China 9, Liberty 37 (1978)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.A different version of this review originally appeared on the now-defunct website Tapehead in 1997.

Monte Hellman is deserving of a larger cult following. I will now get on my soapbox and trumpet his name into cyberspace in the hopes of winning a few converts to my religion. A former Roger Corman protege, Hellman, who passed away last year, kicked around for over five decades directing, ghost directing when other directors croaked mid-way through shooting (The Greatest and Avalanche Express), and producing low-budget fare. Sure, some of his stuff is purely of the “I have to pay the rent” variety. No one ever saw The Iguana when it was originally released, and he did a Silent Night, Deadly Night sequel. He’s best known for the cult favorite Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), but he was a gifted director who never managed to cross over to full mainstream filmmaking despite his obvious abilities. Between 1965 and 1978, he made four extraordinary westerns: Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), The Shooting (1967), The Cockfighter, a/k/a Born to Kill (1974), and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). (OK, I bend the genre a little to call a film about cockfighting a western, but it did star Warren Oates, and thematically it fits in with the other films.) Whether you fall into the camp that believes his westerns are slow and pretentious, or like me, you think he’s a lost talent who made one western masterpiece, The Shooting, and three near-masterpieces, there’s no getting over that Monte Hellman’s films should be seen. You won’t forget them, and you can later argue about them for months, if not a lifetime, afterward. How many current directors fit that bill?

The last of the Hellman westerns is a true spaghetti western: China 9, Liberty 37—the title is a reference to a milepost sign—a film widely hated by critics and audiences alike. Fabio Testi (What Have You Done to Solange? and Stateline Motel), a legendary gunslinger, is saved from the noose by agreeing to assassinate Warren Oates, another gunslinger, so that the railroad robber barons can steal Oates’s land. Complicating matters is Jenny Agutter as Oates’s wife who falls for Testi. Agutter stabs Oates after he gives her a brutal beating, and then she and Testi ride off with a recovered Oates and his band in hot pursuit.

Let’s get this straight up front: Testi is awful in the lead. His thick Italian accent and mumbled phonetic English had me wishing that he had been dubbed by someone else, anyone else, including Nathan Lane. Despite this disastrous casting, however, just about everything else about the film is excellent, especially Guiseppe Rotunno’s stunning cinematography. (He also shot The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Wolf, and The Stendhal Syndrome.) And savvy film fans will instantly recognize composer Pino Donaggio’s signature lush strings on the soundtrack, parts of which would not sound out of place in his scores for Brian DePalma films of that era. Oates is perfect as always—this guy never gave a bad performance—as an introspective man tortured by his wife’s unfaithfulness. He has a remarkably good reaction shot when, after recaptioning Agutter, he stumbles upon his brother about to ravish her. That was the hallmark of a Warren Oates performance—a tough, laconic man beset by circumstances outside his control. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that director Sam Peckinpah makes his acting debut in a colorful cameo.

But above all, despite a wavering accent—sounding variously like Patsy Kensit, Peta Wilson from the old USA Network series La Femme Nikita, or an Irish charwoman—Jenny Agutter nearly steals the show. Agutter, so memorable as the young girl in Nic Roeg’s classic Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London, but underutilized in films such as Logan’s Run and The Riddle of the Sands, is positively radiant here. With her lightened hair, beautiful face, and numerous nude scenes (even with some full-frontal nudity, but you’ll need a telescope to check it out), Agutter plays out her part with no inhibitions. Younger cineastes, so used to cosmetically enhanced starlets of today will be startled by the exposure of Agutter’s real-woman, natural body. Nonetheless, she is extremely alluring and endearing, and you will never see a more ethereal expression than the one she has when she’s making love to Testi in a river. And with mumbling rod-puppet Testi fondling her, that takes some excellent acting!

China 9, Liberty 37 is an unusual western because one might persuasively argue that it’s really a retro chick flick disguised as a spaghetti western. Jenny Agutter is such a strong, well-realized character with testosterone boy Testi that many female viewers will undoubtedly compare this to a Harlequin-romance. Meanwhile, male viewers will simply fantasize about Jenny—Jenny bathing, Jenny in a transparent nightgown silhouetted in the moonlight, Jenny in the river… But I digress. This is a super-offbeat film that true B & S About Movies fans will recognize as something more than a typical spaghetti western shoot ’em up. Try it, you might like it.

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