With his lean, angular features and narrow, piercing eyes, Lee Van Cleef had the sort of presence you didn’t easily forget in supporting roles, especially villainous parts in westerns (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Bravados) and crime dramas (Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo). Unfortunately, it took more than 12 years and over 100 film and TV appearances before the actor finally moved into leading roles after a career that began in 1952 with his debut in High Noon. And like Clint Eastwood, he finally found fame in Italy when he was almost forty, opposite the former Rawhide TV star in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965), the sequel to Eastwood’s star-making breakthrough in A Fistful of Dollars (1965). After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), in which he played “the ugly” Angel Eyes in the final installment of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, he carved out an impressive career in some of the best spaghetti westerns of the late sixties and early seventies such as The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse and Day of Anger (all 1967). Less serious than those but just as entertaining is Sabata (1969), which adds some tongue in cheek humor, gymnastic action and fancy weaponry to the spaghetti western formula.
Directed by Gianfranco Parolini (his name was anglicized for American audiences as Frank Kramer), Sabata opens like gangbusters and rarely lets up during its 111 minute running time. A heavily guarded bank vault in the western town of Daugherty contains $100,000 dollars and is targeted by a well-organized gang of thieves during a thunderstorm. They strike without warning, killing all of the army guards and escaping into the night with the loot.
In the midst of all this excitement, a stranger (Van Cleef) arrives in town, introduced first by his signature cigar, then his boots and finally a pan up to his hook nose face as he tosses a coin to Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla), a street beggar who quickly becomes a friendly ally. Sabata wastes no time in sizing up the town, its inhabitants and the men who run it, a corrupt, back-stabbing trio composed of city official Ferguson (Antonio Gradoli), Judge O’Hara (Gianni Rizzo) and wealthy landowner Stengel (Franco Ressel). Sabata also forms an uneasy alliance with a mysterious, banjo-strumming stranger who calls himself Banjo (William Berger).
Sabata quickly wins the respect of the army when he ambushes and massacres the thieves in the desert and returns to town, giving the stolen money back to the Captain (Franco Marletta). He only accepts a small reward because he has bigger fish to fry – Stengel and his cronies. Sabata knows they are behind the robbery and sets about blacking them for $30,000. If they don’t comply by his deadline, he will expose their crimes to the Captain and the public.
[Spoilers ahead] By the end of the film, Sabata and Banjo have effectively decimated everyone who stands in their way of a huge ransom for the original culprits and you know only one man will walk away as the victor. The final shot is a kind of homage to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as Banjo’s measly share of the ransom is blasted out of his hands by Sabata and the turncoat frantically tries to stop the wind from blowing it all away.
Unlike Clint Eastwood’s mercenary protagonist in the Dollars trilogy, Van Cleef’s Sabata is a law-abiding, straight shooter despite his pose as a gambler and a rogue. A telling exchange with Banjo early in the film sets up their differences:
Banjo: We’re just alike.
Sabata: I’m on the right side.
Banjo: What side is that?
Sabata: Not the side against the law.
Banjo: Then you find yourself up against Banjo.
Van Cleef struts through the movie, outwitting his rivals and dispatching them with the kind of sarcastic kiss-off lines more typical of Roger Moore in his James Bond films. However, Sabata is also guilty of fighting dirty (he will shoot an adversary in the back) and he rarely indulges in the usual gunslinger vices (except for an occasional shot of whiskey) and that includes avoiding any intimate contact with Jane (Linda Veras), the blonde dance hall hostess and hotel employee, who is secretly in cahoots with Banjo.
This sets up an entertaining contrast between our hero and his slippery partner Banjo, who, as played by Berger (in a rust-colored hippie wig – or is it his real hair?), is deceptively laid-back, self-amused and sly as a fox – he can not only play the banjo but uses it to demonstrate his quick draw skills (the instrument also functions as a gun).
Other standouts in the cast include Italian character actor Luciano Pigozzi in a cameo appearance as a lethal fake priest, Ignazio Spalla as the obsequious Carrincha, whose main motivation is greed despite siding with Sabata, and Franco Ressel as the arrogant and sadistic tyrant who secretly runs the town. Ressel, who has appeared in countless Italian genre films, is the kind of villain you love to hate and is prone to making remarks such as “I like living at the peak of excitement for life is only worthwhile when you can face death without showing any fear. In fact, I enjoy it.” That statement will come back to taunt him in his final encounter with Sabata.
