Unholy Four Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Chuck Mool (Leonard Mann) is an amnesiac who escapes from prison with three other inmates and makes his way to home to find out the truth about his identity. While in town, he finds out that he has a reputation as a ‘fast gun’ and that the town is in the midst of a power struggle between two wealthy ranchers – one of whom apparently is his father. (From Kino Lorber’s official synopsis)
In my efforts to watch and catalogue every one of the hundreds (thousands?) of European-made ‘spaghetti westerns,’ I’ve often worried that I’ve already bled the well of quality dry. I wonder if there is a reason that so many of these movies sunk into obscurity and remained there, even in this age of genre rediscover and reevaluation. At a certain point – somewhere around movie number 100 – the emerging patterns become a blur of diminishing returns. Few of these ‘non-essential’ films are well made enough to stand apart and even fewer have anything unique to offer the spaghetti anthology. I had assumed that Enzo Barboni’s The Unholy Four (Italian: Ciakmull - L'uomo della vendetta, translated as Chuck Moll – Man of Vengeance, 1970) lacked critical/fan coverage, because, like so many of these films, it was a forgettable mish-mash of established movies. My assessment was, thankfully, wrong. While it doesn’t reinvent the genre and, in fact, owes most of its story and imagery to most popular spaghettis, Barboni’s film really should be included in discussions of the cycle’s waning years.
Unholy Four (not to be confused with Carlo Lizzani’s Violent Four, aka: Bandits in Milan, 1968, or Giorgio Capitani’s The Ruthless Four, 1968) was Barboni’s first film as director (under the pseudonym E.B. Clucher), but he had already developed an important role in ‘60s Italian cinema as a cinematographer. Some of his best work included Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (Italian: Amanti d'oltretomba, aka: The Faceless Monster, 1965), Eugenio Martín’s The Ugly Ones (Italian: El precio de un hombre,1966), and Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Addio (1966), Django, Prepare a Coffin (Italian: Preparati la bara!, 1968), and Crazy Westerners (Italian: Little Rita nel West, 1967). He was probably best-known for his collaborations with Sergio Corbucci on sword & sandal epics (Duel of the Titans, Italian: Romolo e Remo, 1961), historical comedies (Lo smemorato di Collegno, 1962; Il monaco di Monza, 1963), and early westerns Grand Canyon Massacre (co-directed with Albert Band, Italian: Massacro al Grande Canyon, 1964), Hellbenders (Italian: I crudeli, 1967), and the original Django (1966), which is a major influence on his work here.
By the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, many spaghetti western filmmakers were low on cash and stuck in a rut, shooting the same action scenes on the same sets with the same actors, over and over again. Unholy Four is definitely guilty of recycling plot elements – to the point that large sections feel like they were taken from a Sergio Leone fan’s laundry list, rather than a written screenplay – but it is made with a stylistic confidence that puts it ahead of most of its B-product brethren. Considering his tenure as a director of photography, it isn’t surprising that Barboni would focus so heavily on rich lighting schemes and well-balanced compositions. While some of the sequences do stand out for their colourful, expressionistic qualities, the film as a whole excels due to the attention that Barboni and DP Mario Montuori pay to texture and depth of field. The roads are muddy, interiors are dust-caked, walls are cracked, and wooden surfaces are splintered, all to ensure that Unholy Four evokes the gritty decay of movies like Django and doesn’t fade into mix. The attention to composition bleeds over into the action sequences, which are genuinely some of the best I’ve ever seen from the period. This includes a breathtaking escape, a gothic-tinged showdown in a cemetery, and a final shootout almost worthy of Sam Peckinpah (minus the blood packets).
