MoM’s regular Six-Gun Reviews series returns with Shawn Gordon giving his verdict on the Italian western Deaf Smith And Johnny Ears (1973) starring Anthony Quinn and Franco Nero.
This movie takes place amidst a post-Texas Revolution 1836, and follows an aging deaf-mute spy named Erastus Smith (Anthony Quinn) and his hearing companion, a Spaniard called “Johnny Ears” (Franco Nero). The duo are working for Texas president Sam Houston, sent to help halt an uprising being led by the rebel Gen. Morton (Franco Grazliosi), with the assistance of German backers who want to stop Texas from becoming part of the United States of America.
Very loosely inspired by a real hero of the Texas Revolution, Erastus Smith was in fact an actual person. He was called “Deaf” by his friends long before the PC police. Not actually a mute and only partially deaf for the majority of his life, Smith was a hero of the Army of the Republic of Texas and, later, an originator of the Texas Rangers. The man was much more interesting than this movie makes him seem: here he is reduced to being a fairly typical western hero, albeit one with a handicap. This is not the place for historical authenticity, though: it’s a picture that uses history strictly for exploitation purposes.
Deaf Smith And Johnny Ears is a movie of mostly missed opportunities, starting with the emphasis placed on the two heroes. It’s a story that should explore the importance of friendship and loyalty, Those two traits are explored better and more fully in other Euro Westerns, but the’re just taken for granted here.
One thing that does work tremendously well is the performance of the always wonderful Quinn, who easily dominates the film despite having to play the role without the benefit of any dialogue, used probably as an attempt to keep from having to dub Quinn’s voice into multiple languages for the movie’s International release. Quinn doesn’t let the absence of dialogue get in his way, using body language and mannerisms to express himself while never resorting to pantomime or mugging for the camera. He gives depth to what amounts to a tricky role – he oodles with as much charisma as ever.
Nero is charming, as always, but plays a fairly typical role for himself. In fact, the “Johnny Ears” character is very much moulded to his strengths with an emphasis on humor and masculinity. Nero and Quinn were very good friends in real life and appeared in other films together. Their relationship was almost like hat of a father and his son, with Nero actually known on occasion to call Quinn an adopted father.
The real jewel is proved by American model-turned-actress Pamela Tiffin, who had previously appeared with Nero in The Fifth Cord (1971). She stars as Susie, a spunky prostitute that captures the heart of “Johnny Ears”. Tiffin made a career by appearing in light-hearted, often sexy comedies, and brings much of that to this movie.
The script weaves one-liners that unfortunately don’t really zing throughout. The humor that works best comes between Nero and his leading lady Tiffin. I would guess that the film is modelled after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969) in many respects, but the laughs just aren’t there. It’s loud and violent without many quiet moments to expand on and develop the necessary comic rapport between the leads.
A reasonably good amount of suspense is built around the main protagonist’s handicap, though . A minor score by Daniele Payucchi is used, as are a couple of songs reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s Butch And Sundance music. Sergio Leone’s regular cinematographer Tonio Delli Colli uses intriguing camera movements to give us a sense of Smith’s deafness, an interesting idea which is not used nearly enough.
As was very common for a Euro western, the most is made out of the movie’s tight budget. The movie ends with a big entertaining gun battle involving “Deaf” Smith mowing down the baddies with a Gatling gun. It looks great and is captured on a budget much less than most Hollywood productions. Director Paolo Cavara wasn’t typically a western director, being best known for the “shockumentary” Mondo Cane (1962), and he insisted that this movie wasn’t a typical spaghetti western, but more of a psychological western. Other than that, the use of live sound while filming was also something that set it apart from the normal movies being made in Italy. However, very little else distinguishes the movie from the norm. On balance, therefore, it’s worth a 6.
MoM Rating: 6/10