-- By Brett Stillo
The Spaghetti Western is a paradoxical film genre. Highly imitative and repetitive, hundreds of Spaghetti Westerns were blasted out by Italian movie studios in the 1960s like bullets from a Gatling Gun, carbon copies of carbon copies of Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Dollars trilogy. And yet, the derivative nature of these films is part of what gives them their pulpy charm. We know what we’re in for -- ruthless characters with dirty clothes and sunburned faces shooting it out on dusty streets in some nameless border town (AKA Southern Spain). We not only expect all of that, we want it.
The Big Gundown, from 1966, has all those elements and more. It’s arguably the greatest Spaghetti Western without Sergio Leone’s name in the credits. Ironically, another Sergio directed this film -- veteran Italian director Sergio Solima, who crafts an epic chase film in which the bad guys are pitted against worse guys.
And in The Big Gundown, the baddest of the bad is the one and only Lee Van Cleef, arguably one of the genre’s biggest stars second only to Clint Eastwood. Van Cleef is Satan with a Six-Gun, cutting an intimidating presence with his razor-sharp face and impossibly narrow eyes. Van Cleef’s foil is the dynamic Tomas Milan as a roguish peasant-thief who prefers the knife over the gun.
Solima keeps the action moving rolling along, set to the tempo of an operatic score composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. This is an impressive restoration of a film that had languished for decades. It will be playing for one night only, this Wednesday, January 27th at San Francisco’s historic Balboa Theatre. If you miss this one, Lee Van Cleef might come looking for you.