ANY GUN CAN PLAY: The Lighter Side Of The Spaghetti Western

Spaghetti westerns naturally lent themselves to a grim, brutal style of storytelling.  However, there was a certain strain of the genre that downplayed bloodshed and dark themes in favor of old-fashioned, Hollywood-ish adventure leavened with varying doses of physical humor.  Some of these films went for full-on slapstick (see the early career of Terence Hill) but others went for a subtler touch that delivered action and plot twists with a sly smile.

Any Gun Can Play is an interesting glimpse into the lighter side of the spaghetti western.  It was an early directing credit for Enzo Castellari, the Italian action maestro who would later give us gems like Street Law and the original Inglorious Bastards, and it waltzes through the some familiar spaghetti western stylings with a nod and a wink.  The end result shapes up as an amusing flipside to the dusty, arid moodiness viewers normally associate with the genre.

On paper, the plot looks like a standard-issue setup for bullet-riddled bloodshed.  Clayton (wouldja believe Edd Byrnes?) is a nervous bank official trying to shepherd a big shipment of gold from one location to another via train.  He’s got plenty of reasons to suspect treachery, a suspicion that is validated when the train is attacked by criminal gang leader Monetero (Gilbert Roland).  Things become more complicated when the Stranger (George Hilton) pops up in the middle of the chaos, planning to apprehend Monetero for a hefty reward.  One of Monetero’s underlings absconds with the stolen gold, which leads the story into plenty of twists and turns as the three main characters form allegiances, shift them and try to outsmart each other.

However, this classic setup plays out in a smile-inducing fashion thanks to the film’s respectfully satirical touch.  A great example of this is the opening sequence, which involves three gunslingers who suspiciously resemble Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Django-era Franco Nero being outwitted and shot down by the Stranger.  The sequence tweaks the viewer’s expectations in a humorous way but it also shows off a nice knowledge of genre style and techniques.  Thus, it subtly lets the viewer know that the satire is being undertaken with knowledge and affection.

The rest of the film follows suit, blending action, laughs, suspense and clever sendups of genre faves into an agreeable, fast-paced oater.  Castellari is comfortable with both extremes of the material, delivering both suspenseful shootouts (the finale is the highlight in this respect) as well as fight scenes with a comically broad touch.  The highlight of the later category is a kinetic punch-up sequence in a bathhouse, where Hilton and Byrnes swing from timbers and knock their opponents through wooden tubs.  The end result feels like a western version of a fight scene from an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler.  Castellari’s energetic direction makes these sequences sing and his approach is bolstered nicely by Giovanni Bergamini’s slick cinematography and a jaunty score from Francesco DeMasi.

Better yet, the performances seal the deal.  George Hilton brings a nice deadpan wit to the role of the Stranger, a role whose reliance on quiet cool suits his skills nicely.  Edd Byrnes plays against the hipster charm he cultivated on 77 Sunset Strip as the uptight bank man and he does it well, showing a surprising physicality in the action scenes (there’s a great bit where he dodges, weaves and leaps through a street market to elude the villain’s thugs).  Old school Hollywood actor Gilbert Roland lends a strong, old-school sense of presence as Monetero, making the crime lord instantly believable and roguishly likeable.  This is a solid trio to build a movie on and all three deliver the goods.

All these attributes make Any Gun Can Play is engaging, Saturday matinee-type fun for spaghetti western fans.  It’s a good flick to throw on when you’re not in the mood for the psychological pummeling dished up by spaghetti westerns like Django, Kill! or The Great Silence.

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