Film: Face To Face ****
UK release date: 20th June 2011
Running time: 107 mins
Director: Sergio Sollima
Starring: Tomas Milian, Gian Maria Volonté, William Berger, Jolanda Modio, Gianni Rizzo, Carole André
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
His films never received the acclaim that two of his contemporaries Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci rightfully earned, but Italian auteur Sergio Sollima’s movies still deserve a wider audience. Face To Face (Faccia a Faccia), the second of his three westerns speedily sandwiched between 1966 and 1968, is considered one of his best, and the gang-busting, gun-toting actioner is finally released in the United Kingdom.
Upstanding history professor Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonte) is reluctantly forced into retirement by his poor health and decides to move west for the warmer climate.
Almost as soon as he arrives, however, he is taken hostage by famed bandit Solomon Bennett (Tomas Milian), who needs to escape the attentions of the local sheriff, and by necessity Fletcher is forced to take up with his cohorts as they try to reunite the Wild Gang.
But the educated man's growing identification with the gang encourages him to stage a takeover from Bennett, and a crueler system of leadership is put into place just as Pinkerton Charley Siringo’s (William Berger) plans to rid Purgatory City of the gang appear to be succeeding…
If you don’t fight, you fail, and Brad Fletcher certainly isn’t the failing kind. On his death bed at the start of the film, along with Bennett who was shot in its opening exchanges, his transformation from teacher to tormentor is slick and convincing, even if the whereabouts of his illness gets lost in the baron landscapes of this intriguing western. His line, “you couldn’t have chosen a worse hostage, let’s just say I’m dying” to Bennett is slightly perplexing at first, but in time it’s clear that only his lust for life is fading fast.
Any quibbles about his desire to help Bennett instead of running are quickly brushed aside by both the beautiful visuals and, most importantly, the talented personalities along the way, ranging from Berger’s clever turn as Charley Siringo, who convinces his nemesis to reunite the Wild Gang in order to rid them from the fantastically named Purgatory City once and for all; a beautiful woman called Maria (Jolanda Modio), who questionably falls for Fletcher after being beaten and raped by him; to Rusty Rogers (Francisco Sanz), an all too brief but welcome comedic turn as an elderly man clinging on to his pointless existence by insisting he is still a wanted man even after thirty years in the wilderness.
Sollima isn’t afraid to pepper the screen with unsettling imagery, as a rabbit is shot, women are treated as punch bags then raped, families are massacred (including a frighteningly fantastic shot of the vigilantes appearing over the sand dunes) and a child is silenced by a bullet for daring to tell the Sheriff about the bank raid as he sits snoozing in the sizzling sun. The resulting shoot-out is easily the best moment from the film, as the perfectly planned heist is turned on its head in bloody, exhilarating fashion.
It’s here Sollima ups the ante plot-wise too, discarding of most of the Wild Bunch in order to concentrate on Fletcher’s creepy transformation, and Bennett’s disapproval of such, despite being solely responsible for turning the man into a monster. Fletcher, described early on as “from up North, he reads a lot of books”, and who at the midway point tries to guilt-trip the gang from stealing money from a mail coach by reading the accompanying letter, begins his slippery slope when he falls for the beautiful Maria. An excellent standoff against the lightning-quick gunslinger Bennett whets his appetite further, but it’s only when he realizes what an intelligent man can do in a town like Purgatory that he truly discovers his lust for life again – a fascinating journey mapped out in jaw-dropping style.
Face To Face also has its problems though. The search for final gang member Zachary is a little too long, and then brushed under the carpet as the audience aren’t given enough time to bond with him, which is a disaster when Sollima decides it will be him who turns traitor and leads the vigilantes in the film’s finale. How Bennett gets to his comrades before the marauding mob is even less believable, whether he knows the dessert inside out or not, and his escape from jail, lazily, is never even explained. The final showdown also raises eyebrows, not because the odds of fifty being defeated by two mercenaries need to be shortened, or because Bennett remembers how bad to the bone he actually is, but because Pinkerton Siringo baffles us with another change of heart that sits as out of place as Fletcher’s mutation into a sex-starved rapist.