Thursday 30 April 2009

Return of Sabata

Dir: Gianfranco Parolini


Question: How do you take one of the most enjoyable, if somewhat campy films in the spaghetti western genre and follow it up with a sequel which is one of the most tedious?

Answer: I don't know, you'll have to ask Gianfranco Parolini.

For, in truth, I am unable to fathom how such a successful and seemingly straight forward formula apparent in Sabata could be messed up so badly in Return of Sabata while still maintaining most of the creative team that made the original such a joy. Of course, this is neither the first nor last time that such a thing has happened. The history of popular cinema is cram full of sequels which fall a long way short of predecessors and, as such, I suppose I should not be so surprised that Parolini failed in the same way as so many others. I guess that in the case of a film so dear to my heart (as Sabata most definitely is) my disappointment is sharpened that little bit more.

Sabata (Lee Van Cleef) struggles through a complex series of cross and double cross as he attempts to get to the bottom of corruption involving an evil town boss and his partner, the local bank president. Things are complicated for our hero due to the involvement of a long haired and thoroughly untrustworthy but lovable rogue while a pseudo love interest is supplied by a beautiful saloon girl. Assistance is also on hand though in the form of a rotund and rough round the edges local bum and a somersaulting acrobat. Twists and turns ensue until Sabata finally outwits the bad guy and departs with hefty amount of cash.

Astute readers will have quickly noticed that the above synopsis could actually fit either Sabata film. The original and the sequel have identical cores to their plots and personel. They also share significant cast similarities. Van Cleef, of course, appears in the eponymous role in both films, while Gianni Rizzo plays the banker, Pedro Sanchez the town bum and Aldo Canti the acrobat with only minor differences in detail. What's more, beyond Parolini himself as director, both also enjoy the behind the scenes skills of Marcello Giombini (music), Renato Izzo (screenplay), Sandro Mancori (cinematography) and Alberto Grimaldi (producer). So, perhaps, in order to try and understand why this film falls short where its predecesor triumphed, it may be more useful to look at the elements which differ rather than those which remain the same.

In terms of cast, the most obvious changes come in the roles of town boss and long haired trickster. And right away things are starting to get clearer. The original film benefitted enormously from the great talents and memorable screen presence of Franco Ressel and William Berger in these key parts. Ressel as Stengel was one of the great villain characters of the genre. Slimy, elitist and disdainful of all around him he had an almost gothic grandee quality and was a character who, although being camp as all hell, added a bizarre weight to an otherwise flimsy scenario. Berger, for his part, despite smirking his way through the whole piece was genuinely cool and possessed a hint of menace which made him a serious foil for Sabata. Again, despite the lightness of the overall piece, these were characters we could take seriously and their impact on the film as a whole is confirmed by the almost iconic status their images have become. Stengel looking haughtily down his nose whilst sporting one of the most flambouyant comb overs in cinematic history or Banjo rolling in the street firing his deadly musical namesake are pictures which turn up repeatedly. Not just when Sabata is being discussed but the wider genre too. Compare that to their counterparts in Return of Sabata. Reiner Schone, as Clyde, the Banjo equivelant, carries none of Berger's effortless presence. Whereas Berger's character always gave the suggestion that he could take on Sabata at any moment, Schone's is little more than a scheming fool; not only failing at every turn in his attempts to outwit his older adversary but also being in obvious and constant fear of him. He is also far from cool. In truth his beautifully manicured hairdo and moustache make him look more like a second rate lounge singer. As a consequence his position as foil is undermined. He offers no real threat and some important chemistry is lost as a result. Giampiero Albertini, to be fair, has shown himself capable enough in other films but as the main villain, Joe McIntock the town boss, he is being asked too much here. Moreover, for such a central character he gets very little screen time and any chance of us connecting with him or seeing him as a real threat are thereby undermined. What's more, his henchmen are shown to be ineffectual at every turn. All in all, in the area of two key characters, Return of Sabata is playing with a serious disadvantage.

