When Judge Paul Corupe hits a DVD, it whimpers for a bit, then walks away.
"They put it right next to me in that prison. Not more than six inches away. You know, gold gives off a scent. It's like an animal or a man. Paper money don't…don't throw off a scent. Paper money don't whisper to you like gold does through six inches of steel."—The Old Man (John Marley)
Gold does a peculiar thing to a person. Fred C. Dobbs knew it, and so did Auric Goldfinger. Hell, even The Apple Dumpling Gang had some notion that these innocent looking nuggets could drive men and women out of their mind with greed and suspicion. To some, gold fever is a curse; for others, it's a highly effective plot device. For A Man Called Sledge, it's both.
Facts of the Case
Luther Sledge (James Garner, Maverick) is a highway robber; an old west outlaw with a price on his head. When he notices that someone on horseback has been following him for miles one hot afternoon, Sledge sets up an ambush for the would-be bounty hunter. It turns out his stalker was only the Old Man (John Marley, The Godfather), an ex-con trying to get a peek at a gold shipment. Curious, Sledge takes his new friend back to a local bar to talk about the gold a little more.
The Old Man explains that $300,000 in gold dust is being transported from the mines to a heavily guarded jail, where it is kept in a cell that has been modified into a giant safe. He knows, because the safe was next to his old cell. Sledge is intrigued, and with the rest of his gang, starts planning to heist the gold. When a convoy of 40 armed men on horseback and a machine gun discourage his plan to take it in transport, he decides the only way to steal the loot it is to get inside the jail. But nobody's sure exactly what Sledge has in mind, not even Ward (Dennis Weaver, McCloud) or Hooker (Claude Akins, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo), Sledge's most trusted men.
A Man Called Sledge has to be one of the most oddly cast films to ever come out the Italian "spaghetti western" trend. Who would have thought that McCloud, Sheriff Lobo, and Bret Maverick would ever team up and pull a heist? Or that it could all be caught on film by Vic Morrow, one of the stars and an occasional director of Combat!? Given the prime-time talent present, this film easily might have been a substandard TV movie of the week, but I'm happy to say it's much better than that. A Man Called Sledge may be a lesser horse opera, but it's still an entertaining heist film that finds a middle ground between traditional American and Italian sensibilities.
Joining the side of lawlessness for a change seems to agree with James Garner, who does a fine job as Sledge. Garner's portrayal of a hotheaded thief with a bad case of gold fever is quite different from the "quiet intensity" Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero had made standard for spaghetti western anti-heroes by the 1970s. Sledge is no conflicted gunslinger or "murdering bastard," he's just a fast-talking hustler, susceptible to the pleasures of life. Garner seems to be having a little fun with his heel turn, and it allows him to stretch his acting chops in a way we haven't really seen before, or since, come to think of it. There's even a cheeky nod to Garner's character on Maverick, as Sledge enters into a high stakes poker game.
A Man Called Sledge was penned by Morrow and Combat! script supervisor Frank Kowalski, and the script belies its American origin. The first half of the film is devoted to establishing characters and interactions between members of the outlaw gang. Italian screenwriters would no doubt have devoted more attention to scenes of violence and the actual heist itself, which aren't given as much weight here. It still works though, since this spaghetti western is really about what happens after the robbery. While the film may initially suffer a bit on action, Morrow and Kowalski are building to a final, cynical twist that proves there is more than enough marinara sauce flowing through their veins.
While the character-driven plot is more black and white than most Italian westerns, the look of the film leans heavily towards Sergio Leone territory. This can make A Man Called Sledge seem incongruous at times, but the occasional beauty of the shots will wipe away any complaints. Director of photography Luigi Kuveiller makes admirable use of the film's 2:35:1 aspect ratio with the requisite "shifty eyes" close-ups, characters collapsing in clouds of gold dust, and an eerie Mexican Day of the Dead procession. I can only imagine how this film must have suffered in Columbia TriStar's pan-and-scan VHS release.
On DVD, the film generally looks good. Colors are bright and blacks are solid. There was actually less grain in the transfer than I anticipated, however some night scenes with entirely black backgrounds have substantial dirt and speckling that become distracting. The mono soundtrack serves its purpose just fine. Like most spaghetti westerns, the sound has been dubbed in later anyway, so dialogue is always clear. The music in the film fares less well, but considering it is some of the worst I've heard in any Italian western, I really didn't mind much.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are no extras at all here, save for a ridiculous assemblage of trailers that pop up as soon as you put the disc. Why Columbia TriStar would include ads for films like Silverado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico on a library release with limited mainstream appeal is completely beyond me. At least they can be skipped by selecting "menu" on your remote, but they shouldn't be here to begin with.
While not particularly memorable, A Man Called Sledge is a decent enough spaghetti western with a solid lead performance by James Garner. If you are a fan of the genre, this is a film you will enjoy checking out.
This court sentences Luther Sledge to one night in a gold dust adjacent cell, whereupon he will return to my chambers first thing in the morning to split the loot. Adjourned!
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