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With the success of Clint Eastwood and director Sergio Leone's Italian-made spaghetti Westerns in the sixties, it seemed to many that the American West had been won in the wilds of Italy and Spain. And as more and more producers tried to take advantage of the success of films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), they also began looking for more international stars to strap on six guns and new gimmicks to set their films apart from the rest. For Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears (1972), the producers lured Anthony Quinn into making his first spaghetti Western. And they provided him with a unique gimmick - he stars as a deaf mute gunfighter who teams with Franco Nero, who acts as his ears.
Like most spaghetti Westerns, the film is a strange combination of talents. Quinn was hardly a stranger to Westerns. In fact, his first OscarÆ for Best Supporting Actor had come for the modern-day western Viva Zapata! in 1952. Since then, the Mexican born actor had shot to international stardom with roles in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). These films and his most famous, Zorba the Greek (1964), established him as the screen's first citizen of the world, an actor who could play almost any nationality. He came to Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears after a rare failure, the TV drama series The Man and the City, in which he had returned to his roots to play the Mexican-American mayor of a southwestern city.
Joining him were Franco Nero, an Italian star best known in this country for playing Sir Lancelot in the 1967 film version of Camelot. At the time, he was also known for the scandal-sheet headlines he generated when he and co-star Vanessa Redgrave moved in together. Leading lady Pamela Tiffin had built a career as Hollywood's favorite air-headed ingÈnue in the sixties, particularly in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). By decade's end, she had re-settled in Rome, working almost exclusively in Italian films until she retired in 1974.
The film's best reviews went to Tonino Delli Colli's dazzling Technicolor cinematography. That comes as no surprise considering his credits. During his fifty-year career in film he has worked with such top directors as Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964), Bernardo Bertolucci (China Is Near, 1967), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, 1984), Federico Fellini Ginger and Fred, 1986), Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties, 1976) and, most recently, Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful, 1997).
For all that talent, however, Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears was a box-office disaster. Despite a budget of less than $1.5 million, it failed to turn a profit, lost in the glut of European westerns flooding the American market in the early seventies. Yet it remains as one of the most unusual and beautifully photographed of all spaghetti Westerns.
Producer: Joseph Janni, Luciano Perugia
Director: Paolo Cavara
Screenplay: Harry Essex, Oscar Saul, Paolo Cavara, Lucia Brudi, Augusto Finocchi
Based on a story by Essex and Saul
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Art Direction: Franco Calabrese
Music: Daniele Patucchi
Cast: Anthony Quinn (Erastus "Deaf" Smith), Franco Nero (Johnny Ears), Pamela Tiffin (Suzie), Franco Graziosi (Gen. Morton), Ira Furstenberg (Hester), Renato Romano (Hoffman).
by Frank Miller