Accused of murdering a local bigwig, Phillip Vermeer (Peter O’Brien) is on the run from bounty hunters. Holed up in rundown town, he is rescued by the enigmatic Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef), who claims to know who really pulled the trigger and arrests Vermeer for his own protection. Turns out the bounty hunters are really working for David Saxon (Horst Frank) and his brothers, new sheriff Eli (Marc Mazza) and the psychotic Adam (Klaus Grünberg), who use their father’s murder to seize control over the whole town and are angling for Vermeer’s silver mine. Vermeer escapes custody to seek revenge, while ice-cool Clayton bides his time…
Steely-eyed Lee Van Cleef is on fine form here, right from the opening sequence where he strides nonchalantly into a violent town with a dozen rifles aimed at his head. This was the first movie, and apparently the only spaghetti western, directed by Giancarlo Santi who served as assistant director to the great Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Santi does some interesting things with the scope frame, like a chase scene shot from overhead so the participants look like ants scurrying across the mountains, and adds surreal gags like the moment Clayton appears to catch a bullet between his teeth, or when the townsfolk clap their shoes after a gunfight. There are several, well-orchestrated, acrobatic stunts reminiscent of the gimmicky westerns of Gianfranco Parolini.
Like Death Rides A Horse (1967) and The Big Gundown (1966), this pairs Van Cleef with a younger, hot-headed co-star. He and Peter O’Brien (real name: Alberto Dentice - he later enjoyed a successful journalistic career) spar well together, as Vermeer’s escape attempts are repeatedly foiled by Sheriff Clayton’s near-supernatural prescience. The Saxon clan are an intriguingly dysfunctional family of villains, who refer to their late father solely as “the Patriarch.” Presiding over a gang of foppish long-haired hippie types, white-suited, pockmarked, closet homosexual Adam ticks all the spaghetti villain boxes. He positively drools whilst machine-gunning an entire wagon train community. There is a sketchy subplot about Adam’s reluctant, yet politically advantageous marriage to the wealthy Elisabeth (Dominique Darel), whose inexplicable romantic attachment to Vermeer is the victim of either a poor script or awkward editing. Giancarlo Santi has mentioned an elaborate striptease routine was cut from the finished print, but it is this abrupt, nonsensical love story that needs clarification.
Though the narrative sags badly at times, the core mystery is well assembled, one intriguing piece at a time by regular giallo scripter Ernesto Gastaldi. It isn’t too hard to guess the identity of the murderer, although it remains a fun twist. A bigger mystery might be why Clayton waits till the hangman’s rope is around poor Vermeer’s neck before he takes a stand. The climactic four-way standoff is obviously indebted to Leone, but fizzles out rather disappointingly bereft of real tension. Luis Bacalov and Sergio Bardotti’s score is mostly unremarkable, although their spooky, harmonica-driven title theme was used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill (2003).