Lee Broughton offers a critical look at the pop art Spaghetti Western Sabata (1969) while also considering the auteurist traits of the film’s director Frank Kramer/Gianfranco Parolini.
When he hears that $100,000 worth of US Army funds have been snatched from the bank at Daugherty by persons unknown, an enterprising drifter called Sabata (Lee Van Cleef) quickly tracks the culprits, shoots them down and returns the money to its rightful owners. However, Sabata soon deduces that the bank raid was set up by three crooked town elders — Stengel (Franco Ressel), Ferguson (Anthony Gradwell) and Judge O’Hara (Gianni Rizzo) — and he sets about blackmailing the trio. Aided by two local misfits, the scruffy Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez) and the acrobatic Alley Cat (Nick Jordan), Sabata acts to put the dishonest trio under increasing pressure while simultaneously fighting off the series of assassins that they send after him. Sabata also has to second-guess the intentions of an old acquaintance, the duplicitous Banjo (William Berger), who is quietly observing events as they unfold from the sidelines.
Sabata is a Spaghetti Western that most long-term genre fans tend to regard with great affection. It’s an Alberto Grimaldi production that enjoyed good distribution in cinemas and on TV thanks to the fruitful working relationship that Grimaldi was able to establish with United Artists following the success of Sergio Leone’s films in America. Indeed, for genre fans of a certain age, Sabata will be forever positively associated with the great stable mate titles that it regularly rubbed shoulders with on cinema and TV screens: Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (1964-1966), Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967) and Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun (1968).
When compared to those films, Sabata possesses a much more knowing and tongue-in-cheek approach and this has, perhaps, led latter day film commentators to be somewhat dismissive of the show. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that Sabata’s wilfully flippant tone has resulted in the film being judged to be the weakest of the big budget Spaghetti Westerns that were distributed by United Artists during the late 1960s. However, it must be remembered that this judgement comes with a relative consideration attached: the benchmark set by the film’s aforementioned stable mates was astonishingly high. So don’t be fooled into thinking that Sabata is merely some kind of Spaghetti Western “also ran”.
Sabata may be a somewhat jokey affair but the film does boast a number of noteworthy attributes. The show’s director Frank Kramer (AKA Gianfranco Parolini) prided himself on bringing his films in on budget but it looks like absolutely no expense was spared when Sabata was being assembled. It’s as expensive looking as any of United Artists’ other top tier Spaghetti Westerns. It’s also a very good-looking show thanks to Leone collaborator Carlo Simi’s outstanding work as the film’s art director. Furthermore, cinematographer Sandro Mancori is no slouch when it comes to expertly framing shots and setting up stylish and fluid camera movements. Admittedly, there’s an abundance of zoom shots present here in places but I’ll consider their use and function in due course.
Sabata also features a superb soundtrack score that is chockfull of great cues. Marcello Giombini’s work here fuses the brooding gothic strings of Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s score for Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) with Ennio Morricone-esque Mexican trumpets and jangly guitar sounds whilst also throwing all kinds of other baroque bits of musical business into the mix. Clearly blessed with a reasonably big budget and clocking in at 106 minutes, Sabata possesses the kind of “epic” feel that genre fans associate with United Artists’ other major Italian Westerns from the 1960s.
And it goes without saying that Sabata features two of the genre’s biggest and best-loved stars — Lee Van Cleef and William Berger — along with a host of popular supporting actors in the form of Franco Ressel, Gianni Rizzo, Linda Veras and Spartaco Conversi. Van Cleef was perhaps at the peak of his popularity in 1969 and here he’s essentially channeling a more hip, flippant and ultimately less rounded variant of his popular “good guy in black” screen persona that was born out of his turn as Colonel Douglas Mortimer in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965).
That’s all that the show asks of him and, indeed, it’s all that the show needs from him for it to work: iconic character types striding through sets and scenarios that have been lovingly assembled with pop art panache are the order of things in Kramer’s cartoony Western universe. Van Cleef is clearly in on the joke here and it’s great to see him confidently having fun with this kind of material.
