Cemetery Without Crosses, 1969

Cemetery Without Crosses begins with a sepia (or black and white, depending on the print) chase scene on horseback while an incredibly bombastic song about the movie’s plot is sung by Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”). The local sociopaths, the Rogers family, pursue the wounded Ben Caine to his ranch, where they murder him while they force his wife Maria to watch. Frontier culture rules as they steal the Caine herd and sell it, after which Ben’s two cowardly brothers somehow get the money and bring it to Maria. She uses the gold to hire her former lover, Manuel, to take revenge on the Rogers family.

The movie that follows strikes me as poetic but unsatisfying. This unfortunately says a lot about me because Cemetery Without Crosses preaches the evils of revenge, which is more artistic than a typical revenge movie; however, let’s not lie to ourselves: the way we usually want one of these spaghetti westerns to end is with Terence Hill popping out of a grave with a Gatling gun and mowing everyone down. And this movie does not end that way. I’m not even a big fan of the revenge picture as a genre, but if I’m going to watch a western, I want to see the cowboy ride away!

The good points of Cemetery Without Crosses include the long shots of the ghost town in which Manuel exists, rising out of the desert like a mirage. Maria glides through the film in her widow’s weeds looking like the Grim Reaper. The lead actor/director Robert Hossein works hard to make the camera a character in the film, featuring stylized two-shots, various doomed characters placed behind barred windows both intact and broken, and the famous Italian scare closeups we all love. The music also serves as a character in the film; even Manuel’s lonely music box plays the same tune from the beginning. In a surprising twist for one of this type of films there are a couple of moments of intentional humor. There’s a card game in the jail with one player sticking his hands out from between the bars of his literal cell, which is a thing I would expect to see in Mayberry and not a desert town full of murderyokels. And there’s an unexpected prank scene. As for unintentional humor, it tickles me that the bad people don’t realize they’re bad people, as in every action movie. “How dare you try to get back at us after we killed your husband and took all your stuff! We were only doing what we were entitled to do as rich people with expensive hats!”

The bad points: well, as soon as I saw that there were three writers credited and the third one was Dario Argento, I said to my husband, “this film is going to have a nonsense plot.” The revenge machinations get revealed as a surprise, little by little, but the motivations don’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense. It feels as if Maria and Manuel already suffer from total insanity from the get-go, and maybe that’s the whole point. And for all the beautiful cinematography, which makes up most of my reasoning for ever watching a western, Hossein could have invested in some light for the night scenes. I’m used to copious use of day-for-night filters in 60s and 70s film, but it takes me right out of the film. Once you veer off into making smart remarks during a spaghetti western, you’re going to miss some points from the already miniscule plot because most of the movie is comprised of people staring meaningfully with intent that I don’t understand, until it’s explained by sparse dialogue I might miss.

Still, to its credit, Cemetery Without Crosses does tell you its moral from Maria and Manuel’s first scene together, when he says, “You believe in revenge but I don’t. It never ends.” The clue that nothing is going to end well for these folks repeats in the form of the sermon at Ben’s funeral. One person may be left standing, but for what? And I hated what was implied happened to Manuel’s horse: the camera pulls away as the survivor rides out from the “cemetery without crosses” of the title, which is the ghost town littered with bodies, as we hear the horse’s lonely neigh and the screen fades to black (after the printed dedication to Sergio Leone). I can see why this is a popular movie, and I would watch it again, but only because it’s nice to look at.

And then my sense of humor returns when we hear that crazy swinging theme song again. Seriously, they spent the money for the lights on that singer.

Cemetery Without Crosses is streaming on Amazon Prime in two versions. Watch the Filmrise version because it has better captions and I think a better print. It’s also on Tubi as the Arrow Video release.