Monday, August 11, 2014

SABATA: Blu-ray (United Artists 1969) Kino Lorber

With its bizarre hodge-podge of sideshow reprobates, including an gymnastic Indian mute; slovenly Spaniard/ex-Civil War veteran, the latter espousing piteous platitudes while philosophizing the futilities of life; a ragamuffin, banjo-toting gunslinger in hiding; its loopy post-sync and obviously dubbed dialogue, ultra-violence for violence sake, and, a star presence in Lee Van Cleef, leering like a child molester from under his wide-brimmed black sombrero (also appropriately sheathed in a heavy black duster), director, Gianfranco Parolini’s Sabata (1969) definitely has its…uh…‘charm’; Marcello Giombini’s infectious pop-chart topping, ‘Ehi amico... c'è Sabata, hai chiuso!’ immediately infiltrating the consciousness and the eardrum like a bad nightmare.
Cleef is our heroic anti-hero, a mysterious ‘man with one name,’ newly arrived in Daugherty; an Arizona-esque parched backwater presided over by Franco Ressel’s effete aristocrat, Stengel, who considers himself an intellectual superior (he’s even seen reading Thomas Dew’s Inequality is the Basis of Society and taking its precepts to heart); cold-bloodedly killing the last of his own bank robbers, Oswald (Robert Hundar) merely to prove a point. One can definitely see the imprint and influences of Sergio Leone stamped all over this spaghetti western; Parolini (who coauthored the screenplay with Renato Izzo) transforming this otherwise harsh and sparsely populated rural community into a riveting textbook cliché of every western parable you’ve seen since; Tarantino’s Django (2012) the most recent and transparent of the lot.
Sabata hails from a period when the sermonizing Hollywood western yielded to this more gutsy/gritty foreign derivative, barely driven by plot; rather holding the audiences’ attention on the sheer force of its cleverly staged brutalities. The movie begins and ends in bloodshed and betrayal (with a nod – okay, an homage…okay: a rip off – of John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948); Cleef’s stoic Sabata always five steps ahead of the criminal element and managing to discredit any and all who attempt, in vain, to destroy him.
Parolini wastes no time setting up his thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride; a daring bank robbery staged one windswept, dark and stormy night. On the other end of town rides a solitary stranger up to the saloon. He confronts the gambling house for cheating an old codger out of his life’s savings by blasting the house’s loaded dice off the soft green felt of a crap table with his mini-revolver (a trick pistol that also shoots bullets from its grip), then by humiliating its discontented keeper, Ferguson (Antonio Gradoli, billed as Anthony Gradwell); shooting a chair leg out from under him, causing Fergie to do a face plant in his bowl of guacamole. Mmmm….yummy!
Town prostitute, Jane (Linda Veras) looks on adoringly as Sabata flings a nickel from across the room into the player piano to lighten the mood. Who is this aging superman, come to call on their den of iniquity? Who, indeed? Only Banjo (William Berger – sporting a disastrous mop of Raggety-Ann pumpkin orange and toting his banjo - actually a shotgun) seems mildly amused. Banjo and Jane are lovers. A jaded hooker just naïve enough to think she’s found Mr. Right in a guy who can’t stop strumming on his ego long enough to put his hands elsewhere on her instrument. Hmmm…and just one of the inconsistencies never fully addressed in the movie.
Ditto for Sabata somehow getting his hands on a gramophone that can record a perfect facsimile of his voice to fool Stengel in the dark of the night. Yeah, okay. I get it. Sabata is not a film you watch for content or even accuracy, except to be mildly amused by its bad attempts at cleverness. There’s a definite history between our cloaked anit-hero and this epicene musician, whose pant legs are draped in streams of sleigh bells that jingle-jangle-jingle as he saunters merrily along. And Banjo, who seems to spend more time shooting his wad than his rifle, delights in taunting Sabata – their tenuous tolerance of one another predicated on an unspoken truth never fully disclosed in this movie.  
There’s a jealous rivalry brewing between these two peacocks with a faint whiff of homoeroticism; the old John Ford solitary man of the old west taking on an unexpected sexual charge and mutual attraction; particularly after Sabata befriends the portly and disenchanted alcoholic, Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla as Pedro Sanchez) who spits on the memory of his days as a decorated cavalryman in the U.S. army and whose best friend is Indio (Aldo Canti as Nick Jordan) a tawny, buff, mute Indian (think Tonto with muscles) who spends the bulk of our story in an atrociously bad Navajo wig, slathered in body oil, and, wearing a single, body-hugging costume to show off his most obvious physical assets as he performs some mind-boggling acrobatic leaps from tall buildings (with the aid of, not too successfully, concealed trampolines).
As if to punctuate some slavish Freudian subtext about manly men versus ‘the fags’ - Sabata’s villains are a dandified bunch, decidedly past their prime. Our main evildoer, Stengel is a prissy, steely-eyed intellectual; book-learned but sexually frustrated, sporting lavender waistcoats, frilly dress shirts and far too much mascara. He isn’t scary; just mean and a boring dresser. His compatriots in crime are the portly and baby-faced, Judge O’Hara (Gianni Rizzo) who looks as though he sweats Crisco like a Christmas ham from every pore at the very sight of Sabata. There’s also the aforementioned Ferguson; a stout saloon keeper who would prefer to remain the trio’s silent partner in this ominously bad plan to steal local money to finance their own purchase of some choice Texas land where the Union Pacific will be coming through. Sabata has his hands full with these cutthroats who fancy themselves scheming brutes, though actually are more ‘fancy’ than they care to admit.
Our story begins with the Virginia Brothers – a pair of funambulists who, along with Oswald and a motley brood of Stengel’s mindless henchmen, burst into the local bank during a violent thunderstorm and promptly assassinate the small garrison of Union soldiers hired to guard its considerable $100,000 payroll. Meanwhile, at a nearby saloon the mysterious Sabata quietly observes as the house attempts to take advantage of an old coot who is about to lose everything in a loaded game of craps. Sabata interrupts the game with his double-action trick pistol, winning back the man’s losses with his own set of dice. Is this Parolini setting up Sabata as a modern day Robin Hood? Perhaps, but with a decidedly sadistic streak, as Sabata takes great pleasure in shooting the chair leg out from under Ferguson, who makes the feeblest attempt to intervene. Next, we meet Carrincha, tossed on his rear for being unable to pay for his drinks; Sabata covering the debt and inviting him to stay for another round. Carrincha is a fiery drama queen; a rich parody of the artful dodger who quickly becomes Sabata’s entrusted sidekick. We’re also introduced to Indio – Carrincha’s sidekick; a brawny savage, performing some mesmerizing acrobatics this side of Barnum & Bailey.
Director, Parolini delights in offering us the implausible heist first – all show, and needlessly theatrical; the robbers laying waste to the Union soldiers in their systematic annihilation, rails right up the front stoop and then sliding the heavy safe on castors out the front door into a waiting wagon. Really? And nobody sees this? One of the bludgeoned, but still barely alive Union guards passes Sabata, who takes notice but does nothing; the man staggering into the saloon to alert the rest of the town of the robbery. The simple folk descend on the bank, warded off in their queries by Daugherty’s complacent Sheriff (Janos Bartha), who vows to organize a posse. But who needs angry rabble when Sabata is a force of one?
In hightailing it across the remote landscape, the robbers (minus the Virginia Brothers) are confronted by Sabata, his rifle aimed and shouting from his perch atop a cliff nearly 6700 yards away for the men to return to Daugherty and surrender their payload. One turns to another, claiming no Winchester can shoot half as far, moments before he is shot dead; Sabata assassinating the rest with lightning speed and arriving in town with the safe and a small stockpile of corpses. Naturally, this gruesome sight is alarming to Ferguson and Stengel; also to the Virginia Brothers who are later assassinated by Oswald on Stengel’s orders; these men sent to conceal the Virginia wagon shot dead by Sabata, Carrincha and Indio. There’s so much killing in the first few reels we’re not entirely sure who deserves it and who doesn’t; or rather who’s justified in taking the law into their own hands. The Union captain tells Sabata he is up for a reward and to name his price. Sabata waits for the captain to offer him a figure, then raises it to $5,000; Carrincha disgusted by the paltry sum when the safe contained $100,000. 
The plot thickens – or rather, congeals – as Sabata and Banjo exchange telling glances at the saloon/whorehouse; Banjo striking up a lively tune that incurs Sabata’s ire. He shoots off the tip of Banjo’s headstock and machine heads. But Banjo coyly tells Sabata he barely recognizes him for returning the safe; implying the two men were likely in cahoots on another robbery taking place in their distant past. In the meantime, Stengel attempts to quash Ferguson and O’Hara’s mounting anxiety; O’Hara deathly afraid Sabata already knows they are responsible for the foiled heist. When O’Hara attempts to back out of the land grab deal, Stengel holds him at gunpoint; using his decorative walking stick; in reality, a deadly dart gun.
Meanwhile, Sabata has connected the men attempting to get rid of the Virginia Brothers wagon with Stengel. Oswald returns to Stengel’s posh hacienda to collect his payoff; Stengel instead murdering him in a game of cat and mouse. Now, there is presumably no one left to tie Stengel to the robbery. No one, that is, except Sabata, who has been quietly observing the confrontation with Oswald through an open window and fires a couple of distracting rounds at Stengel before riding off into the night.
From a safe distance, and concealed under the cover of night, Sabata demands Stengel pay him $10,000 to return the Virginia Brothers wagon – proof he, Stengel, was involved in the robbery. Sabata rigs the wagon with a gramophone playing his pre-recorded voice, a dummy propped up in its front seat. Stengel’s men take the bait, firing a litany of rounds into the wagon filled with dynamite. It explodes into a hellish fireball, and Sabata – still concealed beyond the stone fence surrounding Stengel’s hacienda - now informs his foppish mercenary that the price for his silence has risen to $20,000.  Back in town, Sabata feigns never having left the stoop of the bordello, Banjo – knowing better – informing Sabata he had better keep tighter reigns on his horse, lest people begin to believe otherwise. 
The next morning Jane and Banjo quarrel over what she has misperceived as his lack of initiative; she, wriggling out of bed, belligerently ordering Banjo to hook up with Stengel and his henchmen. Instead, Banjo informs Sabata – for a bribe of $200 – Stengel has no intension of surrendering the money. This, Sabata already knows, or rather, has presumed as much. In fact, he isn’t all that interested in the money. Not long thereafter, four of Stengel’s hired guns storm Sabata’s room, firing at his reflection. They are shot dead by Sabata who smugly proclaims the price for his silence is now $30,000. Stengel pays a highly respected assassin, Sharky (Marco Zuanelli) to take care of Sabata. But even he proves no match; quickly dispatched to a bloody end. Stengel now sends a pair of killers to the saloon, one cruelly chastising the filthy, Carrincha as a lice-breeder. In short order, Sabata kills the first gunmen, the other stabbed in the back by Carrincha as payback for the insult.
Daugherty’s Catholic priest, Father Brown (Rodolfo Lodi) asks Sabata to attend him in his church, presumably to perform an absolution for his recent sins.  Alas, this too is a trap set by Stengel, who replaces Father Brown with an imposter (Luciano Pigozzi). Tempting the fake ‘Father Brown’ with a satchel full of money, Sabata realizes he has been had, the satchel rigged with his pistol. The gun goes off when the fake priest reaches for the bag. From the choir loft, Banjo strikes up a lively tune on the organ; Sabata momentarily spooked by his presence before strolling out the front door unscathed. Sabata now informs Stengel his price has doubled to $60,000; O’Hara imploring Stengel to pay out and move on.
Stengel begrudgingly informing Sabata he’ll have the money ready and waiting by noon tomorrow. However, when Sabata’s back is to him, Stengel prepares to take dead aim and finish Sabata off. The assassination is thwarted at the last possible moment by Banjo, confronted with five newly arrived desperadoes from Denver who are there to settle an old score. The odds appear to be stacked against the ‘unarmed’ Banjo. But only a moment later, he uses the element of surprise and his rifle concealed in his banjo to wipe out all of the aforementioned without even a pause to reload.
Jane is both elated and relieved her man has survived the onslaught. But Sabata instinctively knows what will follow: a showdown between him and Banjo. Sure enough, the next afternoon at the prearranged money drop, Banjo arrives and attempts to kill Sabata. Ferguson looks on as each man struggles for supremacy in this battle of wills; Sabata shooting the rifle from Banjo’s hands, and firing another three warning shots after Banjo attempts to regain control of his weapon. Sabata now forces Banjo to tell him what Stengel offered to pay to see him dead; Banjo confessing Stengel was willing to pay him the entire $100,000 kitty to be rid of Sabata once and for all.
Stengel is infuriated by this latest failure, and although he allows Banjo another chance to rectify the botched assassination, he also orders a posse of his men to pursue Sabata into the canyon. It’s a deliberate trap; Sabato, Carrincha and Indio isolating Stengel’s men in a narrow pass and starting an avalanche that effectively traps them. Now, Sabata, Carrincho and Indio make inroads into Stengel’s hacienda, planting dynamite charges everywhere and murdering one of the guards to keep their infiltration a secret. Believing the end is near Judge O'Hara departs the Stengel stronghold before their deluge. Stengel and the rest of his men are at Sabata’s mercy, the dynamite explosions effectively rendering Stengel’s small army and their Gatling gun useless.
Carrincha and Indio storm the main house, Stengel killing Ferguson before taking refuge in his upstairs military strategist’s war room where he earlier murdered Oswald. Believing he is safe in this stronghold, Stengel is prepared to engage Sabata for a showdown. Under the pretext each man has a single bullet (Stengel telling Sabata he only needs one) Sabata’s gun misfires and Stengel accidentally misses on his own kill shot. But Stengel now reveals he has more than one bullet at his disposal. He explains that what separates him from ordinary men like Sabata is his ability to think ahead. Sabata informs Stengel he wouldn’t bet a dollar on those odds, tossing a silver piece onto the trigger of Stengel’s booby-trapped cane; its poisonous dart firing into Stengel and instantly killing him.
Emerging from the hacienda, presumably victorious, the trio is confronted by Banjo who demands the $100,000 at gunpoint. Instead, Sabata informs Banjo the money is still in the bank, but that Judge O’Hara will have to pay out in order to save his own reputation. Banjo challenges Sabata to a duel in the town square the next day; the crowd stunned when Banjo cheats by firing his rifle before the count off is over. Sabata drops to the ground, Carrincha and Indio rushing to his side. Banjo cruelly informs Jane she will not be sharing in his good fortune. Instead, he departs Daugherty alone, taking Sabata’s covered remains to the outskirts of town. Alas, Sabata has faked his own death. Hence, when Banjo attempts to abandon the wagon and take off with the $100,000 on horseback, the loot is, instead, shot from his hand by Sabata; Carrincha and Indio coming up from behind. 
Sabata now loads the satchel onto his horse, though not before giving a sizable chunk of the money to Carrincha and yet another sizable wad to Indio. He also tosses a third bundle to the ground at Banjo’s feet, informing him if he wants the money badly enough he will have to work for it. Sabata then fires a single bullet into the band holding the money together. An unexpected gust of wind scatters the paper currency, Banjo scrambling for the few measly bills he can salvage for his own and Sabata riding off into the sunset as Carrincha and Indio look on.
Sabata was wildly successful in both Europe and the U.S. Photographed in Technicolor, but shot in the inferior Technoscope process, the movie spawned two more sequels in rapid succession; both starring Lee Van Cleef, neither as competently made nor as exhilaratingly earthy as the original. Viewed today, Sabata is an oddity more than a western hybrid; a sort of crudely hacked together ‘cops and robbers’ blood-fest, transplanted to the western milieu. Part of its amusement factor is its bad overdubs; the most excruciatingly out of sync being Ignazio Spalla’s Carrincha and Gianni Rizzo’s Judge O’Hara.  Better known for his villains than his heroes, Lee Van Cleef’s performance as our titular hero remains perplexedly aloof; his brooding stares peppered in glints of danger, yet curiously marred by a perpetual scowl that occasionally registers more sinister than satisfying or goofily garish.
Is Sabata basically a good guy doing bad things for good reasons? Or is he just an evil man attempting to repent for a former life Banjo briefly hints at but we never actually get to see?  We’re never quite sure and Van Cleef’s performance isn’t offering up any clues either. The rest of the cast are mainly forgettable, William Berger giving a competent performance as Banjo. Alas, Franco Ressel is an ineffectual villain; his hard-boiled eyes bugging out of his head, his crooked smile turning into a wounded frown, seemingly without provocation or even the directives of his own character’s motivation. He’s just wooden and occasionally silly and hardly a rival to Van Cleef’s towering crack shot.  
The Renato Izzo/Gianfranco Parolini  screenplay is awash in open-ended plot points never clarified and generally sacrificed at the point of a gun. Sabata isn’t a movie for those seeking solid plot with their daily diet of gun play. When all else fails, Parolini simply gives us a cacophony of thought-numbing action sequences sandwiched in between some of the most pedestrian scripted drama. Carrincha’s philosophizing about the futilities of war, life, being an ex-soldier put out to pasture…etc. have absolutely nothing to do with our story and after the first spate of ‘woe is me’ prosaicisms it really doesn’t do much for our further understanding of this character either; still relentlessly lusty - a loyal sidekick who comes with his own sidekick – Indio – practically, a mime).
To Parolini’s credit, almost all of action sequences are compellingly and uniquely staged. Here is a director who really knows how to transform basic gunplay (which can become repetitively boring, as in, you’ve seen one pistol/rifle fight, you’ve seen them all) into cinema art, in no small part thanks to Sandro Mancori’s artful cinematography. Composer, Marcello Giombini’s Sabata theme is catchy enough, but interpolated so often throughout, it becomes almost a tired cliché by the end titles. In between, we get some fairly obvious and traditional ‘western’ music, at times deplorably generic. The saloon pianola, as example, sounds like something we’ve heard countless times before and to better effect elsewhere. In the final analysis, Sabata isn’t exactly a top-tier spaghetti western, though it strives for authenticity and manages, at least for the most part, to hold our attention long enough to forget what’s here isn’t all that special.  Disposable entertainment – but good for a quick second glance.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a middling effort at best; MGM Home Video slapping out the same digital elements without cleanup or color correction/enhancements to truly make this 1080p presentation shine. Incredibly, most of the transfer is free of age-related artifacts. A light speckle of dirt and the occasional scratch – also a single instance of a severely annoying hair caught in the gate, seen just above Lee Van Cleef’s dark wide-brimmed hat immediately after he enters the saloon for the very first time. Honestly, if we’re not going for perfection, then at least let’s aim for basic competence.
The 2.35:1 image is mostly sharp, though not entirely crisp as one might expect with several shots looking decidedly blurry, especially on my 80 inch screen; colors intermittently vibrant, then decidedly bleached and/or faded and contrast levels ever so slightly boosted – especially in the last reel. Flesh tones look mostly accurate; although occasionally they lean towards ruddy orange. We’ll chalk that up to a bad sunburn. Film grain seems to have been adequately reproduced, though there were one or two moments where it seemed excessively thick.  Most impressive detail is had in the extreme close-ups scattered throughout.  Long and medium shots do not fare nearly as well.
Don’t get excited about the audio either. Basic Dolby Digital 2.0 English and woefully out of sync during the middle act of the movie – even sound effects, like shoes walking on hard wood flooring don’t line up. I suspect, this transfer was culled from the same flawed elements used to mint the DVD for the Sabata Trilogy from 2005. Extras? Forget about it! A theatrical trailer and that’s all, brother! Bottom line: if you’re a fan, the Blu-ray improves on the DVD – marginally - which wasn’t hard to do. It’s far from perfect, however, a single-layered and just present and accounted for; though hardly living up to Blu-ray’s claim of ‘perfect picture/perfect sound.’
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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