The turning point in the magnificent 'The Big Gundown' (aka, 'La resa dei conti'), one of only three westerns ever directed by Sergio Sollima, takes place inside a pair of gloomy, darken jail cells. The story's supposed hero — the determined and unwavering bounty hunter Corbett played with ultra-tough coolness by Lee Van Cleef — is forced to share the cell next to the man he's been relentlessly chasing after — the crafty and underhanded Mexican rogue "Cuchillo" Sanchez played with a grinning deviousness by Tomas Milian ('Django, Kill'). Van Cleef is so close to finally apprehending the man accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl, but he is prevented from doing so by the bars which divide them.
As he grips the metal bars with a wrathful frustration, the Hollywood actor is shot with an unflattering light and a grimy, sweat-drenched face. The walls behind him are a dark, portentous blue, and our hero is looking less like the archetypal valiant champion of justice. Up until this point, nearly an hour into the movie, we've been following Corbett as the only person capable of bringing this despicable killer to answer for his crimes, but ironically, his efforts are thwarted by the very system he fights for and its alluring romance is suddenly fading. Meanwhile, Cuchillo is breaking free with very little trouble and given lighting that is slightly more promising, even a bit on the glamorous side with a cleaner face, and his walls are a nicer, more attractive white.
It's a beautifully designed sequence which contradicts everything we've ever known or expected of the genre and has us questioning the point of the film's entire first half. The story takes a bigger dramatic turn when Cuchillo turns to Corbett just before jumping out of his cell's window and calls our hero a beast — which the cinematography is also suggestive of — for chasing a poor Mexican peasant without question or a genuine reason. Van Cleef's reaction to this is terrifically memorable because his fuming expression dwindles and his eyes grow into shallow glimmers of disenchantment, as if hit hard into his soul by the words. Suddenly, Corbett's journey through the deserts of Colorado and into Mexico seems like a madman's obsession for an ideal that may not exist, taking personal injury over something he actually has no personal investment in.
Earlier, a Mexican police captain (Fernando Sancho) asked if Corbett was a man of the law, a relative of the murdered little girl or if he had any connection whatsoever to the crime itself. The obvious answer was a cold and somewhat uncertain "No." Combined with the jail cell scene and the conversation, Corbett's ideals are basically being tested, along with those of the audience because we, too, accepted the accusation without first asking for the evidence. Throughout the first half, the film feels like a quirky, cat-and-mouse comedy, a game of wits between a shrewd, fast-talking conman and a fast-draw, cold-blooded gunslinger. Then, the jail scenes happen and everything suddenly turns deadly serious, which has us reflecting back on everything we've seen up to that point.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Sergio Donati, who also co-penned the screenplay for the masterful 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' Sollima is probing deeper into the moral ambiguities of the conventional gun-slinging hero of western mythology, especially as a symbol of democratic justice taming the turbulent savage violence of the West. Other colorful characters, like the major powerbroker Brockston (Walter Barnes) and the beautiful rancher (Nieves Navarro) who snares men into her web like the deadly black widow, are suggestive of deeper issues in capitalism. But 'The Big Gundown' is not merely about the fraudulent dishonesty in money and business as it is about Corbett's blind belief in an ideology that can potentially convert him without being aware of it.
What it ultimately boils down to is not whether those ideals of justice are tangible or admirable, but that Corbett chooses to believe in them, which in turn implies that his fate is in his hands. The opening shootout sequence beautifully captures this sentiment about choice after we're first introduced to Corbett sitting by a fire, waiting for three outlaws walking towards him. When the trio finally grasps Corbett's identity and admits to be being out of ammo, our rugged hero sets three bullets on a log. Sollima's deep focus lens shows each man standing perfectly across from each of their designated bullets. They have a choice, given to them freely, to determine their fate. We already know the outcome before it even happens, but in the grander scheme of the narrative, it takes Corbett a while before appreciating the bullet he's chosen for himself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Big Gundown' arrives to Blu-ray courtesy of German distributor Explosive Media as a three-disc limited edition set. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the other two are Region 2 locked (PAL), DVD-5 discs with the movie and special features. All three arrive in an attractive and sturdy digibook package with a glossy, 24-page booklet in the center, and the first two discs sit atop each other in the type of clear-plastic panels that requires users to push down and then carefully lift. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
'The Big Gundown' arrives on Blu-ray with guns blazing though it often misses its target in some spots, which is very unfortunate since it's one of my favorites from the Italian western genre. Still, for the fans who had to settle for hideous bootlegs or poor-quality imports over the years, this new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is an astonishing revelation. Comparatively, this high-def presentation easily wins hands down, offering better overall clarity and resolution. Definition of the desert landscapes and the interior of the hacienda-style houses is excellent with wonderfully distinct detailing in the shrubbery and of the smallest imperfection along the walls.
Granted, the 2.35:1 image does come with its share of softness and poorly-resolved sequences, but that has more to do with the condition of the source, not the quality of the encode. One or two scratches make an appearance; white specks creep up on occasion; and some very mild discoloration can be seen blotched several areas of the screen. There's even a moment when the frame shifts vertically, but for the most part, the presentation is consistent and handsome. Close-ups are revealing with first-rate textures; individual hairs and threads of the costumes are sharply rendered; and visibility into the far distance is outstanding. The transfer also displays an ultra-fine layer of natural grain, giving it a beautiful film-like quality.
Contrast could be a tad stronger, but it's satisfying nonetheless and stable from start to finish. Black levels, particularly in Van Cleef's clothing, are strong with deep, dark shadows that don't overwhelm background information. Colors are not especially bright, but they're accurate with primaries coming in bolder and livelier than the rest. While the picture quality could admittedly be better, this high-def presentation is nonetheless excellent, which long-time fans are sure to appreciate.
Unfortunately, things take a slight nosedive in the audio department. Although this Blu-ray edition comes with four listening options — two in German, the third in Italian and the last in English — all four mono soundtracks are sadly presented in legacy Dolby Digital. Rubbing a bit more salt to the wound, only the first two appear to have been remastered for this release, which is understandably, I suppose, since it is intended generally for German audiences. Yet, it would have been nice if the other two received similar treatment, and all four were presented in lossless audio.
Based on what is available, however, the two German tracks are the clear winners with the least amount of background noise, hissing and popping. In fact, it's practically nonexistent, allowing for the music and action to sound very crisp and clean with wider imaging and a stronger sense of presence. The mid-range is well-balanced with good movement and clarity between the highs and mids. The other two tracks are riddled with distracting hissing, severe clipping in the upper ranges, especially during musical cues, and random popping. On the bright side, all four exhibit excellent dialogue reproduction in the center and the bass has the appropriate impact for a film of this vintage, particularly when the music swells in certain sequences.
One last unfortunate disappoint with the non-English tracks is the subtitles either suddenly disappearing from the screen, which causes viewers to miss certain bits of dialogue, or not being accurate translations of the dialogue. It's a bizarre thing to nitpick at, but it happens and is worth noting. Added to that, the subtitles are not CIH (Constant Image Height) friendly, as they mostly appear below the image withing the black bars.
The first two discs (the Blu-ray and DVD copy) come with an identical set of supplements.
Widely considered one of the best in the Italian western genre, Sergio Sollima's 'The Big Gundown' is a genuine cult classic, full of drama, action and mystery. Starring Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian, the film is a sumptuous example of style and form expressing a deeper meaning within the plot. The Blu-ray doesn't quite offer the prettiest picture quality, but it's a massive improvement over previous home video releases. With a healthy assortment of enjoyable supplements, this three-disc limited edition of the cult Italian western classic is one fans will surely want and is recommended for those with the capable equipment.