This movie feels like a proper Spaghetti Western to me. It doesn't feel like a missing link or pre- Fistfull of Dollars or an attempt to produce a pretend American western. In fact, I think I have seen Gemma westerns from '65 and beyond which are more deliberately American in style despite their Spaghetti elements.
I suppose what this film isn't is a fully formed Corbucci movie. Whereas Leone arrived fully formed as "Leone" with Fistful, Corbucci still needs a couple of more attempts before he produces something completely in his own style with Django. I would say, however, that if this movie was indeed produced before Corbucci had seen Fistful he has more or less independently arrived at the Spaghetti Western at the same time as Leone. I think some criticism of this film as not being "spaghetti" enough is actually criticsing it for not being "Corbucci" enough. If another director had made this in '64 it would seem more remarkable.
As to the film itself, it is certainly a mix of good and bad. Some things that work and some things that don't. On the negative side I would certainly mention the bland young female character, the comedy juvenile lead, the whole "romance" and the lackluster attack on the farmhouse. On the plus we have a femme fatale, a cool looking villain, great costumes and a crippled hero.
It is interesting how this film pre-figures Django but Corbucci still has to spell everything out. For example, suppose the film skipped the entirely unnecessary and perfunctory prison camp escape and began with Minnesota Clay riding in on the wagon ambush? Here rather than the mysterious Django appearing and saving Maria we would have the mysterious Clay appearing and saving Estella. It is exactly the elimination of such traditional details and explanations that makes Django fascinating. We never find out what exactly happened to Mercedes Zaro.
The film is well cast, Cameron Mitchell is a proper actor and the film benefits greatly from his voice. I think many of these films were rendered bland and generic by the dubbing and the performance replacement of some voice actor dubbing the lead into English. I also liked George Riviere as the villain but I thought his part was a bit under developed. His gang looked good too, particularly the dandyish character, but I find it hard to see Gino Pernice as anything other than Brother Jonathan in Django!
The night time climax is great and I think when you watch it there can be no doubt that this is a real spaghetti western. It makes me think a little of Django the Bastard.
As to the ending? Well the "international version" with the "sad" ending looks like some foreign editor crudely freeze-framed the film to give it a sad ending in line with later expectations of what a spaghetti western would be? I wonder if this is correct and if this version comes from the post- Fistful world?
The Italian ending to me is pretty ridiculous. It takes so much from the film and I don't really understand what Clay means when he says "I hadn't the heart to tell them.." before he rides off. Does it mean he won't be back? And if not, why not? It doesn't make sense!
I think we need a high quality KOCH DVD of this, maybe back to back with Johnny Oro which is due a reappraisal! Now to find Massacre at Grand Canyon!