The Austrian actor William Berger has no problem bringing the hippy-ish Banjo to life: he had played a similar character in Kramer’s previous Western, the classic If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968), in which he starred opposite Gianni Garko. And Franco Ressel impresses as the megalomaniac Stengel without seemingly having to do too much either. The psychopathic aristocrat and his diabolical accoutrements (a swagger stick that fires lethal metal darts, an eerie games room that houses a rigged ball game that he uses to justify the executions of those underlings that he wants rid of and a rigged shooting game wherein his opponents are forced to stand behind a metal-cast body shield that has a small hole cut out directly in front of their hearts) would not be out of place in one of the more gothic-tinged episodes of TV’s The Avengers (1961-1969).
One criticism that is often fired at Kramer concerns his over use of obvious zoom shots. But it should be noted that the zooms found in Sabata are always controlled and employed in stylish ways and they never make the film look cheap. Kramer’s zoom shots are actually part of his auteurist palette and he tends to employ them when he’s staging a “Parolinate” moment. “Parolinate” is a term that Sergio Leone coined to describe the outrageous surprises or impossible-seeming plot devices that Kramer wilfully punctuates the narratives of his Westerns with. Thus his zoom shots are used to accentuate the surprised reactions of characters that are caught out by a “Parolinate” moment or to focus attention on the particular “Parolinate” element (usually an unusual object or weapon) that prompted their surprise.
Sabata features a classic “Parolinate” moment early on when our eponymous hero tracks down the bank raiders and calls to them from a far off cliff top. When Sabata advises them to return to Daugherty, one of the raiders smugly observes that “there isn’t a Winchester going that could shoot half that distance.” But we immediately discover that Sabata has a special barrel extension that gives his rifle a range of 600 feet and the crooks are soon biting the dust. A further “Parolinate” moment occurs when it is revealed that Sabata also possesses a neat Derringer pistol that has additional firepower handily built into its specially modified handgrip. It subsequently comes as no surprise when the musically inclined Banjo’s ever-present banjo is eventually revealed to conceal a working rifle.
A more outrageous “Parolinate” moment occurs when Sabata fools a group of bad guys into thinking that he’s entering their trap by sending a covered wagon towards them. They hear Sabata calling to them but it is duly revealed that the wagon contains a sound projection device that is playing a recording of Sabata’s voice. But the “Parolinate” moments that upset Kramer’s critics the most are those that involve the dangerous-looking acrobatic antics of Alley Cat and other characters. Some of these set pieces use circus-inspired contraptions, like impromptu teeterboards built from visible diegetic materials such as beer barrels and planks of wood, and they work very well. Other equally impressive stunts involve the use of hidden trampolines and these bring a completely anti-illusionist feel to sections of the film that some viewers seemingly just can’t get past.
Kramer is without doubt the most resolutely postmodern director of big budget Spaghetti Westerns. His critics might be right when they argue that the larger narrative arcs of most of his Westerns are merely flimsy excuses for a succession of action set pieces. But it’s precisely these always well-staged action set pieces that make Kramer’s Westerns so enjoyable: the set pieces tend to be novel and fascinatingly multilayered affairs that can be likened to the skin of an onion or a set of Russian nesting dolls. Nothing is ever what it initially seems to be in Kramer’s films — particularly in his action scenes — since a “Parolinate” moment will always come along and reveal a new and unexpected layer of understanding about an object, weapon or relationship that ultimately results in a surprising narrative development of some description arising.
Campy spy show-like gadgets, flippantly two-dimensional character types, anti-illusionist stunts, outrageous surprises and comic strip-like plotting litter Kramer’s stylishly shot Italian Westerns precisely because he wrote them that way. They’re great fun but Kramer’s idiosyncratic approach means that, in order to fully appreciate his films, each viewer must be prepared to accept the skewed rules that govern Kramer’s filmic universe and agree to completely suspend their disbelief from start to finish. As far as Sabata goes, Kramer’s slick mash-up of generic iconography and fantastical “Parolinate” moments results in a thoroughly entertaining romp that film fans with a liking for late 1960s pop art-kitsch will adore.
Lee Broughton is the author of The Euro-Western: Reframing Gender, Race and the ‘Other’ in Film (2016) and the editor of Critical Perspectives on the Western: From A Fistful of Dollars to Django Unchained (2016).
© Copyright 2014, 2017 Lee Broughton.