Cemetery without Crosses Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Maria Caine (Michèle Mercier) is thirsty for revenge after her husband is lynched by bandits. She turns to an old friend named Manuel (Robert Hossein) – a solitary figure who lives in a ghost town and dons a single black glove before each gunfight. Manuel is reluctant, but agrees to infiltrate the widow’s enemies to force a showdown. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Robert Hossein’s Cemetery without Crosses (Italian: Une Corde, un Colt; aka: The Rope and the Colt, 1969) is a particularly unusual entry in the spaghetti western canon for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is not directed or written by Italians or even the typical spaghetti stand-in Brit or Spaniard – Hossein is French and so is credited co-writer Claude Desailly. At the time, Hossein was known largely for his acting roles in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Roger Vadim’s Love on a Pillow (French: Le repos du guerrier, 1962), as well directing himself in nouvelle vague drama and noir, like Night Is Not for Sleep (French: Toi, le venin; aka: Blonde in a White Car, 1958) and The Secret Killer (French: Le vampire de Düsseldorf, 1965). He had also tried his hand at the western formula with The Taste of Violence (French: Le goût de la violence) in 1961 – three full years before Sergio Leone broke the saloon doors off the Italian brand of western with Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964). According to legend, Leone was very much aware of Hossein (possibly even due to The Taste of Violence) and even tried to cast him as The Man with No Name (actual on-screen name Joe) in Fistful (though that story appears to have been updated – now Hossein claims he was up for a role in Once Upon a Time in the West [Italian: C'era una volta il West, 1968]).*
The Italian westerns were very popular in France (especially with younger, more politically interested French filmgoers and filmmakers) and Hossein has said that Cemetery without Crosses was made in part as an homage to Leone, who he had befriended. But, even as he acknowledges the critical spaghetti traditions, Hossein can’t help but to invoke his nouvelle vague sensibilities. This designates Cemetery without Crosses as a key item on a very short list of “baguette westerns.” Before it, only Hossein’s own The Taste of Violence, Henri Verneuil’s Guns for San Sebastian (French: La bataille de San Sebastian; another Spanish co-production, 1968), and Richard Pottier’s Serenade of Texas (French: Sérénade au Texas, 1958) had much success with what would become the spaghetti formula. Otherwise, ‘60s and ‘70s French filmmakers preferred to make western-themed comedies, spoofs, and sexy farces, like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (starring Brigitte Bardot & Jeanne Moreau, 1965), Christian-Jaque’s The Legend of Frenchie King (French: Les pétroleuses; also starring Bardot, alongside Claudia Cardinale, 1971), and Marco Ferreri’s Don’t Touch the White Woman (French: Touche pas à la femme blanche; starring Marcello Mastroianni & Catherine Deneuve, 1975).
Despite his affection for Leone’s movies (he even ends this picture with a dedication to his friend), Hossein deliberate pacing, meditative focus, lack of snappy dialogue, tempered violence (lots of brutality, but not a lot of blood, and preference for medium shots, rather then monumental wide-shots and grotesque close-ups of gnarled faces, may be off-putting to the spaghetti western fans that haven’t wandered too far off the beaten path. Viewers willing to look past expectations (more on those in a moment) will find Cemetery without Crosses more visually rewarding for its surreal and allegorical additions. For example, the film opens and closes with black & white visual bookends, perhaps to signify a ‘once upon a time’ motif (or to suggest that this is simply a chapter in a larger tale). The protagonist lives alone in an abandoned, boarded-up ghost town, where he must be summoned like a vengeful spirit. The internal and external environments are also swallowed by layers of smoke and dust that would usually be reserved for gothic horror movies. The most celebrated sequence is an extravagantly long dining scene that ends with an unexpected practical joke. This single moment of levity is shot and cut with a zeal not seen again, reportedly because it was secretly directed by Leone himself, who was likely in the general area making Once Upon a Time in the West at the time (some fans suspect that Leone appears in a rare acting role as the innkeeper, but credited actor Cris Huerta doesn’t look that much like the director to me).
Hossien and Desailly’s more potent surprises are actually thematic. They fulfill most of the genre’s clichés early on—an industrious villain with a tight-knit gang of hooligans, an outrageous cause for vengeance, a strong and silent hero who infiltrates the enemy ranks, et cetera – and reach the logical conclusion with more than 30 minutes of movie left on the reel. At this point, the story is carried beyond its typical confines to focus on the effect of ‘not so happily ever after.’ This type of morally ambiguous revisionism extends back to the John Ford and Howard Hawks films that spurred Leone’s spaghetti-defining tropes, but the most direct line of lineage might have been Sergio Corbucci’s shockingly subversive The Great Silence (aka: Il Grande Silenzio, 1968).
Both films are stark in their nearly dialogue-free narratives, as well as their utterly melancholic tones and make compelling companion pieces to Leone’s own bleak denouncement of western conventions and morals, Duck, You Sucker! (aka: Fistful of Dynamite, 1971). The timelines may discount this theory – according to author/filmmaker Alex Cox’s book, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009), Cemetery without Crosses finished filming in early 1968, while The Great Silence was shot in 1967, but not released in Italy until the end of the next year (it premiered in France only two days later than Hossein’s film). Perhaps Hossein had access to Corbucci as he had access to Leone. Or maybe brilliant minds simply think alike and the trajectory of the increasingly political European westerns dictated the need for unnerving bleakness.
