Friday, May 22, 2009

Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (1966)

Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (1966) is the reflection on the reverse side of the mirror, where on the other side Alejandro Jodorowsky's esoteric, surreal, and sexual El Topo (1970) appears. Like El Topo, Sollima uses the Western genre as a canvas for his social and philosophical views, and like Jodorowsky, those views are blended perfectly within the Western convention. The result: The Big Gundown is one of the finest Westerns ever made. Lee Van Cleef, as bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett, gives one of his best performances in the genre, rivalling or topping his performances in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), and Tonino Valerii's Day of Anger (1967). However, Van Cleef's inclusion in any Western makes it worth seeing, and his presence might be the sole reason for viewing. Tomas Milian, as Cuchillo, would appear in Sollima's other Westerns, Face to Face (1967) and Run, Man, Run (1968). In the latter, Milian would reprise his role as Cuchillo from The Big Gundown. Milian also gives one of his best performances in the genre, and he is one of the finest actors to work in Italy during the 70s. Sollima would remake The Big Gundown as the very cool, Revolver (1973), a crime thriller, with Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi playing the Van Cleef and Milian roles, respectively.
The Big Gundown opens with three bandits on the lam who stop to take a breath at the top of a hill. Thinking they're safe for the moment with bounty hunter, Jonathan Corbett, behind them, one bandit notices a dead man dangling from a tree and an ominous-looking gunslinger smoking a pipe by a campfire. The gunslinger is Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) and he's going to collect. Whether the bandits surrender alive is completely up to them: Corbett places three bullets on a nearby stump and gives each the opportunity to attempt to kill him. The emphasis in the last sentence is on the word "attempt" and not "kill." In fact, Corbett has emptied the jail wall of wanted posters, leaving no doubt that he's the best bounty hunter alive. What's next for Corbett? The sheriff suggests that he run for Senator. Corbett's invited to a high-class party hosted by wealthy businessman, Brokston (Walter Barnes). Brokston will back Corbett in his political campaign on the condition that Corbett support Brokston's installation of a railway across Texas and into Mexico. Corbett's not completely persuaded; however, he will take the job hunting down another bandit. This time it's for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl, and the suspect is Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican with a quick wit and an even quicker hand with the knife.What follows in The Big Gundown is an exciting cat-and-mouse chase that culminates in one of the most satisfying and intense finales in all of Western cinema. While the plot and Sollima's execution is amazing alone, Sollima fills the running time with his socio-political views, especially of the power relationship between the rich and the poor. Nieves Navarro appears in one of the film's most bizarre and compelling sequences. Cuchillo escapes the grasp of Corbett for the second time and happens upon a large secluded ranch in the shadow of a mountain. Navarro, a widow, presides over the ranch in her large home and collection of cattle and ranch hands. Cuchillo wants at the minimum something to eat and drink but is also willing to work, if it's available. The crew at the ranch, much to their chagrin, allow Cuchillo to wrangle the bull in the corral. Coming close to killing him, Cuchillo survives the charging bull and the laughing ranch hands. Navarro invites him up to her home, where Cuchillo can rest and Navarro can take advantage of him. The ranch hands don't like the new visitor having his way with their matriarch, so they decide to whip and beat Cuchillo. When Corbett shows up to capture Cuchillo, Cuchillo is freed. A shootout will solve this problem for Corbett, but Sollima sees a larger one. Sollima paints an initial portrait of a seemingly idyllic view of communal life but with none of the amenities. The ranch is a cutthroat den where the competitors are vying for the top spot. The prize is the affection and attention of the wealthy beauty in the big house. Nieves Navarro is dead sexy and a perfect actress to play this role. Her fiery glances and sexy demeanor make her the perfect object of obsession and as the harsh queen leader. Navarro made other notable performances in Duccio Tessari's A Pistol for Ringo (1965), Fernando di Leo's A Wrong Way to Love (1969), Luciano Ercoli's Death Walks on High Heels (1971), and Joe D'Amato's Orgasmo nero (1980).
As he was in the ranch episode, Cuchillo is poor, misunderstood, and often exploited. Cuchillo is also extremely resourceful and exuberant. Milian portrays his character amazingly, imbuing Cuchillo with a sharp wit and an endearing sympathy. It would be an understatement to say that Van Cleef's performance is also amazing. Over the course of the film, Corbett comes to the realization of the true nature of Brokston's intentions. By the end of the film, everyone is revealed as to whom he really is. The characters of Cuchillo and Corbett become the most reluctant yet totally united brothers at the end of The Big Gundown. Sergio Sollima and Sergio Donati pen the rich screenplay, and Carlo Carlini's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Not least of all, Ennio Morricone composes the film's incredible score (which is playing in my head as I write this entry). See it.

3 comments:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Hans, do you remember which movie elicited this million-dollar quote: "The only thing that can save this movie is Lee Van Cleef riding in on his horse and shooting twenty rounds out of his six-shooter." If you can remember the name of that movie, you are large and in charge.

marcos said...

Lee Van Cleef,an unforgettable actor not to say a fable World Cinema.I lived in Minas Gerais(Brazil),in years '70 and shined shoes to earn a buck,an on weekends, go see the great Western "Made in Italy".Once, in decade of '70, i attended a great "Spaghetti Western", was called:"LA REZA DEI CONTI"(THE BIG GUNDOWN),with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian,accompained by a beautful soundtrack, so i began to wonder even more this great actor. If a had to choose a movie to take him to heaven,would just "THE BIG GUNDOWN". Here in Brazil called "THE DAY OF RECKONING"/O DIA DA DESFORRA.

Anonymous said...

LVC is wonderful in this film. His magnificent face moves into anger that is chilling. Miliani is superb as well. Next to the Colonel in 'A Few Dollars More' and Ryan in 'Death Rides a Horse' this film showcases the infinite talent of this man. Such a joy to watch not only his acting but his dynamic screen presence. He is intense, elegant and gorgeous!