Johnny Yuma

This is one of the three spaghetti westerns directed by Romolo Guerrieri, whose real family name was Girolami: he was Enzo G. Castellari (G = Girolami). As a director, he is best known for his final spaghetti western, 10,000 Dollars for a Massacre, today considered by many to be a minor classic.

With the help of her brother Pedro, money hungry Samantha Felton (Rosalba Neri) murders her much older husband, in order to lay her hands on his ranch and other properties. She then discovers that the old man has left everything to his nephew, a philandering gunslinger called Johnny Yuma (the kind of guy who can’t even remember the name of his sweetheart of the night before). Samantha hires an ex-flame, Carradine, to get rid of Johnny, but the two men become friends and eventually team up to face the army of gunmen sent out by the evil brother and sister to kill them.

Like 10,000 Dollars for a Massacre, Johnny Yuma is an interesting, but also a quite confusing spaghetti western. The script, co-written by Fernando di Leo has some Gothic influences. Rosalba Neri is deliciously wicked and tantalizingly sexy as the widow who hires her former lover to kill her late husband’s heir, only to find herself cornered by both men. She has a hilarious scene in which she undresses for her over-sexed parrot. There are a lot of continuity lapses (for instance Damon alternately using his right and left hand to shoot) and a Trinity like barroom brawl completely out of sync with the rest of the movie. Some of the scenes and story elements are as suggestive as they are puzzling. Johnny Yuma and Carradine exchange guns and holsters early on in the film (after the brawl in the saloon) while they clearly use different hands to shoot. The scene has a symbolic meaning: the supposed enemies become friends later on in the movie. Johnny even uses Carradine’s name when he goes into town. But symbolic, suggestive, homo-erotic or whatever: it remains an odd scene and unless both men, or their characters, are supposed to be ambidextrous it doesn’t seem very logical to exchange guns and holsters. There is a scene later in the movie where only Damon’s right hand is visible, so the villains think he’s unarmed; but when they want to shoot him, he suddenly pulls his gun with his left hand.

10,000 Dollars for a Massacre was an excellent SW, but marred a little by a protracted finale, set during a sand storm. Johnny Yuma has a protracted finale too, but at least it takes place in broad daylight; however, the tongue-in-cheek elements worked a bit better in the other movie. The character of the comical Mexican sidekick (played by Fidel Gonzalez) is quite annoying and the film is also a bit of a slow-starter. Some viewers think Mark Damon is irritating as the slyboots Johnny Yuma, others think it’s his best performance in a spaghetti western. I’ve never been a special fan of this actor, but he doesn’t really put me off either. I think the slightly mischievous character works well in the context of this movie in which none of the characters are trustworthy.

Guerrieri has a fresh directing style I like. He also has a very good sense of framing : I like his inventive use of mirrors, open windows etc. to create surprising effects (1). The violence is pretty strong (and bloody) for a film of 1967. An arm is broken (crrrack), Pedro tries to crush Johnny Yuma’s shoulders in a protracted and quite nasty torture scene and the scene in which the small Mexican boy Pepe is beaten and kicked to death, is certainly among the most horrifying moments you’ll ever experience in a spaghetti western. Guerrieri himself admitted that he preferred his other two westerns to Johnny Yuma because he thought the film was too violent (2). I don’t think it will upset many people today (although this scene with Pepe is still quite strong) but it might have scandalized critics at the time and maybe it’s one of those movies that gave the genre its bad name. Johnny Yuma is not perfect, but it’s a must see for genre fans.