Bringing a sense of physical awe and delight to the film is Aldo Canti aka Nick Jordan in the role of Alley Cat, Carrincha’s Native American sidekick as imagined by an Italian casting director. A former stuntman at Cinecitta studios, Canti is a marvel to behold with his gravity-defining leaps, jumps and flips over walls and rooftops in Sabata. In real life, the actor was found murdered at Rome’s Villa Borghese Park on January 21, 1990. Allegedly, Canti was shot in the head by a local crime syndicate due to gambling debts.
Although Sabata is set in Texas during the 19th century, this is not the American West you’re used to seeing in the films of John Ford and Delmer Daves. Not only does it have a title character who travels with as many gadgets as James West (of the TV series, The Wild, Wild West) but it features a frontier town populated with Las Vegas-like showgirls, knife-wielding drunks and cowboy acrobats (Director Parolini, who worked in circuses in his youth, would often pay homage to his former profession by featuring acrobats in his films).
The carnival-like atmosphere is further enhanced by exaggerated sound effects, bizarre camera angles, and Marcello Giombini’s playful and addictive music score. Sabata was a hit in Italy and spawned two sequels, both directed by Parolini, but they were major disappointments in comparison to the original. Adios, Sabata (1970) was a particularly ineffective follow-up with Yul Brynner replacing Van Cleef, who wasn’t available due to other film commitments. Originally titled Indio Black, sai che ti dico: Sei un gran figlio di…, the movie featured Brynner as a gunslinger named Indio Black, who was involved with Mexican revolutionaries over a gold heist (Brynner’s character name was changed to Sabata in the English language version). Dressed in bell bottom jeans and a tailored jacket with buckskin fringe, Brynner was saddled with terrible dialogue and looked more like an anachronistic bad fashion icon than a western hero.
Equally lame was the final film in the trilogy, Return of Sabata (1971), which brought back Van Cleef as a sharpshooter in a traveling circus along with his co-stars Ignazio Spalla and Aldo Canti from the first Sabata film. It did feature another sensational music score by Marcello Giombini and had the curiosity value of American folk singer turned Soviet asylum seeker/Eurotrash star Dean Reed in a supporting role but the film’s failure marked the end of Parolini’s Sabata creation.
In his excellent survey of the genre, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western, Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell) wrote “Sabata is the best of the circus Westerns, a sub-sub-genre which Parolini either invented or enthusiastically made his own. It succeeds thanks to the high skill levels of all concerned, a great art department and soundtrack, and the presence of Franco Ressel as the principal bad guy, Stengel. Ressel had played the sadistic aristo-villain of In a Colt’s Shadow; with Stengel, he took this prototype to a higher level: to the camp, flamboyant level of Fergusson in Requiescant, or the criminal aesthetics of Sorro, in Django, Kill.”
Parolini has never been ranked in the top tier of spaghetti western practitioners like Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci (Django, The Great Silence) and Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown, Face to Face). Still, he has made some memorable entertainments in addition to Sabata such as Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (1966), the first in a line of campy Euro-spy thrillers featuring Kommissar X (played by Tony Kendall), If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death (1968), the excellent introduction to the popular Santana franchise with Gianni Garko in the starring role, and Five for Hell (1969), a WWII actioner combining goofball humor with tense combat scenes and spotlighting Klaus Kinski as – who else? – an evil Nazi colonel.
MGM released the Sabata trilogy as a 3-disc DVD set in October 2005 but it contains no extra features and there is no Italian language/English subtitle option (there is a French audio option which is puzzling for an Italian production). A much better choice is to go with the remastered-in-HD Blu-ray of Sabata from Kino Lorber which was released in July 2014. It features the English audio version only and the sole extra is the theatrical trailer but this is the best version to date. Separate soundtrack CDs of both Sabata and Return of Sabata are also still in print and highly recommended for fans of composer Marcello Giombini.
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