Judge Daryl Loomis wishes he could get socked in the face by Lee Van Cleef.
You'll never get me, Corbett!
Any lover of genre movies can attest that, no matter how much we might love whichever genre it is, we know we'll have to wade through a whole ton of garbage to find those transcendent gems that make it all worthwhile. In the world of Italian Westerns, it's pretty much universally acknowledged that the so-called "Dollars" trilogy that Sergio Leone directed is the standard by which all others are judged. Now, Django Kill! and Four of the Apocalypse may not come anywhere near that level, but they're still enjoyable as guilty pleasures. There are a few, though, that do rise to the occasion and Sergio Sollima (Face to Face) may have topped them all with his 1966 masterpiece, The Big Gundown, now available uncut for the first time on home video.
Facts of the Case
John Corbett (Lee Van Cleef, For a Few Dollars More) is a bounty hunter who is getting a little tired of the life when a railroad tycoon plants the seed in his ear that he should run for senate. With Corbett's reputation, he's a shoe-in and, with his support, his rail line to Mexico will go right through. He's interested, but more important things come up when the rape and murder of a young girl is reported. The Mexican bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian, who would reprise the role in the sequel, Run Man Run) is accused of the crime, so Corbett goes on a mission of justice to bring Cuchillo back to answer for his crimes. Cuchillo is not as dumb as he acts and thwarts Corbett at every turn while, slowly, he starts to learn the truth behind the murder.
While I would never say that The Big Gundown quite matches the level of Leone's westerns, it is a great film and truly one of the best entries in the genre. It might be the most complete film of any of them, too. While Leone's are phenomenal, there are some real story problems in the middle portions of all of his movies. And Sergio Corbucci's entries, two of which, Django and The Big Silence, are among the very best, for all of their awesome charms, are totally absurd movies.
The Big Gundown, on the other hand, is solid on every level. It might never reach the peaks of the other movies, but there's never a valley, either. Whether you're watching the 96 minute American cut (the feature release) or the 110 minute Italian (included as a second Blu-ray), the experience is fantastic, with gorgeous cinematography, nicely contrasting performances, sharp direction, and an incredible musical score that is among the best work of any of the participants' careers.
The story, written by Sergio Donati (Duck, You Sucker), is strong, with a darker framing story than one often sees, and a lot of wit and humor throughout. Instead of Corbett engaging in one long chase with Cuchillo, they meet many times during the film. Corbett finds him easily, but just as easily, Cuchillo wriggles away from capture. Soon, it's clear that there's no way he's guilty of the crime and his charm makes him the film's hero within a few scenes, especially given the unsavory nature of Corbett, our ostensible hero. By the final scenes, though, all the tables are turned and, while there really isn't anything that could be called a "big gundown" in the movie itself, the end result is a lot of fantastic duels and one twenty-on-one fight between Van Cleef and a brothel.
As is typical of American cuts of Italian movies, the cuts aren't for content, but to speed up the film, both for more showings and an audience with a shorter attention span. The big victim in this movie is the character of John Corbett. He kills just as often and as adeptly in both movies, but in the American version, the only one anybody over here has seen until now, he is made a more silent killer, closer to his roles in the "Dollar" trilogy. That was always acceptable and may still be to many, but what we find in the Italian cut is, in a way, a much more diabolical character. He sits and listens, lets the people he kills explain themselves in some mock attempt at justice, only to blithely execute them, regardless of excuses. Though it slows the movie down—the intention of the edit—it makes Corbett more villainous, though just as bad-ass, than he is in the American version.
The rest of the characters are mostly given a pass; Tomas Milian is his usual endearing clown; Brokston (Walter Barnes, High Plains Drifter) is just as conniving in both versions; Baron von Schulenberg (Gerard Herter, Adios Sabata), Brokston's Austrian bodyguard, is hilariously ridiculous with his monocle and cape. Combined with a supporting cast of familiar genre names and the performances are fun across the board.
