Once Upon a Time: Joseph Cotten

Joseph Cheshire Cotten was one of the most successful and prolific leading men in Hollywood in the 1940s. He may be remembered primarily for his association with Orson Welles. Cotten appeared often with Welles and in Welles productions including Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey Into Fear, The Third Man and Touch of Evil. On his own, he featured prominently in many popular films such as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight and Niagara among many others. His is one of the more recognizable faces of the golden era though – aside, maybe, from Shadow of a Doubt – he never really put his own stamp on any one film. He is often cited as the best actor never to have scored even an Academy Award nomination.

As an older man in the 1960s, he turned to television and acted on Broadway. In 1965 at age 60, he made his first trip to Italy to star in a western. Gli uomini dal passo pesante (aka The Tramplers) was shot in Spain and Italy and was based on a novel by American western writer Will Cook – who died at 42 the year before this film was released. Then in 1967 he returned to Italy to star in the film we’re looking at today, I crudeli, also known as The Hellbenders.

Cotten is Colonel Jonas, an unrepentant Confederate soldier in the days immediately following the end of the Civil War. With his sons, he ambushes a Union convoy and steals a million dollars in cash. To get the fortune back to their ranch, they hide it in a coffin and tell everyone they meet along the way that they are taking a dead war hero to his rightful resting place.

Cotten as Col. Jonas

The Hellbenders is a companion to The Tramplers with Cotten once again playing a “delusional southern patriarch”. And once again in this series looking at the stars of ExPat Cinema we have a film directed by the great Sergio Corbucci. In The Hellbenders, Sergio utilizes characters who represent different elements of the post-Civil War US southwest; the sheriff’s posse, the priest, the blind soldier, a Mexican bandit gang, the US Army, a beggar and a tribe of Indians. None of these characters deserve sympathy, least of all Cotten’s Colonel Jonas and his family – who are “hell-bent” on continuing the war and resuscitating the vanquished south.

The film bears many of Corbucci’s trademark touches. The outdoor scenery is stunning and the action is well-paced and tense. There is plenty of excitement, savagery and blood and Cotten and his brood are appropriately ruthless. However, the sons are caught between honouring their father and realizing that his blind brutality is immoral. The script is excellent. Lots of drama and some clever twists, most courtesy of the second widow Mrs. Allen played by the striking Brazilian actress Norma Bengell.

I enjoy watching good-looking Julián Mateos as Ben. The Spaniard can also be seen in Return of the Seven (1966) and later in Shalako (1968) starring Sean Connery and Four Rode Out (1970) with Pernell Roberts and Sue Lyon. Watch for Canadian Al Mulock as a beggar. Canadian Mulock was born in Toronto and he studied at New York’s Actors Studio. He then co-founded the London Studio, an English school for method acting. Mulock made a handful of spaghettis and his last was Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. During filming of that epic, Mulock leapt to his death from his hotel window. He was wearing his costume at the time of his fall, which he survived. As the ambulance left for the hospital, Leone yelled after it that they needed the costume Al was wearing. Mulock died when the bumpy ride to the hospital caused a broken rib to pierce his lung.

The Hellbenders contains a score by the great Ennio Morricone – billed here as Leo Nichols – which is his first score built around the trumpet. This film was a failure due in part to its lack of sensationalism and Corbucci went back to making films featuring a larger than life central character. Joseph Cotten made one more Italian western, the terrible White Comanche (Comanche Blanco) starring Canadian William Shatner. But as the Seventies dawned, Cotten was far from done.

Bengell and Mateos acquit themselves well and the two characters forge a relationship.

In 1970, he appeared in one of my new favourite films, The Grasshopper, playing a good guy who offers Jacqueline Bisset a way out. The next year, he featured in another favourite of mine, The Abominable Dr. Phibes opposite Vincent Price. Through the rest of the decade, Joseph Cotten went on a rampage; he said in a Washington Post interview in 1987 “I was in a lot of junk. I get nervous when I don’t work”. For every legit classic like Soylent Green, there were several like Island of the Fishmen, an Italian action-horror film co-starring Barbara Bach.

In 1981, Joseph Cotten suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his ability to speak. As he recovered, he would talk on the phone each week to his old friend, Orson Welles. When Cotten told Orson he had written his memoir, Welles asked to read it. The manuscript was in Welles’ possession when Orson died in 1985. That copy was lost among Orson’s effects but Cotten would eventually publish his book, titled Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, in 1987. In 1990, at age 84, Cotten had his larynx removed due to cancer and then finally succumbed to a bout with pneumonia in 1994.

Perhaps I’m not the right guy to write about Jospeh Cotten. While I’ve always enjoyed his work in Citizen Kane, respected his turn as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt and liked his character in The Grasshopper, I’ve never really “seen it” in him. He lays a little flat for me. But I thought it was interesting that, once upon a time, this popular Hollywood actor of the golden age also traveled abroad and rolled in the dust on the Spanish plain.


  1. Hughes, Howard. Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers Guide to Spaghetti Westerns. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd via The Internet Archive. (2004)


  1. Interesting to see one of an earlier generation of actors getting in on the action. Do you happen to know how the issue of language was dealt with with an international cast and crew? Were English and foreign language versions made, and were they shot in that way at the time or post-dubbed?

    • The one thing I’ve always heard was that everyone spoke their own language during filming; what Tarantino called the “Tower of Babel style of filmmaking”, if you know your Bible. Must’ve been difficult for the Yankees! As this was the international film industry, so much dubbing went on afterwards for releases worldwide. They could almost have shot these films with NO sound and looped it all later.

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