Although it doesn't rival director John Huston's legendary classic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) with Humphrey Bogart, "The Ruthless Four" qualifies as a taunt, entertaining little Spaghetti western that ranks several Stetsons above its European competitors. Roughly speaking, for the sake of simplicity, Spaghetti westerns can be classified in three groups: the traditional Sergio Leone epics with bounty hunters galore in the arid Southwest, such as "For A Few Dollars More" (1965), while the non-traditional Spaghetti westerns varies the settings or protagonists, principally Sergio Corbucci's "The Big Silence" (1968) where the action occurred closer to the Canadian border than the dusty Mexican border as was the Leone custom. Corbucci's off-beat westerns steer clear of traditional elements, preferring to rearrange them, as exemplified in Corbucci's "Django" (1966) where the hero dragged around a coffin with a Gatling gun style machine gun in it. Mind you, Corbucci made westerns that accommodated all three groups, but his different westerns emerge with greater prominence. "Navajo Joe" (1966) with Burt Reynolds as the Native American protagonist qualified as another example of an out of the ordinary Corbucci oater. Similarly, director Lucio Fulci's "Four Gunmen of the Apocalypse" (1975) is another example of this different breed of European western. The third group is Corbucci inspired, too: the Mexican revolution westerns. Leone rode around this sub-genre until he helmed "Duck You Sucker" in 1973. These westerns usually featured a mercenary as the protagonist, such as Franco Nero in "The Mercenary" (1968) and "Companeros" (1970) who sold his services to the highest bidder during the war between the corrupt Mexican government and the poor peons at the dawn of the 20th century. Typically, however, he reformed by the finale to take sides with the peons. Marxist theorists would crave these yarns for their political ramifications. Admittedly, this analysis reduces the entire Spaghetti western genre to a single bullet in the cylinder of a Colt's .45 revolver.
"The Ruthless Four" fits into the second group of Spaghetti westerns in terms of its protagonists. Sam Cooper (Van Heflin of "Shane") excels as a crusty old prospector who strikes pay dirt with his partner at a remote mine carved out of a slope in the middle of nowhere. Cooper's partner double-crosses him and tries to kill him, but Cooper outsmarts his adversary and kills him in a mine explosion. Cooper barely survives the journey of hardship back to town. Along the way, human carrion steals his pack horses at gunpoint and leaves him stranded at a river with his goods strewn around him. Cooper gathers what little that he can carry, then does something that no other character has ever done before in any Spaghetti--much less an American--western; he pours out the gold that he cannot tote into the river! Sam Cooper has a moral compass that doesn't deviate from the right setting, and this explains his longevity. Once he reaches town, Cooper decides to wire a $100 dollars to a kid that he helped raise before he turned to prospecting. He realizes that he cannot trust a partner after his last experience, so he beckons for Manolo Sanchez (George Hilton of "Sartana's Coming, Get Your Coffins Ready") to join him. Unfortunately, Cooper doesn't realize that Manolo has grown into a man who is drastically different from the boy that Cooper raised. First, Manolo is a liar, a cardsharp, and cheat; second, Manolo is in cahoots with an enigmatic but evil hombre named 'Brent the Blond' (Klaus Kinski of "And God Said to Cain") who dresses like a preacher, drinks milk in the saloon, and proves as deadly as a rattlesnake. Later, after they reach the mine and we actually see them excavating rocks, Brent looks like death personified with a pick-ax instead of a scythe. He wears a cloak and the dust from their exertions covers his striking features so that he resembles the Grim Reaper. Manolo's inclusion of Brent surprises Cooper so much that he convinces a man with a grudge against him, Mason (the incomparable Gilbert Roland of "Any Gun Can Play") to come along with them as he tells the others "because four men can dig more gold than three." Earlier, Manolo had used this idea to justify Brent accompanying them. This uneasy quartet spends the rest of the movie keeping their suspicious eyeballs on each other. Mason blames Cooper for his incarnation in a Florida prison and his subsequent contraction of malaria.
Director Giorgio Capitani stages a first-class gunfight at the ruins of a monastery as our heroes head off into the desert for the mine. The elaborate pretense that Mason and Brent engage in prior to the shoot-out is clever. They want to have their guns in hand without the villains noticing that they have drawn them. Inconspicuously, our protagonists rely on sleight of hand to remove each other's pistol without attracting attention. This way Mason and Brent can start blazing away a lot sooner at their ambushers. The unusual relationships that exist between the protagonists generate considerable tension throughout this 96-minute melodrama. The characters are more complex than in the usual Spaghetti. The Augusto ("Grand Slam") Caminito and Fernando Di Leo ("Mr. Scarface") screenplay makes the subtle implication that Manolo and Brent are homosexuals.
'The Ruthless Four" differs from most Spaghetti westerns. First, the hero is not a bounty hunter. Second, the protagonist is the oldest of the quartet and he doesn't wield a six-gun like a wizard. Composer Carlo Rustichelli, who scored two Terrence Hill westerns—"Ace High" and "Boot Hill"—doesn't provide an operatic Ennio Morricone orchestral soundtrack. Fourth, "The Ruthless Four" is a realistic morality play; the good are rewarded for their virtue while the evil are punished with death for their perfidy. Meanwhile, this western shares some traits with the Leone western. Nobody is to be trusted. Greed is the central theme with paranoia rampant in the relationship among the quartet. Nobody gets out of this gritty oater without catching a bullet.