Sergio Sollima's direction isn't as flashy as Leone or Corbucci, but he's efficient and takes advantage of the gorgeous Spanish landscapes. The film was shot in Almería, Spain, where many famous Italian Westerns were shot, but Sollima gives the area a different feel. His best feature as a director, though, is his ability to keep the viewer conscious of every character's location in the scene. There are a few with a lot of extras and a lot of action, but one always knows exactly where everybody is at all times. This is especially important to the amazing climactic chase through the fields, where Milan is hiding from a team of pursuers and their dogs. It's a masterful scene; that Milian is able to disappear in one place and emerge from another, seemingly without a cut, and that Sollima is able to make that make sense is a genuine feat that is worth watching on its own.
And, then, of course, there's my favorite score that Ennio Morricone (The Mission) ever composed. Without it, I don't know that The Big Gundown would have worked at all. It starts from the beginning, with a stunningly powerful theme song. The vocal work from Christy, whose voice led off plenty of Italian genre films, is piercing; operatic, yet it almost feels like she's barking instead of singing. The score is in his more classical style and similar to his other western score, but he turned everything up a notch for this one. It's louder, broader, and the character themes are unique and, sometimes, a little weird. It gives the movie a character that nothing else in the genre has. Many have great scores, of course, but none of them have this.
Great performances and some amazing music, combined with strong direction, gorgeous locations, and top-notch camera work (by Carlo Carlini, Death Rides a Horse); there's no question that, had more people seen The Big Gundown, it would be clearly recognized at the pinnacle of the genre. Luckily, Grindhouse Releasing has graced us with one of the best Blu-ray packages I've seen in a long time.
The 2.35:1/1080p image looks absolutely stunning, with hardly a piece of dirt or damage to the print to be found. The skies are wide, bright, and deep blue, while flesh tones are accurate. Detail is impressive, with wrinkles on faces and far off mountain features clearly visible. The restoration is fabulous; I've never seen it look close to this good. As a side-to-side comparison, the transfers of the two versions are nearly identical, making it a near-perfect viewing experience.
The audio, while a single channel track, is as good as it can be. It's big and bright, especially in regards to Morricone's score, which is aggressive in the mix and should be, though it never drowns out the dialog, which is always nice and clear. Speaking of audio, though this is technically an extra feature, this fantastic package also comes complete with a CD of the soundtrack. This is a newly remastered stereo mix that has a huge sound and is such a great listen on its own.
All this and a top-notch slate of extras, as well. In addition to the separate Blu-ray for each edition, a DVD of the feature, and the soundtrack CD, we get:
• An audio commentary with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner and Western blogger Henry C. Parke. They obviously love the movie and the genre in general. They're a good source of information about the film, but it isn't the most entertaining commentary you'll find.
• A 29-minute interview with Sergio Sollima from 2005, who fondly remembers his time working on The Big Gundown, as well as discusses the Japanese origins of the Italian Western. He has some very funny behind-the-scenes stories and this is well worth the listen.
• A 29-minute interview with Tomas Milian, in which he talks about his acting style, his time at Lee Strasbourg's Actor's Studio, and why he doesn't listen to anybody's dumb advice about his performances.
• A new 12-minute interview with screenwriter Sergio Donati, where he discusses the collaboration on the set and how amazing it was to work with all this talent.
• Another thirty minutes with Sollima, this time in a discussion about struggling with being pigeonholed into genres and how easy it is to dismiss a film because of its genre tag.
• Isolated score track, bringing Morricone's music brightly to life alongside the images. I love these, but this one in particular is special. This track has its own subtitle commentary track with analysis of the score and how the cuts to the American version affected it. I've never seen this before and I really hope it becomes a trend, because it's fantastic.
The disc closes out with a bunch of promotional materials, including galleries, production stills, trailers, and TV spots.
It was but a few weeks ago that I figured I'd seen my favorite release of the year with the restoration Intolerance but, bam, this release of The Big Gundown sneaks in with only days to spare. If the release had been bare bones with this restoration, it would still easily worth the price. With the extras, the commentaries, and especially the soundtrack CD, this is my pick for Blu-ray release of the year. I couldn't be happier to have this in my collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Grindhouse Releasing
• Italian Cut
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