But Return of Sabata's problems go deeper than just missing a couple of key personnel. Something else has gone awry here and it is the general tone of the film. The original Sabata was far from a serious film. It always had its tongue strictly in cheek and a large part of its charm is its kitsch value. Where Parolini went wrong with the sequel was allowing that lighter tone to dominate rather than merely underpin the films atmosphere. This is most obvious in the over use of acrobatics and connected nonsense but is set in place from the outset when the opening scene plays like an episode of The Avengers. Putting Sabata in a sideshow complete with clowns gets everything off on the wrong foot and is all the evidence we need to tell us that we shouldn't even try and take anything that follows seriously. It's a major mistake as the biggest quality of the film's star is his persona of controled meanness. When Van Cleef is obviously playing for laughs we are in serious trouble. He is clearly walking through his performance here and as a result just doesn't deliver in the fashion he should. You suspect he knows it's a turkey and is consoling himself by counting the money.

On top of all this we have a script and story that is just plain poor. The constant twists and turns of the convoluted plot are kind of expected territory for a film of this type and Parolini pretty much invented the formula. But things are taken to an extreme in this film and it doesn't take long before you stop caring. It doesn't help that all these machinations don't cover up the fact that the story is full of holes. Moreover, there are elements which beggar belief even when accepting that the film is no more than a fanciful romp. Annabella Incontrera's character of Maggie the newly arrived prostitute is a good example. She seems to have been included purely to try and convince the audience that Van Cleef was some kind of virile sex god as she does nothing at all except hang off his arm, look at him smoulderingly or inform others that he is giving her bedroom lessons. This may actually be the funniest thing in the film. Unfortunately it's not supposed to be.

I guess you can tell by now that Return of Sabata is not among my favourite films. It's not the worst spaghetti western ever made. That would be unfair. But, for me, it is one of the most disappointing. There were a lot of good people involved in making it and even accepting the problematic nature of all sequels it really should have been better than it is. In some ways I suppose it reflects the general downward trend of the genre which occurred during the 1970s. It certainly is a strong example of my axiom of '60s Van Cleef -Good, 70s Van Cleef - Bad.' (The Grand Duel being the exception which proves the rule) And it's increased comedic levels equally reflect the changing fashion 'Post Trinity'. And for those reasons I perhaps should not be so harsh on it. It is no worse than many other films of its type from the time. But I find myself judging it by what it could and should have been and in that context it is an absolute stinker. So if you are in the mood to see a bit of Sabata style fun, do yourself a favour. Stick with the original. You'll feel a lot cleaner in the morning.

I watched the MGM release of this film which is a big improvement from the old fullscreen VHS I used to have. The picture and sound is clean and bright although, to be honest, the widescreen format is somewhat wasted on such a 'town bound' film. It is a good quality release with, unfortunately, the usual 'no extras' I'm afraid. It's nice to see MGM releasing anything from the genre of course but I do wish they would put their money into something better.

Monday 20 April 2009

Why Go On Killing?

Dir: Edoardo Mulargia / Jose Antonio De La Loma


A man is led, tied by the neck, by a gang of men to a spot outside of town. Here he is bound to a tree and shot, one by one, by each of the gang starting with the crippled patron who urges his men on, calling each by name until the deed is done and the victim hangs slumped against the ropes holding him up against the tree's bullet riddled trunk. Lopez, the patron, has had his revenge but the cycle of vendetta has, in reality, only been given another spur to keep it rolling around; another act of brutality to feed on. Thus opens Why Go on Killing? A Spaghetti Western full of despair and bitterness and decidedly downbeat in nature. Traits which became common in the genre over the next few years, but for a 1965 production this was still something of a rarity. Especially in a film with such a heavy Spanish influence. And, along with its status as Edoardo Mulargia's first western and one of the first for its star, Anthony Steffen, this little revenge flick is of more interest than it might at first appear.

And a revenge flick is what this film is, first and last. From the above described opening scene to the final, bloody denouement there is no other factor at play in the entire narrative. Well, maybe a little bit of greed and gun running, but nothing worth mentioning. Apart from that the story consists of one act of vengeful violence answered by another, without respite or attempt at finding a peaceful solution on the part of either of the two main protagonists in the struggle. Senor Lopez (Pepe Calvo) is not a man to bury the hatchet lightly and when the son of the man he has ritually executed comes home to settle the score he proves himself to be equally unwaivering in his sense of justice. This character is Steven McDougall (Anthony Steffen) and he feels strongly enough to desert from his post in the army to settle matters with the Lopez family despite having had some romantic link with Pilar (Gemma Cuervo), the daughter of the clan, before he went away. What ensues is a relentless stream of tit for tat actions from both sides which, if it wasn't so bleak in nature, could remind one of a Larel and Hardy comedy where someone's broken window is answered by a ripped off car headlight or a poke in the eye. The two mens' bitterness is seemingly bottomless and yet, surprisingly, the roots of this feud are never illuminated for us. We know that old man Lopez is confined to a wheelchair as a result of an attack by Steven's father but we never find out what caused that attack or whether it was an accident or a deliberate act of violence. Rather the film opens 'mid feud' so to speak. We are dropped into a pot boiling over with spite and recriminations and we just hold on for the ride as the two mens' hatred feeds on itself until there is nothing left to devour.

This sounds like all very hefty stuff and, to be fair to those involved, it is a pretty decent example of an early period spaghetti punching above its weight and attempting some down and gritty drama. But let's not get carried away. It's a Steffen film after all and so, although the solemn revenge theme runs through its core, action is never far away. Indeed, our man Tony is only on screen a few moments after his initial opening credits ride across the desert when he gets his first 'roll and shoot' opportunity and the bullets start to fly with abandon. This is all to the good. Steffen does a good job in the role of Steven but it would be unwise to ask more from his well of acting talent than is reasonable so plenty of running around, shooting and looking determined is a smart move all round. Anguished looks are better left to the bloodhound eyes of Calvo and the experienced victim of so many Italian genre films, Ida Galli, who plays Steven's unhappy and much abused sister. Altogether these personel cover all the bases required and when you add in the excellent Aldo Berti as the hired outside killer, Gringo, an extra tinge of nastiness completes a first rate cast for a film of this type.

Who should get the directorial congratulations is less clear. The copy I watched of this film credits the Spaniard Jose Antonio De La Loma as the man in the chair but it would appear that in reality it is just as possible that Mulargia helmed the show. Certainly Berti is on record as saying so but with these Italian / Spanish co productions it is very difficult to say with any real conviction who did what behind the cameras as so many credits were given for financial rather than creative reasons. Giusti credits them both, which is probably safest, but I sense the greater
hand of Mulargia. There is an air of darkness here that I have never seen in anything else released under De La Loma's name. If this is so it is a pretty good effort on his part and is an early sign of what he would be capable of with the right material in the right circumstance.

Speaking of credits, I found myself re-examining the opening credits closer than usual after watching this film. Why? You may be asking? Simple (If a little sad). Anyone familiar with the work of Anthony Steffen will know that in most of his westerns up until around 1969 he sported one of the worst hats ever seen in the genre. Small, folded up at the back and tilted forward this sartorial abomination was more akin to a battered and badly designed triby and meant that Steffen often appears less like a mean, cool hombre and more like a slightly drunk embarrassing uncle at your sister's wedding. Now, the only western Steffen made prior to this, as far as I can tell, was the German co production Der Letzte Mohikaner where he was garbed up in frontiersman buckskin as the character Deerslayer. So, Why Go On Killing? would appear to be the debut appearance of the 'Hat from Hell'. Therefore, unless our man Tony supplied the hat himself (the product of an ill advised or drunken bet perhaps) it would seem reasonable to assume that the person in charge of wardrobe on this production must carry the can for first introducing the dreaded Titfer to an unsuspecting cinema audience. As I said, I scanned the credits closely for this purpose and can state that Sergio Celi, costume designer for Why Go On Killing?, would appear to be the man to blame. Of course Steffen has to shoulder his share. If for no other reason than that he agreed to put the damn thing on and didn't have Celi thrown off the set. Either way, I feel strangely cleansed for having finally solved the mystery and put the issue to bed once and for all.

Why Go On Killing? is an important film I believe. (and not just because of Steffen's hat) It's the first western for Mulargia, Berti and others and one of the first for Steffen. But it is also a very good example of how the genre was developing away from the American mold and focusing on a clearly more mediterranean view of the old west. It still has traces of the previous style but the influences of Leone and a south european sensibility are becoming more and more dominant. The music in the film is a good example of this. Felice Di Stefano's score features a lamenting trumpet theme and electric guitar sequences which had become features of the spaghetti style but also includes incidental stuff which would seem more at home in a Bob Steele saturday matinee oater. Something of a strange mix but it still works just fine. It is not a great film. The characters have no real arc to speak of which, with subject matter this dark, is kind of essential for a film to show any real depth. But it holds its mood well and everyone involved conducts themselves competently. I certainly enjoyed it and would like to see it get a proper DVD release.