Cutthroats Nine: Personally Haunting

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

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During the first scene of the film Cutthroats Nine (Condenados a Vivir), a convict asks for the wagon transporting him to be pulled over so he can get out and urinate in the snow. A guard answers, “Why don’t you just go in your pants?” The convict squints and grunts, then lets out a sigh. “Orders completed, soldier.” The soldiers laugh. Everyone laughs. These are the kinds of characters who occupy this film.

Its reputation as “the goriest western ever made” is generally regarded as its only distinction, and that’s among people who have heard of it at all. It’s a low-budget western directed by a Spaniard by the name of Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent and originally released in 1972. The version I’ve seen is badly dubbed in English. It contains scenes of animal guts standing in for human ones that are rumored to have been shot after the fact and edited in at the urging of an American distributor. Despite all this, it is a film that haunts me deep down somewhere far beyond the concepts of low-budget movies or exploitation or “so bad it’s good.” There was a time in my twenties, in the late nineteen nineties, when I fell asleep to this movie every night. My only access to the film at the time was a bootleg VHS copy I’d ordered through a friend. It played on the TV in the tiny furnished room I paid for by the week on the third floor of a hotel in which I shared a bathroom with junkies who regularly shit on the floor, in which drunken, medicated strangers woke me in the small hours turning my doorknob, in which the sounds of women screaming for help could be heard emanating from the parking lot below my window. I turned on this film and went somewhere else. Cutthroats Nine was my lullaby. It soothed and calmed me. The music was surreal and eerie and brooding. The film was set in the snowy mountains of an unnamed territory, presumably intended to be somewhere in “the west,” and this landscape with its white-topped evergreens evoked quite vividly for me the farm in central Pennsylvania where my father used to take my brother and I to cut down a tree for the house every Christmas.  On-screen, men stabbed the guts out of women, charred each other into edible husks, and blasted each other’s bulging eyeballs out with guns; off-screen, I escaped into that land of nostalgia, memory, and dream that is triggered by the senses and defies normal logic.

It’s one of my favorite places to be.

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The plot of the film concerns seven convicts being transported through the aforementioned mountains by one hateful army sergeant and the sergeant’s teen-aged daughter. They have lost their wagon and most of their party to bandits who thought the wagon carried gold. The bandits found nothing. The convicts are being transported from forced labor in a gold mine, so the location of the gold is a mystery of the plot. The convicts are chained together and the sergeant has nothing but a pistol with one cartridge-load of bullets. It is a cross-genre film, a jailbreak, wilderness-survival western. The western part is really only known by the uniforms of the soldiers and the fact that they travel by wagon. The fact that there are only seven convicts while the title of the film is Cutthroats Nine has been ridiculed by many, but the wagon-crash leaves us nine survivors. Only seven of them are convicts, but all nine adapt to a situation that brings out their  worst. You don’t have to be a convict to be a cutthroat. That is the world-view at the core of this movie.

No wonder I like it.

The musical score by Carmelo Bernaola has been criticized as “repetitious.” It is actually a complex score with a different piece of music for each different mood; toward the end of the film, the music that plays when things are about to get nasty is all you hear, because it is the climax and things are getting nasty. It is also possible that the filmmakers ran out of budget for a score before the score was finished and dealt with this by repeating the same piece of music throughout the last part of the film, but for me this music never gets boring. It is an integral part of what haunts me about the film.

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The Director, Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent, had been directing Westerns and pulpy period adventure films in Spain since the nineteen fifties. His earlier films, like The Implacable Three, are strikingly traditional in their portrayals of Western archetypes. The fact that he directed such a grim departure as Cutthroats Nine so late in his career raises questions. I have always wished I could ask him why. It could have been something he was trying to tell us, or it could simply have been due to demands of the marketplace. Joaquin’s brother, Rafael, also directed westerns and their other brother, Carlos, was an actor in their films. Emma Cohen, who plays the teen-aged daughter and is one of only two female characters in the film–the other appears only in flashbacks and has no dialogue–appeared in the excellent Paul Naschy vehicle Horror Rises From The Tomb and the bizarre art/horror film The Cannibal Man. Robert Hundar (Claudio Undari), who plays the vengeful army sergeant, appeared in countless Spanish and Italian genre films, including Marchent’s earlier Implacable Three and Umberto Lenzi’s excellent crime thriller The Cynic, the Rate, and the Fist. Alberto Dalbes, who plays the most pragmatic and coldly calculating of the seven convicts, played the mad scientist in the jaw-dropping Hunchback of the Morgue (another Naschy vehicle), which also has a musical score by Carmelo Bernaola.

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In addition to its world view, its music, and its setting, Cutthroats Nine contains a series of flashbacks (as do many Euro-westerns) that seems to derail and change its story partway through; this only adds to the film’s mystique. An alcoholic character hallucinates; we see it. The Spanish title translates to “Condemned to Live.” The dubbed English dialogue is awkward in its syntax, but the spirit behind it comes through clearly and fleshes out a film that is trashy, dark, and dreamlike and will always be gnawing at the edges of my mind.

– The Acolyte

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