Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s iconic “man with no name” western trilogy made an international movie star out of TV heartthrob Clint Eastwood. The co-star of two of these films (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE; THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), veteran character actor Lee Van Cleef, also had a career resurgence due to the films’ worldwide attention, and he would go on to appear in the lead in numerous spaghetti westerns for the next decade, making him one of the most identifiable players the genre had to offer. An elaborate production from the producer of the last two films in Leone’s landmark trilogy, SABATA offered a perfect vehicle for Van Cleef’s tough gunslinger persona, and was successful enough to result in a trilogy of its own.
In the town of Daugherty City, $100,000 is placed in a bank by the U.S. army, to be used to purchase the land upon which a new railroad could be built. A slick bounty hunter named Sabata (Lee Van Cleef, THE BIG GUNDOWN) comes into town, assuring his honest disposition at a cheating gambling hall using weighed-down dice (which he effortlessly shoots down with his pistol), getting back the money of a victimized old man. There’s a stir in town that night, as the safe containing the army’s cash is stolen, leaving a number of the guarding soldiers knifed in the back. Outside town In the morning, Sabata guns down the murdering thieves escorting the loot out of town, bringing back their corpses and the safe for his just reward; he then befriends a dumpy, scruffy alcoholic, vagrant Civil War veteran named Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla, ANY GUN CAN PLAY) and a silent acrobatic Indian named Indio (Aldo Canti, SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN) or “Alley Cat” as Carrincha calls him. Sabata realizes that the Virginia Brothers, a group of traveling acrobats, had a part in the robbery, and left the scene without anyone knowing. They in turn are wiped out by henchman Oswald (Claudio Undari, CUT-THROATS NINE) who is then double-crossed and killed by his employer Stengel (Franco Ressel, SNOW DEVILS), one of the town’s leaders who is actually the man behind the master theft.
With Sabata (whose name is never actually mentioned in the film) being in the know about the flamboyant and sleazy Stengel (who is seen in his armor and weapon-filled chamber reading a book entitled, “Inequality is the Basis of Society“) he attempts to blackmail him, which only leads the power hungry Stengel to continually refuse and bombard him with would-be assassins, including the local priest! With another town leader, Ferguson (Antonio Gradoli, OPERATION KID BROTHER) and Judge O’Hara (Gianna Rizzo, IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH) in his crooked corner, it is decided that the only expert shooter who can outdo Sabata is a man called Banjo (William Berger, THE MURDER CLINIC). Banjo, who carries around and strums said instrument, hides a rifle in its hollowed-out back and this enables him to wipe out a foursome out for revenge. He remains neutral and a friendly rival around Sabata (who is annoyed enough at his playing to aim a bullet at one of tuning forks saying, “You were out of tempo”) until his price is met and he too turns hunter. But Sabata manages to elude death, ambushing Stengel’s mansion which also acts as a fortress guarded by a small army he must overtake with his two loyal cohorts.
SABATA may not be the best or most refined of spaghetti westerns, but it’s certainly one of the most approachable and entertaining and therefore gets high marks. With his trademark wide-brimmed hat, black suit, thin cigar, and tight-lipped manner, Van Cleef proves why he is coolness personified and such an asset to the genre; a timeless actor who will never be matched. Shot on location in Spain and in a studio in Rome (with the expected saloon and other western movie set standards), the film is beautifully shot, with lots of interesting camera angles and zooms which add to its tongue-in-cheek attitude. Not overly dark and not overtly comedic either, the film has plenty of comic book violence and a high body count, and is stylized in such a way that the lead character uses a number of clever gadgets and gimmicks (including a rigged-up shooting leather case and a two-way shooting pistol) making him sort of a 19th century James Bond. Writer/director Gianfranco Parolini (his named Americanized on the credits as “Frank Kramer”) handles things in a playful way, with the action never letting up for a minute and all the eccentric characters (played by a cast of familiar faces in European exploitation cinema) making sure things remain lively throughout (and there’s an extremely high body count with all the accompanying gunplay and dynamite flinging). It seems as though Parolini realized he wasn’t making an epic in storytelling but rather a good old popcorn flick set in the old west, and SABATA succeeds on this level.
The late William Berger (an actor who has worked with Mario Bava and Jess Franco, and also appeared in a number of spaghetti westerns) gives good support as the sly and smirking Banjo, who with his long red hair and stringed instrument in hand, sort of looks like a frontier rock star. He’s constantly trailing Sabata and romances a local saloon girl played by Linda Veras (RUN, MAN, RUN) and is instrumental in twist ending. A familiar face in Bava films and other Italian horrors, Luciano Pigozzi (aka Alan Collins, BARON BLOOD) has a memorable cameo as Father Brown, a weasel of a man who unscrupulously tries to double cross Sabata in the back room of a church. Aside from the director, a number of the actors in the film are billed under stage names (Spalla as Pedro Sanchez, Canti as Nick Jordan, Undari as Robert Hundar being a few examples) and some of the cast members would return in the two “official” Sabata sequels as different characters. Parolini would return to write and direct 1970’s ADIOS SABATA (which had no Van Cleef but rather Yul Brynner as “Indio Black”) and 1971’s THE RETURN OF SABATA (with Van Cleef returning to the role for the final time). Needless to say, the first SABATA is considered by far the best.
SABATA was previously available on DVD as part of a 2005 box set with ADIOS SABATA and THE RETURN OF SABATA through MGM, the studio that has more recently remastered the original in HD. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has licensed the film for this Blu-ray (as well as a subsequent DVD release reflecting the same HD transfer) and the result is something that belongs in every spaghetti western fan’s shelf, even if it’s short on extras. The film is presented uncut in its original Techniscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p, and renders the original Technicolors superbly. Detail is also impressive (given all the lines on those great character actors’ faces) and the overall image is clean throughout (with only some fleeting instances of debris), filmic grain is nicely in check in various scenes and black levels are perfect. Audio is offered in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track, offering the post-synced dialogue and the diverse score (which includes a Mexican-style theme song) by Marcello Giombini without a hitch. The sole extra is the original theatrical trailer (1:37) which contains some rather psychedelic titles and highlights the film’s action. (George R. Reis)
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