Also separating the film from the bulk of the Italian brand of western is the fact that a central role is filled by a woman. Most spaghettis and, in turn, most Italian genre movies from the ’50s and ‘60s were extremely male-centric and often driven by macho themes. “Strong” female characters (note the quotes) make appearances in a number of great spaghetti’s, including Fistful of Dollars, Corbucci’s Compañeros (1970), and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: La resa dei conti, 1966), but their roles are usually incidental at worst, tertiary at best. Michèle Mercier’s Maria Caine is a vital component to the story – a distinction she shares with a handful of other actresses, including Soledad Miranda in Franco Giraldi’s Sugar Colt (1966), and Vonetta McGee in the aforementioned The Great Silence. Only Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, Elsa Martinelli in Lina Wertmüller’s (the latter being the only woman to direct a Euro-western, as far as I know) The Belle Starr Story (Italian: Il mio corpo per un poker, 1968), and Lola Falana (certainly the only black female lead in a spaghetti) in Siro Marcellini’s Lola Colt (1967) hold higher stature. The Spanish-made, Italian/American/Austrian co-directed (Gianfranco Parolini, Sidney W. Pink, and Rudolf Zehetgruber share credit) Seven Vengeful Women (aka: The Tall Women, 1966) is at the top of this heap by sporting seven major female roles.
* Speaking of legends: Dario Argento’s name is still listed as a co-writer on the Italian and German prints of Cemetery without Crosses as well as the movie’s imdb.com page. I’m not sure if anyone has ever asked Argento his memories on the subject, but, according to Hossein himself, Argento had absolutely nothing to do with his movie. It’s strange that Argento’s name would be added after the fact to drum up Italian/German business, because he would be just barely recognizable to audiences at the time. Sure, he had co-written a handful of decent spaghetti westerns and macaroni combat adventures, including a story credit on Once Upon a Time in the West (along with Bernardo Bertolucci), but he didn’t become a superstar until two years after Cemetery without Crosses’ release, when he wrote and directed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Cemetery without Crosses was almost impossible to find on VHS and appeared on R2/PAL DVD via Anolis Films Germany, as well as R2/NTSC via SPO/Imagica in Japan (as part of their Macaroni Western Bible collection). Anolis’ release was 1.66:1 anamorphic, came in a limited edition wooden case, and was loaded with extras, but the SPO/Imagica disc had a superior anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. That said, neither release looked fantastic, they both required region free/PAL converting players for North American viewers to watch them, and were very expensive. Arrow’s new Blu-ray (available in both the US and the UK) is a proper upgrade all-around. According to the inlay booklet, this 1.66:1 (the correct AR), 1080p transfer was scanned in 2K in Bologna, Italy, then was digitally graded and cleaned up via Arrow in London. The inlay warns that the original negatives were deemed too damaged for use, so an Internegative source was used. That source also suffered some damage, but the bulk of the image is quite clean, despite the warning.
The opening and closing black & white photography suffers the most obvious damage, specifically scratches, dirt, and clumpy grain. This sort of fits the pretense of the B&W bookends, though, and things do slowly clear up as the film continues. Grain is always prevalent (sometimes oddly discolored), but yellow or blue chemical stains and abrasive artifacts become the exception, rather than the rule. Details are pretty tight, including complex backdrops and busy textures. The fine sheens of dust and smoke are no longer a hindrance and now help to add depth to the frame. The digital scan seems to have caused some minor noise along some edges without contributing any notable compression artifacts or halo effects (aside from a handful of shots, usually wide-angle images of characters on horses for some reason). The colors tend to skew a bit bluish, similar to the earlier DVD releases, which I believe is a sign of age/wear, but warm skin tones, rutty browns, and vivid reds help to even out any issues with monochrome. Black levels are perhaps a tad crushed, though they rarely flatten important variations in texture.
The original English and Italian mono soundtrack has been preserved in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 sound. As per usual when it comes to European-made westerns, all sound was added in post, including dialogue and incidental sound effects. In this case, the dialogue is so minimalist that the dialogue choice is basically rendered moot. Besides, I’m relatively sure that the largely French cast didn’t dub themselves. There are also almost no discernible differences between the effects and music, so the choice is left entirely to the viewer’s discretion (I chose English, because I speak English and because I like to hear the voices of familiar actors that specialized in dubbing Italian films). There is minor distortion in the loudest sound effects, but the overall soundscape is surprisingly sharp and deep for an older mono track. André Hossein’s (Robert’s father) guitar-heavy score and the opening theme song (sung by cult figure Scott Walker) has less in common with Ennio Morricone’s work for Leone than with Luis Bacalov ( Django) and Riz Ortolani ( Day of Anger). The theme carries through every aspect of the film’s music, including a music box, a player piano, and a lonely guy with a harmonica.
Remembering Sergio (5:20, HD) – A new interview with star and director Hossein, where he recalls making Cemetery without Crosses and his friendship with Sergio Leone.
Location Report (8:00, HD) – Footage from a late ‘60s French television news report on the film’s making, containing on-set footage and interviews with Hossein and actors Michèle Mercier and Serge Marquand.
Archive interview with Hossein (2:30, HD) – An interview from an April 17th, 1968 broadcast of the French TV program Cote d’Azur Actualites.
For the record, the Anolis Limited Edition also features a 26-minute interview with Hossein, comparisons between the cut and uncut versions, and comparisons between the music on the German and French releases.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.