"What's extraordinary is that a man like me has been a spectator for so many years before discovering the force within. Do you know what an intelligent man can do in a place like this where the most ignorant have been able to dominate?"
Perhaps more than any other western, Faccia a Faccia/Face to Face confronts the nature and morality of violence head on. Gian Maria Volonte plays an underachieving unambitious and consumptive Professor of History who goes west for his health. Kidnapped by Tomas Milian's uneducated killer, he finds himself being drawn away from being a spectator to become a willing participant in his violence. Soon he takes a more dominant role, planning their raids and then, when the remainder of the gang are either killed or captured, rejecting them for their weakness and turning the commune of losers where they hide out into a doomed dictatorship.
The principal characters are mere bandits rather than revolutionaries, pursuing no political agenda, yet the political content is much more overt than in better known political paella westerns like Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General. It is certainly the better directed film, with a good visual sense that runs through the entire film rather than in sporadic scenes. There are still some of the usual paella western problems (some, such as the clumsiness with the passage of time, down to cuts when the film was trimmed for the US market, are redressed in the uncut version) but the film is clearly thought through and superbly realised.
The equation of intellect and violence is made from the very beginning, where Volonte crumples up the pages of a book to throw at a lizard to wile away his boredom. At first he's confused, unable to distinguish between the rules of survival and overriding instinct, and when he adapts to his environment he goes to extremes because of the weakness of character that makes him the most civilized of men among civilized company and the most violent in violent company. His actions are more abhorrent than Milian's for the reasoning behind them. As he points out, they both do the same things "but with a difference. I know what I'm doing." It is his cold calculation that finally gives the bandit's instinctive violence and the Pinkerton agent who betrays him a sense of moral superiority.
Unfortunately, his growing megalomania is interrupted by the intervention of an army of vigilantes who are not too particular about who they kill, leaving some of the film's potential untapped, but it is never a disappointment. Indeed, it is full of striking and memorable moments. Two rival bosses greet each other civilly and sit down to watch their respective hired guns battle it out in the street below; a robber compliments the Pinkerton man on his shooting as he dies; Volonte discusses the philosophy of violence with the 'intellectual equal' he is torturing - "One violent soul is just an outlaw.. but violence by masses of men is called history."
Volonte, as the Kevin Kline-ish academic who adapts to his violent surroundings like a moral chameleon, and Milian as the gradually more disconcerted bandit are both superb in their very different styles of performance (the two actors apparently took an instant dislike to each other that Sollima exploited for dramatic effect), giving considerably more layered and subtle performances than is the norm for the genre even if Volonte does rather overplay the professor's timidity in his early scenes. Ennio Morricone's fractured, tormented score, while far from his most melodic, is easily one of his best and compliments both the film's ideas and images admirably. Both engrossing and entertaining, Faccia a Faccia is one of the very best westerns of the sixties and one that never lets its audience suffer for its considerable intelligence and ambition.
It's certainly a departure from Sollima's previous film with Milian, The Big Gundown, with its studio imposed happy ending, or their subsequent treasure hunt capers in Run Man Run. In many ways it's the kind of film that could only have come from a country trying to come to terms with how so many intelligent people not only supported and intellectually justified its fascist dictatorship but willingly joined in with its crimes as well. Although co-writer Sergio Donati felt the script over-emphatic, it's a remarkably economic affair, packing a lot into many of its scenes - emotional beats as much as ideas - without ever letting them seem overloaded or interrupting the natural flow of the story or the character development.
The old Aktiv video release was an English-language version that was cut for US release, but thankfully Eureka's much delayed PAL DVD/Blu-Ray is the uncut Italian-language version running 16 minutes longer in its original ratio. The additions are surprisingly substantial - particularly a long scene where Volante, overplaying the timidity, is unable to cut the bullet out of Milian's wound, so the bandit does it himself; a telling sequence where Volante is able to shoot at targets but not a live rabbit; an attempted seduction; the Pinkerton man buying his way into the gang by killing a sheriff; Brad cheering up an old outlaw he later mistreats; the authorities discussing how Brad has become worse than his mentor; and Bennett getting him into a gunfight to see if he really has the killer instinct.
There's also a 16-minute interview with Sollima, the Italian trailer (minus captions) and, in much poorer quality, the American trailer as well as a 16-page booklet. The picture quality is certainly the best it's ever looked on home video, though like many Techniscope films you'll notice the limitations of the source material if you watch it on too big a screen (the `poor man's CinemaScope,' Techniscope used only half of a 35mm frame for its widescreen image, with a noticeable reduction in quality). All in all a forgotten Italian western well worth remembering.