Often overlooked in the Spaghetti Western hall of fame, The Ruthless Four (1968) is a riveting, well-crafted tale of a ill-fated search for hidden gold that bears some thematic similarities to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While it is not quite in the same league as John Huston’s 1948 classic, the cast alone should still pique the interest of any film buff starting with the top-billed Van Heflin and Gilbert Roland, two Hollywood legends with some classic Westerns to their credit; Heflin with Shane (1953) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Roland with his series of “Cisco Kid” oaters that began with The Gay Cavalier in 1946. The curiosity factor is also undeniable with the eclectic casting of Uruguay-born actor George Hilton, a veteran of countless giallos and Euro-westerns, and the inimitable Klaus Kinski, who has a substantial role here unlike many of his genre efforts where his appearance is often little more than a cameo or brief walk-on.
The Ruthless Four, which has been released under a number of alternate titles such as Every Man for Himself, Sam Cooper’s Gold and Ognuno per sé, opens with a double-cross and sets up a scenario of paranoia and mutual betrayal for the reminder of the film. Prospector Sam Cooper (Heflin) is forced to kill his partner Slim in self-defense when the greedy ingrate tries to murder him outside a remote mine and make off with several bags of gold dust they excavated together. Things go from bad to worse when Cooper is ambushed by thieves on his way back to town. They steal his horses and supplies and leave him to die in the desert while overlooking his bags of gold in their haste. Cooper manages to survive through stubborn determination and buries some of the bags, dumping the rest in a lake except for a small amount which he uses to register a claim with the town official.
Needing a partner he can trust, Cooper contacts his adopted son Manolo (Hilton) whom he hasn’t seen in years but desperately needs for the task of retrieving the gold. Events take an unexpected turn when Manolo insists that his close friend ‘The Blond’ (Kinski) join them as a much-needed extra person to help with the manual labor and provide protection. Suspicious about this new development, Cooper asks Mason (Roland), a former friend, to come along as a fourth partner despite the fact that their own history is marked by betrayal. As the quartet make their way to the site of the buried gold, secret agendas and ulterior motives emerge among the four men as they are stalked by hired gunmen intent on claiming the gold for themselves.
While the basic premise may sound overly familiar and formulaic, The Ruthless Four is particularly memorable for the sharply etched characterizations of the quartet. No one would consider any of them sympathetic or even likable human beings. Cooper is revealed to be a man who has spent his life obsessed with striking it rich, alienating anyone of importance to him in the process – his wife, adopted son and friends. Heflin is appropriately grizzled and driven as Cooper and manages to depict this lonely, self-deluded character in a way that actually evokes some sympathy for his plight.
Gilbert Roland is also perfectly cast as the calculating, steely eyed Mason. On the surface, he looks as cunning and cocksure as Clint Eastwood’s No Name drifter in the Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy, but Roland also manages to invest his character with a believable vulnerability (a past bout with Malaria has made Mason dependent on quinine tablets; without them he goes into crippling convulsions). Roland was 63 at the time he made this film and he looks remarkably fit when you consider that his career began in the silent era.
While both Heflin and Roland bring a mythic, Old West quality to their portrayals, they are overshadowed by Klaus Kinski as the enigmatic ‘Blonde.’ The German actor is completely mesmerizing here and manages to upstage his co-stars in scene after scene through his eccentric performance style and innovative costume changes. He first appears disguised as a priest but later adopts various headgear to draw attention to himself – a black Amish-style hat, a burlap sack hoodie while mining and a black burnoose for desert wear. He also goes hatless, displaying his long, shaggy locks in a style that looks closer to a sixties rock ‘n’ roll star. Reputedly, both Heflin and Roland found Kinski to be a very difficult co-star, probably due to his penchant for improvising little bits of business on the spot to deflect attention from the other actors but the ploy is completely consistent with his demonic and unpredictable antagonist.
George Hilton, sporting a deep tan (or is it bronze skin makeup?), is tasked with delineating the most ambiguous character – the twitchy and deceptive Manolo. It’s an erratic performance but it works because Manolo is supposed to be completely neurotic and amoral. He alternates between feigning affection for Cooper and succumbing meekly to whatever the Blonde commands him to do. The homoerotic overtones of the relationship between Manolo and the Blonde are omnipresent in all of their scenes together with Kinski often invading Manolo’s personal space and dominating him both emotionally and physically despite his more diminutive build. There’s even something not-quite-right about Cooper’s determined attempts to forge a closer bond with his adoptive son in the first half of the film when they frequent a steam bath and later share a bedroom. You could even seen the film as a fatalistic journey between two embattled couples, an older, world-weary pair and the younger, more predatory twosome.
If anything, the gay subtext lends an additional layer of tension and anxiety to the volatile pairings in the film. The screenplay, by the way, is credited to Augusto Caminito (Grand Slam, The Designated Victim) and Fernando Di Leo, who is better known for directing some of the most popular crime dramas in the poliziotteschi genre such as The Italian Connection (1972), The Boss (1973) and Kidnap Syndicate (1975). Giorgio Capitani, the director of The Ruthless Four, rarely dabbled in the Western genre and is better known for his light comedies (Lobster for Breakfast, I Hate Blondes) and Italian television series and made-for-TV movies. Despite this, The Ruthless Four is a well-paced, consistently engaging drama with some superb action sequences (an ambush at a seemingly deserted dwelling, the climatic shootouts) mixed in with quirky, almost surreal interludes such as a desert rainstorm sequence which has Kinski and Hilton wallowing ecstatically in the muck. In addition, the sun scorched landscapes of Almeria, Spain are strikingly rendered by cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi (Don’t Torture a Duckling) and the unobtrusive but atmospheric music score by Carlo Rustichelli (Blood and Black Lace) provides the requisite drama and menace as needed.
The film is highly regarded by many spaghetti western aficionados and director/film historican Alex Cox in his excellent survey of the genre, 10,000 Ways to Die, praises The Ruthless Four, writing, “The film is an excellent, tightly constructed thriller: a Treasure of the Sierra Madre in reverse, in which the hero loses everything, except the gold…The film didn’t do huge business, and has been hard to find. This is a shame because, as a thoroughly entertaining action film, with world-class leads, which anticipates (somewhat less romantically) Brokeback Mountain, Every Man for Himself [The Ruthless Four] is in a class of its own.”
The Ruthless Four certainly deserves to be better known and maybe in time it will if an enterprising DVD/Blu-Ray company like Arrow Video acquires it and makes it available again for spaghetti western enthusiasts. In the meantime, you can view the film on Youtube or acquire a perfectly acceptable, letterboxed, English dubbed DVD-R of the French version – Chacun pour soi – from European Trash Cinema, which includes a few brief scenes offered in Italian only with no subtitles.
Other links of interest: