Archive for Lee Van Cleef

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2022 by dcairns

THE BIG GUNDOWN is a really fun Italo-oater directed by Sergio Sollima and written by Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi and Sergio Donati, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the leads.

Alex Cox, who writes favourably about the film in 10,000 Ways to Die, is a big Bunuel fan, and I perceived a Bunuelian parallel with this one: Van Cleef is hunting Milian’s Mexican rascal, who is accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl. It’s basically The Fugitive, in terms of the plot dynamic. What’s surprising is that the movie doesn’t let us know that Milian is innocent for quite a stretch of the runtime. The parallel is with Bunuel’s excellent, underseen THE YOUNG ONE, which does the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD thing of having a Black man falsely accused of rape, but in this case confuses our feelings by not revealing his innocence until halfway through or so. In his memoir, Bunuel may be misremembering the film when he credits himself with making the Black man both good and bad — in fact he’s good, but we’re not allowed to know this for a while.

While we might guess, based on the incidences of misogyny in the genre, that the filmmakers figured their protagonist’s guilt was unimportant, but I don’t think that’s credible: Leone might shrug off rape on several occasions, but not child murder. I think it’s a bold and interesting strategy — our sympathies are with Van Cleef, we’re curious about Milian, and our negative attitude to him is undermined then reversed.

Not that the film isn’t breathtakingly cynical. At one point, anti-hero Cuchillo falls in with a Mormon wagon train — the weather immediately gets overcast and muddy. Van Cleef tracks him down and seems to be on the verge of rescuing the Mormon leader’s fourteen-year-old daughter from almost certain overfamiliarity. After Cuchillo has escaped, Van Cleef learns that the girl is actually the leader’s fourth wife.

Of the writers, Solinas, who co-wrote SALVATORE GIULIANO for Franco Rosi and BATTLE OF ALGIERS with/for Pontecorvo, wanted to write a political western, and succeeds subtly. Morandi was AD on that film, and they both went on to write Joseph Losey’s M. KLEIN. And Donati worked for Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So it’s a really interesting mix of people (Italian movies seem even more apt than Hollywood ones to feature whole football teams of writers).

All this background comes from Cox’s book, where he says that the Solinas-Morandi draft conceived the Mexican fugitive as older, the American pursuer as younger — a Tuco-Blondie set. Sollimo and Donati flipped the ages so that Lee Van Cleef could be Corbett and Tomas Milian could play Cuchillo, young and reasonably attractive under the obligatory stubble and dirt,

The film should be political, but the references to Cuchillo as one of the “dogs of Juarez” don’t add up to much. And as Cox observes, for a tale of American adventurism — Corbett follows Cuchillo into Mexico despite it being out of his jurisdiction — it all turns out very nicely. Of course, Cuchillo is innocent (as charged) and the corrupt rich dude (Walter Barnes) and his son who’ve sicced Corbett on him are really to blame. Which is an implied social criticism, anyway. Spaghetti westerns are good that way — the villains are often wealthy businessmen and politicians who play with toy soldiers.

The chase story allows for picaresque developments — there’s a weird episode involving a sadistic female landowner (Nieves Navarro as “the widow”) who is so beyond-pathological she seems more like a character from Greek myth — someone Odysseus would have some trouble with. And Van Cleef’s realising that Milian has been framed coincides with a miniature political awakening in Mexico, where he’s reduced to the status of prisoner and pauper. And there are entertaining novelties like the Austrian duelist, complete with monocle, who LVC has to square off against.

Cox rightly appreciates the plotting, stating that it deploys “genuine reversals rather than the contrivances of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.” Sometimes I wonder if he even likes Leone, but in fact he’s just clear-eyed about his weaknesses: tackling the DOLLARS films and OUATITW, he’s both extremely critical and wildly enthusiastic. Anyhow, the twists in TGTBATU may be contrived, but they make the contrivance amusing — Clint being saved from hanging by a cannon-blast that destroys the entire building is a bravura moment and I can’t understand anyone not enjoying it. Van Cleef being tricked into thinking a rattlesnake has bitten him, so that Milian can escape, is clever, but still depends on the serpens ex machina showing up at just the right time.

