Lee Van Cleef had a solid if unspectacular career as an on-screen tough guy through the 1950s and early 1960s. He was given rebirth though with the ever-increasing popularity of the spaghetti western genre, especially working with Italian director Sergio Leone in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was a rejuvenation of sorts with a long line of some classic and near-classic spagettis to the point he was given his own genre iconic character, 1969's Sabata.
$100,000 Army payroll has been robbed from the bank in Daugherty City,
but in the getaway outside of town, a mysterious gunman, Sabata (Van Cleef),
guns down seven of the bandits, returning the money to the town and
earning himself a $5,000 reward. There's a problem though. Three of the
town's most prominent citizens, including local ranch and land owner,
Stengel (Franco Ressel),
was behind the robbery and are now worried if they can be implicated
for the job. Sabata is able to put the pieces together of how the
robbery is pulled off and quickly figures out who was behind it, seeing a
chance for a huge payday. Stengel and his cohorts are less than
convinced paying him off will accomplish anything, sending a litany of
hired guns and killers after Sabata. With an unlikely duo backing him,
Sabata readies for each and every attack, worrying all the time about a
similarly talented hired gun, Banjo (William Berger), who hasn't made his allegiance known just yet.
This would be the first of three Sabata movies, followed by Adios, Sabata and The Return of Sabata and both released in 1971, all of them directed by Gianfranco Parolini.
Where the Sergio Leone westerns are classics above the genre and others
are message-oriented with an action shell, the Sabata movies are about
as good as they get in terms of pure entertainment. They even border on
campy at times. We've got great characters -- good and bad -- with a fun
story, a non-stop line of quickly-paced and choreographed gunfights and
enough cool guns, gadgets and contraptions to keep everyone interested.
It's not so much a story as a series of showdowns and gunfights
followed by some negotiations that never amount to much and another
series of showdowns and gunfights. If it sounds simple, it is, and it's a
lot of fun for all 111 minutes.
Right up there on par
with Colonel Douglas Mortimer as his coolest character, Van Cleef nails
the part as the mysterious gunman, Sabata. It starts with the style, the
gunman in black, his flat-brimmed hat, the impeccable suit, the flowing
coat. It continues with his weaponry, Sabata a deadshot with just about
anything that shoots. He doesn't wear a gunbelt, favoring an odd
four-barrelled derringer and a rifle with an extended barrel. He's ready
for anything thrown at him, almost like an other-worldly specter
hovering over the town. As far as cool factor goes, Van Cleef has it in
spades. It's that ever-present smirk, that quick mocking laugh. He
speaks almost solely in one-liners, but it works without being too
goofy. Van Cleef found a home in the genre and by 1969 he was a star
(the Leone flicks, Day of Anger, Death Rides a Horse, The Big Gundown), but this is one of my favorites for him, and he's cooler than ever.
part of the beauty of the weirdness and eccentricity of the spaghetti
westerns. We get these bizarre quirky characters that are so goofy it
works. Start with Berger's Banjo, a gunman who's seemingly worked with
Sabata in the past (in some capacity) and always totes a banjo...with a
surprise inside. His long red hair hangs to his shoulder, he wears bells
on his pants and around his neck, and he's always ready with a
one-liner of his own. His scenes with Van Cleef are pretty perfect, two
badass gunfighters going toe to toe. Sabata's crew are gems themselves
including Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla), a drunken, knife-throwing Mexican veteran of the Civil War and Alley Cat (Aldo Canti), an athletic, acrobatic Indian. It's the weirdest crew of western characters, but it just works.
Also look for Ressel as the manipulatively evil and combover wearing Stenger, wielding a knife-shooting cane, with Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo as Ferguson and Judge O'Hara, his two partners in crime. Spaghetti western babe Linda Veras plays Jane, Banjo's dancehall girl with familiar faces Spartaco Conversi, Marco Zuanelli and Claudio Undari as Oswald, a Stengel henchman, rounding out the cast.
a character that's seemingly indestructible at the forefront, you'd
think it might not be that interesting a flick to watch. You'd be wrong.
It becomes a test of how he'll defeat his enemies, not a test of if. As my buddy Steve said as we watched Sabata at the Music Box Theatre,
Sabata becomes the MacGyver of westerns. He shoots with a variety of
trick shots, well-placed shots, and gimmicks galore. The shootouts are
fun throughout, with the finale including Sabata, Carrincha and Alley
Cat attacking Stengel's heavily fortified ranch with gunfire, gatling
guns, dynamite, acrobatics and explosions galore. I loved the ending
too, holding back on the meanness or cynical qualities of the other
darker westerns, but still has some great twists.
Also worth mentioning is the score from Marcello Giombini. The main theme especially is a gem -- listen HERE -- but it works well throughout. Listen to more of the score HERE
with some clips in the video. It incorporates everything from Banjo
playing his banjo to some lighter touches, like recurring sound effects
leading up to gunfights and even some uses of church organ. It all
combines to give the movie that lighter touch, that fun touch. That's
the movie. It's got can't miss gunmen, a banjo-wielding gunman, an
acrobatic Indian who bounces through the movie and never slows down. A
real gem of the spaghetti western genre.
Sabata (1969): *** 1/2 /****
Rewrite of October 2009 review