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  Belle Starr Story, The Wild West Woman
Year: 1968
Director: Lina Wertmuller
Stars: Elsa Martinelli, Robert Woods, George Eastman, Francesca Rhigini, Bruno Piergentili, Bruno Corazzari, Vladimir Medar, Eugene Walter, Remo De Angelis, Orso M. Guerini
Genre: Western, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Wild West lady outlaw Belle Starr (Elsa Martinelli in sexy black leather) is winning big in a high stakes poker game, when along strolls smooth-talking cowboy Blackie (George Eastman a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori a.k.a. the guy who gobbled his own entrails in Anthropophagus (1980)!). Impressing her by behaving like a smarmy git, Blackie offers a wager: if Belle loses the next hand, she’ll have to sleep with him. She loses on purpose but, belatedly affronted by his boorish behaviour, pulls a gun on Blackie who responds with a hearty laugh before slapping her silly. Naturally she melts into his willing love toy. He laughs even harder upon learning he’s just slept with the legendary Belle Starr. “To me you’re just a whore I can take to bed anytime I feel like it.” When Belle retorts she feels the same about him, Blackie smugly replies: “I don’t think so.”

Thereafter, Belle and her Native American gal pal Jessica (Francesca Rhigini) get into a pissing contest with Blackie and his gang over who runs this territory. Belle shoots up a bar full of his murderous gunmen, but can’t bring herself to kill Blackie when he turns up at her homestead. So they make love in the hay after which Belle recounts her life story: how she fell in love with outlaw Cole Harvey (Robert Woods), how her once-beloved uncle tried to marry her to an ugly old senator to further his political ends, tried to rape Jessica and then took a whip to his niece when she discovered he killed her parents. Belle rescues Jessica from a hanging - shooting the rope just like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)! - and loses her wicked uncle in a shootout with Cole. After this flashback concludes, Blackie leaves Belle humiliated and rides off to plan his latest train robbery. So Belle resolves to teach him a lesson by stealing some valuable diamonds before they’re loaded on the train.

While not exactly faithful, Mio corpo per un poker or The Belle Starr Story as its known outside Italy, is a rare spaghetti western biopic. Even rarer it is the only spaghetti western ever directed by a woman, Lina Wertmuller who won critical acclaim for comedies like the original Swept Away (1974) and Seven Beauties (1975) but also made the similarly-themed rural gangster movie, Blood Feud (1978) with Sophia Loren. The real Belle Starr, or Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr to use her given name, was a notorious outlaw and prostitute who rode with Jesse James and was romantically involved with Cole Younger (here rechristened Cole Harvey) and other Wild West lawbreakers.

Though she settled down to a farming life, Belle was shot dead on February 3rd, 1889 by a still unknown killer who was either Edgar J. Watson, an employee who thought she would turn him in as an escaped murderer (though acquitted of her murder he was killed in 1910), or her own son Eddie - supposedly during an altercation caused by him beating her horse. Eddie served prison time for horse theft then became a police officer, eventually killed in the line of duty. Richard K. Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette, enshrined Belle’s legend with his biographical novel “Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen or the Female Jesse James” published the same year she died.

Although known for her sense of style - sporting a plumed hat and black velvet riding habit with two pistols tucked in her belt - the real Belle was nowhere near as lovely as Elsa Martinelli and considerably less so than Gene Tierney in Belle Starr (1941) or Jane Russell in Montana Belle (1952), although Pamela Reed took a fair stab at authenticity in The Long Riders (1980). Italian model-turned-actress Martinelli is well-cast, having a roster of gutsy, gun-toting gals to her credit like her sensual Indian maiden in the underrated Kirk Douglas western The Indian Fighter (1956), or her big-game markswoman in Rampage (1963), even though she is probably more celebrated for horror classics like Blood and Roses (1960) and One on Top of the Other (1969) a groundbreaking giallo by Lucio Fulci.

Things kick off with a series of pop art glamour shots of our leading lady who also sings the theme song, “No Time for Love.” Later on Martinelli performs a reprise whilst strumming guitar on her porch. She makes an enigmatic yet compelling heroine but the film is tainted by misogyny and frustrates in that Belle never quite escapes being dominated and defined by men. “Belle Starr doesn’t exist”, she admits forlornly. “It’s just a cover I use for what’s left of a life gone wrong.” But it’s Cole who chooses Belle’s alias and kills her abusive uncle (then turns violent when she steals his - presumably phallic - pistol), while Blackie abuses or makes love to her depending on his mood. Later on Belle recruits an outlaw gang who swiftly turn on her, including shirtless half-breed Pedro (Bruno Piergentili) who professes love for Jessica then changes his mind.

Time and again, Belle is outsmarted by Blackie and left humliated, yet still shows more concern when double-crossing Blackie is caught by Pinkerton agents (including Bruno Corazzari livening things up as a Chopin loving torturer who runs his spurs gruesomely across Blackie’s chest) than when her childhood friend gets knifed in the back. Spaghetti western regular Robert Woods reportedly clashed with Lina Wertmuller, hence his character’s abrupt exit and the jumbled chronology, and while it remains fascinating to see Eastman/Montefiori before his zombie days when he was ruggedly handsome, his character behaves like an obnoxious overgrown frat boy, so enamoured of his own sex appeal you’re left longing for Belle to blast his bollocks. Only she doesn’t, because she can't get enough of this rough treatment, see? At least Belle rides to his rescue in a reversal of traditional Wild West finales. Even so Blackie shows not an ounce of gratitude and smugly shoots off her hat before he rides into the sunset.

Die-hard spaghetti western fanatics maintain this is the worst one ever made. It isn’t anywhere that bad, but remains dispiriting even though you may grudgingly accept its portrayal of gender roles within the lawless west as authentic. Martinelli’s impeccably coiffed hair and makeup are anything but and might leave you longing for the more playful fantasy offered by Cat Ballou (1965) or Les Petroleuses/The Legend of Frenchie King (1971).

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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