Blu-Ray Review: Cemetery Without Crosses

Cemetery Without Crosses AV014Yet another stellar Arrow Video release through MVD Visual, Robert Hossein’s 1969 western Cemetery Without Crosses is a great, grim and gloomy slow-burner of a revenge tale that’s short on dialog but delivers its message almost flawlessly.

Hossein (who also stars in the film and co-wrote it with Claude DeSailly) makes his take on the spaghetti western a memorable one with some excellent set pieces and a mean set of twists that make the film worth repeat viewing. This is one of those films with no real “likable” characters to root for – you’re dropped into a little spot in their personal hell as an audience and get to see what happens as things play out. Par for the course, Arrow also delivers the goods when it comes to a quality HD transfer and some fine special features.

(thanks, The Spaghetti Western Database!)

Hossein plays Manuel, an initially reluctant but very effective gunman pressed into service by a recently widowed woman named Maria (Michèle Mercier) who wants revenge against the family that killed her husband. As her criminally-minded brothers-in-law aren’t the most reliable for her needs, Maria seeks out Manuel’s help and pretty much goads and glares him into action. Dead set on more than wanting a few lead slugs sent to the Rogers clan via gun mail, Maria also has the family’s daughter kidnapped, an event that leads to a somewhat shocking (and cleverly underplayed) sequence.

Manuel is roped into all this mayhem with a busted moral compass and no compunctions about killing, donning his single black leather glove as the tell for when someone’s about to get got in one way or another. As things escalate and the body count creeps up, the film rides at a steady pace towards its final, inevitable showdown. Hossein plays Manuel as someone with nothing to lose who happens to be facing off against too many people a lot less skilled than he. But can someone else’s desire for revenge be the thing that keeps him going? Oh, you’ll find out that answer once you see this gem of a western.

There are some stylish moments on display such as the opening sequence with Maria’s soon to be deceased spouse trying to out ride his pursuers and his subsequent capture and disposal. A key turning point in the film is played out with the camera away from the action, but it works thanks to the sound design and aftermath that lets you know something rotten has transpired. This isn’t a film with an anti-hero or people with much “good” in them. Any opportunity for redemption has been stomped out before the credits have rolled. That opening sequence happens to be the final straw in a chain of events that sets things into a languidly paced but paradoxically relentless dive. The film also features a great score by André Hossein (the director’s brother) and a surprising, bouncy main theme that barely hints at the doom train about to roll into town.

Hossein gets excellent mileage from minimalist dialog, some stunning vistas and a few shocking scenes that don’t go for gore, but hit you with how brutal the actions taken against others turn out. As soulless as Manuel seems to be, Mercier’s Maria is the film’s gorgeous, rusted anchor sinking into the bottomless sea of gloom. Her seething hatred for the Rogers and what seems like simmering lust for Manuel makes her unpredictable actions all the more compelling. Then again, Manuel (and by extension, co-writer/director Hossein) is committed to his role in the carnage all the way to the finale. The film has a solidly pessimistic aura to it that works perfectly. You can figure by a certain point that this one isn’t going to have a Hollywood ending at all. But it’s well worth the time just to see how far down things spiral before that kicker of an ending.

In addition to the brand new 2K restoration of the film (which comes on a 1080p HD Blu-ray and a SD DVD), Arrow gives you the original Italian and English soundtracks in uncompressed PCM mono audio as well as newly translated English subtitles for the Italian version. The dub isn’t bad at all, but expect it to be a bit like other dubbed films of the era with some voices doing better than others at delivering the sparse dialog. Special features are primarily old archive material from French TV with brief interviews with Hossein on directing the film and his ideal of thew western, and actors Michèle Mercier and Serge Marquand, both speaking about their on-set experiences. There’s the original trailer and new, brief interview with Hossein that’s interesting in that he talks mostly about Sergio Leone and his influence on him as a filmmaker. Leone also directed the dinner sequence in Cemetery Without Crosses and it’s one of the film’s only slices of humor that also sets up Manuel’s as trustworthy to the family he’s soon going to whittle down

My review copy didn’t come with a booklet or cover art, so I can’t comment on those other than to say the booklet content certainly sounds like an interesting read. Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young contribute articles on the film’s decidedly more Gallic take on the “spaghetti” western and composer Scott Walker’s music respectively. Once again, Arrow scores big with a cult classic that shouldn’t be missed by genre fans. Ad this one to your growing quiver, I say.

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