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Sabata
(1969)

Director: Gianfranco Parolini
Cast:
Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla


Probably by now, if you are a regular reader, you know that I really enjoy spaghetti westerns. I love their action, music, and backdrops. One other thing I like about the genre is that it has managed to make stars out of many actors, stars that I like to see in other spaghetti westerns should I have the chance. The first and most obvious of all the spaghetti western stars that have managed to impress me is, of course, Clint Eastwood. He made just three spaghetti westerns (the Dollars trilogy), but he set the standard for many other spaghetti western stars to come, portraying a somewhat cold figure who would freely kill in order to gain money... but at the same time showing a little humanity here and there, like when he comforted a wounded and dying soldier towards the end of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Another spaghetti western star that has impressed me a number of times is Franco Nero. He showed a lot of versatility in spaghetti westerns. For example, in Compaņeros, he started off as a figure who would freely break a deal he had with someone if it meant that he would make a profit, and more or less proclaimed his neutrality to the politics going on in the area he moved into - at least at first. And in Keoma, he played a half breed ex-soldier who was not only rejected by society, but by his own family as well. But my favorite spaghetti western actor of all that I've managed to observe to date is Gianni Garko, better known as John Garko. He was the hero in the Sartana series. Though he played the same character several times, he never failed to impress me. He gave the character of Sartana a coolness and a James Bond-like swagger. Just by observing him for a few seconds, you got the idea that his character was at the top of his gang, and would know exactly what to do in any crisis that should come up.

There's one other star of multiple spaghetti westerns that has impressed and entertained me greatly over the years, so much so that it came as a real shock to me recently when I realized that I hadn't yet reviewed one of his spaghetti westerns (though I had reviewed some other movies of his that weren't spaghetti westerns.) That star is the great Lee Van Cleef. His true life tale to becoming a spaghetti western star is just as interesting as the actual spaghetti westerns he made. In the early 1960s, Van Cleef was suffering a period of unemployment in America with both television and motion pictures partially due to an injured leg. Then the great Italian director Sergio Leone, who had reportedly seen footage of Cleef from several American westerns, offered him a part in For A Few Dollars More. It was good money, plus being a foreign production it wouldn't hurt his stateside career if it flopped in Europe (the same logic Clint Eastwood used when Leone earlier offered him A Fistful Of Dollars.) As you probably know, the movie turned out to be a big hit, and Van Cleef was quickly swamped with offers from other spaghetti western filmmakers. Though he returned to Leone for The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Van Cleef's spaghetti western career really took off with his first starring role in The Big Gundown, which was a smash hit in Europe and did respectable business in the United States. He became a big star in Europe through the 1960s and much of the 1970s, not just with spaghetti westerns, though that was the genre he dabbled with the most in his time in Europe. (He made over ten spaghetti westerns in total.) And all of these westerns played in theaters in the United States, so he became a big star in his home country as well.

Of course, Van Cleef wouldn't have become a big star in Europe or the United States if he didn't have talent and charisma, and he certainly did. Van Cleef attributed a lot of his success to the fact that he had, in his words, "a beady-eyed sneer". He certainly looked a little creepy, and that worked Sabatawhether he played a hero or a villain. As a hero, he seemed very mysterious, and you wondered if he had a dark side to him that might suddenly pop out. And when he played a villain, he was effectively cruel with his words as well as his attitude and actions. Whatever his particular character's position was, you couldn't help but keep your eyes on him. That's what made him a great spaghetti western star, and makes surprising that I haven't before reviewed on of them (though I did review The Magnificent Seven Ride!, a 1970s American western Van Cleef starred in.) Fortunately, I was able to remedy that problem right away - I went to my DVD library and pulled out my copy of Sabata. At the time it was released, it was one of Van Cleef's biggest successes, though time has pushed it into obscurity. But that made it an unknown movie, and appropriate for this web site. As you might have guessed, Van Cleef plays the title figure, a mysterious gunfighter dressed in black. One night, he rides into the western town of Daugherty, where members of the United States army have just locked up one hundred thousand dollars in the town's bank. Shortly after Sabata rides past the bank, a group of robbers infiltrates the building, killing or mortally wounding all the army guards, and stealing and riding off with the money. The alarm is soon after raised, and a reward for the stolen money is declared, though Sabata is already out of town. But a few hours later he has not only tracked down and killed the robbers, he has returned the money. What Sabata does not know is that certain elite members of the town were really behind the robbery, and they are scared that Sabata will uncover the fact that they were involved. So they decide to send a string of assassins to kill Sabata, including a mysterious gunfighter named Banjo (Berger, Keoma), who has a gun hidden in the banjo he constantly carries around. While Sabata has the loyalty of the town drunk Carrincha (Spalla, Hitch-Hike) and a mysterious acrobatic Native American known only as Alley Cat (Aldo Canti, Cosmos: War Of The Planets), it may not be enough to help him ward off the assassins and uncover the truth.

