Johnny Yuma (1966)
Starring Mark Damon, Lawrence Dobkin and Rosalba Neri. Directed by Romolo Guerrieri. From Tiger Film/West Film.
Johnny Yuma (Damon) is riding to his beloved uncle’s ranch. Little does he know that his uncle’s new wife (Neri) is a greedy conniver who wants her husband’s riches to herself. She has her husband killed and then must await the arrival of his heir – Johnny – and have him killed, as well. She enlists the help of her former lover, Carradine (Dobkin), who soon tires of her avarice and treachery. Yuma and Carradine decide to team up to defeat her goon squad.
Johnny Yuma – not be confused with the Nick Adams TV show The Rebel on which he played a character named Johnny Yuma – is a “spaghetti western”. The origin of the spaghetti western genre requires more space to discuss than I have here. Let’s just say that 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) from director Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood provided the genre with all of it’s defining elements. Countless similar westerns appeared in the wake of this legendary film, quite often starring American actors who were following Eastwood’s lead, hoping to find success by going to Europe and portraying anti-hero cowboys and acting alongside Italians speaking their native tongue.
As spaghetti westerns are “foreign films” by definition, they are quite often available for purchase in North America in bulk collections that feature films presented in poor prints. No matter. I bought one such collection at a Cracker Barrel while traveling through the American south one spring. 44 films for something like $15. Can’t go wrong. As the mood for one of these films strikes me only a few times a year, this collection should last me. Like, for life. For the rest of my life.
I settled in to watch one of these films on a winter evening – something about winter draws we to westerns – and up pops Mark Damon in Johnny Yuma. The story was conceived by men with countless spaghetti western credits – and countless pseudonyms – between them; one screenwriter – Fernando Di Leo (1932-2003) did uncredited work on Eastwood’s films. The director was Romolo Guerrieri (b. 1931) who would later direct ex-pat Carroll Baker in The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968). But now let’s talk about the star.
Mark Damon (b. 1933) is one of those guys. Not only is he one of the expatriated American actors Tarantino has celebrated in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but Damon took it a step further and forged an impressive career as a producer in Europe and then later parlayed his experience into an equally impressive career in Hollywood. Beginning in 1956, Damon appeared in small melodramas until breaking out in Roger Corman’s House of Usher (1960), work for which Damon was awarded a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer, an award also won over the years by the likes of Richard Burton, Paul Newman and Peter O’Toole. Damon worked with Corman again in The Young Racers before appearing in The Longest Day (1962) – and The Shortest Day (1963), an Italian comedy directed by Sergio Corbucci. This latter film proved prescient for Damon.
Luchino Visconti was an Italian filmmaker who was “a major figure of Italian art and culture in the mid-20th century” and one of the fathers of cinematic neorealism. Visconti invited Damon to come to Europe and star in westerns and historical dramas and Damon did so, appearing in over 40 films there. He grew tired of acting in the mid-1970’s and decided to become a film producer. Specifically, Damon focused on distributing independent films internationally. In 1977, he began selling American films to international distributors, scoring much success. He gained a rep as “the inventor of the foreign sales business and the brains behind independent film production”. He became the foremost producer and distributor of independent film and formed, ran, bought and sold many production companies. Damon would eventually produce countless notable films, among them Das Boot (1981), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) with my man, Mickey Rourke, Short Circuit (1986), The Lost Boys (1987), Wild Orchid (1989), again with Rourke, the Oscar-winning Monster (2003), Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin film from 2004, 2 Guns and Lone Survivor, both from 2013, both with Mark Wahlberg and 2019’s war drama The Last Full Measure. Here’s a rare instance of an American taking his chances moving a middling acting career to Italy and emerging a producer that many consider a legend.
Truth be told, Lawrence Dobkin (1919-2002) may be one the most prolific actors in history. I will often hear his name in the credits of old-time radio programs as he played many characters in many shows during the golden age. His voice featured in just about every significant show, from Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to The Saint, from Gunsmoke to The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. He even provided voice work for a 1999 video game, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6: Rogue Spear. Turning to television, it was more of the same; Dobkin can be seen in I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show, The Untouchables, The Rifleman, Star Trek, L.A. Law and Matlock. His was the voice telling viewers about the stories in the Naked City and he directed episodes of The Musters and The Waltons. He also created the character of Grizzly Adams when he wrote the script for the TV movie The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams that lead to the short-lived series. Not to leave the feature film box unchecked, Dobkin can be seen on the big screen in Twelve O’Clock High (1949), D.O.A. (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and North By Northwest (1959). His appearance in our film seems to be a flyer as he did not make foreign films.
Rosalba Neri (b. 1939) was prolific in her own country and not only appeared in spaghetti westerns but also EuroSpy films and giallo erotic horror films. She also can be seen in El Cid (1961).
Johnny Yuma is a good find as it contains all the elements we’ve come to expect from spaghetti westerns. The movie was shot in Andalucia, Spain and the visuals are sumptuous. The story has the drama and the menace prevalent in the best of these films and it has that “cool factor” in spades. It helps that it was shot in part in a little whitewashed adobe town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The outside and the interior of this little village looks awfully familiar and may have been used in an Eastwood western or two.
There is also present that wonderful ricocheting gunshot sound often heard in these westerns. and the score is wonderfully sinister. It’s provided by a young lady name of Nora Orlandi. Born in Lombardy, Italy in 1933, Orlandi was the first lady of film scoring in Italy and she also composed a piece called “Dies Irae” used in a later film and that was utilized by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Her music for Johnny Yuma employs martial drumming, whistling, trumpet and twangy guitar.
So does all this make it a knock-off of Sergio Leone’s westerns? Yes and no. You could say that it simply follows the template. Like a film noir with the femme fatale and the shadows in place, Johnny Yuma contains all the elements you want in a spaghetti. Say you just watched A Fistful of Dollars and you want more of the same. While not as deadly serious as the best of the genre, you could do worse than to check out Mark Damon as Johnny Yuma.