With the arrival of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the so called spaghetti western genre was born and would continue to evolve and bend the accepted way westerns were filmed, written, acted and enjoyed. Hell, I could even add the word dubbed into that mix. I left the key word “enjoyed” to the end because it’s very clear that not everyone enjoys these overseas westerns and at times I find myself in that category. I should then add I don’t necessarily enjoy each and every western filmed north or south of the Rio Grande either.
Sabata from director Gianfranco Parolini aka Frank Kramer falls somewhere in the middle for me. Let’s face it, it has the iconic Lee Van Cleef in the title role looking every inch a bad ass movie star. The outfit, the hat, the hawk nose and those “angel eyes.” Yeah I’ve been a Van Cleef fan for as long as I’ve been watching old 1950’s westerns where we’d see him trying to kill Gary Cooper in High Noon or pull a Derringer on Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. So basically as far back into my early years as I can remember.
Van Cleef’s title character Sabata comes across as a sharp shooting opposite of Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s not an outright good guy but he’s the one we’ll be cheering for as the plot develops. Unlike Clint, Lee will have plenty to say throughout the 106 minute running time. Our western tale begins with a stealthy middle of the night bank robbery where instead of blowing a safe to get the 100K within, the thieves just steal the giant sized strong box. Panic within the frontier town ensues and watching it all from the background is the dangerous stranger in black who in no time at all will gun down the thieves responsible and bring the wagon back to town with the safe still intact.
A reward of $5000 is handed over which brings into Van Cleef’s world a barfly played by Ignazio Spalla who will prove to be our hero’s sidekick through the majority of the film. The 5K may be nice but not enough when Van Cleef suspects this was an inside job orchestrated by the town’s three wealthiest men, Franco Ressel, Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo. While it never happened, Rizzo is a dead ringer for Louis B. Mayer and should have played the MGM King in some sort of a weird Euro-Spaghetti-Biopic. Perhaps the story of Mayer going to Europe in search of the next Garbo and coming back with Hedy Lamarr.
Knowing who was behind the robbery, Van Cleef keeps upping the ante of just how much cash he wants to pay for his silence. Turns out the piece of the pie he wants is too large and the trio turn a steady stream of assassins loose on Van Cleef. Not to worry because not only is he deadly with a long range rifle but he’s tricky with a handgun. Just ask Marco Zuanelli who proves unsuccessful at taking out our man in black. You may remember Zuanelli from Leone’s true masterpiece Once Upon A Time In the West as the man who wears both a belt and suspenders.
Billed second to Van Cleef and above the title is William Berger as a banjo playing sharpshooter in his own right. He has a past with Van Cleef and though the two will form an uneasy alliance it won’t last long when Berger and his banjo are hired to take out our anti-hero with the angel eyes. Truthfully it’s gimmicks and characters like Berger’s that don’t sit well with me when it comes to the spaghetti westerns and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. They’re just two far off base from the purity of the western in general to be taken serious. Then again maybe that’s where I sometimes fail when watching them. Perhaps they’re not meant to be and are there only in the context of satirizing the genre.
For the record I do give a pass on all gimmicks that may be included in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time In the West. Those two films I hold in the highest regard.
But you see it’s the genre that I love more than any other so I do have my limitations on what works when lampooning the western. I’d much rather watch Jack Elam sporting a set of coke bottle glasses blindly trying to intimidate Mickey Rooney in The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County than see William Berger attempt to play the joker who just happens to have a rifle lined inside the back and neck of his instrument. But to be fair it might be that whole lost in translation thing.
Enough rambling. Bottom line is that Sabata stars Lee Van Cleef who was hitting his stride thanks to the spaghetti western and for that we must be grateful. If it hadn’t been for Leone bringing him overseas he might have given up on his film career which by the early 60’s had pretty much run it’s course in Hollywood.
As for Sabata? It’s worthwhile seeing for the Van Cleef cult and those who enjoy the spaghetti western flavor in general. Not a film I’d recommend to my Dad who gets a kick of Van Cleef but pretty much abhors the sub genre. Plenty of explosions, a large body count and a soundtrack littered with odd musical notes and cues that has a great line in the film’s trailer in reference to Van Cleef ….. “A look that means you’re dead before you know it.”
Van Cleef would revisit the character in 1973’s The Return of Sabata and even Yul Brynner would be credited with the role in Adios Sabata that was meant to capitalize on the popularity of Van Cleef’s film. In reality Yul was playing a character called Indio Black but dubbing and marketing can easily change all that. Available on DVD in a Sabata box set or on blu ray from Kino Lorber, Sabata should be easy to locate if you feel the need.