Let’s talk again about my favorite genre, “spaghetti” Westerns, and the filmmakers who made them. It starts with the Sergios: First, there’s Sergio Leone, who needs no introduction from me. Then, there is Sergio Corbucci, who has recently experiencing a huge surge in reputation, due to Quentin Tarantino’s extended homage DJANGO UNCHAINED and to the less obvious influences of Corbucci on THE HATEFUL EIGHT. It would seem that, of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous. (There’s also Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone, and Sergio Bergonzelli, but I don’t have room to write a book here!) But, in my opinion, Sollima deserves the same reverence enjoyed by Leone and Corbucci.
Sergio Sollima is a clever, versatile director who built sociopolitical concerns into his enormously entertaining filmography. Sollima is maybe best known for some terrific crime films (including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY a.k.a. THE FAMILY). He only made three Westerns, all in the span of three consecutive years – THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, and RUN, MAN, RUN!, but those three are more than enough to place him amongst the ranks of Leone and Corbucci. All three starred the Cuban-born Tomás Milián, who played the same role in two of them.
In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!,Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo. In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo isn’t seen for the first several scenes. He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired by a prominent senator to find and destroy Cuchillo.
If you’ve seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, as I did, where he’s the anti-hero and star, you’ll know right off that Cuchillo isn’t guilty of this crime – he’s guilty of many crimes, and he isn’t always too polite to women, but he wouldn’t do something quite so horrific. The interesting thing about THE BIG GUNDOWN is that you don’t know that for most of the movie, which gives the movie some fascinating tension. Cuchillo is a raging trickster and a puckish anarchist, a Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, comical and enjoyable and occasionally infuriating – worse, if you think he is who the senator claims he is.
But THE BIG GUNDOWN is built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, still and always best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. This movie was made soon after that one, and Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a slightly more heroic character here than in that one – but again, part of the movie’s fascinating tension is that we can’t quite tell for sure. It’s a cagey, sly portrayal. Van Cleef has never been cooler, but Corbett isn’t the most noble of all Western heroes, not by a long shot (as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered) – we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking. Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only more satirical and more sociopolitically engaged. (I won’t go into all the “chapters” here, but one that stands out is the one where Cuchillo and Corbett land at a farm presided over by a beautiful woman who has an unusual business relationship with the small army of gunmen she has employed there.)
There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in summer of 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum. It’s obviously one of the greats in the genre, having influenced everything from THREE AMIGOS! — in the form of the fancy-pants Teutonic killer with the monocle who haunts Corbett — to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — Tarantino used parts of Ennio Morricone’s typically wonderful score – but it’s also one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. Ever! No exaggeration.
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