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Unraveling Mentally in the Italian West: Black Jack (1968)

In this movie, where life seems to have no value, the bad has overtaken the Italian west. Black Jack (1968) is a film of brutal and abhorrently violent nihilism. Devoid of heroes, hell, even anti-heroes, it is a dirty, sinful, unlawful world that only the bad seem to inhabit. Black Jack Murphy (Robert Woods) is the leader of a gang of bandits who pull off intricate bank robberies. After the latest heist, his subordinates have finally gotten fed up with Black Jack’s usual high cut of the robbery. They feel he does not put his neck on the line, as they literally do with theirs, but just watches from the sidelines as the jobs are pulled off, not getting his hands dirty. After the robbery the gang decides to cut into Black Jack’s take, who then, using a well-hidden gun, turns the tables on them and rides off with all the money.

Black Jack is temporarily residing in a ghost town with his sister Estelle (Sascia Krusciarska) and her husband Peter (Nino Fuscagni). An Indian named Joe (Mimmo Palmara aka Dick Palmer) works as an intermediate for Black Jack and the gang, and when the gang finds Indian Joe after Black Jack has absconded with the bank take, they offer him a cut of the cash if he leads them to the ghost town where Black Jack is holed up. What happens next transforms the once youthful Black Jack into a crippled, revenge driven and mentally impaired shell of his former self. After their arrival at the ghost town and an exchange of gunfire, the gang accosts Black Jack’s sister Estelle and uses her: first as a bargaining chip to draw Black Jack out of hiding, and later to make Black Jack tell them where the money has been hidden. First though, after drawling Black Jack out of hiding, a vicious beating is administered, and a rope is hung off a roof beam, which is then tightly drawn around his neck, and the men take out some of their pent-up frustrations out on the suspended-suffering, near death Black Jack.

As dark as the mood is in the old saloon in the ghost town, where Black Jack hangs by his neck, it takes a much deeper, sinister turn when Sanchez (Rik Battaglia), the impromptu leader of the group of degenerates, first has a rapist turn with Estelle, and then hands the key to her room over to Indian Joe who has had a lustful eye on Estelle since the very first scene of the film. Two bullets are shot into Black Jack’s leg, for good measure, and he’s left for dead. The film then hits us with extreme cruelty, plunging the proceedings into an unfathomable heart-wrenching emotional depth, when Indian Joe walks out into the hot, dusty, ghost town, with Estelle’s scalp in his hands.

Black Jack is saved by his girlfriend Susan (Lucienne Bridou) who lives in the town where the robbery had occurred. She had happily arrived for a visit but was quickly taken amiss when she saw blood on the saloon steps. As he recovers, he does so with a gun in his hands, as he plots and plans his revenge. Promising Estelle’s husband Peter, as he sets out on his quest for revenge, that he’d bring Sanchez back to him, so he can extract his own revenge. Black Jack has been driven insane with hate and anger. The death of Estelle haunts him day and night. He systematically hunts down each of the men involved: Reb (Larry Dolgin), Billy (Goffredo Unger), Gordon (Fedrico Chentrens), Indian Joe, Sanchez and Miguel (Lucciano Bonanni), and brutally obtains his revenge, exposing their sins before killing them, like a deranged messenger from God. With each kill, Black Jack’s mental faculties slip further and further, to the far side of derangement. Everywhere he goes, the world is as mad as he is, and each kill, while evoking biblical comparisons to the seven deadly sins, wash over this amoral tale of a world devoid of meaning. Black Jack has lost everything that matters in his world, and for the bittersweet taste of revenge he has sacrificed his sanity… but in his world of hurt the only relief can be death.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Robert Woods a few years ago for a magazine called Multitude of Movies, and, amongst other things, he stated that the director Gianfranco Baldanello asked him to do some questionable ‘over the top’ acting after the death of Estelle. To me though, when Black Jack emerges after his sister’s death and his own near-death experience, he reacts seemingly like a man destroyed with hurt, pain, and a torn conscious would. The unfurrowing of his mental capacities suggests to the viewer his world of pain and adds to the unhinged portrayal of a man besides himself with a life crushing hurt.

As the 1960’s wore on, the Italian western genre veered further and further into nihilism, most notably in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film The Great Silence. Nihilism and revenge had always been a part of Italian westerns, starting as far back as 1964 in Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Other films would traverse the revenge/nihilism plot devices, including Django Kill… If You Live Shoot (1967), Django the Bastard (1969) and Vendetta at Dawn (1971). One of the last great Italian western films, Keoma (1976), also had a plot mired in nihilism and revenge, painting a dark world of racism and hate, and throwing Keoma into a world of injustice that just keeps spinning round and round.

With the Vatican located in Rome and the Second World War still a vivid memory, the use of both excessive violence and religious undertones reverberate through many Italian westerns. With the success of the Sergio Leone films, some Italian filmmakers began to instill their own social and political views into their films, taking at times masked and unmasked pot shots at both the religious suppression in the country, the old fascist regime, the post-war Christian Democracy Political party and even the American government. Films such as For a Few Dollars More, where the madman Ramon Rojos presides over his gang in a faux-sermon ceremony in an abandoned church, to the Brother Jonathon character in Django (1966) who hides behind the lord but will do anything for a dollar, to the assorted characters who don a religious habit and brandish a weapon, or act in the name of the lord in films like Kill and Pray (1967), Reverend Colt (1970) and others, holding religion at various degrees of piousness and disregard.

Robert Woods, a tall lanky American born actor is still active today. He appeared in many Italian westerns, including Five Dollars on One Ace (1965), My Name is Pecos (1966), Pecos Cleans Up (1967), Johnny Colt (1967), The Belle Starr Story (1968), Damned Hot Day of Fire (1968) and El Puro (1969) among others. Woods also appeared in a fistful of films for the legendary sleaze-master Jesus Franco, including one of the films on a recent twofer Blu-ray release from Dorado Films, Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff (1973).  The director Gianfranco Baldanello directed a total of seventeen films, with Black Jack being his most accomplished. He also helmed most notably the films Kill Johnny Ringo (1966), This Man Can’t Die (1968), and he directed Woods once again, along with the great William Berger in Colt in the Hand of the Devil (1973).

Now on to the new DVD release from Wild East Productions, Black Jack is included in a new twofer along with The Belle Starr Story (1968), and both films have never looked better. The forever hard to find Black Jack is a pure revelation on the new Wild East Productions release. With only inferior alternative market DVD’s floating around with an English language print for years, the Wild East release looks the best it ever has and this release really enhances the wonderful score by Coriolano Gori. The Wild East Productions release includes interviews with the always entertaining George Eastman, and briefly with Robert Woods and Mimmo Palmara. Picture galleries and Black Jack theatrical trailer are also included.

Black Jack is a vicious, uncompromising film that is as black as the blackest heart. A cautionary tale of the loss of morals and the effects of lives being lived against the religious righteousness of the day. A story of a man and his journey to hell.

About Mike Hauss

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