Lee Van Cleef passed away at the end of the 1980s, and his gravestone at the burial plot in the Hollywood Hills cemetery reads “Best of the Bad”. This epitaph is wholly appropriate, and inspires a multitude of links and lead-ins – not only to the spaghetti-western genre that he became a genuine star of, but also to Gianfranco Parolini’s Ehi amico … c’è Sabata. Hai chiuso! (Sabata, 1969), for which he played the title character. Next to the darker and more serious work of “the three Sergios” (Leone, Corbucci and Sollima), this film serves as testimony to the variations of tone and artistic merit within the genre, and could also be framed as the most engaging of the minor (or lighter) spaghettis.
By the time Parolini’s film (the first in an eventual Sabata trilogy) arrived in 1969, the spaghetti western was an established commercial conveyor belt producing title after title of populist fodder. At the same time as being a commercial and pop-cultural phenomenon, the genre was also producing films that were artistically and thematically ambitious, radical and startlingly resonant – not just to domestic audiences, but all over the globe. Leading Italian-western scholar Sir Christopher Frayling observed that, “for a brief historical moment”, “the fusion of westerns and critiques of imperialism seemed both interesting and commercially viable”.1 The product, of course, like the ‘peplum’ sword-and-sandal films of the Italian film industry’s previous decade, began to slow down and slowly eat itself. Tragedy, despair with nihilistic ritual violence, recurring revenge plots and revolutionary politics were replaced by more straightforward heroics, capitalist economics and, worst of all for the genre, light comedy.
At the beginning of Sabata, a red emblem with white playing-card font sits at the centre of the screen as high-pitched electric guitar is picked into a pop melody. The credit design and opening theme music establish the motifs of game playing, the casino and the carnival fairground that will run throughout – removing any sense of violence and gravity from the film’s most severe moments, as in the minimalist, fairground-style shootouts involving the film’s primary antagonist, Stengel (Franco Ressel). The opening theme, with its lyrics spat out in a 1960s dance-pop chorus, has a sly and playful tone compared to the melancholic, crooning ballad from, for instance, Corbucci’s Django (1966). The lyrics consist purely of refrains of the film’s original title (the English translation of which is ‘Hey Buddy … That’s Sabata. You’re finished!’). This title has the same basic function as the self-conscious declarations of the sidekick character, Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla): plot, characters, relationships and behaviours have become purely emblematic and devoid of meaning – the spaghetti western no longer made up of surreal desert worlds defined by desperate fate but, instead, theatrical stage-style spaces for narrative inevitability.
The credits sequence begins with a series of smooth tracking shots, in which a black-clad silhouetted man on horseback is seen riding through Daugherty City and past a bank (which is shown in the pre-credits opening as having never contained so much money, being well stocked due to a recent deposit of army gold). These slow opening tracking shots give the viewer the sensation of being on a ghost-train ride, presenting the town’s architecture while the bank’s guards loom over us as we are waved past.
By the third instalment of the trilogy, È tornato Sabata … hai chiuso un’altra volta! (Return of Sabata, 1971), Van Cleef’s character is working within a travelling western stage show, and the narrative catches up properly with the texture and tone of artifice that started in the first film. From his first incarnation, Van Cleef’s Sabata is a defanged approximation of his Colonel Mortimer character in Per qualche dollaro in più (For A Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone, 1965). His bird-of-prey features attempt the scowls and glowers of his more charged previous personas, but they instead melt into smiles or smirks. When we first see Sabata, as he tosses Carrincha a coin in the film’s opening, a knowing grin covers all characterisation. His first meeting with Banjo (William Berger) points to an origin that is never made real, and the subsequent game playing and double crosses between the two are presented smirkingly and without invested narrative substance – Banjo’s ambiguous refrain to Sabata of “I don’t recognise you” is the extent of their backstory (perhaps a reference to Van Cleef’s more searing characters for Leone and their uncompromising methods). The action and events in Sabata are represented at every point as demonstrative performance: “Not bad, eh?” Carrincha gratuitously punctuates a spectacular vault and somersault display from his sidekick Alley Cat (Bruno Ukmar), while Sabata simply smiles and tosses him a coin.
A year after his work on C’era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone, 1968), production designer Carlo Simi again presents the real dark force of the West, effete businessmen, in bizarrely ornate surroundings, as per the luxury train carriage belonging to the earlier film’s antagonist, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). The arch villain of Sabata (1969) is Stengel, a flamboyantly cruel and educated landowner and developer, and his compound draws on the size and opulence of its real-life filming location, Villa Mussolini, used in countless other Italian westerns of the period, to its most appropriate effect. Sabata borrows the basic narrative premise of Once Upon a Time in The West, just as it recycles many of the cast and crew members from the director’s previous production. Parolini was to direct a sequel to his first Sartana film, Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte (If You Meet Sartana … Pray for Your Death, 1968), before falling out with its producer, so Sabata essentially became Parolini’s own continuation of that series. Alex Cox described Sartana as a new breed of spaghetti hero who acts devoid of desire for revenge or any other passion or motive: “Gianni Garko’s gambler becomes a simple, deadly, money-accumulator. A superhero for the Reagan/Thatcher years …”2 The Sabata character, with his po-faced respect for authority and legality, is a slight evolution from Sartana still.
Now a million miles from the audiences of Black Panther members and third-world revolutionaries, the political and artistic phenomenon of the spaghetti western gave way to a new commercial formula with the spectacle of explosions and acrobatic violence that would pervade genre products for the coming decades from Hong Kong to Hollywood. Leone’s antihero revenge model evolved into stories of venture capitalists halted by a moralist superhero overseer; fresh, spiced and seasoned gave way to tinned Spaghetti.
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Ehi amico … c’è Sabata. Hai chiuso! (Sabata, 1969 Italy/Spain 102 mins)
Prod Co: Prodozioni Europee Associati Prod: Alberto Grimaldi Dir: Gianfranco Parolini Scr: Renato Izzo, Gianfranco Parolini Phot: Sandro Mancori Ed: Edmondo Lozzi Mus: Marcello Giombini Art Dir: Carlo Simi
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla, Franco Ressel, Linda Veras, Claudio Undari, Bruno Ukmar