4 out of 5 stars

If Hammer had been Italian and made cowboy films, in Spain, they would’ve looked something like these two magnificent examples of the spaghetti western! I only wish I’d seen them at the impressionable age when I first saw Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy. I’ve grown up revering the striking visuals, memorable music, and mythic grandeur of those films featuring Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing man with no name. I assumed their iconic reputation was unassailable. Then I saw Duccio Tessari’s Ringo films.

Both of these Ringo films were made back-to-back with the same cast and crew. But it’s a bit weird watching them that way. We see the same set of actors playing very different roles in each film. George Martin, for example, plays Ben the clean-cut, clean-shaven sheriff in A Pistol for Ringo (1965). The kind of role that could’ve been played by Gary Cooper or James Stewart. In The Return of Ringo (1965) he’s Paco Fuentes, the suave but sadistic Mexican interloper in a small border town, his all too precisely trimmed beard indicating his overblown vanity.

His brother’s played by Fernando Sancho, who consummately conveys archetypal Mexican bandits in both films. ‘Sancho’ is a loud and greasy slob in the first, Esteban Fuentes is a smartly attired bully in the second. He was better known for playing debonair characters but here he’s put on some weight and throws himself into the roles with great gusto, establishing himself as the go-to actor for raucous bandits in euro-westerns.

Ex-footballer and veteran actor Antonio Casas plays Major Clyde, the smartly-suited Southern gentleman in A Pistol for Ringo, but in Return he’s the well-intentioned but sadly ineffective sheriff; a bestubbled alcoholic who uses the scarf around his neck to steady his hand as he ‘winches’ his whiskey to his lips.

Nieves Navarro plays Sancho’s mistress, the ambivalent, gun-toting Delores, who goes through a kind of Pygmalion transformation into a ‘lady’ and switches her allegiances. She ‘returns’ as Rosita, a Tarot-reading saloon girl, again the mistress of Sancho’s bad bandit, with mercurial loyalties. This was just her second role and after a string of westerns she would go on to become a giallo icon appearing in Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), Death Walks on High Heels (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), So Sweet, So Dead (1972) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). In all of those she was billed as ‘Susan Scott’, as it is was common for European actors to ‘Americanise’ their stage names in the hope of breaking into the international market.

Which brings us to the character of Ringo himself. In A Pistol for Ringo, he’s played by Montgomery Wood, but in Return the actor Giuliano Gemma steps in. It took me a while to recognise him from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) in which he played Detective Germani. Gemma bears an uncanny resemblance to Wood because they are, of course, the same actor! But strangely, Ringo is not the same character…

The Ringo who needs a pistol—and it’s a key plot point that he doesn’t have one for much of the film—is a loveable rogue with boyish looks and a cheeky grin. We meet him playing a game of hop-scotch with children. Not the obvious way to introduce a cool gunslinger! But it isn’t long until we see just how he earned his reputation… as he asks the kids to stand aside because he’s going to teach them a new variation on the game, before chatting casually with the four men sent to kill him until he turns, mid-hop and guns them down with lightning speed. Now that’s more like it! He then goes peaceably with Sherriff Ben, who turns up just a little too late to avert the shoot-out.

Ringo’s treated well in jail and obviously already knows the Sheriff’s deputy and Tim (Manuel Muñiz), who’s the traditional western sidekick—a small, skinny guy with an expressively mobile face, and plenty of light-hearted asides. Ringo’s in jail when Sancho’s gang rob the bank. Delores, laying it on thick as a ‘damsel in distress’, keeps the Sheriff distracted while the robbery gets underway and sees Ringo languishing in the cell, drinking a glass of milk.

The bandits, having demonstrated their ruthlessness and the joy of killing, make their escape with the Sherriff’s men in hot pursuit. By now, we can see that this isn’t a cheap production, as there are plenty of extras, the sets are built and dressed convincingly, there are many expertly ridden horses in the tightly choreographed robbery, and an ensuing chase across expansive desert terrain. The bandits, unable to make a clean getaway, lay siege to a grand ranch house owned by the Clydes, Major Clyde (Antonio Casas), and his beautiful daughter Helen (Lorella De Luca).

