Sunday, July 7, 2024

The [Euro]western scenarios: on the centenary of Carlo Simi (1924-2000) [Part 2 of 4]

La Abadia de Berzano

By Rafael de España

June 20, 2024

A Tuscan architect in the Iberian Far West

Simi's first three westerns had to be shot in Spain, both to amortize the co-production agreements between the two Mediterranean countries and to ensure the logistics of filming with the only town in the West that already had a good curriculum in the genre: the so-called Golden City of Hoyo de Manzanares, built at the suggestion of the tandem of decorators Jaime Pérez Cubero-José Luis Galicia in 1962 for a parody film with Walter Chiari and Raimondo Vianello, El sheriff terrible / Due contro tutti, directed by Alberto De Martino[14].

[In "The Terrible Sheriff" the road to Golden City, in the province of Madrid, was very well announced. The funniest thing about this rustic signage is that it also marks where you are going to... El Paso!: Carlo Simi's in Almeria, still in limbo?]

The town was simple but successful: it consisted of a fairly wide street (to the point that, if necessary, it could become two) whose main sign of identity was a beautiful brick building seen to the north that represented the archetypal saloon, while to the south there was a smaller one, whitewashed, which used to be presented as a Catholic church since most of these early westerns relied heavily on the Hispanic component so dear to José Mallorquí[15].

Simi takes advantage of these fixed structures, but with certain modifications: in his three shoots, the "church" is covered in wood to create a secular building that, although in The Guns they do not argue and Minnesota Clay does not fulfill a special narrative function, in A Fistful of Dollars it will be the home of the Baxter family. And, also in Leone's film, the brick saloon will be drastically remodelled to be the residence of his rivals the Rojos: the façade is enlarged to give the image of a larger building that can be in tune with the courtyards that are filmed in the Toledo pavilion of the Francoist Feria del Campo. The interiors of the "Baxter House" (and some brief accompanying scenes) were shot at the Elios Studios in Rome, where, incidentally, the first "made in Italy" western village had just been built.

[Above, the saloon at the northern end of Golden City in two 1963 westerns: "Three Good Men" (Joaquín L. Romero Marchent; left) and "Gringo" (Ricardo Blasco; right); below, the redesign of "Charles Simons" as the Rojos' hacienda in "A Fistful of Dollars".]

[The church on the south end of Golden City in "Heroes of the West" (Steno) and "The Avenger of California" (Mario Caiano), both from 1963, turned into the "Baxter Mansion" from "A Fistful of Dollars".]

In the creation of environments, Simi's talent stands out in another aspect more related to theatrical and cinematographic design than to architecture: the creation of an idiosyncratic costume (especially that of Mexicans) that will become an icon of spaghetti westerns. Of course, what is still controversial is the origin of the famous hero's poncho. Leaving aside that the name of the garment is not entirely correct, since poncho is a term circumscribed to South America and its Mexican equivalent is called jorongo, it is not entirely clear whose idea it was. The most logical thing is that it was Simi's because, after all, he was hired as both a decorator and a costume designer and, in addition, there are designs of his in which the hero already appears well wrapped in his poncho —sorry..., jorongo—, but Clint Eastwood has always sworn and perjured himself that he brought all the costumes "from home". And between Christopher Frayling imparting his blessing to him and Clint quickly ascending to Hollywood myth, not only as an actor but also as a director, anyone dares to argue with it!

Needless to say, Simi was able to achieve all these design feats without going over the budget, not exactly comfortable, that Leone had for what would be his entry into the "Hall of Fame" of the European film industry.

The success of A Fistful of Dollars allowed the director to have good production resources for his next film, which was released in Italy at Christmas 1965 under the "derivative" title of Per qualche dollaro in più. In Spain it would not appear until September of the following year and with a title, Death Had a Price, which if on the one hand seemed to show a little more inventiveness, on the other reflected a somewhat frustrating reality: that A Fistful of Dollars had not had anywhere near the apotheosic reception it had in Italy[17].

[The bank of El Paso, from sketch to reality. It is not surprising that Carlo Simi introduces himself to Lee Van Cleef as the proud owner of the entity, Havana included.]

As for Simi, the economic improvements will allow him to use not only the Golden City in the introductory scene of Colonel Mortimer displaying his complex weapons display (although the interior of the saloon-hotel with the lady in the bathtub is recreated in Cinecittà), but also the Lega-Michelena village of Colmenar in the corresponding presentation of the character of the Manco and the newly built villaggio western of Cinecittà in the telegraph operator's scene, but the most important thing is what we have commented a few lines above: the opportunity he will have to build ex-novo a fantastic village with "real" buildings where to place one of the key moments of the film, the bank robbery in El Paso. Fortunately for pro cinephiles, this exquisite construction survived the end of the Golden Age of Almeria filming and currently shines every year as one of the venues of the Almeria Western Film Festival[18].

Another important difference of this new collaboration between Simi and Leone is the great work of locations, which in the previous one did not receive so much prominence: it is with their way of seeing and decorating them that the places of Almeria are going to be consecrated as genuine icons of the European western. In order not to bore the reader, I will limit myself to pointing out two: one is the church where the band of the Indio has its refuge, whose exterior corresponds to a military building, the Torre de los Alumbres, while the interior is really a church, Santa María de Turrillas, then in a serious state of abandonment; and the other is the threshing floor of Los Albaricoques that will be the scene of the final duel, so well tensioned by Morricone based on chime and trumpet.

And in the costume section, a special mention to Colonel Mortimer's stylized black suit, which Simi himself remodeled in 1969 to turn Lee van Cleef into Sabata, this time in the unabashedly fantastical context of a totally different character.

[14] Due to co-production quotas, a Spanish name had to be added, that of the veteran Antonio Momplet, who may have been in charge of some alternative scenes with Antonio Vico replacing the French mime Mac Ronay in the Spanish version. It is probably the only film in which the construction of Cubero and Galicia is "officially" presented as Golden City in the script. In mid-1963, the second western town in Spain was built in Colmenar Viejo, usually referred to by the name of its creators, [Augusto] Lega-[Félix] Michelena.

[15] El cine del Oeste en la Comunidad de Madrid, by Javier Ramos and Ángel Caldito (Madrid: Ediciones La Librería, 2019) provides abundant and rigorous information on Golden City and other Madrid settings. And, of course, whenever we talk about locations in the Mediterranean western, it is only fitting to cite Carlo Gaberscek and his encyclopedic compilation Il vicino West (Pasian di Prato: Ribis, 2007).

[16] For reasons unknown to me, there are still historians who place the filming in Cinecittà, I suppose because of the inertia that this name stimulates when talking about Italian cinema. Some reports in the Spanish press hint at the involvement of Madrid's CEA studios, but I don't think it went beyond providing filming material.

[17] The truth is that For a Fistful of Dollars was not distributed with much enthusiasm in Spain. In Barcelona, for example, it premiered on September 26, 1965 in a high-class cinema, the Coliseum, but it only remained on the billboard for a conventional week (between two "important" premieres, that is: American) and to cover the quota of national cinema required by the administration.

[18] There is an abundant bibliography on the filming in Almeria that I have cited in my books on the Mediterranean western. A recent publication that I would like to highlight, both for its expository clarity and for focusing on the films that we discuss in this text, is that of Juanen Pérez Miranda and Juan Gabriel García Cantón La Almería by Sergio Leone (Almería: Instituto de Estudios Almerienses / XV Festival de Cine de Almería, 2016).



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