Cox is a very opinionated commentator, which can be bracing, but he baffles me when he (rightly) praises Morricone’s score, then (wrongly) complains about the “hideous, screeching vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and the diabolical song, ‘Run, Man, Run.'” I first knew this movie via its soundtrack, several tracks of which appeared on the LP of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY I bought when I was twenty. Enjoying Dell’Orso’s soprano seems to me a necessity if you’re going to appreciate spaghetti westerns in general and Morricone scores in particular. Cox obviously finds enough to enjoy without liking this component, but I can’t help but feel he’s flat-out wrong and ought to WORK ON IT. Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from broadening our minds. The only thing a canon is good for is leverage to convince us we might be missing something.

I also like the song — I like Morricone’s pop arrangements too, and I like the naked emotionalism of it. That’s a key part of the Italian western thang — deeply cynical stories about horrible violence, venality and casual betrayal, with soaring, romantic music. I think it’s also part of why English-language critics not only disliked the films for their inauthenticity and sadism, they were thrown by the weird two-tones-at-once approach, and concluded that the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing.

RUN, MAN, RUN is also the name of THE BIG GUNDOWN’s sequel, starring Milian sans Van Cleef, which I plan to watch.

THE BIG GUNDOWN stars Angel Eyes; Django; Porthos; Emanuelle; Zorro; Yevtushenko; and Stevens.

Sabata resubmitted

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2020 by dcairns

If you wanna get money / And if you wanna be rich / If you want a good life / You’ve gotta be a son of a – / Bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom / Bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom…

The inanity of the title song of RETURN OF SABATA is hard to beat, and if you happen to be looking for a non-Leone comedy western with Lee Van Cleef, so is RETURN OF SABATA. It might even have the edge on the original. It is not an important film, I stress. But it’s rather jolly. Even Van Cleef seems determined to show he’s not just a cold-eyed stone-face.

Sabata! / Sabata! / The fastest gun in the west! / I said the fastest gun in the west! / Nine-fingered man! / Four-barrelled Derringer! / Sabata is the only invincible man in the countryside…

Yes, you see, Van Cleef was missing the tip of his right index finger, something Leone was very enthusiastic about. In this film, the finger is mentioned and has a backstory (something about Sabata chewing it off to get out of the Southern army). And at the end he shoots a semi-bad guy in the finger, so it’s a motif. And the trick Derringer with extra barrels hidden in the handle (impossible to aim, one would have thought, but Sabata can use it with amazing skill) is a Bondian gadget established in the first film and reintroduced in the opening scene here, a bloody shoot-out that turns out to be part of a traveling wild west show. So Sabata invented the blood capsule, if anyone asks you.

Later, he produces a miniature squeeze-gun, cupped in the hand and fired by clenching the fingers — and this turns out to have been a real weapon, though very uncommon.

Ignazio Spalla, AKA “Pedro Sanchez” returns too, but as a different character, just to keep things confusing.

(Say, we know that Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte are playing different characters in their two entries in the DOLLAR trilogy, but can we be sure Clint Eastwood is playing the same guy in all three? Sure, he has the poncho and cheroot in all three (though he only dons it neat the end of TGTBATU, but he has different names.)

Reiner Schöne is really entertaining, although he’s more of an out-and-out swine than the loveable scamp the movie seems to imagine him as. Similarly, both films in the series seem less sympathetic to the female characters then is warranted…

Both Sabata films are fairly boys-only, sexist affairs, with women as decorative murderees — they look forward to the gialli, in a way, with little moments of murder mystery amid the massacring, and director Gianfranco Parolini’s “circus western” atmosphere introduces some visual elements that would have fitted right in with later genre developments. Sabata acquires a kind of girlfriend, though he was sexless in the first film like a lot of spaghetti western heroes — “only interested in killing,” suggested Alex Cox, though money serves as a convenient universally-understood MacGuffin.

