Following the heyday of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ in the 60s and Hollywood’s brief flirtation with the genre in the early 70s, an era that saw the production of around 600 westerns, there was very little direction for the gunslinger to ride. We had seen characters cheat the hangman, rob banks, return from the dead, drag coffins, battle armies, team-up with each-other, save prostitutes, develop outlandish weaponry, wander ghost towns, and even come under attack from vampire bats.
As the plots became more contrived, and the western degenerated to slapstick (THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970), and its sequels), audiences soon got tired of the formula, preferring the action of martial arts movies. The majority of the Italian directors, famed for their violent western adventures, turned their skills to the thriller and horror film, but several, in a last bid to preserve some dignity for an ailing genre, decided to go out with all pistols blazing.
Sergio Martino, had previously enjoyed success in a number of genres that included: the giallo (DAY OF THE MANIAC aka. ALL THE COLOURS OF DARKNESS (1971), TORSO (1973); crime thriller (THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973), GAMBLING CITY (1974), schockumentary (WAGES OF SIN (1969), NAKED AND VIOLENT (1970); and sex comedy (SEXY RELATION aka THE VISITOR (1974), SEX WITH A SMILE (1975)) and in 1977 decided to tackle the western with MANNAJA: A MAN CALLED BLADE.
Despite it’s obvious similarities to Enzo G. Castillari’s KEOMA aka THE VIOLENT BREED (1976), (both films feature half-orphaned loners, who look like Haight Ashbury refugees, that return to their home town to find its people governed by a corrupt leader who forces them to work in a mine), MANNAJA has a number of delightful plot-twists and surreal set-pieces that set it apart from its predecessor, marking it down as one of the very best of the 70s spaghetti offerings.
The film begins with an eerie pre-credits sequence in which an outlaw (Donal O’Brien) is being hunted by a man on horseback through swampy terrain, the air is thick with mist, and we are given furtive glances of the pursuer curled in smoke, and shot in soft focus, to give him an almost spectral appearance. Following several failed attempts to shake of his pursuer the outlaw decides to face a stand off with his nemesis. Drawing a gun he squints through the smoky glade to see his enemy pull out a hatchet. In slow motion the weapon is hurled through the glade, twisting several times in the air, before severing the hand of the gunman, his screams echo through the swamp as a letterbox shot reveals the bright blue eyes of the hunter in close-up
Riding into Suttonville with the wounded outlaw, tied to the end of a rope, Blade (Maurizio Merli), wrapped in muddied pelts, wanders into a bar where a group of men are playing cards. Blade pulls out a “wanted” poster announcing a reward of $5000 for Burt Craven, whom we recognise as the outlaw, and announces his desire to play poker with the proceeds of his bounty. At first his offer is refused by a man clad in black, Theo Voller (John Steiner), on the grounds that “We don’t pick up tabs round here”, but Voller relents when his curiosity surrounding the mysterious Blade gets the better of him. Following a one-card turnover Blade wins the kitty, which results in a shoot-out. Voller unleashes two snarling Great Dane guard-dogs that are mastered by Blade’s hatchet handle, and several of Voller’s men are disarmed by bullets from Blade's gun.
Retiring to a nearby barn, Blade releases Craven, announcing he was only after $5000 and no longer needs the bounty on Craven's head. It transpires that Voller is an employee of local landowner Edward McGowan (Philippe Leroy) who exploits the townspeople by forcing them to work in the local silver mines resulting in most of the male populace suffering from lung disease. Blade offers his services to McGowan as a strong-arm to escort the landowner's silver shipments to the bank in another county, for recent wagons have been attacked by bandits, but McGowan wants nothing to do with the stranger.
There follow a number of scenes in which we discover that Blade’s real reason for coming to the area is to avenge the death of his father, killed in an accident caused by McGowan’s ruthless land policy many years before. Following a number of plot-twists, double-crosses, and a kidnap attempt involving McGowan’s daughter (Sonja Jeannie), Blade finds himself captured and subjected to torture as he is buried up to his neck in the desert sand with both eyelids sown open in order for the sun to burn out his eyes. I won’t reveal too many details, but suffice to say, Blade escapes and the scene is set for one final shoot-out in the mist enshrouded mine town with Voller and his dogs.
MANNAJA is a stylish movie, its many scenes take place in fog and rain, and are filmed in wide-lens soft-focus. Various fight sequences take place outside in stormy conditions resulting in the characters being encrusted in mud and these shots contrast nicely with those in which a colourful dance-troupe of women entertain the poverty stricken men-folk of Suttonville. Director, Martino reveals in an accompanying 12 minute interview that the reasons for filming in such atrocious conditions was to disguise the fact that Elios Studios, housing the last western town-set in Italy, was in disrepair, and to renovate the sets for this final feature was commercially unviable.
Whilst not particularly gruesome, MANNAJA does contain several brutal incidents which by now had become staples of the Spaghetti Western. A coach carrying travellers is ruthlessly gunned down by bandits, in slow-motion, and juxtaposed against shots of merriment featuring women performing a Can-Can routine. The sequence is reminiscent of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH (1969), in which a joyous church parade sing “We Shall Gather at The River” before marching into the bloody crossfire between bank robbers and bounty hunters. Another scene depicts the dance-troupe being broken up by McGowan’s heavies in an attempt to “drive out the spawn of Satan” and subjected to whipping. The film's most controversial occurence involves Blade’s eye-torture and is widely touted on this DVD release as “totally uncut and uncensored” but I wouldn’t take much notice of that, as its graphicness is vastly over-rated. For a start we don’t actually see Blade's eyelids get sown, and we are left with just a couple of shots of Blade’s head emerging from the sand.
The acting is pretty good, Maurizio Merli best known for his portrayal of Commisario Leonardo Tanzi in Umberto Lenzi’s VIOLENT NAPLES (1976), and THE TOUGH ONES (1976), carries the role of the cool avenger rather well, coming across as both cynical yet vulnerable to the calculated plans of several villains around him. John Steiner, who has previously played scheming villains in Tinto Brass’ CALIGULA (1979), and SALON KITTY (1975) is a smooth main adversary, often resembling the black-clad villian Frank (Henry Fonda) from Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968). Steiner wavers between the epitome of “cool”, as when garbed in long flowing cape and flanked by his two snarling Great Danes in a scene that recalls Barbara Steele’s entrance as Katia in Bava’s MASK OF SATAN (1961), or engaging in fisticuffs with Merli whilst rolling around in the mud. The best performance, however, comes from Donal O’Brien, (KEOMA (1976) and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST (1979), whose nervous, shifty portrayal as the one handed outlaw with a score to settle steals every scene he is in.
With a suitably sombre score from Guido and Maurizio De Angelis that complements Federico Zanni’s haunting cinematography, MANNAJA stands as a sterling example of why the spaghetti western remains popular for audiences to this day.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Sergio Martino
English and Italian language with optional English subtitles
Italy / 1977 / 96 minutes.
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Blue Underground DVD Release
All Region. NTSC. Dolby Digital Mono
MANNAJA: A MAN CALLED BLADE