When a cowboy rides into the foreground of a shot in Robert Hossein’s overwhelmingly tactile Cemetery Without Crosses, dust gets kicked up so much that it clouds the entire frame. Sun-cracked leather hats show the stains of years of wear and tear, bearded faces look as though they haven’t been washed in months, and the fog of smoke and dust filling a saloon makes it difficult to see across the room. Never once in the film does one sense anything close to textural deception, a suspicion that sets have been carefully dirtied and manicured before each take by a trained art team; instead, it’s as if the film’s playing out in filthy shantytowns abandoned in the desert for years prior to Hossein pointing his camera at them. And yet, despite all this immersive world-building detail, the direct verisimilitude of the settings and surfaces belies the film’s total hermetic artifice: It’s tricked out with a soundtrack that’s entirely post-synced, a calculated editing rhythm that micromanages the precise effects and tempo of the action (true of all cinema to a certain extent, but particularly evident here in several scenes with startling jump cuts), and a story filmed in muted color, but bracketed in Brechtian fashion by monochromatic passages.
If Cemetery Without Crosses feels subtly but unmistakably different than other westerns, that’s because it is: It’s the lone French western to emerge from the genre’s European (though mostly Italian) overhaul in the mid ’60s. This geographical and cultural novelty adds another layer of pretext to the film—importing and performing a popular filmmaking mode from another country, and indeed even offering its own spin on the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (who, in a telling gesture of artistic cross-pollination, guest-directed one scene). Hossein, who stars in his own movie as a mysterious lone rider lured back into violence by an old flame, was a popular actor in France at the time (Jules Dassin’s Rififi being one of his celebrated roles), and with Cemetery Without Crosses he uses his star persona to both point toward the icon-driven nature of the classical American western and ultimately undercut the narrative implications of that tradition. His film presents a gaping void in heroism and a complete rejection of the idea that vengeance is noble and constructive if it’s in the name of loyalty and fraternity.
The Rogers clan, a group of hard-nosed outlaws, are chasing down a fatigued rider across forbidding terrain (the film’s rugged exteriors were shot in the south of Spain). When he finally surrenders in front of his ranch, they hang him without hesitation. The one witness is the man’s wife, Maria (Michèle Mercier), who subsequently tracks down Manuel (Hossein) so as to request his dirty work. At first, Maria and Manuel share what seems like hazardous chemistry; their first interaction in the film is stunted by long pauses in between phrases during which Manuel ducks his eyes beneath his hat in an attempt to dodge Maria’s penetrating gaze. But gradually their relationship proves one of repressed mutual longing combined irrationally with a gut desire to see revenge through to its conclusion and maybe profit off it in the process. A standout scene in the home stretch exemplifies this irreconcilable clash of cravings, offering just a drawn-out ping-pong of increasingly tight close ups to capture an as-yet-unexpressed affection while an act of violence—willingly perpetrated by Manuel—occurs just off screen.
Such moments of disconnect between instinct and morality occur throughout Cemetery Without Crosses. Manuel inveigles his way into the Rogers’ inner circle, but only as a means through which to kidnap the patriarch’s daughter and ultimately get a shot at killing the whole group. Maria pays Manuel for his services with money once stolen by her fallen husband from the Rogers family. Like other pessimistically oriented European genre appropriations (such as, to keep it within Hossein’s national cinema, the crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville), Cemetery Without Crosses sets off to dissect the ways in which base concerns—money, one-upmanship, pride—obscure and obstruct the characters’ deep-seated aspirations. Hossein and Mercier’s closing scene together, which finds the former halfheartedly promising greener pastures up north even as the latter unambiguously experiences her last gasps of life, is a pithy summation of the hopelessness of any effort to harmonize the emotional and the immoral.
What makes this thematic point sting is the spring-loaded patience of Hossein’s filmmaking, which drags out key decision-making into minutes of conflicted stares before condensing the ugly jolts of action into a few staccato cuts. Deliberation and preparation are emphasized (when considering violence, Manuel always slides on a black leather glove in a naked pastiche of iconic gunslingers) even as they prove futile when survival urges kick in. The two separate tiers of the film’s soundtrack reflect this wide gulf between physical clashes and their hollow emotional reverberations: There’s the rollicking desert-rock theme song “The Rope and The Colt” (sung by American expat Scott Walker in his part-macho, part-melancholic croon) as well as the far softer, sadder noodling of a nylon-stringed guitar (Morricone-inspired pieces written by Hossein’s father). It’s fitting that the film ends with the latter music while the image petrifies to black and white: After all the false bravery, all that’s left in this dirt-encrusted ghost land is an air of despondency, the human remnants of greed and competition gradually fading into obsolescence.
Cemetery Without Crosses’s newly restored image is sharp and detailed, doing full justice to the gritty texture of Robert Hossein’s locations. One scene at a smoky saloon could have easily degenerated into unintelligibility with a sloppy transfer, but Arrow’s preservation ensures that the shots pop with all the little set elements and wardrobe eccentricities hidden within the clouds of dust. It’s not a terribly saturated restoration (with the exception of some incongruously vibrant blue skies), but that’s in keeping with the emptied-out vigor of Hossein’s world. The soundtrack is hushed but exacting, and in general the dubbed voices (one version in Italian with dialogue by Dario Argento, another in English) are integrated organically into the sonic space.
It’s more or less quantity over quality with the supplements here, though Arrow can’t exactly be faulted for working with what was available. The two archival segments included on the disc—a location report for the French television show Cinéma and a stray interview recorded in Monte Carlo—are disappointingly brief. However, they do offer some key nuggets of wisdom from Hossein. In the former, he talks about developing an understanding of "mythology of the western" from a young age, and in the latter expands on that knowledge by adding that "It’s not a moral genre; it’s amoral." More frustrating is the interview with Hossein shot exclusively for this disc, which wraps up in a mere five minutes after a rambling remembrance of behind-the-scenes history. Fortunately, Arrow has also included two insightful booklet essays—one by scholar Ginette Vincendeau that contextualizes the film’s distinctly European traits and another by critic Rob Young analyzing the interplay between Scott Walker’s musical career and his work on Cemetery Without Crosses.
An anomalous "baguette western" (a term coined by Alex Cox) from the late ’60s comes to home video, and it’s a revelation of harsh, melancholy fatalism.