Thursday, September 15, 2011

“I am your pallbearer.”

Well, the previous Sartana movie got me hungry for more, so I tracked down the first in the series, If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death AKA Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte from 1968. Starring the original Sartana, Gianni Garko.

It all starts with a stagecoach getting ambushed by a gang of bandits. A mysterious, impeccably dressed drifter deals with most of them and examines the wreckage before traveling to the small town of Goldspring where the plot begins in earnest and swiftly spirals into a game who’s going to double cross whom. There’s a Mexican general who entrusts his money to two crooked bankers, who are in league with a gang that’s raiding stage coaches. It all comes down to a large stack of gold and who’s going to walk away with it.

Sartana: Gianni/“Johnny” Garko plays our protagonist; a soft-spoken, well-dressed anti-hero with a dark sense of humor. He’s well armed, great at poker, and constantly prepared for any situation. My earlier assessment of him as a Western Batman stands. The four-barreled palm gun also gets a lot of spotlight, and even that thing’s got some surprising tricks up its sleeve. There’s also a hint that Sartana is more than a mere mortal. A smooth, cool badass in every way.

Dusty: Franco Pesce plays the short, elderly undertaker of the town. He latches onto Sartana as soon as the gunslinger rides into town. Dusty was once an artist in Boston but its hinted he threw that away in favor of booze. Provides comic relief, but the voice dubbed for him is gratingly annoying.

General Tampico: Fernando Sancho plays the Mexican general with a comically overlong name (shorted to General Tampico). He’s somewhat comical, but little more than a thug with a bunch of goons that sure don’t act like soldiers. He invests his gold with the bank and gets understandably upset when it vanishes.

Lasky: William Berger hams it up royally as the real villain of the movie. Lasky is a great counterpoint to Sartana since he’s an emotional psychopath who thinks on the fly. Berger’s great in this, whether he’s swaggering into town, smugly cheating at cards, mowing down his own gang with a Gatling gun, or freaking out when Sartana plays a musical watch from some hiding place just to mess with him. Carrying forward the Batman analogy, there’s a fair amount of the modern Joker in his performance as an untamed psychopath. A great villain.

Morgan: Hey, its Klaus Kinsky! He’s Lasky’s right hand man and fond of knife throwing and wears bells on his spurs, which in fact DO go jingle-jangle-jingle. Not a major character, but a fun one.

Jeff Stewal and Al Alman: Sydney Chaplin and Gianni Rizzo are the pair of bankers who are scheming to get away with the gold through an insurance fraud scheme. Alman’s a fat fellow with a fondness for candy and Stewal is juggling two affairs: one with the widow of the mayor, and the other with Alman’s wife Evelyn (Heidi Fischer). Pillars of the community, they are.

Directed by Gianfranco Parolini (as “Frank Kramer”) and with Cinematography by Sandro Mancori, the movie has some nice shots here and there, but is otherwise fairly standard as a Spaghetti Western, with a few spots that are rough around the edges. The pacing is nice and we never forget that its all about the gold. The action sequences are a definite positive for the film, since they show off Sartana’s resourcefulness and cleverness. Probably the most amusing is where Sartana has set up a trap in his hotel room where he can snare anyone coming in through the window.

Adolfo Cagnacci, Luigi De Santis, and Fabio Piccioni on story and Werner Hauff, Renato Izzo, and Gianfranco Parolini as writers. That’s a lot of people working on one script, but things seem to work out okay. The plot is horribly convoluted, but that’s not the real draw here. Solid character work, reprehensible villains and Sartana being awesome are the draw.

The score by Piero Picconi is serviceable but sparse. The musical watch gets a lot of screen time and those scenes work, but that kind of thing gets done better in For A Few Dollars More (I’ll get to that review when I can). The music’s not bad and has a few high points that dips into that whole “swingin’ sixties” vibe, but not one of the film’s strong points.

