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.

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