20 June 2008 | chaos-rampant
The spaghetti western genre goes out with a bang...
By 1977, the spaghetti western was already on its death throes and if I'm not horribly mistaken, Mannaja is the last major release in the genre. These latter day spaghetti westerns are all visibly different from the 67-71 ones in that they tried to push the envelope in different ways. Ironically the vast amount of tired, quickie Django and Sartana clones that sprung in the late 60's weren't the final nail in the coffin. It seems that after westerns like Mannaja the genre had nowhere to go, having explored every nook and cranny of the old west and milked every bit of potential in the process.
Sergio Martino was not a regular spaghetti western director. He made his name through a series of fantastic giallo thrillers in the early 70's (All the Colours of the Dark, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh etc) but he was generally a genre director who dabbled with anything that came his way. As a testament to his talent, he was usually successful, often with stunning results. He had tried his hand on the western once more in the Anthonio De Steffen vehicle Arizona Colt Returns, which was a pleasurable entry but business as usual for the most part. Mannaja is markedly different in that it strives for more. It has ambition and the means to pull it off.
Strangely, Mannaja takes its cue from Enzo G. Castellari's incredible Keoma (or as it was retitled for commercial purposes, Django Rides Again) from one year earlier. Maurizio Merli's Mannaja bears more than a passing resemblance to the dirty and grim looking Keoma played by Franco Nero, there are several beautiful slo-mo shots, a dream-like atmosphere in places, it's quite brutal (a hand is chopped, a woman is whipped, a man gets an axe in his head, old ladies and other innocent bystanders are shot and killed) and the score is very weird by spaghetti western standards and it can be as annoying as Keoma's (although I didn't mind the latter). Just as Keoma, it doesn't shy away from taking risks and luckily it pays off, no least thanks to Martino's skillful directing. There's visual awesomeness to be found throughout the movie. Striking compositions are enhanced by great set design lending a gritty feeling to everything from the dilapidated town to the dirty clothes to the muddy streets. Nature plays a big part in how the movie looks: rain, mud, fog are all used to great effect, the last shootout in the fog adding a surreal, ghost-town quality to it. The look of the first half hour reminded me of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller for some reason, with a dash of Django. It also appears to be very much influenced by the work of Sam Peckinpah, whom Sergio Martino himself cites as an inspiration. Generally it's equal parts gritty and atmospheric and with enough budget to hold everything on the seams.
Maurizio Merli made his name in the Italian movie business by playing violent Dirty Harry-esquire cops in polizioto crime flicks and was quite successful as a genre actor. He can play the mean machine effortlessly and it's a real pleasure to watch him as a badass bounty hunter here. A real shame that he didn't do more westerns and even more so that he passed away 4-5 years after making this one. The rest of the cast all turn in fine performances.
Mannaja might have come during the twilight of the spaghetti western but it's easily one of the best it has to offer. A must-see for fans.