Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

That Dirty Black Bag (Bron/Palomar, 2022)

 

More spaghetti?

 

Not for me, thanks. I’ve had enough.

 

There’s a generation of people who were teenagers or young adults in the mid-to-late 1960s, especially in Europe, for whom the spaghetti western is the Western.

 

Regular readers of this blog, both of them, will know that Jeff is of a slightly earlier provenance: he grew up with ‘proper’ Westerns and is not the spaghetti variant’s greatest fan.

 

One positive thing these low-budget rip-offs did, though, to be fair, was to fill theaters once more with people paying to see an oater, even if only a semi-oater, or an ersatz one, and the commercial success of these pictures and semi-cult status of their creators, the likes of Leone and Corbucci, had a kind of reverse-engineering effect on the true Western, which became spag-influenced. Look at High Plains Drifter or Barquero, for example. They were spaghetti all’americana.

 

Spaghetti westerns have bled into the original form gradually over the years, and many are the movies and TV shows this century which have been evidence of that. One thinks of Sukiyaki Western Django and the Campagna brothers’ Six Reasons Why in 2007 and in particular of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and his homage to Il Grande Silenzio, The Hateful Eight (2015).

 

But now we have a full return to spaghetti roots (it’s hard not to mix metaphors where spaghetti is concerned). The Italian company Palomar’s That Dirty Black Bag, a TV series created by Mauro Aragoni, Silvia Ebreul and Marcello Izzo for AMC+, now available on Paramount +, was shot in (among other locations) Almeria, the spiritual home of spaghetti (an entertaining concept). In content and style the show is a full return to the late-60s Italian western, only with budget and some artistic pretensions.

 

Fans of the first westerns of this type will rejoice. Others may have reservations, and not the Indian kind.

 

 

Although some of the most glaring faults of 60s Italian westerns (lousy dubbing, cretinous writing, cheap jangly music and so on) have been remedied in this one, the basic problems remain. In spaghetti westerns there are not good guys and bad guys, only bad guys and even worse guys. As a result, you don’t really root for any of them or hope they succeed in their quest (usually to get revenge or seek gold and this case both). Because all the male ones are unshaven, wear similar dirty clothes and grunt, it’s hard to distinguish them. Half the time I couldn’t really tell if this was the hero (well, not hero, central character, let’s say) or one of his many and various opponents. Even in the last-episode climactic showdown duel (hyped, à la Leone) I was confused as to who had been shot (I think it may have been both) and who killed (it turned out to be the other one).

 

There are actually too many characters, with a surfeit of different gangs and killers.

 

I didn’t like the music (Mick Giacchino) but at least it wasn’t sub-Morricone drivel.

 

The horses all look fancy European high-stepping jobs, not proper American nags, as indeed was the case with those European westerns of yore. They just look wrong. So do the wheeled conveyances, especially the fake stagecoaches.

 

At one point a character pays homage to Jack Elam by trapping a fly in a gun barrel. Fans will spot other quotations.

 

I suppose there are two main lead characters. One, Red Bill (Douglas Booth, outfitted and chomping on a cheroot Clintishly) is, inevitably, I suppose, a bounty hunter, an especially grisly one who chops off the heads of his victims and carries them around in the container of the title (Грязный чёрный мешок in Russian, I thought you’d like to know) because carting so many bodies about the West would be logistically problematical and, as the title of E1 has it, A Head Weighs Less Than a Body. Of course he is on a vengeance quest because some bad guys murdered his mother when he was eight and he will not rest until they are dead.

 

Bounty hunter Bill

 

The other, Sheriff McCoy, aka Marco – and there are a lot of aka’s around in this show – played by Dominic Cooper, looks like Red Bill in many respects, which was unfortunate, and he too, it will transpire, through the equally inevitable flashbacks, had a picaresque past.

 

Crooked sheriff McCoy

 

He and his older brother Carlo (Guido Caprino), now known as Bronson, ha ha, were members of a cruel gang of outlaws. We see them as street urchins in Rome, mugging some old guy, so they started their criminal ways early. It seems that they were the ones who did in Red Bill’s ma, so they’ll obviously perish, probably in the last episode.

 

Bad guy (or is it even worse guy, I can’t recall) Bronson

 

But there are dozens (too many) of sub-plots, one, for example, about a religious nut/farmer, Steve (Christian Cooke) and his unhappy wife Michelle (Zoe Boyle), unhappy because Steve loved a whore, Eve (Niv Sultan), and apparently still does, and their young mute son Dorian, probably not named for Gray (Lorenzo McGovern Zaini).

 

Eve, madam of the bordello, is also would-be town boss, though she is rather left hanging on that score

 

Then there’s a neighboring ruthless landowner, Thompson (Paterson Joseph), who wants Steve’s land because he is convinced there is gold on it (there is), and his henchmen, who look just like all the other even-worse guys.  There are sundry lawmen, brutal and corrupt of course, other whores in the bordello, another hired killer, Anderson (Travis Kimmel), who teaches young Red Bill the finer points of bounty hunting, oh loads of people.

 

Hired killer Anderson teaches studious pupil

 

Bronson seems to be in an occult secret society run by a femme fatale (Anna Chancellor), and they plan to offer a young girl in human sacrifice so that Bronson can become Governor, or something.

 

They all live near a former gold town that has run out of water.

 

Occasionally former enemies join forces, then betray each other.

 

Many people die, in grisly fashion, as required in spaghetti westerns.

 

Classic spag showdown in arid (and often nicely photographed) terrain

 

I didn’t find it easy to tell who all these people all were, or follow the intricate ins and outs of the plot. Probably I’d understand more a second time but I’m not prepared to devote another 400 minutes to doing that. Old spaghetti westerns were unmercifully bad but they were at least mercifully short.

 

The secret society business wasn’t resolved in the final episode (E8) but left as a cliffhanger and another season is projected. Unfortunately.

 

 

4 Responses

  1. Well, I like whores and thsi one is played by an attractive actress, but I like them better when played byClaire Trevor.

  2. Well, I like whores and this one is played by an attractive actress, but I like them better when played by Claire Trevor.

  3. Jeff, your write-up was worth the read for me to take in Barry’s comment, which made my evening.

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