If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death is a solid foundation for a “franchise” of nearly 20 movies with the gunslinger’s name attached. The action’s good, the plot is confusing (par for the course with a lot of Spaghetti Westerns, I‘m noticing), and the characters are well realized, even if they are caricatures. What it may lack in budget it more than makes up for in attitude and charm. Sartana is, frankly, an Awesome character and thoroughly entertaining.

Boy that trailer sure asks a lot of questions. Don't expect most of them to get answered.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

“What was I supposed to do? Call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

Right, so, Real Life has been kind of getting in the way of working on a side project such as this for a while now, which explains the big gaps in updates. Fear not! I have something big planned to get back in the swing of things come next month! In the meantime, September will likely continue to have spotty updates.

Such as this one!

Regarded as one of the greatest con man movies ever made, The Sting boasts an impressive roster of talent and the awards to match, winning Best Picture and 6 other awards for 1973. And it totally deserves those accolades.

Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is a talented but small time con man in Joliet, Illinois during the 1930s. He’s partnered up with Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) who’s looking to retire soon since he’s getting on in years. The two of them con a delivery boy for a mob and end up with way more money than they expected. Johnny pisses the money away gambling and he gets shaken down by crooked cop Lieutenant William Snyder (Charles Durning) who informs him that the money belongs to New York big shot Doyle “The Big Mick” Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) who’s none too pleased that a chunk of his money has gone missing. Luther is killed by Lonnegan’s thugs and Hooker escapes to Chicago, looking for a near-mythic friend of Luther’s named Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Hooker wants revenge on Lonnegan and Gondorff agrees to help him pull the Big Con on the crime lord.

What follows is a steady buildup to the Con that involves gathering a big team that includes Gondorff’s gal Billie (Eileen Brennan), the fast talking J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston), and the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) among others. Lonnegan has a fondness for gambling, so the plan is to scam him out of a lot of money without him knowing he was even played. But things are tricky. Lonnegan’s no fool and while he doesn’t know what Hooker looks like, his men know he’s in Chicago. Lt. Snyder and a mysterious assassin named Salino are on Hooker’s trail, and the FBI are very interested in nabbing Gondorff at any cost. You better believe things are going to get interesting.

Directed by the very talented George Roy Hill with Director of Photography Robert Surtees. Its quite a testament to the filmmakers’ skill that while the movie was made in the early 70s, it looks like it was shot back in the 1930s. I don’t mean the period clothing and props (though that’s an obvious requirement), but rather the whole visual feel of the film. It feels like it was made right before the Hays Code (and in color).

Pacing is also marvelously quick and the audience doesn’t get a moment to breathe from the moment Hooker gets to Chicago. It adds a feeling of underlying tension and urgency to even the more relaxed scenes.

Written by David S. Ward, the movie fires on all possible story cylinders. The character work is fantastic. Redford and Newman work exceptionally well together and their characters have a mentor and student relationship with some interesting twists that play on the inherent paranoia of men who make their livings by lying for big stakes. Shaw’s Lonnegan is also very well realized: Tough, craggy, ruthless, but oddly vulnerable when the con begins. The rest of the cast are well realized as well and given plenty of moments to shine.

The plot also deserves mentioning, because its incredibly well thought out. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything more about it without going into spoiler territory, and that would be a huge disservice to anyone who hasn’t experienced this movie yet. Suffice it to say that its one hell of a ride and rewards multiple viewings.

The soundtrack doesn’t have an original score. Instead a number of Scott Joplin tunes were conducted and adapted by Marvin Hamlisch. It took a while for me to warm up to the soundtrack because ragtime was old hat by the 30s, but after a while it grew on me. The innocence and above all, playfulness of the music really cuts the tension in some places and in others reminds you that this is a movie and you’re watching it to have fun, so relax.

The Sting is rightly regarded as a classic. Everything works exceptionally and the movie demands that you keep on your toes while you’re watching it. Absolutely recommended, to the point where it should be required viewing.