Following their excellent John Phillip Law: Diabolik Angel (see review here), authors Carlos Aguilar and Anita Haas have turned their attention to an interesting, if rather less well-known, figure of Sixties’ and Seventies’ European popular cinema, the Spanish director Eugenio Martín. Best known abroad for two stupendously awful Euro Westerns, Bad Man’s River and Pancho Villa (both 1971) and that perennial late-night favourite, Horror Express (1972), Martín may seem rather unlikely material for a book-length study, but, as suggested by its title, Eugenio Martín: un autor para todos los géneros (roughly, ‘Eugenio Martín: An Author for Every Genre’), it is his work in a wide variety of genres, and particularly his career as a gun-for-hire throughout Spain’s peak years as a low-cost location for international co-productions, that should prove of interest to readers of Cinema Retro.
At which point, a word of warning – unlike Diabolik Angel, which has text in both Spanish and English, Eugenio Martín has Spanish text only. Published in conjunction with the Retroback Classic Cinema Festival of Granada (see Anita’s report for Cinema Retro by clicking here), this obvious drawback as far as non-Spanish-speaking readers is concerned is to a large extent negated by the mass of production stills and posters which illustrate the book.
Born in Ceuta in 1925, Martín’s earliest memories are of the Civil War, during which his family’s friends and neighbours were regularly rounded up and arrested by the Nationalist rebels who controlled the Mediterranean port. Martín also recalls being traumatised by the sight of blood splashed across the front door of his home after a child was killed in the street outside by shelling from government ships. Later, the family moved inland to the city of Grenada, where Martín began to shed the Catholic indoctrination of his childhood through a growing involvement with the arts. Following the publication of a book of poetry, heavily influenced by García Lorca and León Filipe, Martín, then at university, founded the city’s first film society, its choice of screenings subject to Church approval.
After completing his military service, Martín decided to leave Franco’s Spain for exile in Mexico but was persuaded by a former professor to apply for a place at the splendidly-named Institute of Cinematic Investigation and Experiences in Madrid. Having already made a well-received short film entitled Viaje romántico a Grenada, Martín was accepted, and proceeded to make a further two, prize-winning, shorts on aspects of Grenadan life. With backing from a wealthy local family and a cinema owner, Martín then succeeded in making his feature début, called Despedida de soltero (‘Farewell to the Single Life’), in 1957.
It was at this point in time that British and American film companies began using Spain as an inexpensive location, and Martín soon found work as an assistant on various co-productions, beginning with Terence Young’s Zarak in 1957 and continuing, in various capacities, on such titles as The Singer Not the Song, Chase a Crooked Shadow, and The 7th. Voyage of Sinbad (all 1958), and the Samuel Bronston epic, King of Kings in 1960. Regarding the latter production, Martín, who worked on the Sermon on the Mount sequence, remembers being equally impressed both by Robert Ryan’s quiet professionalism and by Harry Guardino’s loutish and drunken behaviour. Maintaining that he learned more during his three weeks under Nicholas Ray’s direction than on all the previous films combined, Martín ended this period of his career thoroughly familiar with the requirements of international co-productions and, more importantly, with a solid grasp of English.
Martín’s talent for foreign languages was further enhanced as he proceeded to direct a number of European co-production features with casts drawn from Italy, France, and Germany. Bizarrely, the first of these, a pirate yarn called Los corsarios del Caribe (‘Conqueror of Maracaibo’,1961), was backed by Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic organisation of sinister repute, which, according to Martín, expressed no interest whatsoever in the sort of films he made as long as they contained no sex. His best film of the early Sixties, in the authors’ opinion, was Hipnosis (1962, released as Hypnosis in the United States and as Dummy of Death in the UK), a black-and-white thriller concerning a malignant ventriloquist’s dummy, apparently along similar lines to the Michael Redgrave episode of Dead of Night (1945) and Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978).
In 1966, Martín made his first, and by far his best, foray into the Western genre with The Bounty Killer (retitled The Ugly Ones in America, and known in Spain as El precio de un hombre). An adaptation of the novel by Marvin H. Albert (who also provided the source material for The Law and Jake Wade and Duel at Diablo, among others), it had been recommended to Martín by his former scriptwriting lecturer, José G. Maesso, better known as the co-writer of Sergio Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay, Django, and The Hellbenders. Maesso,who also co-produced Savage Guns, arguably the first post-war Euro Western, in 1961, then set up production with the wife of Arrigo Colombo (of Fistful of Dollars fame) and tried to involve scriptwriter (and director of the Ringo films) Duccio Tessari in the project.
