The Ruthless Four (1968)
“In the Tradition of “Treasure of Sierra Madre””
The Ruthless Four (1968)
Director: Giorgio Capitani
Cast: Van Heflin, Gilbert Roland, Klaus Kinski
Synopsis: Four men seek gold in a hostile desert.
Van Heflin (3:10 to Yuma) is Sam Cooper, a lifelong gold prospector dogged by misfortune in Giorgio Capitani’s little-seen Spaghetti Western, The Ruthless Four. As the film opens, we see the ageing prospector narrowly avoid being murdered at the hands of his greedy partner after successfully mining a seam of gold. Although Cooper manages to turn the tables on his now very ex-partner, he’s unable to transport their entire haul back to civilisation on his own. So, with pack horses loaded with just a fraction of the gold, he treks across an unforgiving desert, almost losing his life once more before eventually making it back to town.
Cooper renews contact with Manolo (George Hilton), his surrogate son, hoping that the younger man will help him mine the remote stake. But, although Cooper can’t see it, Manolo is a moral weakling over whom a sadistic villain named Brent il Biondo (Klaus Kinski – For a Few Dollars More, Crawlspace) has some undisclosed hold. So one becomes three – and then four when, fearing he needs someone in his corner if the other two turn on him once he leads them to the gold, Cooper approaches a former soldier named Mason (Gilbert Roland), who makes no secret of the fact that he blames Cooper for receiving a prison sentence during which he contracted malaria.
In some ways, The Ruthless Four is a typical mid-era Spaghetti Western. It features a couple of ageing American stars whose careers were on the wane, and bears the stamp of Leone’s influence in its direction and editing style. However, unlike most of the bland imitations that rode the coat-tails of Leone’s success from the mid-1960s, The Ruthless Four is a keenly observed saga of greed, mistrust and betrayal in which the characters are more important than the shoot-‘em-up action.
There’s an air of inevitable defeat surrounding Heflin’s character which entices us into sharing his perpetual hopefulness in the face of bruising experience. While he’s not quite blind to the dangers inherent in the decisions he takes, Cooper’s burning desire for wealth at least ensures he will almost always ignore any nagging doubts he might have. With his grizzled, sunburned face and weary countenance, Heflin certainly looks the part, and he and Roland – whose pencil moustache is thinner than his eyebrows – provide some welcome individuality to counter Hilton’s youthful blandness. Kinski, who looks like a vampire in every movie he’s in, also makes an impression, despite having less screen time than the other men.
The Ruthless Four inevitably invites comparisons with John Huston’s similar Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but whereas Huston’s film explored the corrosive influence of unimaginable riches on essentially decent men, the characters in Giorgio Capitani’s lesser movie are all deeply flawed to begin with. It’s a good movie though – much better than most Spaghetti Westerns from the late 1960s – and deserves to be more widely seen.
(Reviewed 6th September 2015)