Sabata (1969)

Cast: Lee van Cleef, William Berger, Linda Veras, Franco Ressel, Pedro sancez, nick Jordan, Gianni Rizzo, Ken Wood, Robert Hundar, Spartaco Conversi – Music : Marcello Giombini

Although Van Cleef is wearing a kind of Colonel Mortimer outfit, Sabata is much closer in spirit to director Parolini’s own If you meet Sartana, pray for your death than to Leone’s dollar movie. Actually, it was Alberto Grimaldo, producer for Pea, that had become, thanks to Sergio leone, the largest production company of spaghetti westerns in Rome, who came up with the idea of the movie. The production of spaghetti western was plummeting, but the first Sartana movie had done well, so everybody wanted to make a tongue-in-cheeck movie with a hero depicted as a man with almost supernatural shooting abilities and a weaponry closer to a Bond movie than a spaghetti western. In other worlds: Grimaldi and Pea wanted their own Sartana franchise, and simply chose Parolini, the director of the first Sartana, to direct it. The choice for Lee van Cleef was less obvious; he was considered a good box-office insurance, but had no experience with the more light-hearted approach to the genre. He himself was very sceptic, but accepted the part after Parolini took him to a showing of Five for hell, a kind of light version of The Dirty Dozen. Lee didn’t understand a word of it, but the cinema had been full of young Italians who apparently had the time of their life. He thought this was maybe the ideal career move for him.

Sabata accidently witnesses a bank robbery, in which a load of army money is stolen. He kills the robbers and takes the money back into town, but then discovers that the people behind the robbery, are three respected citizens, the judge, the banker and a rancher called Stengel, the most dangerous of the three, a homosexual sadist who has a private room in which he executes people. Sabata threatens to inform the army and start to blackmail the three dignitaries. Two of them are willing to pay, but Stengel convinces them to hire professional killers to eliminate Sabata, a very bad idea of course. Sabata is assisted by a foul-mouthed town drunk called Garrincha, and an acrobate by the name of Alley Cat. An old acquaintance of him, Banjo, is the man in the middle, who has his eyes on the money too. All hired guns put on Sabata’s trail are eliminated, but then Stengel asks Banjo if he’s willing to give it a try…

Spaghetti westerns always had an ambiguous relationship with realism, but in Sabata the thinnest of lines is cut when Van Cleef throws a coin in a nickelodeon from across the room. A similar coin trick is used during the film’s finale, but this time to eliminate the main villain. Still we’re not in Trinity land: the body count is high and the action pretty tough. Although he is a privilege to watch, as nearly always, Van Cleef isn’t at his very, very best here. Too often he goes for that famous smile and it’s clear that the European years, and his daily quantity of beers, started to take its toll. But excellent support is given by Franco Ressel, as Stengel, and Berger - in what is most probably is best spaghetti western part - as Banjo, the red-haired womanizer with a rifle hidden in the instrument that gave him his name. To honor Robert Hundar, the first ‘star’ of the now large production company Pea, he was given a small part in the movie: he’s the first victim Stengel shoots in his execution room. Even more odd was the casting of the beautiful Linda Veras as Banjo’s love interest: at the time she was Mrs. Sollima, the most serious of all spaghetti western directors, so you wouldn’t expect her in a more light-hearted genre entry. But it’s clear that she wasn’t a great actress, so probably Sollima was glad to hand her over to Parolini for the occasion. The score by Mario Giombini, is excellent, although the main theme is used a few times too many, as is more often the case in spaghetti westerns. The script seems very tight at first but loses focus along the way, turning the movie more in a series of sketches in which Van Cleef shakes off opponents who are after his life. It doesn’t really matter: this is not a film you watch for great story-telling or deeper meanings. But If you’re looking for a concoction of tongue-in-cheek humor and violent action, Sabata may well be the movie you’re looking for: they don’t get much better than this. And if by any chance you have to watch it and don’t like those ingredients, you can always gape in admiration at Linda Veras: they don’t get much better than her either.

Reviewed DVD: MGM (R1/R2) The covers from the two releases are different (the R1 covers are far superior) but as far as I know quality-wise they’re similar. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio, 2,35:1, and simply looks great. A few hairs are all as far as print damage is concerned. The mono sound has its limitations, of course, but does the job perfectly well.

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