The weirdly asexual he-man mythos connects pretty directly to the peplum, where desire is expressed mainly through flexing and fighting — and Parolini was a veteran of that genre. It also goes back to Leone (FOR A FEW DOLLARS is an extended flirtation between two gunfighters), another graduate of the sword-and-sandal school, and I guess you can find some of its origins in YOJIMBO and SANJURO.

Van Cleef is by now more used to the idea of doing comedy, and his facial expressions get surprisingly varied. I didn’t want to see him camp it up TOO much — playing it straight is often a good policy in this kind of thing — but he manages to avoid embarrassing himself.

Sabatage

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2020 by dcairns

An old Dutch master.

As a film, SABATA aka EHI AMICO… C’È SABATA. HAI CHIUSO! (1969) by Frank Kramer aka Gianfranco Parolini, may not be that special. but for me it was the answer to a forty-five year question that I had never troubled myself to ask.

(Sabata means “Saturday” so the original title is a pun — HEY FRIEND… IT’S SABATA/SATURDAY, YOU’RE CLOSED!)

The BBC used to show seasons of films — more a BBC2 thing — and as a kid I saw both Barboni’s Corbucci’s TRINITY films and Leone’s DOLLAR trilogy — and this. Only I never knew what film this was. But the question was hardly pressing, and in the age of the internet it probably wouldn’t have been hard to get the list of films shown back in the seventies, or to search for a spaghetti western featuring a drunken Civil war veteran (inexplicably dubbed with a pseudo-Mexican accent — or am I ignorant of some role played by Mexico in that conflict?) who’s continually cursing the uselessness of his medal for bravery. (Cue ironic pay-off when it proves useful after all.)

It’s fun, childish stuff, and Marcello Giombini’s Morricone rip-off score is catchy and likeable. MG also scored films under the pen-name Pluto Kennedy, which delights me strangely. Lee Van Cleef is Sabata and the character who lodged in my brain is played by one Ignazio Spalla, whose career was mostly confined to Italian oaters and was often billed as Pedro Sanchez, fooling no one.

I could do a piece proving that the spaghetti western gunman has as convoluted a history as that of the gentleman sleuth, but I’m not going to. I’ll only note that director Kramer’s middle film in the SABATA trilogy, ADIOS, SABATA aka INDIO BLACK, SAI CHE TI DICO: SEI UN GRAN FIGLIO DI… is actually about a character called Indio Black, or maybe Black Indio, played not as here by Lee Van Cleef but by Yul Brunner aka Yuli Borisovich Bryner. That must have made for a real sloppy dubbing job, since the lip movements required to say “Sabata” are in no wise similar to those that go into “Indio” or “Indio Black” or “Black Indio.” Another fake Sabata is Vittorio Richelmi in Spanish knock-off JUDAS… ¡TOMA TUS MONEDAS! aka WATCH OUT, GRINGO! SABATA WILL RETURN, where the character was originally called Texas (good luck dubbing that one, too)… then there’s Anthony Steffen in SABATA THE KILLER aka ARRIVA SABATA! which at least seems to have been conceived as a Sabata film, though made by other hands; Brad Harris in WANTED SABATA aka SABATA VIVO OU MORTO; Raf Baldassare in DIG YOUR GRAVE FRIEND… SABATA’S COMING aka ABRE TU FOSA AMIGO… ILEGA SABATA.Mind you, when you get into the DJANGO series, things get lunatic, with whole companies of lip-flapping C-listers dragooned in to fill Franco Nero’s capacious boots, and some entries being released as Sartana films or Django films in different territories, with different degrees of lip-flap. Still, the Hercules “series” makes even this chaos seem orderly.

The only “proper” SABATA sequel is È TORNATO SABATA… HAI CHIUSO UN’ALTRA VOLTA! (SABATA IS BACK… YOU’RE CLOSED AGAIN!) aka RETURN OF SABATA — same director and stars, and it’s also good childish, violent fun. I will address it more fully soon.

SABATA stars Angel Eyes; King Minos; Sergeant Garcia; Frank Bimble; King Lotar; Countess Grabowsky; and Lotte Krayendorf.