The Django-isms are good for tone and texture, but the comparisons tend to limit the lead character. Too much time is spent turning dumbfounded pretty-boy Leonard Mann into a reputable Franco Nero substitute, from his steely blue stare right down to his almost identical, Union-style clothing. It doesn’t help that the other three of the four lead antiheroes are played by hyper-charming character actors Woody Strode (who was such a western film legend at this point that his character is actually named ‘Woody’), Pietro Martellanza (who has spectacular chemistry with Strode), and George Eastman (aka: Luigi Montefiori, who actually co-wrote the script with Franco Rossetti and Mario di Nardo) – all of whom outshine Mann at every turn. Fortunately, the storyline does not follow the well-worn Django plot thread, which is itself a variation on the plot from Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964)...which is itself a variation on the plot from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). In fact, for all of its episodic wheel-spinning during its middle act, the plot comes together nicely with a double-twist ending.
Unholy Four was released towards the end of the spaghetti western cycle in 1970, as comedic and family-friendly westerns were taking over the market and the genre’s masters were either moving on or taking a hard look back at their own work. Having come from the Corbucci school of dark westerns (a tradition some critics refer to as ‘autumnal westerns’), Barboni defaulted to the ‘hard look back’ mode, which might not have helped Unholy Four’s popularity in 1970, but ensures it has aged better than the dopey Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedies that soon followed. Ironically enough, Barboni was a key player in the rise of those Hill/Spencer westerns. His next two movies as director were the seminal megahits They Call Me Trinity (Italian: Lo chiamavano Trinità…, 1970) and Trinity Is Still My Name! (Italian: Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità, 1971), which set the new standard. Later, he continued working with Hill and Spencer (as well as western mega-star Giuliano Gemma) in a variety of genres – westerns, poliziotteschi, “macaroni combat” – all with a satirical slant. This makes the Unholy Four an anomaly in his canon as a director and a glance at what might have been, had the fickle winds of the Italian film market not changed at the top of the new decade.
Unholy Four was released on anamorphic DVD by Wild East Productions in the US and Evidis in France (with only French audio options), which both appear to be out of print. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray debut is a substantial upgrade over those fuzzy discs, as well as a decent transfer on its own merits. Like many boutique labels, they tend to reproduce the transfers handed to them by the larger studios they lease the films from. Apparently, Euro London Films had a pretty good print sitting around. The element separation is tight, especially in backgrounds of wide and medium shots. While the palette is gloomy and largely defined by blues and browns, there is still a wide array of subtle color differentiations and the gradations are relatively complex, even in the hazier backgrounds. Black levels are ‘iffy,’ sometimes crushed (the opening titles, for instance, are hard to read, because they are black and set against dark shapes) and sometimes appear soupy grey, but the basic look is pretty consistent. The bad news is that, like so, so many catalogue Italian scans, this one is noisy. In motion, on the big screen, the noise sometimes looks like actual film grain, but, as you can probably tell from my screen caps, a lot of it is actually telecine machine artifacts. There’s probably nothing Kino Lorber could’ve done with the material to correct the issue and I’m actually thankful they didn’t try to ‘erase’ the issue with a bunch of DNR. Print damage is limited mostly to little white dots and vertical lines here and there.
Kino Lorber has supplied uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio versions of Unholy Four’s original mono English and Italian dubs. As per usual, the entire movie was shot without sound and the actors were often speaking a variety of languages, so all dialogue tracks were dubbed in post-production. Sure enough, the American cast seems to be speaking English and the Italian cast members seem to be speaking Italian. Assuming you don’t have a strong preference either way, I’d like to point out that the English track has more range and, if that’s not enough for you, Woody Strode appears to be dubbing himself while singing a hymn in the middle of the movie. The musical score is composed by Riz Ortolani, who takes a more melodic and jazzy approach to the themes than Ennio Morricone, including an inappropriately cheery main theme that bucks-up against the downtrodden imagery, that the filmmakers use and reuse ad nauseum. The music tracks are much cleaner and more dynamic on the English dub, giving the track its biggest advantage over its notably flatter Italian counterpart.
The only extras are trailers for Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (1966) and Gianfranco Parolini’s Sabata (1969).
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