It’s beyond easy to point to Clint Eastwood as the actor most profoundly impacted by the popularity of the spaghetti western genre. His Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone put him on the map on a worldwide basis. Who’s the second guy on that list? There are a handful of names that come to mind, but it’s not really close. It’s gotta be Lee Van Cleef, who co-starred with Eastwood in two Leone westerns. Van Cleef immediately shot to stardom, including an iconic character in one of the best spaghetti westerns in the entire genre, 1968’s Sabata.
In the Texas border town of Daugherty City, a gang of bandits rob a heavily-guarded bank and escape into the desert, heading for Mexico with the haul. That’s the plan at least. A mysterious gunfighter clad in all black, Sabata (Van Cleef), stops them in the desert, killing them all. He returns the money to the town and receives a sizable reward from the Army. That’s not all though. Three prominent businessmen in town were behind the robbery, looking to use the stolen cash to purchase more land, land the railroad is going to buy soon. Sabata quickly finds out their plan and blackmails the trio for increasing amounts of money. The only solution for the trio? Kill Sabata, but any would-be killers will have their hands full with this seemingly unstoppable gunfighter.
By 1968, the craze of spaghetti westerns were in full swing. ‘Sabata’ marks an interesting turn for the genre with director Gianfranco Parolini at the helm. The crazy villains, sweaty/sandy landscapes, the overdone violence, all three are on display. But Parolini’s western has a much lighter tone. There is genuine comedy, featuring some great one-liners and memorable sight gags. Acrobats fly through the air, including one of Sabata’s partners (but more on that later). Everything is exaggerated and overdone…but it works. It’s criminal how well it works.
It starts at the top with Lee Van Cleef as Sabata. It’s hard not to compare the character with Col. Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More (probably Van Cleef’s most memorable, iconic role), from the black suit and black hat to the expansive weapons arsenal. What’s added here is the more humorous tone. His one-liners are great, and his use of his guns ends up being some punch lines too. He seemingly can’t miss! Most importantly, Van Cleef seems to be having a ball. His evil smile is always on display, and you always get the sense he knows more than everyone else. As for his mysterious backstory, that definitely adds a layer to the story. His most memorable part? No, probably not, but it’s so much fun.
The general odd qualities to characters of the genre is a big positive here too. William Berger plays Banjo, a similarly mysterious gunfighter who’s always carrying…a banjo (with a surprise). He works for whoever will pay him, so one scene that’s Sabata and the next the bad guys. He wears bells on his pants and his coat and has some effeminate touches, but it’s a scream. The dialogue between Van Cleef and Berger provide repeated gems. Ignazio Spalla has a ball as Carrincha, Sabata’s right-hand man, a drunken Civil War vet who’s an expert knife thrower. His maniacal laugh is awesome. Aldo Canti plays Alley Cat (Indio in certain cast listings), a mute Indian who bounces around town like an acrobat with some nicely hidden trampolines. Definite oddballs but fun throughout.
Franco Ressel plays Stengel, the powerful rancher pulling all the strings. With an epic combover, heavy eyeliner and almost alien eyes, Ressel isn’t the most imposing villain…but definitely one of the more eccentric. Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo play his partners in crime, ever worried Sabata will ruin their plan. Also look for the beautiful Linda Veras as Jane, a saloon girl who loves Banjo, an eye candy part if there ever was. Also keep an eye out for plenty of familiar faces if you’re a spaghetti western fan.
What caught my attention on this latest watch was that really, there’s not much in the way of a story. Sabata blackmails the baddies, the baddies try and kill Sabata with epic failures….and then there’s a lot of shooting. You don’t notice though. It never slows down — at 102 minutes — enough for you to not enjoy the ride. Lots of action throughout, highlighted by Sabata, Carrincha and Alley Cat attaching Stengel’s fortified ranch. As well, the finale has a good twist and one of the better final shots.
Last but not least, composer Marcelo Giombini turns in one of the great spaghetti western scores over. Big and loud, featuring some almost gothic orchestra uses, and a GREAT theme song, it’s so good. Listen to a sample of the soundtrack HERE and the main theme song HERE. Apologies in advance if they’re stuck in your head for a couple days. Not always mentioned as one of the best spaghetti westerns, but it’s a gem and one of my personal favorites. Also, check out two Sabata sequels, with Yul Brynner taking over the part in Adios, Sabata and Van Cleef returning in ‘Return of Sabata.’ Neither are as good — Adios is better — but still worth a watch.
Sabata (1968): *** 1/2 /****