchise was re-titled A Stranger in Town by the time it hit the US shores – mostly to help sell the “already made but not yet released in the United States of America” sequels that were never meant to be made in the first place. You know, branding (something that is still, sadly, highly prevalent in Hollywood today – and which you can blame on all the shitty Transformers and Fast and Furious sequels you see hitting theaters every three months).

The fact everyone was surprised by how successful A Stranger in Town was is evident as soon as you view it for the first time. Why? Because it’s a pretty bad film, really. Not, say, White Fang and the Hunter bad, but pretty darn mediocre just the same. Here, a rather fey Mr. Anthony – looking like Alan Ladd and Ken Miller’s illegitimate son mimicking Terence Hill’s impersonation of Franco Nero – rides into a sparsely-populated village where financial temptation awaits. That is, providing he can outwit bad guy Frank Wolff (who, with his curly black hair and big mustache, looks like he’s en route to an Avery Schreiber look-a-like audition) and his motley crew of banditos while not boring his audience to death in the process.

Between bad editing (seriously, how much of this movie was cut out in post?), an unmemorable and repetitive music score, and an extreme number of as-yet-unskilled amateurs on both sides of the camera, A Stranger in Town is something of an exercise for even some of the seasoned spaghetti western viewers. Fortunately, director Luigi Vanzi (under the anglicized name of Vance Lewis, because that’s just how they did it back then!) managed to perfect his skills considerably by the time Tony Anthony turned in his own story for the follow-up feature, The Stranger Returns (Un uomo, un cavallo, una pistola – or A Man, a Horse, a Gun if your Italian is a little arrugginito) later that same year.

Boasting a more “organic” pasta soundtrack, The Stranger Returns also sports a much more enjoyable script – no matter how outlandish it tends to get (hint: l’oro) – as our nameless lead character and his trusty steed, Pussy (seriously), steer into another small western community short on law and heavy on disorder. Dan Vadis, a former star in the Italian/Euro sword-and-sandal films (pepla) that preceded the spaghetti western phase, is the main villain here in a tale of one very valuable shipment of shiny ore and the men with few morals determined to possess it. Daniele Vargas and Marco Guglielmi also star, and the film also features a small part by doomed Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told actress Jill Banner.

Alas, all good things come to an end. Even those that nobody intended to start in the first place. In 1968, Tony Anthony – now with even more of a say as to how his own series would go – decided to experiment with the genre a bit by incorporating some of the elements only a few people in the filmmaking world could see on the bloody horizon: that of the martial arts film. Here, directly after an opening segment right out of an early James Bond rip-off, and then thanks to a fuzzy freeze frame of an establishing shot, Tony Anthony travels to the far-off land of Japan – and beating Charles Bronson’s east-meets-west film, Red Sun) to the punch by three years – where he (surprise!) gets involved in the middle of a warring feud between clans.

Sadly, a dispute between backer Allen Klein and MGM prevented The Silent Stranger (Lo straniero di silenzio – also released as The Stranger in Japan) from being released in the US during a timely manner. In fact, it took seven frickin’ years for the film to finally land a place in American cinemas (that makes it 1975, kids, just in case you learned your math from my checkbook), by which time Chuck Bronson had already ventured to Japan and returned to become Paul Kersey. MGM even edited the film down a bit, too, which further peeved an already annoyed Mr. Anthony, as he felt The Silent Stranger was among his better work.

And frankly, it is! Ditching unnecessary subtitles and instead relying mostly on good ol’ fashioned body language (with a good deal of narration from our – by now, very familiar – half-eponymous mystery man), The Silent Stranger is a fun ride into the Land of the Rising Sun. The film pays all possible due respect to 1961’s Yojimbo, the Japanese samurai classic that later inspired A Fistful of Dollars. (In the world of film, everything is relative.) Joining Mr. Anthony and Pussy for this adventure – which once again benefits from a Stelvio Cipriani music score – are the international acting talents of Raf Baldassarre, Kyôichi Satô, Kin Ômae, and Lloyd Battista.

The aforementioned Mr. Battista later hitched-up with Tony Anthony in order to make several more features during the ’70s and ’80s, by which time Mr. Anthony folded up shop altogether. One combined outing was Mr. Anthony’s Comin’ at Ya! (1981), wherein, much like he did with the Eastern Western prototype, predicted the return of 3D to cinemas in the early ’80s. Another of their collaborations was a bizarre 1975 quasi-sequel to the Stranger series entitled Get Mean, which may have been Tony’s revenge on MGM, but which is so far removed from the spaghetti western norm, many folks consider the comical adventure to be the unofficial bastard red-headed step-child to an official bastard film franchise.

But money talks just the same, kids. A recent press release announcing Get Mean was slated for a Blu-ray release in America, which may have prompted the Warner Archive to dust off the old domestic MGM prints of these three films for this 2-Disc set. While it’s a pity that the original Italian versions aren’t included (firstly, neither MGM or Warner have the rights for the European versions; secondly, this is an MOD release), it’s nice to see all three (slightly eviscerated) but nevertheless truly official entries in this franchise come to DVD. Each film is presented in a matted widescreen aspect ratio, and the image quality varies between titles (the first film looks rather flat and faded, while the the third film looks pretty darn good overall).

The English audio comes through just fine on all three titles, and the only special feature to be found here is an open matte trailer for the second feature on Disc One (which houses the first two films on a dual-layer DVD). It’s a weirdly put together preview, honestly (wherein a dead man is given the lines of another!), but its reddish hue and faded color serves as a fine contrast to the better-than-average print of said film itself. Plus, with a thankfully lower than usual retail price for this trio of cheesy Italian dishes, you can’t go wrong here – even if you can’t balance your checkbook properly (and besides, MGM already screwed these up 30+ years before!). Just don’t accidentally order the Warner Archive’s The Stranger Collection with the indie-released religious title The Stranger Series and you’re good to go.

In short, “The Stranger Collection: Pasta recommended and Pussy approved.” Enjoy.

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Luigi Bastardo

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