The latter, however, was already working with Sergio Leone on what would become For a Few Dollars More. And this is where, historically speaking, things get very interesting indeed. Martín maintains, correctly it would seem, that his film was the first European Western to feature a bounty hunter as the main protagonist, and believes that the idea may have filtered, via Tessari, into Leone’s script. It will be recalled, of course, that the original treatment for Leone’s film, written by Fernando Di Leo and Enzo Dell’Aquila, was called ‘The Bounty Killer’. According to Aguilar (in correspondence with this reviewer), Tessari fell out with Leone during the early script stages of For a Few Dollars More, and Di Leo, who was a close friend of Tessari’s, retained the character of the bounty hunter at Leone’s suggestion.As Carlos succinctly put it, “Leone was a genius but he copied from everywhere with no shame at all!”
In addition to being an excellent film in its own right, one which demonstrated the director’s preference for the same solid characterisation found in the work of Spanish Western pioneer Joaquín Romero Marchent, The Bounty Killer made a further significant contribution to the development of the European Western by casting Cuban actor Tomás Milian as the psychotic bandit leader, José Gómez, thereby launching the career of perhaps the second most important star (at least on a par with Franco Nero) to emerge from that much-maligned sub-genre. (It is also interesting to speculate if perhaps something of Gómez’s character may have “filtered” into that of Gian Maria Volonté’s El Indio in For a Few Dollars More, another demented bandido first introduced during a daring escape . . .)
Although seemingly well positioned to follow up The Bounty Killer with other Italian co-productions, a falling-out between Maesso and producer Dario Sabatello meant that Martín’s next three films were domestic musicals, one of which starred crooner Julio Iglesias. In 1970, Martín returned to international production with La última señora Anderson (released in America as Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool), a London-based giallo starring Carroll Baker and Michael Craig. While the film was not a success, it did lead to Martín meeting his future second wife, the Danish actress Lone Fleming, best known for her roles in a number of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films.
Thanks to his fluency in English, Martín was then offered a three-film deal by American producer Philip Yordan, resulting in the afore-mentioned Bad Man’s River, Pancho Villa, and Horror Express. As Martín drily remarks, “It later turned out that the script of the first film didn’t exist, the second one was very bad, and the third one was still in the works.” Bad Man’s River, as anyone unfortunate enough to have seen it will readily attest, was a desperately unfunny “comedy Western”, which not only illustrates perfectly Exshaw’s 5th. Principle for Watching Westerns (‘Never expect anything good from a film in which Lee Van Cleef wears a wig’) but which also managed to humiliate a fine cast while at the same time boasting one of the worst soundtracks ever composed. Martín recalls Van Cleef being somewhat conceited, following his success with Leone, but in all other respects a model professional.
Pancho Villa, which purported to tell the story of the Mexican rebel’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, suffered from the same relentless jokiness as well as an outrageously over-the-top performance by Telly Savalas in the title role. Combined with some remarkably stupid scenes involving Chuck Connors as a mad military martinet, the film is almost – but not quite – bad enough to be enjoyable. A desire to reuse the train bought for Pancho Villa provided the pretext for Horror Express, an agreeably daft shocker which benefitted considerably from the amusing interplay between stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and which even managed to incorporate another remarkably broad interpretation from Savalas (as a brutal Cossack) without going entirely off the rails. And, of course, it is also the film which contains Cushing’s immortal response to the absurd suggestion that he or Lee might themselves be the unseen monster: “Monster? We’re British, you know.” End of discussion. Martín himself attributes the comparative success of Horror Express to the fact that Yordan was out of the country during filming and was therefore less able to interfere than he had during the making of the first two films of their ill-fated partnership.
Martín’s last film of note, as least as far as international audiences were concerned, was A Candle for the Devil, released in 1973 and fatuously retitled ‘It Happened at Nightmare Inn’ for the American market. An occasionally crude but nonetheless effective tale of religious mania and murder in a small provincial Spanish town, Martín himself saw the film as “an opportunity to denounce fanaticism”. Relying on psychological horror rather than shock tactics or special effects, and with an outstanding performance by Aurora Bautista as the sister who believes she is doing God’s work (with a meat cleaver), it once again demonstrated Martín’s ability to transform routine genre material by concentrating on character, and it is a matter of some regret that he was not afforded more opportunities to do so in the course of his career. For while it might be stretching things to describe Martín as an “author” in the accepted sense of the term, he was clearly a director capable, when the occasion presented itself, of making above-average movies in a variety of styles, thereby confirming his own belief that “It is better to be a chameleon than a crab.”
In addition to the book on Eugenio Martín (most readily available via www.carlosaguilar.net, priced €15.00 plus p&p), Carlos, who is nothing if not industrious, has also published studies of both Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood as part of Cátedra’s Signo e Imagen: Cineastas series (both priced at €13.90). Again, the text is in Spanish only, but it is pleasing to report that the Eastwood book has already been reprinted in a second, revised edition, so perhaps an English-language translation is not an entirely forlorn hope. In any event, I can only apologise for being unable to give both books the attention they undoubtedly deserve, due to a lack of time combined with my snail-like speed in translating. Perhaps, as Harmonica says of his unlikely return to Sweetwater, “someday . . .”