Beyond the Law, 1968
Now this is one of the reasons you should get Mill Creek Entertainment’s Spaghetti Western 20 Movie Pack!
No, it’s not a classic, but Beyond the Law is fun and interesting for its entire running time. And it features one of Lee Van Cleef’s best performances, in a role that was rather atypical for him.
The flick starts off with a stagecoach approaching a silver mine. The coach picks up a black man riding along the trail. The driver makes him ride on the backboard, rather than in the coach with the other passengers. This is handled rather nicely, as a matter of fact. One of the passengers, a European, protests, pointing out that the North won the Civil War and so forth. And the black guy says to himself, as he climbs on back, that he’s used to it.
But as it turns out, he was counting on it.
Because the European (Antonio Sabato) is a geologist going to work for the mining company, and is also acting as a courier for this month’s payroll, which is riding locked under his seat, in a box on the floorboards of the stage. As the stage rolls on, the black guy swings himself under it, loosens the floorboards, causes the payroll box to drop to the road, replaces the floorboards, and returns to his position on the rear of the coach.
The box gets picked up by a very ragged, very seedy Lee Van Cleef! This fine actor got virtually no respect in Hollywood, but the number of classic performances he gave in Italian films is legion (even if the number of classic films is not). And, like I said, he’s got a different sort of a role in this one, but we’ll get to that.
The stage arrives at the mine, and the loss of the payroll is discovered. The geologist grabs a horse and goes riding back along the trail, to see if he can find anything. He finds Van Cleef, who has just hidden the payroll. The two chat a bit, and Van Cleef talks his way onto the geologist’s horse. He’s about to ride off, basically stealing it, when the geologist asks if they can ride together, apparently unaware of Van Cleef’s larcenous intent.
Impressed by the man’s integrity, he takes him on, and they both ride to the mine.
The miners are in an uproar, demanding instant payment from the owner of the mine (a virtually unrecognizable Bud Spencer, last seen around here in It Can Be Done, Amigo). They blame Spencer for losing the money, and the geologist stands up and demands that they blame himself, since he was the one entrusted to courier it to them.
The miners start to turn on the geologist when Van Cleef fires his gun into the air and stares the crowd down, telling them that there is an honest man before them, so they should respect him.
And here’s the seed of his character arc — he’s defending the man he just robbed, because he’s so impressed with his character.
The three thieves — the black guy, who never gets named, Lee Van Cleef, and a preacher played by Lionel Stander (Once Upon A Time In The West — start off as being rather odd thieves. They work hard to avoid direct confrontation, and more so to avoid violence. And the main source of this pacifism seems to be Van Cleef.
As the story goes on, Van Cleef gets drawn closer and closer to the law, ultimately being made acting sheriff, while his two compatriots fall further and further into darkness, becoming willing to let innocents die, then to murder. But things remain more complicated than that simple description through most of the running time.
The other two thieves aren’t bad guys to begin with either, even though it does seem to be Van Cleef who keeps their robberies non-violent (through clever planning). The preacher, though he tends to interpret scripture to suit his own purposes, really is (or was) a preacher, and at one point leans in through the window of a school room to add in some colorful detail to a Sunday School lesson, apparently just for the joy of doing it.
However, as Van Cleef works toward becoming an upstanding man, the preacher gives in to his baser tendencies.
A bit more than halfway through, a band of thieves enters the story and provides not only a way to draw the other characters together, but an excuse for a huge and deadly shootout at the end.
The shootout is ridiculous in its geography and execution, ultimately leaving the head baddie in the most exposed position, on the top of a wooden tower. But he magically can’t be shot, because he’s too high up. Despite this vast (not really) distance, he manages to hit everyone he aims at with deadly precision with a handgun. I don’t know, maybe gravity is stronger in this particular location than anywhere else on the planet. In any event, the geologist improvises an even more ridiculous sniper scope onto a rifle from surveyors’ equipment and takes the baddie out, with a perfect shot, without even bothering to see if the scope is aligned properly.
One of the ways Van Cleef’s role is atypical is its range. Van Cleef, in spaghetti westerns, usually plays a force of nature, an irresistible force plowing his way through the narrative, whose goals and character do not change overmuch between his first appearance and his last. ((Examples that I’ve reviewed include Death Rides a Horse and the criminally underrated Grand Duel. And if you look at his portrayal of Angel Eyes in Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly you’ll see why he kept getting such roles.)) Saying this does not detract from his talent one whit. He brings authority to such characters in a way that very few other actors could. ((I wonder if he ever did a movie with Lee Marvin? Searches IMDb… Just one, they were in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence together, though I don’t remember Van Cleef’s role at all. ))
But his character here has an arc! He evolves, changes, and becomes a different person in the end than he was in the beginning. And Van Cleef sells every single instant of it.
Another way his character is different from his usual role is that he gets to be interested in a lady, and she interested in him. There is a very well-played scene where she serves him dinner, and he’s trying hard (and failing miserably) not to stare at her very ample and rather exposed cleavage, trying to be a gentleman because he thinks she deserves one. Their relationship doesn’t play out the way you would expect, whether your basis for comparison is regular US westerns, or Italian spaghetti westerns.
All in all, while not a classic, I vastly enjoyed this film. A lot of it was Lee Van Cleef’s performance, which is a joy to behold. But there’s more here than just him. And while it doesn’t quite work as a whole, it’s definitely a noble effort an attempt to do some things differently than one might expect.
This is another flick that Mill Creek only has available in its Spaghetti Western collection, and is a grand reason to buy the set all by itself. Apart from being a spiffy movie, it’s presented in its original aspect ratio, with two small scenes restored that, apparently, were never in the US release of the film. These scenes are in Italian, with English subtitles. The image looks remarkably good for a disc with four movies crammed onto it, too.