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Gian Maria Volonté was born in Milan, Italy and played in numerous films such
as Under Ten Flags before finding stardom in a set of western films where he
played psychotic villains with a passion previously unseen by anyone. This
launched him to stardom
In Fistful Of Dollars
(1964), Volonté's Ramon Rojo was the villain to end all
villains. The brains behind a trio of three brothers dealing in liquor
on the Texas-Mexico border, Rojo's character was utterly repulsive. He
extorted, he tortured, he killed, and had a talent for the use of a rival above
that of a pistol. In the end, he died spitting blood, just as one of his
victim's predicted would be his fate before being shot down in an
elaborate duel, which would earmark director Sergio Leone's style for many
movies to come. Unable to match his Winchester with Clint Eastwood's Colt
revolver, all to a drumming Ennio Morricone score, he met one of the most
applauded cinema deaths in western film history.
Volonté was back and incredibly even more psychopathic as Indio in For A Few
Dollars More. After a jail break, he killed the man who betrayed him, after
forcing him to watch his baby and wife both be killed. With a fixation on a
chimed pocket watch, for reasons not explained to end in flashback sequences,
he was one of Italian cinema's most detestable bad guys (and there have been
many repulsive characters to come out of Italian cinema).
Indio's character was masterfully done. Prone to fits of loud, maniacal
laughter over nothing, addicted to marijuana, with a need to calm his nerves
taking a hit after killing someone, and even smashing roaches for his
amusement, he was the perfect foe for the fast drawing Clint Eastwood,
who repeated his role from Fistful Of
Dollars, and for the vengeance-seeking
Lee Van Cleef.
The final showdown, to the Ennio Morricone score, featuring chimes, a build up
of electric guitars, a mournful trumpet solo, back to the guitar, then finally
the chimes again, with the gunfighters to draw when the music concluded,
was one of Leone's greatest sequences as a director.
Of course, Indio died, with applause from studio audiences.
Though Volonté did not return for The Good, the Bad & The Ugly, which saw
Van Cleef as the key villain, he did make westerns for other people, usually
as a psychotic again. In A Bullet For The General, he played a crazed, but
dimwitted bandit, who turned into a hero of sorts at the end of the movie. In
Face to Face, however, he was back to revolting. Starting off as a victimized
school teacher going west for his health, he found himself turned into a
kill-crazy animal, so insane and dangerous his outlaw mentor is forced
to gun him down.
Though known for his westerns, Volonté played in other genres and sometimes
found himself playing crazies again. Most notable was his role in
Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion, as a police inspector carrying out a
murder and trying to frame himself, just to prove political corruption would
overshadow the truth, with his higher-ups refusing to prosecute the killing.
Volonté likewise made a career playing real life people. He was Giordiano
Bruno in the film of the same name, as a man burned at the stake for
witchcraft. He was Vanzetti in Sacco & Vanzetti, a blistering reflection
on American politics, surrounding the supposed framing of two robbers, who
were sent to the electric chair for murder, but were actually considered
many. ( I believe President Clinton issued an official pardon to the real
Sacco & Vanzetti posthumously, decades after they went to the electric
chair, but I am not sure.) He played Lucky Luciano in the gangster film
of the same name.
Sadly, at the absolute height of his popularity, Volonté did his own career
in. A flagwaving communist as one writer put it, he became a
political hot potatoe for the industry. It was not so much his stance, but
when he missed crucial days of shooting in The Working Class Goes To
that a blacklisting of sorts took place. While not cut out of work entirely,
his activity took a notable downturn. Fewer and fewer opportunities came, some
due to opposition to his politics, some because he was branded as unreliable
and others due to budgeting. In any case, he seemed to nosedive.
Through the 1980s, he played in varied films, but was never the major draw he
once was. In the early 1990's, however, he started to make a career comeback,
with a series of films. Though time and stress had taken a toll on him, to the
point where he was unrecognizable on first glance by past fans, he lost none
of his acting ability. Just as he was once again gaining praise from critics,
bookings and recognition, he died from a heart attack in 1996, bringing things
to a close.
Several webpages devoted to the Spaghetti Western realm, which may be found
with a simple websearch, include his photos and biography. There is also an
official webpage in Italian at http://www.gianmariavolonte.it.