Friday, March 15, 2019

Redux Reviews :: How the West was Weird: Shatner vs. Shatner in José Méndez's White Comanche (1968)

You'll know right off the bat you're in for a real gonzo treat of the cinematic variety when our Frijole Refritos Western cues up and the first thing we hear as our boy rides into frame is a canned wolf-howl culled from the archives of the Children's Television Workshop. Yee-HAW!

Now. Our boy is none other than William "Wild Bill" Shatner, who plays both the forlorn drifter, Johnny Moon, and his evil twin, Notah; a peyote-bogarting, no-goodnik renegade Comanche with a Messiah complex, who also has the local tribe stirred up and on the warpath. This, obviously, is the root-cause for much of our hero's forlornness and, tired of being mistaken for his outlaw brother by all the resulting lynch-mobs, Moon challenges Notah to an old-fashioned showdown to put at least one of them out of the other’s misery. When Notah initially waffles at this ultimatum, Moon says he'll be waiting in the nearby town of Rio Hondo when his brother changes his mind and finally settles things for good.

Of course, Rio Hondo is one of those western towns where two rival factions are trying to stamp each other out. And both sides feel a man with such skills as Moon could tip the scales in their favor. But, Moon has no interest in such matters, feeling there's a pretty good chance he'll be dead in a few days anyway; so everything else is kinda moot. Besides, he's too busy avoiding both the local sheriff (Cotten) and several shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later bounty hunters, and wooing the local saloon girl (Yanni) -- well, as soon as she stops trying to kill him, that is.

See, seems she was attacked and raped by Notah; and naturally, she at first mistakes Moon for the man who violated her. But then our boy loses his shirt and gives her that look -- you know the one I'm talking about ... Head slightly cocked to the side, a raised eyebrow, and the hint of a grin; a grin that knows all your untold secrets that's about to break wide-open. And soon enough, the girl is all hot and bothered to sample the *ahem* “Captain's Log."

Anyways ... Several soul-searching scenes, padded-out side-stories, including one concerning Notah's pregnant wife that must be seen to be truly believed, and about, oh, four or five massacres later, the film at last stumbles upon a climax, where Moon and Notah finally decide to settle things, Shatner-o a Shatner-o, in a deadly climactic duel / joust / game of armed chicken.

Also along for the ride in White Comanche (1968) was Joseph Cotten as the town sheriff; a salty veteran actor, who helped extend his career by running around all over Europe and adding his screen-cred to the likes of this, Lady Frankenstein (1971) and Baron Blood (1972). This was the second screen team-up for for Shatner and Cotten in 1968, who both co-starred in Phil Karlson and Robert Pirosh's equally jaw-dropping TV-movie adaptation of Alexander the Great (1968).

Truth told, that failed pilot was shot back in 1964 but was deemed too expensive and was shelved indefinitely -- only to be unearthed again when Shatner and Adam West, who also had a small but pivotal role in that oddball combo of The Rat Patrol meets the 300 Spartans (1962), became household names when their respective TV franchises, the Trek and the Bat, hit big. And it was during Star Trek's (1966-1969) second season hiatus that Shatner was lured over to Spain for this exploitation quickie; and judging by what we see on screen, I think they blew half the budget on the plane ticket just to get him over there.

As for Shatner’s other co-star, we have the stupefyingly gorgeous Rosanna Yanni. This Argentinian beauty broke into film with a few Paul Naschy fright flicks but is probably most remembered from when she teamed up with the equally eye-popping Janine Reynaud in Jess Franco's wonderfully demented Red Lips double-dip, Sadist Erotica (-- Two Undercover Angels, 1969), and Bésame monstruo (-- Kiss Me, Monster, 1969), where our two femme fatales play detectives / cat-burglars in a Danger: Diabolik (1968) vein and foil a couple of kidnapping plots as Franco piles on the eye-candy, kitschy decor, and swanky absurdity to such Herculean levels it's almost impossible to process it all. But, who cares! And by all means check them out!

Behind the camera four sets of hands had their fingers in the plot-pot for this oddity. Along with an uncredited assist by the film's director, José Briz Méndez, and Manuel Gómez Rivera, Robert Holt and Frank Gruber hammered out the script for Comanche Blanco -- a/k/a White Comanche a/k/a Rio Hondo; a script that takes all the basic elements of spaghetti westerns past and systematically checks them off as the story progresses passed each yard-stick.

I honestly thought Holt and Gruber were perhaps "American" names adopted by their Spanish counterparts to help it sell, but according to the IMDB the pair had a long and storied career writing for the old Boob-Tube. And although Méndez and cinematographer, Francisco Fraile, manage a few interesting setups they become a little too obsessed with some trick mirror shots that were cool the first three times they used it but began to wear thin by the seventh or eighth refraction. 

And adding even more to the surrealism of the proceedings is Jean Ledrut's plunky-guitar and horn-heavy soundtrack, which sounds like the interstitial muzak from some 1960s game show that was then cross-pollinated with a perky ditty from some vintage porn-loop. So, yeah, it doesn't fit the action or setting of White Comanche all that well.

But, you say, we're here for the Shatners, right? Right. As the ancient Hollywood proverb goes, "When you want somebody to play half-breed Comanche twins, you go for the Canadian Jew." Yeah, well, truthfully, though he veers into full-blown Smarmy McSmarmo mode more often than not, where he brings the Grade-A ham something fierce, especially during the fight scenes, our boy actually manages to bring some gravitas to the role of Johnny Moon. But as good as he is with that half of the equation Shatner totally screws the pooch with the other; as he portrays Notah with all the subtlety and nuance of a game of Whack-A-Mole.

Part of the problem lies with the script, which calls for a climax where we can't keep track of which twin is which during the deadly duel, which, in turn, also calls for Notah to be clean-shaven, clean-cut, with the perfect Wild Bill wave of hair, for all of his other scenes -- where, on top of all that hootin', hollerin', and war-whoop'n, his evil sneer makes him look like ... well, kind of an idiot.

I also think it's fair to warn potential viewers that even though a movie which promises and delivers William Shatner as belligerent half-breed Indian twins, White Comanche is not a whole can of lunacy from beginning to end. Expectation can be a bitch seldom satisfied, which is why, in the end, this film is a bit of a conundrum on the whole so bad it's good scale. Sure, there are some blinding flashes of whackadoodle stoopid to be found here; but in between those Notah interludes are a lot of dull stretches and soggy subplots to contend with and conquer. Just remember: when a movie sounds too good to be true it usually is. Keep that in mind when you pop this into your DVD player, and you should be good to go.

White Comanche a/k/a Comanche Blanco (1968) Producciones Cinematográficas A.B. :: International Producers Corporation / EP: Vicente Gómez, Philip N. Krasne / P: Sam White / AP: Bruce Yorke / D: José Briz Méndez, Gilbert Kay / W: José Briz Méndez, Manuel Gómez Rivera, Frank Gruber, Robert I. Holt / C: Francisco Fraile / E: Javier Morán, Gaby Peñalba, Nicholas Wentworth / M: Jean Ledrut / S: William Shatner, Joseph Cotten, Rosanna Yanni, Perla Cristal, Luis Rivera

1 comment:

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