"Like manure, makes the grain grow taller right?"
It's a hell of a thing watching a particular sub-genre at its peak. Westerns were made pretty much as soon as the motion picture camera was invented. By the time movie houses were loaded with eager patrons looking for solid entertainment, they were an already reliable - albeit old hat - genre to depend on. It took a group of Italian filmmakers aiming to imitate American films to breathe new life into the genre. With the Spaghetti Western in full swing, a darkly-humous anti-hero would emerge from the shadow of The Man With No Name - Sabata, played by the legendary steely-eyed Lee Van Cleef.
In the Texas town of Daugherty, life goes about pretty much the same as in any dusty town. The saloons are loaded with drunks seeking entertainment of all sorts. While the people are distracted, the richest men in town play out a scheme that will make them even richer. By stealing a safe filled with army gold, Stengel (Franco Ressel), Ferguson (Antonio Gradoli) and Judge O'Hara (Gianni Rizzo) plot to purchase a large swath of land that will be worth ten times the price once the railroad comes through town. Everything goes according to plan - until Sabata (Lee Van Cleef) arrives in town. Sniffing out the plan, Sabata and his pals Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla), Alley Cat (Bruno Ukmar) set about extorting funds from Stengel, Ferguson, and O'Hara. Sabata and his pals may not be lawmen, but they're on the right side of the law in their eyes. The only man Sabata isn't so sure about is a mysterious drifter known as Banjo (William Berger) - who has a few secrets of his own and is willing to do anything for the right price - even betray nad old friend.
Producer Alberto Grimaldi was a strong force behind the rise of the Spaghetti Western producing such favorites as 'For A Few Dollars More,' 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and 'The Big Gundown' before he oversaw the trilogy of films featuring the titular character 'Sabata.' With director Frank Kramer (A.K.A. Gianfranco Parolini), Grimaldi managed to create another impressive Western anti-hero featuring Lee Van Cleef doing what he does best. The film may be a bit of a rehash and amalgam of other more famous Spaghetti Westerns, but 'Sabata' finds a terrific blend of action and comedy that gradually builds to a point of absurdity that it becomes wildly entertaining and infectious.
At the front end of things, 'Sabata' can get a bit confusing. By the time Lee Van Cleef's Sabata rides into town, the plot to steal all of the army gold from a bank vault is well underway. The heist itself is intricate and inventive - but we don't really know who anyone is or why they're doing what they're doing. Exposition is somewhat nonexistent for long stretches of time to the point that it relies on the audience to infer what is going on. Then you have the main man himself, Sabata. Who is he? Where does he come from? No one really seems to know, except a few of them do know him - but say nothing adding a bit more character confusion to the mix. Thankfully once the movie truly hits its A Plot and starts rolling along, everything smooths out and the film becomes an action-packed thrill ride with a terrific sense of humor right up to the very end.
For his part, I've always thought of Lee Van Cleef's Sabata as an extension of his Colonel Mortimer character from 'For a Few Dollars More.' Both characters dress alike with thin black hats, black capes, and both men are a crack shot with an array of crazy and unique weapons. To top it off, both characters have a penchant for playing the bad guys off one another to the point where he's the last man standing. Part of me actually wishes this series of films had been called "Mortimer" and have them exist as a side story to the ones found in 'The Man With No Name Trilogy.' As it stands, 'Sabata' is a hell of an entertaining Spaghetti Western that shouldn't be taken entirely seriously. It sets out to entertain an audience and it succeeds. This film's follow-ups, the confusing 'Adiós Sabata' starring Yul Brynner in the title role (it's not really a Sabata film), and then the solid 'Return of Sabata' prove that the steely-eyed quick-witted sharpshooter had plenty of cinematic ammunition. If you love the genre, then you should probably make some room in your heart for 'Sabata.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sabata' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case and loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
'Sabata' sports a pleasing 2.34:1 1080p transfer. Film grain is apparent throughout the run of the show but is thankfully natural looking without ever becoming too intrusive. It's a little more noticeable during the film's darker scenes, but again, nothing too noisy. Detail levels are appreciable through most scenes, close-ups and middle shots are at their best, wide shots tend to waver here and there as there appears to have been some focus issues. As an example there's a scene where Lee Van Cleef enters a door and is out of focus, gets to the middle and looks great, but then when he reaches the foreground and is pointing his gun at one of the principal bad guys, he's back out of focus. It seems like the focus point was set for one specific sweet spot without anyone pulling to accommodate the character's movements. These aren't really transfer issues exactly but the clarity of the image makes them more apparent. Colors are bright and beautiful throughout with natural warm tones and vivid primaries. Flesh tones also look natural and healthy. There are a couple bits of print damage here and there, some mild speckling and a few stretches with a bit of flicker, but nothing distracting enough to upend the grade. All around a solid transfer for a flick of this vintage.
'Sabata' like so many other Italian Spaghetti Westerns arrives with a heavily dubbed and processed audio mix. This English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix tends to fluctuate on the highs and lows. Dialogue is kept at the middle range but can dominate the mix dropping background sound effects in places. The terrific Marcello Giombini score gets to dominate many sequences - as it should for a Spaghetti Western of this type. Overall, the mix does have some level issues to contend with. It has a habit of being soft and quiet and then getting really loud very suddenly and the shift can be quite abrupt and alarming. I found that I had to keep a thumb on the volume throughout a lot of the run of the film. Thankfully the mix is free of any hiss, scratches, or any other age-related issue of note. It's not a perfect mix, but it's pretty damn good - especially when Bango starts strumming away and the bells adorning his clothing jangle around.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:37)
As the Spaghetti Western managed to reinvent the wheel so to speak, it brought about a wonderful assortment of colorful antiheroes with it. 'Sabata' may not be the most well-known or the best of the bunch, but under the care of Lee Van Cleef, he manages to hold his own. 'Sabata' is chock full of characters and plot threads that would have been enough of films of their own, but combined together, 'Sabata' is a rip-roaring quick draw western with plenty of thrills and lots of good laughs to be had. If you're not smiling by the end of this one, I just don't know what to do for you. Kino Lorber has done a pretty great job with this release giving it a solid A/V presentation that is a clear upgrade over the previous DVD release. I wish some more bonus features were available, but with the two sequels about to get their own respective Blu-ray releases sometime in 2017, maybe these films will get the full package treatment they deserve. 'Sabata' comes recommended.