It’s one of the great pleasurable sounds in the history of the movies-- Eli Wallach’s Tuco calling out in that patented rasp with brio or trepidation, depending on the con man-killer’s circumstances, to villain Lee Van Cleef, who he alone refers to as “Angel Eyes” in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. (Van Cleef’s character’s proper credited name is Sentenza.) One of the great jokes in that movie—one Leone filled with as much mordant (and morbid) humor as a single giant Western could handle, just before the old wineskin ruptured and spilled forth lots of new blood, right on schedule-- was how ill-equipped Tuco’s observation really was. Rather than signifying a messenger of God, Van Cleef’s eyes, their almond shape, their steely gaze, seem more satanically inspired, perhaps those of an angel of death. (I always suspected Craig McCracken might have cast an eye in Van Cleef’s direction when originally modeling the villain Him from The Powerpuff Girls.) And because of the angularly unique sculpting of his features— an arrow-shaped head complemented by hawk-like nose, a smile that could seem warm and sinister almost simultaneously, and yes, those eyes—Van Cleef seemed destined, from the beginning of his movie career—a small part in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon-- to be typecast, albeit memorably, as a bad guy. And that’s largely the way he rolled throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s, in one character role after another in movies and especially television, creating a niche for himself, usually as a singular nasty, for directors like Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential), Raoul Walsh (The Lawless Breed), Richard Fleischer (Arena), Arnold Laven (Vice Squad), Fred Sears (The Nebraskan), Nathan Juran (Tumbleweed), Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo), Robert Wise (Tribute to a Bad Man), Roger Corman (It Conquered the World), Samuel Fuller (China Gate), John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), Anthony Mann (The Tin Star), Budd Boetticher (Ride Lonesome) and John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
By the time Valance was made, Van Cleef had more credits in guest spots on TV than in movies and may well have been looking for a more substantial experience when Sergio Leone cast him as Colonel Mortimer, reluctant but driven compadre to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in the first Dollars sequel, For a Few Dollars More. It’s interesting to note than in his first movie for Leone, his debut in the spaghetti western genre that would sustain his career and reputation as a high plains bad-ass nonpareil, Van Cleef was actually cast against type in an essentially sympathetic, heroic role. And it’s also worth mentioning that though his work in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is probably considered his signature performance, the one with which he will be most closely associated and remembered for, Van Cleef’s subsequent career was not confined to expanding on the straight-up villainy that had characterized his career since he first confronted Gary Cooper on that dusty main street in Hadleyville.
He had plenty of nasty turns left in him, to be sure—most memorably, for me, his bounty hunter in the blaxploitation western Take a Hard Ride was no gentleman—but after his two performances for Leone he was more likely to be found in roles that played off an awareness of Angel Eyes’ essential brutality while leavening it with less ambiguously heroic character traits. The role he played immediately following The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)-- a murderous gunman released from prison who joins with the surviving member of a family killed by his gang to exact revenge on the killers in Guilio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967)-- remains probably the best balancing act between the two personas. (Critic J. Hoberman memorably described it as “Replete with baroque torture and acid flashbacks (which) unfolds in a starkly primitive world—if not a desert on the planet Mars.”) And the role that stands as my favorite of Van Cleef’s post-Angel Eyes appearances is as the admittedly generic gunfighter who joins forces with martial artist Lo Lieh against a gang of ruthless murderers in Antonio Margheriti’s gleefully silly, yet tough-as-nails The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1976) (known as Blood Money on DVD), Hong Kong producer Sir Run Run Shaw’s foray into cross-cultural genre mixing (a sub-genre unto itself known in some circles as the lo mein western. Gunfighter is a nasty romp with a strong whiff of its own absurdity, and adorned by yet another catchy musical theme, this one composed by Carlo Savina. I’ve never understood why it doesn’t have the following of some of Van Cleef’s other post-Leone pictures. Perhaps its sparse distribution in the video age has something to do with that—it has largely been available on VHS in a terrible pan-and-scan print, which is likely long out of circulation. Happily, Gunfighter was released last year on a nice (and inexpensive) wide-screen DVD under the title Blood Money as part of the “Shaw Brothers Dynasty Collection” and is, for fans of the steely-eyed sharpshooter, an absolute must-own. (So is, I suspect, Death Rides a Horse, a movie I have never laid eyes on myself, though it remains available only in shoddy cropped VHS and DVD editions.)
But outside of Angel Eyes, the role that would cement the final touches on his legacy as, other than Eastwood, the defining icon of the spaghetti western genre are the two films he made for Gianfranco Parolini (under the generic nom de camera Frank Kramer) as the mysterious “man with the gunsight eyes,” Sabata (1969) and Return of Sabata (1971). (Yul Brynner replaced the actor in the title role for Parolini’s first sequel, 1970’s Adios, Sabata, while Van Cleef was off filling Brynner’s shoes as Chris Adams in the third film in the Magnificent Seven cycle, The Magnificent Seven Ride!.) Van Cleef’s smartly attired assassin, whose range with a rifle is an unlikely marvel, witnesses the robbery of $100,000 from a supposedly secure safe. He returns the safe to the town officials who, unbeknownst to the citizenry, actually orchestrated the theft as a means of providing funds for the greedy plans of a slimy ex-Confederate officer, Mr. Stengel, who plans to use the money to gobble up cheap Texas land. But the bad guys don’t know (at first) that the safe is in fact empty, kicking off a series of thrusts and parries between the thieves, who want their dough back, and Sabata, who has other ideas. Sabata utilizes the familiar lone gunman with a mysterious past template, but Parolini, who has the fine eye of dynamic composition that characterized directors of the period who were drawn to the spaghetti western (but who lacked the sense of pace and sensate elongation of movement for effect of which Leone was a master) recognizes Van Cleef’s strengths and exploits his star’s singular ability to stand out in a landscape of chaos to great effect.
