Weird Western Tale: Lee Van Cleef in SABATA (United Artists 1970)

Let’s face it, Lee Van Cleef was one cool hombre, and he’s at his coolest in SABATA, the first film of a trilogy written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer). The beady-eyed Van Cleef is obviously enjoying himself as Sabata, a trickster with a sinister chuckle and an array of tricked-out weapons who always manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

The movie begins traditionally enough, as $100,000 in Army payroll is deposited for safe keeping in the town of Daughtrey’s bank. A daring robbery finds the guards murdered and the safe heisted. It’s all a plot by banker Ferguson, Judge O’Hara, and ex-Confederate Colonel Stengel to buy up land needed for the railroad to come through. What they didn’t count on is the presence of the mysterious Sabata, who stops the bandits with his extra-long range Winchester, carting their carcasses back to town with the safe intact.

Sabata discovers the trio behind the deed, and blackmails them to the tune of ten grand. When they make several attempts to kill him, his price keeps going up and up, finally reaching sixty thousand! Along the way, Sabata picks up some allies: the soused ex-soldier Corrincha, who’s deadly with a blade, and his acrobatic comrade, the silent Alley Cat. There’s also the strange Banjo, a man from Sabata’s past, who’s “just waiting” throughout most of the film, until he takes his crack at Sabata. There’s an explosive assault on Stengel’s compound and a final duel at sunrise between Sabata and Banjo that winds up in a twist (and twisted!) ending!

Van Cleef had revitalized his career in Italy by co-starring with Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY , then began starring in Spaghetti Westerns on his own. SABATA finds him tempering his tough guy image with a sense of humor – I’ve never seen Lee do so much smiling in a film without his usual hint of menace behind it! Van Cleef loved the part, and returned to it in the third and final sequel THE RETURN OF SABATA (though the second of the trilogy, ADIOS, SABATA , the charcter is played by Yul Brynner… while Lee was off playing Yul’s old role as Chris in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!).

William Berger as Banjo looks and dresses like a member of The Rolling Stones, circa 1970… in fact, the actor was once Keith Richards’ roommate! Berger was no stranger to Spaghetti Westerns (TODAY WE KILL… TOMORROW WE DIE!, IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH, SARTANA IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH), and was featured in Mario Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, Tonio Valerii’s MY DEAR KILLER, and seven films with director Jess Franco. Pedro Sanchez, Linda Veras, Franco Ressel, Nick Jordan and Robert Hundar will all be Familiar Faces to those familiar with Spaghetti Westerns and/or Italian giallo thrillers.

There’s more than enough action and violence in SABATA to keep Spaghetti buffs satisfied, with the added bonus of a humorous turn by Lee Van Cleef. Sure, it may be a little weird to watch ol’ Lee opening up and enjoying himself, but after (at the time) eighteen years in the business, even a tough guy like Van Cleef deserves a break!



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