The Film: 3/5
Alternately known as Une corde, un Colt (The Rope and the Colt), the hauntingly powerful Euro-western gem Cemetery Without Crosses has received its first official Blu-ray release by Arrow Video.
After her husband Ben is pursued and lynched by the vicious Rogers clan and her farm is burned to the ground, Maria Caine (Michele Mercier, Shoot the Piano Player!) turns to her former lover Manuel (Robert Hossein, Rififi), a gunslinger with a notorious reputation who leads a solitary existence in a ghost town, to help her exact vengeance on Ben’s murderers. Manuel reluctantly agrees and puts a plan into motion that involves infiltrating the Rogers’ ranks as their newest hired thug and orchestrating the abduction of the only daughter (Anne-Marie Balin) of the family patriarch (Daniele Vargas, The Arena). Naturally, the Rogers aren’t prepared to accept this without a little payback of their own, but just how far is Maria willing to go to avenge the memory of her unjustly murdered husband, and is Manuel ready to follow the woman he never stopped loving until her bloodlust is satisfied?
With eleven credits as a director to his name before he took the reins of Cemetery Without Crosses, Robert Hossein crafted his homage to the operatic widescreen western adventures of the legendary Sergio Leone along with co-writer Claude Desailly (who also handled scripting duties on the Hossein-helmed Death of a Killer and Rasputin). Future Italian horror icon Dario Argento also received a screenwriting credit, but his contribution to Cemetery remains open to debate. The film itself is rather modest and restrained in its tone and the strength of its violence, with Hossein and Desailly choosing instead to structure their narrative as a coldly efficient paean to the futility of vengeance that grips the viewer from its harrowing opening sequence - the relentless pursuit of Ben Caine by the Rogers family that begins in stark black and white and makes a Wizard of Oz-style switch to vibrant color after the credits conclude. The script is stripped almost completely of dialogue, relegating more than a few key scenes to play out as long stretches of silence where a single action speaks louder than an expositional monologue.
Hossein’s direction is assured and his cinematographer Henri Persin (The Sergeant) has an exquisite eye for capturing the imposing yet gorgeous desert vistas of Almeria, Spain (home to many classic spaghetti westerns), but as a filmmaker Hossein lacks the dynamic flourishes of his Italian peers. I speak of not just Sergio Leone, but Sergios Corbucci (Navajo Joe) and Sollima (The Big Gundown) as well as Enzo G. Castellari (Keoma) and Tonino Valeri (Day of Anger). The Paris-born Hossein brings a more elegiac sensibility to his director of Cemetery Without Crosses, making his film at times resemble the classical American westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The music score composed by Hossein’s late father Andre strongly resembles the calmer passages from some of Ennio Morricone’s greatest works for the big screen while also incorporating cues reminiscent of Nino Rota, but in the end it becomes its own unique soundtrack that benefits Cemetery greatly. The film’s upbeat theme song, “The Rope and the Colt”, was performed by the great British musician and producer Scott Walker during the early years of his solo period following the dissolution of his band the Walker Brothers and stands out among the other peppy Euro-western title tunes of the genre’s heyday.
A better director than actor here, Hossein doesn’t have hardly enough screen presence for his character Manuel to be regarded in the same company as Django, Sabata, and the Man with No Name, but he’s good enough to make the conflicted, lovelorn gunfighter a sympathetic lead. Mercier is a dangerous beauty as the revenge-driven Maria, her soul slowly fading as she pursues her vendetta against the Rogers clan. Vargas serves as a fine villain for the film, and Guido Lollobrigida (Red Sun) and Michel Lemoine (Succubus) offer solid support as Maria’s brothers-in-law drawn into her plot against their better judgment
The centerpiece of Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Cemetery Without Crosses – available in both Regions A and B – is an all-new 2K restoration of the film that was sourced from a 35mm Internegative because the original negative was considered too damaged to use as a source and no other elements in better shape could be located. It was then transferred in 1080p high-definition, framed in the original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The team tasked with the restoration effort clearly put in a lot of work and earned their pay getting Cemetery to look as best as possible, and needless to say the film will doubtlessly ever look as good as Arrow presents it here. Having said that, the quality of the source print has lingering issues that could never be fixed or removed, but for the most part the picture looks pretty good. The existing print damage only pops up from time to time and rarely acts as a distraction from the overall quality of the transfer. Grain content is consistently maintained throughout and kept at an acceptable level and the color timing is warm and balanced. Flesh tones and the increased sharpness of the visual detail really stand out here.
The video restoration is bolstered by a pair of uncompressed PCM 1.0 mono audio tracks presented in both English and Italian that were transferred from the original optical sound negatives. The English track is the better option for its robust volume and clear dialogue, but purists wishing to stick with the Italian audio will be pleasantly surprised by its improved condition as well. Dialogue, music, and sound effects mesh well together without drowning each other out thanks to the consistency in the volume levels. Occasionally permanent damage pops up on both tracks, but that is merely due to the condition of the sound elements, and much like the restored picture it never becomes a noticeable problem. English subtitles have been provided, and the option provided for the Italian soundtrack are newly translated.
Director/writer/star Robert Hossein is the subject of the recent interview featurette “Remembering Sergio” (5 minutes), in which he discusses with fondness his time spent living and working in Italy, rubbing elbows with Federico Fellini and Tony Curtis, making Cemetery Without Crosses, the Leone influence and how he came close to being in Once Upon a Time in the West, and more. I only wish this interview was a little longer. “Remembering” is in French with optional English subtitles.
“Location Report” (8 minutes) is a segment of the French television series Cinema from February 1968 that paid a visit to the set of Cemetery as it was in production, with vintage interviews with Hossein, Mercier, and Serge Marquand intercut with behind-the-scenes. Fans of the film will enjoy this feature, which is in black and white and in French with English subtitles. “Archive Interview with Robert Hossein” (3 minutes) was taken from an April 1968 episode of another French TV show, Cote d’Azur Actualities, and features Hossein in Monte Carlo speaking to an off-camera reporter about Cemetery Without Crosses among other things. In French with English subtitles. The original Italian theatrical trailer (4 minutes) is presented in standard definition and is the last of the disc-based supplements.
Arrow has also included a reversible cover sleeve featuring both new artwork created for this release by Sean Phillips and the original poster image as well as a collector’s booklet where you will find an essay about Cemetery Without Crosses written by Ginette Vincendeau and another essay by Rob Young focusing on Scott Walker’s soundtrack contributions and cinematic influences, illustrated with color stills from the film. Finally, this combo pack includes a bonus DVD copy containing a standard-definition presentation of the film along with the same bonus features from the Blu-ray.
An obscure, often unexceptional but still well-crafted and worthy entry in the Euro-western genre is resurrected thanks to another across-the-board solid effort from Arrow Video. Boasting a vastly improved 2K restored transfer and several meaty bonus features, Robert Hossein’s passionate ode to both the classical American westerns and the sweaty, bloody Italian shoot-em-ups they helped inspire will hopefully find the appreciative audience that has eluded it for decades.