Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Alive or Preferably Dead DVD review

A DVD Film Review
By Lee Broughton
Alive or Preferably Dead.  Directed by Duccio Tessari.  102 minutes.  1969.  Widescreen (1.66: 1).  Wild East, USA. Format: NTSC Region 0.

Monty Mulligan (Giuliano Gemma) is a big city dandy-gambler whose debts are spiraling out of control. Things are looking bleak - the villainous MacIntosh brothers are determined to collect the $40,000 that he owes them - when he is unexpectedly informed that his uncle Archie has bequeathed him $300,000.  It's fortuitous news but the legacy has a stipulation attached to it: Mulligan must travel to the wild West and live with his estranged brother Ted (Nino Benvenuti) for a whole six months.  The two brothers dislike each other intensely and Monty lands the duo in big trouble as soon as they're reunited: he humiliates a local villain, Bad Jim (Cris Huerta), who subsequently destroys Ted's ranch and livelihood.  With Ted now unable to pay his mortgage, the duo are forced to team up with a shady itinerant gambler, Mr. Barnds (Antonio Casas), who masterminds a series of crazy money-making scams that bring the brothers into conflict with Bad Jim again.
The early 1970s saw the production of a fair number of really wretched comedy Spaghetti Westerns.  As such, most genre fans immediately experience a sinking feeling when they learn that a title that is new to them has supposedly humorous content.  Thankfully, DVD releases of titles such as 'Ben and Charlie' and 'Don't Turn the Other Cheek' have revealed that comedy-tinged genre entries can work if the cast and crew have the skill and the intent to produce a quality product.  Director Duccio Tessari and actor Giuliano Gemma both had proven track records when it came to successfully fusing humor and Spaghetti Western-style action (often working on projects together) and it's pleasing to report that the duo pulled off yet another relatively good comedy Spaghetti Western with  'Alive or Preferably Dead'.
In terms of Tessari's input, this is a well-directed show that boasts some quite stylish cinematography.  Tessari had an excellent eye for detail and he readily employs it here: the film's costumes and sets are all of a high standard and, overall, the show has the air of a big budget production.  The film's opening scenes which are set in a big Eastern city are really quite sumptuous looking.  Elsewhere there are lots of other interesting details and in-jokes: the period car that Monty initially uses to transport himself to the wild West; footage of wild West action that the characters view on a peepshow arcade machine; a poncho-clad, Man With No Name-type that Mulligan spots hanging from a tree (complete with a 'Fistful of Dollars'-style whistle on the soundtrack); the appearance of a penny farthing bicycle, etc. 
In terms of Gemma's input, this show must have been a dream project for him: it really is a fine showcase for his athletic abilities.  In one scene he grabs hold of - and then hauls himself onto - a stage coach as it passes over him and in another scene he convincingly shoots a gun to great effect with his hands tied behind his back.  Monty is a fairly typical Gemma character: he's introduced as being a kind of brash, selfish and somewhat unlikeable individual but, by the end of the film, we've warmed to him.  Nino Benvenuti as Ted is a decent enough foil for Gemma to play against.  Genre stalwart Antonio Casas brings a sense of gravitas to the film as the cultured but devious Mr. Barnds while Cris Huerta turns in a typically fun and inoffensive performance as the show's chief villain.  WAI! favorite Dan van Husen pops up in a small role at one point.  There are slapstick moments and crazy occurrences aplenty here: some of these are actually quite funny but none of them grate or overstay their welcome as they're woven within a surprisingly compelling storyline that features some neat twists and turns. And there are a couple of sequences where the show's tone does briefly become much darker. 
The film's soundtrack score by Gianni Ferrio features quite a varied selection of styles, including a Salvation Army song and some "hillbilly" music, but it works quite well for the most part.  There are one or two spots where the show appears to be on the verge of momentarily running out of steam but, all in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed 'Alive or Preferably Dead'.  Also included on this DVD is Duccio Tessari's bizarre Euro Spy spoof, 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' (1966) which features a number of cast members (including Giuliano Gemma) who went on to appear in 'Alive or Preferably Dead'.
Uncut English language friendly versions of 'Alive or Preferably Dead' have been hard to come by over the years.  Given the rarity of the uncut version on offer here, the picture quality of this presentation is good for the most part. It's not Wild East's best looking restoration but it's perfectly serviceable. The presentation's sound is of comparable quality: there are no major issues to be concerned about but it is a bit flat and muffled-sounding in places. 
Extra features: interview with Dan van Husen (30 minutes), image gallery and three trailers.
© 2013 Copyright Lee Broughton.

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