Ringo comes up with a cunning plan to defeat the bandits and rescue Helen, who also happens to be the sheriff’s fiancé. After a jail break is staged he’s chased by an angry posse and, with the narrow lead, manages to reach the Clyde ranch. Of course, the bandits would also be happy to shoot him, but because he had made eye-contact with Delores in the county jail, they accept him as a fellow desperado and figure that he may be useful to them.

By this point we know that Tessari is certainly a cut above the average Italian pulp director. Every scene has been well-planned and he’s considered every option to make each shot as dramatic, or at least as interesting, as possible. One fine example is a scene, soon after Ringo’s arrival at the ranch, where he explains his escape plan for Sancho’s gang. He doesn’t just tell them, he doesn’t simply draw it out with a stick in the sand… he uses pieces of fruit to represent the sheriff’s men and the soon-to-arrive army reinforcements, his fingers miming a man riding a banana like a horse. (It’s a bit like watching Professor Brian Cox explain the solar system.) He uses a smouldering firebrand from the grate to mark out the ranch and surrounding territory on the white table cloth, the trails of smoke adding visual interest and evoking the pending gun-fire. A potentially mundane scene is suddenly transformed into a humorous, visually engaging one that reveals the relationship dynamic of the gang.

A Pistol for Ringo provided the template for the Spaghetti western genre: it established the general tone, the light-hearted passages, the joyous violence, the sadism of the villains, the inventive use of camera angles, and extreme distances between subjects in the same shot. This kind of visual flair was to become a trademark of Italian pulp cinema in the late 1960s and early-1970s, and can be seen across genres, but most prominently in westerns, horror films, and later gialli.

A Pistol for Ringo shares so many similarities with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) that one might assume it was a knock-off. But it turns out that Tessari contributed to the Dollars screenplay and was writing Ringo at the same time. And although Fistful of Dollars was released a year before Ringo, both films were in parallel production during 1964, which highlights just how much of Tessari was embedded in the Dollars story.

The Ringo that returns is not the happy-go-lucky, milk-sipping hero of the first movie, but a far more troubled character and, in general, the sequel has a more serious tone. Ringo’s been away at war for six years and returns to his hometown to find it under the brutal, lawless control of the Fuentes brothers. Worse still, Helen, his wife (Lorella De Luca) seems to have moved into the Fuentes household as Paco’s mistress. (De Luca, who played Sherrif Ben’s fiancé in Pistol, was married to Tessari.)

Ringo decides to lay low and assumes the identity of a Mexican itinerant peon, until he can assess the lay-of-the-land. He’s taken on by the town’s florist, Morning Glory (Manuel Muñiz, again playing a half-comedic sidekick), who needs the extra help due to the high demand for funeral wreaths. Initially angry that his wife should be living with such an obvious villain, he turns that anguish to determination when he realises that she is forced into such a situation to protect her daughter, whose father is clearly Ringo.

Seeing the daughter he never knew he had changes everything, and when Morning Glory’s retained to supply the floral bouquets for the forthcoming wedding of Paco and Helen, Ringo draws up a cunning plan of attack involving dynamite in the bouquets. By getting the beleaguered sheriff on-side, he also inspires the locals to risk their lives and land in an uprising against their bandit occupiers.

Helen cannot marry Paco, however, because she’s  already married to Captain Montgomery Brown, whom we now know as ‘Ringo’. So, to get past this little legality, the Fuentes stage a fake funeral for Brown. This scene forms the pivotal narrative climax and after that, things really hot-up and the film starts to feel more related to the first film in terms of pace and style. One thing that both Ringos have in common is that Tessari presents them as heroic, saviour figures. In A Pistol for Ringo, he is placed in the same frame as a wooden statuette of Christ, just before he takes the final trick-shot that defeats Sancho. In The Return of Ringo, he is beautifully framed with a church crucifix and glances up at it, marking the point when he decides to launch into a sequence of decisive actions.

