Sergio Corbucci enters the spaghetti western fray with Minnesota Clay, his first solo picture as director and his first western after co-directing 1964’s Grand Canyon Massacre with Albert Band. From a screenplay by Corbucci and Adriano Bolzoni, this 1964 outing was released around the same time as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and seems to share source material.
Both A Fistful of Dollars and Minnesota Clay seem to have roots in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, which was based on the author’s experiences with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It features the now-familiar narrative of an outsider arriving in a troubled town to turn two gangs against each other. Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo from 1961 was also a retelling of Red Harvest.
In 1883, Minnesota Clay (Cameron Mitchell) is an aging gunfighter. He’s losing his sight and he’s stuck at a labour camp after he was framed for a murder by Fox (Georges Rivière), an unsavoury sort who is now the sheriff of Mesa Encantada. Fox is running a seedy protection racket on the citizens of the town, too, and he plays at protecting the people from the Mexican bandit Ortiz (Fernando Sancho).
After Clay escapes the labour camp, he rescues the beautiful Estella (Ethel Rojo) from certain death and meets with Ortiz. The Mexican wants him to wipe out Fox, but Estella is playing a game of her own and she sets up the gunfighter. Fox makes his move. There is also a subplot involving Clay’s daughter Nancy (Diana Martin), who is unaware that the aging gunslinger is her dad.
Featuring the cinematography of José F. Aguayo, Minnesota Clay has the look of a standard American western from the era. There isn’t an awful lot of grit and the action sequences unfold in rather unremarkable fashion. There’s no edge to Corbucci and Aguayo’s aesthetic and the lighting makes everything seem nondescript.
Minnesota Clay is, interestingly, a more internalized western. It lacks the overt peculiarity of Corbucci’s later works and the Piero Piccioni plays things a little too safe, but there’s a lot to like about the emotional journey of the titular character. He is confronting his advancing age and still has a job to do.
Mitchell does a nice job evoking the internal sadness of Minnesota Clay and it’s tragic to watch him losing his eyesight. His skill as a marksman is renowned, but the emotional turmoil drawn out by the loss of his livelihood has to be heartrending. Coupling the inner workings of a man running toward the end of his life with the mystery of his daughter is an interesting if orthodox touch.
Martin doesn’t exactly burn down the screen as Clay’s daughter, even as she enters a wonky romance with Andy (Alberto Cevenini). Luckily, Rojo fares better as a rascally and double-crossing dame. It’s hard to get a read on her character because she swaps allegiances so readily, but her dogged approach toward self-preservation is impressive and Rojo is frankly hot as hell.
There isn’t a lot of killing in Minnesota Clay, apart from one particularly fiery gun battle and the closing sequence. It’s a mostly bloodless affair, too, and it lacks the cherry barrage of subsequent spaghetti westerns. This suggests that Corbucci’s early effort is a more clement affair, like there’s a degree of caution behind the scenes.
And indeed, the conventionalism of Minnesota Clay keeps things comparatively unexceptional. While this picture is interesting as a historical artifact and as suggestive of what Corbucci would have in store in later efforts, it lacks gumption and steam. Mitchell’s performance is on-point and Rojo is nice to look at, but the moving parts of this spaghetti western are less than captivating.