As you can see from that above plot synopsis, Sabata has a lot to offer. It not only has a mysterious stranger, but one played by Lee Van Cleef. It starts with a caper, and the story that follows gives many excuses for action and violence. Most importantly of all, the movie is a spaghetti western, one of the best movie genres out there. What more could you want? Well, I see some of you are strangely not moved by what I just said and are demanding more justification for my raves. So I will go into more detail, first by examining the appeal of Lee Van Cleef and the particular character he plays in the movie. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned some of the appeal of Van Cleef as a hero, and what I said definitely applies with Van Cleef in this movie. But there's more that just that. In Sabata, Van Cleef puts in what many of his other cinematic heroes have - the feeling that Van Cleef is really enjoying doing what his character is doing. His smile may be cold and creepy, but it is all the same a smile. And it's an infectious smile, one that makes you feel Van Cleef's joy in playing Sabata. And quite frankly, who wouldn't enjoy playing a hero like Sabata? For starters, he seems to have a sixth sense of sorts, not just with knowing that the bank was robbed before anyone else in town knows about it. He is extremely skilled with a gun, and gets to prove he always has the upper hand over and over. He lives by a kind of unbreakable moral code; while he could have run off with the stolen money after tracking down and killing the bank robbers, he settles for the reward for returning the money, commenting that getting this money that way is "legal". And while he may be all-knowing and all powerful, he isn't completely selfish with his gift; for example, he helps a near destitute townsperson at the local gambling saloon gain back what the person had just lost at the craps table.

Van Cleef is not the only actor in Sabata who is clearly having a lot of fun in his role. Ignazio Spalla tackles the role of Carrincha the drunk with a lot of gusto, constantly finding humor in the various situations his character gets into, though careful enough to not let his laughter and other wild antics get to the point of making Carrincha obnoxious. Aldo Canti, on the other hand, is much more restrained in the role of Alley Cat; he never gets to utter one word of dialogue, and his facial expressions are kind of stony. But he gets to do a lot of amazing stunts clearly done by him and not a stunt double, and you can see in his eyes he's having a ball. Though Spalla and Canti are a lot of fun to watch, viewers who put in some thought about the movie as they are watching it will soon see that the characters of Carrincha and Alley Cat are kind of thin. It wouldn't take a lot of rewriting of the script to eliminate these characters entirely. This thinness can also be seen with some of the opponents Sabata faces in the movie. This is most true with the evil ringleader Stengel, played by actor Franco Ressel (Have A Good Funeral My Friend... Sartana Will Pay). Stengel is appropriately cold and deadly, but we don't really learn all that much about him and his various criminal schemes. You often have to settle for some unintentional amusement from him looking like former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. A somewhat better constructed foe against Sabata is that of William Berger's character of Banjo. Berger, among other entertaining actions, gives Banjo a good sized sarcastic sense of humor, and his character is given several moments to show some depth and personality. One of the most interesting things about the writing of Banjo is that while he becomes an opponent of Sabata, Banjo doesn't come across as especially good or bad, even though it's clear that he's mainly out for himself when all is said and done. Because he isn't clear cut to one extreme or another, he isn't as predictable as a lot of other spaghetti western foes, which extends to his ultimate fate - which of course I will not reveal.

Getting back to Sabata's screenplay, there are some additional weaknesses that do hamper things on occasion. Things do somewhat get bogged down in the middle section of the movie, with it more or less consisting of Stengel multiple times sending various townspeople to kill Sabata but Sabata defeating his would-be assassins each and every time. Some more variety and additional plot in this middle section would possibly have relieved this problem, but there would still be the problem of the movie's length. At one hundred and six minutes in length, Sabata is at least fifteen minutes too long. But even though its story may be thin and stretched out, among other problems, there are other ingredients in the tomato sauce that make this pasta dish a tasty cinematic meal all the same. Director Gianfranco Parolini (If You Meet Sartana...) first of all makes the movie look very nice. Working with what was clearly a decent budget, everything from the sets to the cinematography are all well accomplished. The general atmosphere of Sabata is also flavorful. There is some definite grit in the air as well as some offbeat feel on occasion that you don't often find in spaghetti westerns, like the opening sequence taking place during a thunderstorm. Parolini's greatest accomplishment in the director's chair, however, is keeping the audience entertained. Much of that is of course due to the plentiful action sequences, which are exciting and often have some offbeat features that differentiate them from typical spaghetti western action sequences. But Parolini also keeps the movie moving quickly even when the bullets aren't flying, so aforementioned problems like the thin story and the movie's overlength don't become that much of a problem. So as you can see, there is so much to like about Sabata, as well as spaghetti westerns in general. Somehow, I get the feeling that there are still a few holdouts out there. No problem - I also have the next two Sabata movies on DVD in my collection, so one day I may just pull them out and review them in an additional effort to convince you to give one of the greatest film genres out there a try.

(Posted September 11, 2020)

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See also: Compaņeros, If You Meet Sartana..., The Magnificent Seven Ride!

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