May 4, 2015

The Other Man With No Name in The Stranger Collection

Bandit: How tall are you?

Stranger: About six feet…six with the hat.

In the midst of the 1960s craze for spaghetti Westerns, a scrawny, scrappy Man With No Name made his way to the top of the heap.

With a series of films in which his character was simply known as The Stranger, actor and producer Tony Anthony may have looked like the 90-pound-weakling of spaghetti Westerns, but he was a lot more like a fox in a folk tale conning a farmer out of his chickens. Three of the films in this unusual series: A Stranger in Town (1967), The Stranger Returns (1968) and The Silent Stranger (1975) are now available in a two-disc set from Warner Archive.

The films in the set (there are four total Stranger films) all follow the same basic plot. The Stranger thinks he has come upon an easy get-rich scheme; he is initially successful; a gang of men stronger and more violent than him strip him of his booty, and beat and humiliate him in the process; The Stranger gets his revenge and some reward in the end, if not the riches he had expected. This simple, and familiar plot is the framework for an increasingly bizarre series of films.

Anthony's Stranger doesn't walk tall. His shoulders are in a perpetual slump, and he always slinks around in the shadows, feeling out the situation before he makes an appearance. It isn't that he lacks confidence, he simply knows his limitations and how to overcome them in a canny way. He's mercenary, but only to a degree. He doesn't let the innocent suffer if he can help it.

The sixties were the perfect time for Tony Anthony's awkward anti-hero. If he'd come along a couple of decades earlier, he probably would have found himself firmly on the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting hood career track. But it was a decade of rebellion and subversion, and it's possible this is why the series enjoyed the success it did.

It took me a while to warm up to the Stranger. The first film struck me as unnecessarily bleak, too heavy on the violence and with insufficient humor, action or wit to balance out the blows. In fact, for a while I felt disappointed that these films I'd heard so much about appeared to not be living up to the praise.

Something shifts though as A Stranger in Town rolls into its final act. Anthony gets wittier, more charismatic. You can almost see the sparkle jumping into his eyes. Though I don't know in what order the scenes were filmed, in those final moments he seems to be hitting his stride and I regained some enthusiasm.

The series gets dramatically better, and more strange, as it progresses. You get the impression that no one expected the first entry to do as well as it did and everyone upped their game when that film was a hit. The Stranger Returns is a superior film in every way, even the music is catchier. While it still has the expected violence and brutality of the genre, it's much funnier and the action has a lot more pop.

Anthony seems to settle into his role, creating a surprisingly complex character. He trots into the film on his horse Pussy, carrying a tattered pink parasol. As he leans back to roll a cigarette, he finds it is unsmokable and tosses it away in disgust. After setting up this pathetic persona though, he suddenly shoots a rabbit with ease, easily procuring a meal for himself, while he comforts his frightened horse. This is really all you need to know about The Stranger.

His motto: "I don’t want any trouble." Instead, he is always in search of his next big score, the riches that are always just out of his reach. He's smart, but not quite smart enough. He's tough, but he must rely on his wits to overcome the truly bad guys whose amorality is a world away from his petty thievery. He never passes a plate of food without taking a bite. There's even a scene where he seems to hold off on offing an adversary because he wants to get a meal in first.

With that persona established, Anthony takes his Stranger to the far east in The Silent Stranger. This may be the first time the Western was mixed with a samurai flick.

It's a little goofier than the first two entries, with Anthony traveling to Japan in order to deliver a scroll given to him by an emissary who has promised he will be amply rewarded. As expected, things don't go as planned, and he finds himself playing two sides against each other in a samurai war reminiscent of Yojimbo (1961). There's lots of fish-out-of-water humor, and a few racist jokes at the expense of the Japanese, but it doesn't get too tedious.

With The Silent Stranger, you can see the series heading into more unusual territory. Anthony becomes increasingly eccentric and the situations he finds himself in more bizarre. For several scenes, he trots around offing attackers with a huge, ancient gun that's held together with a long piece of rope, and one of the villains is so near-sighted he has to stop for moment to put on his glasses before committing his next evil deed.

Anthony went even further afield with Get Mean (1976), the exponentially less successful final entry in the series, in which he travels to Spain to save a princess and battle Moors and Vikings.

Though The Stranger series had a brief run, Anthony would continue in the entertainment industry, starring in a few more films and producing occasionally. He also embraced the technical side of filmmaking, running an optical equipment company that made him wealthy. In the early eighties, he had modest success briefly bringing back 3D as producer and star with Comin' At Ya (1981) (which I reviewed here) and Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983).

The prints for all three films in the set are in decent condition. There are moments where the picture gets a bit scratched and grimy, but that always seems appropriate to me in this genre; I had no complaints.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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