Stabbed in the Back – Rediscovering ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ / Amore, Piombo e Furore (Italy/Spain 1978 – 102 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - December 07, 2015
Stabbed in the Back – Rediscovering ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ / Amore, Piombo e Furore (Italy/Spain 1978 – 102 mins)

Taking its title from a signpost between two remote towns, Monte Hellman’s ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ is an unusual and thought-provoking western that used to play regularly on late-night TV. Coming rather late in the genre, it’s not your typical western, in that it is sex and not money that’s the primary motivation for the central characters actions.

While in prison and awaiting his hanging, macho gunslinger Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is offered a full pardon if he agrees to kill greedy rancher Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates), whose land is wanted by local barons, who need it to expand their railroad on. Instead of killing Matthew, Clayton befriends him and also his beautiful but lonely young wife Catherine (Jenny Agutter). The two have an affair, and when Matthew finds out, Catherine stabs him, leaving him for dead. Catherine and Clayton decide to run away together, but are soon being pursued by a recovering Matthew, his angry brothers, and gunmen working for the railroad, who now want both Matthew and Clayton dead.

While it’s no classic and relies a bit too much on the romantic angle, what elevates this movie is the excellent international cast. Euro hunk Fabio Testi makes a rather stiff western lead, but Jenny Agutter is very good as the sexually frustrated Catherine, and has numerous nude bathing scenes. Taking the acting honors is cult icon Warren Oates, whose last western this was, and there’s also a nice cameo from director Sam Peckinpah, playing a writer. Familiar character actor Sydney Lassick also appears, and German horror beauty Helga Liné also pops up as an Innkeeper’s wife.

Director Monte Hellman had begun his career working for Roger Corman, for whom he made the 1966 Jack Nicholson westerns ‘The Shooting’ and ‘Ride in the Whirlwind’. He went on to make the cult Warren Oates pictures ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ (’71) and ‘Cockfighter’ (’74), before slumming it much later with ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!’ (’89). Italian composer Pino Donaggio provided the beautifully score, and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno would garner great success the following year for his work on Bob Fosse’s ‘All that Jazz’ (’79).

While there are the usual brothel scenes and occasional shootouts, the movie often feels more like a romantic drama than it does a gritty western, even if the romance doesn’t win out at the end. Either way though, ‘China 9, Liberty 37’ is a very good picture, and while it lacks pace at times, this uneven yet interesting movie has enough going for it, especially if you’re a fan of the three leads or the Italian spaghetti westerns of the Sixties.

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