A Pistol for Ringo may well have inspired Leone’s approach, but in The Return of Ringo we can see the definite influence of his aesthetic. Everyone is all the more greasy and sweaty. There are several scenes featuring extreme close ups of eyes. Gemma has given Ringo a deliberate facial tick. He wears a poncho and grips a cigarillo in his teeth. Ennio Morricone (who wrote the scores for the Dollar and Ringo movies), introduces a playful sound cue whenever Ringo says something clever, or slowly looks up to reveal his eyes under the shadow of a hat-brim.

Ringo also has his right hand severely injured and must retrain to shoot with his left. There’s a great montage as he fumbles with his gun, failing even to load its chambers. Then he’s able to aim and shoot, eventually knocking a pine cone from a tree and shooting a tin cup so it skitters across the dust to neatly catch the cone as it drops. The maimed gun-hand, and having to learn to use the other, is a classic western trope that was also echoed in A Fistful of Dollars.

It’s great that these underrated, yet hugely influential, Euro-westerns have been cleaned-up and fully restored to 2K clarity from the original camera negatives for Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release. The prints are as clear and richly saturated as they could ever be. The soundtrack’s also been restored and newly translated optional subtitles provided for the Italian audio track. Don’t worry, though, the fully dubbed English version can be enjoyed as originally intended for international audiences.

With their usual loving care and attention, Arrow have really done a good job here with some valuable extras. The two-header commentaries for both films, by aficionados of the Euro-western genre C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, strike a perfect balance of conversationally relaxed and highly informative. Their obvious enthusiasm and respect for the genre is infectious and they share a wealth of information that is not easily sourced elsewhere.

a pistol for ringo / the return of ringo

They Called Him Ringo is an archival featurette with star Giuliano Gemma, and who better to give us the low-down on the production and an insight into the character of Ringo? Well, add to this another archival featurette, A Western Greek Tragedy, and you have plenty more anecdotal stories from Lorella de Luca and camera operator Sergio D’Offizi.

As Tessari is no longer alive, these interviews are the next best way to understand what he may have been thinking, how he worked creatively, and how he intended the films to be perceived. It seems his driving trait was a profound love for the craft of filmmaking, and this is shown off in every shot. He was also very unpretentious and approached his films primarily as entertainment, he enjoyed writing stories that would keep the audience guessing, cleverly meshing plot strands and playing with cliché. He was obviously very aware of the traditional western genre and was prepared to exploit audience expectations and then astutely confound them.

The first pressing of the Blu-ray Collector’s Edition also promises an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the films by Howard Hughes, and a newly-translated interview with Duccio Tessari himself…

Special Edition Contents:

  • Brand new 2K restorations of both films from the original negative.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • Original Italian and English soundtracks.
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio.
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack.
  • Audio commentaries for both films by Spaghetti Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke.
  • They Called Him Ringo, an archival featurette with star Giuliano Gemma.
  • A Western Greek Tragedy, an archival featurette with Lorella de Luca and camera operator Sergio D’Offizi.
  • Original trailers.
  • Gallery of original promotional images.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx..
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Howard Hughes and a newly-translated interview with Duccio Tessari.

Cast & Crew – ‘A Pistol for Ringo’

director: Duccio Tessari.
writers: Duccio Tessari (Alfonso Balcazar, Fernando di Leo & Enzo Dell’Aquila – uncredited),
starring: Montgomery Wood, Fernando Sancho, Hally Hammond, Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas & George Martin.

Cast & Crew – ‘The Return of Ringo’

director: Duccio Tessari.
writers: Duccio Tessari & Fernando Di Leo (Alfonso Balcazar – uncredited).
starring: Giuliano Gemma, Fernando Sancho, Hally Hammond, Nieves Navarro, Antonio Casas, Manuel Muñiz & George Martin.