It’s interesting that a lesser actor might have rested on the clean lines of Sabata’s hat, the way the brim slices through the frame in beautiful perpendicular contrast to the sharpness of Sabata’s long, dark trench coat, or the sinister-seeming angularity of Van Cleef’s face itself to project the cool menace and purpose of the character. But in Van Cleef Parolini was also lucky to find an actor in enough command of his obvious strengths to provide subtle shadings within scenes that play off Van Cleef’s previous experience in villainy. When Van Cleef smiles, it’s one of the most insinuating, ambiguous smiles in the history of movies, usually masking some dark, murderous intent. But as Sabata Van Cleef turns the effect of that insinuating grin, combined with an unblinking stare, to cross purposes, confusing audience expectations with a broad stroke of, of all things, sincerity, nicely mixing up the customary connivance and strategizing inherent in such a character with a more uncommon ingredient. We’re left unsure of Sabata’s background—it is implied he has a history as a fighter for the North in the Civil War—so the audience then is kept off balance almost as much as those of the corrupt city officials and their arms-bearing henchmen who provide Sabata his headaches and his amusement. The indication is there that Sabata isn’t out for himself, yet the hint, the suspicion that something else might be going on never quite goes away.
The character is surrounded by an unusually broad group of supporting players, even for a spaghetti western. Stengel (Franco Ressel) is a skin-crawling villain, with a veneer of decadence—corrupt military arrogance combined with an air of inappropriate elegance, Conrad Bain as a heavily decorated and probable molester of farm animals—that seems right at home among the slightly off-kilter landscape Parolini conjures. Sabata’s primary compadre, with whom he has a mysterious past (and who may not be showing all his cards), is a gunfighter named Banjo (William Barger) who is a sure-shot with the Winchester hidden neatly by the long neck and body of his chosen instrument, but he is also saddled with the bear-like Carrincha (Ignatzio Spalla), who is Bud Spencer-like but with far more emphasis on the scenery-chewing, life-embracing bigness of an Italian Brian Blessed or Jonathan Rhys-Davies.
Linda Veras, who began her career with bit parts for Rossellini and Godard, stands out as the prostitute who has poured her hopes into a life with Banjo, which may not turn out to be such a good investment strategy. But the strangest addition to the cast is Aldo Canti, a Roman stuntman who went by various other names (including Aldy Canti and Nick Jordan) who plays, inexplicably, an acrobat who hangs around on the rooftops of local businesses waiting to come in handy—and he does come in handy-- as part of Sabata’s team. (Carrincha calls him “Alleycat,” an obvious tip of the hat one of his “real” names.) The combination of all these characters, along with Marcello Giombini’s lively, Morricone-esque score, lends a playfulness that leavens the violence to a certain degree and plays into Parolini’s apparent intent to move outside the boundaries of the spaghetti western slightly and toward, surprisingly, an almost Bondian tone in some of the movie’s rousing action set pieces. (Leone derided the firs Sabata movie, labeling it a “circus western,” not without some strong evidence.) Giombini’s title song is a memorable one too- its themes are echoing throughout, but over the opening credits it is accompanied by the lyrics that would provide the movie with its Italian title, “Ehi amico... c'è Sabata, hai chiuso!” (Roughly translated, it means, “Hey buddy...it's Sabata, it's over now!" surely a sentiment whose degree of intimidation is more jocularly colored than the nihilism and bitter poetry that characterized Leone’s films.)
But in a way it’s perfectly fitting, because Parolini’s film is lighter in tone and effect, and it too, like The Stranger and the Gunfighter, wears its silliness on its sleeve. (Sabata sports a multi-barreled Derringer-esque pistol with a compartment in the handle revealing several more deadly barrels that is blatantly fictitious.) Even so, Sabata retains the muscular power of its convictions through Parolini’s clean, dynamic eye, to be sure, but more importantly through Van Cleef’s singular status as a spaghetti western icon, a deadly specimen who in some ways resembles a deserts scorpion come to angular, elegant life, unruffled by the attendant chaos, corruption and undeniable nonsense that surrounds him. (He shrugs off Carrincha’s attempts to mythologize him to the bystanders who have witnessed a particularly snazzy bit of gunplay with a laugh and a straightforward denial of his supposed spectacular dealings of death and destruction.) Van Cleef, who died in 1989 at the age of 64, extended his reputation as one of the movies’ prime tough guys working with Chuck Norris (The Octagon) and John Carpenter (in Escape from New York, where he was “reunited” with Clint Eastwood via Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken), but by then he had made his bones. Sergio Leone brought him out of the obscurity of mean-ass Hollywood character parts and gave him his great moments, and the Sabata films, by no means a patch on Leone’s but still vividly entertaining in their own right as part of the cream of the spaghetti western subgenre, made it clear that for Lee Van Cleef there was more to a western villain, or a hero, than the way he cut the sun-baked horizon in a sharp suit.
(Sabata is doubled tonight and tomorrow night with Death Rides a Horse at the New Beverly Cinema. For anyone who loves the genre or Van Cleef, this is a can’t-miss engagement. Unfortunately, I will be out of town so I will have to miss it. But please take the opportunity to bask in this great wide-screen double feature, and on your way out give a tip of your wide-brimmed hat, or your baseball cap, to Michael for bringing this one to town.)
(Sources for further reading on Sabata: Spaghetti Westerns Index, Son of Django and A Fistful of Pasta.)
Ehi amico... c'e the trailer for Sabata... Hai chiuso!
Trailer for Death Rides a Horse