The Big Gundown (1966) *****
Dir. Sergio Sollima
Scr. Sergio Donati and Sollima
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Does it get more basic than the hunter and the hunted in Sergio Sollima's rediscovered classic of Italian western cinema The Big Gundown? Well, on the surface, no, but this is a movie that works tremendously on several layers thanks to a character-driven screenplay by trusted Sergio Leone writer Sergio Donati, Sollima's stalwart, subtle direction with just the right flourishes the tale needs and a superb central performance by the Lee Strasberg-trained Cuban actor Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, a Mexican wanted for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.
The Hunter is one Jonathan Corbett, played by Lee Van Cleef, the steely-eyed "Bad" of Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. (The moronic ads for the truncated, dubbed American version of The Big Gundown referred to Van Cleef as "The Ugly", the role played in Leone's film by Eli Wallach.) Here, Van Cleef plays a bounty hunter with a difference. He's a man of business who's supplemented his obsession with tracking down and cleaning up the scum of Texas with the proceeds of a saloon he owns. Corbett has NEVER accepted bounties for his quarry and the tale begins when Brokston (Walter Barnes), a powerful land baron, offers Corbett a political career as a Senator on a platter. The prospect of continuing to do the very best for Texas in his august years, without roaming the plains in search of bad guys, is extremely appealing - especially since Corbett recently lost his business holdings in a poker game gone awry.
Brokston, of course, needs one thing from Corbett - a promise that he'll go to Washington and smooth over the magnate's designs upon building a railroad from the U.S. of A. to Mexico. This will make Brokston rich beyond his wildest dreams and though Corbett makes it clear, he's not in the business of making anyone rich, he believes this railroad will be good for Texas, so he agrees to the generous offer. There is, however, one more job Corbett needs to do. A savage sex killer has taken the life of a little girl and there is, to Brokston's mind, only one person who can bring the filth to justice.
With thoughts of a Senate position dancing across his cerebellum, Corbett sets out in search of the aforementioned Cuchillo. Where the narrative deviates from the usual cat and mouse of such a mission, is the political context with which the story is layered. The film is strangely universal and downright contemporary in its exploration of those who have and those who do not and the huge gap between justice for the rich and justice (or lack thereof) for the poor.
Cuchillo turns out to be far more than the garden variety bounty and Corbett is faced with an adversary who manages to outwit him at every turn. Most importantly, Corbett becomes oddly enamoured with the wily sex maniac outlaw - not just because of the bad guy's prowess at getting away, but the lengths to which Cuchillo goes to stay several steps ahead of the law. Most of the hardened criminals Corbett has dealt with are either too stupid and/or tired enough to know when they're beaten and eventually succumb to capture or death, whichever comes first.
Not so, here. Cuchillo is a formidable quarry and damn likeable. He also could have well dispatched Corbett quite handily on several occasions if he so chose to, but he doesn't. Something's definitely rotten in the State of Texas and as the hunter and hunted proceed with the cat and mouse game, Corbett realizes there's more here than what appears to meet his steely eyes.
Though the movie never goes out of its way to hammer home the tale's political implications in a didactic manner, the delineations between rich and poor definitely give the movie the sort of weight truly great westerns are imbued with. As a director, Sollima never gets caught up in his own style and/or cleverness. He tackles the proceedings with yeoman attention to spinning a good yarn first and only indulging in flourishes that are as breathtaking as they are absolutely necessary to advancing the narrative and/or expressing important elements of character.
There are, for example, any number of reveals, pull-backs, cutaways and smash cuts that do knock us on our ass, but nothing ever feels like the sort of style over substance frissons that, say, Leone indulges in with completely over-the-top frequency (albeit stunningly and operatically).
The Big Gundown is also blessed with an Ennio Morricone musical score that might well be one of his very best. There are any number of stirring moments when image, narrative and music combine expertly to create moments of nail-biting suspense as well as gonad-gooseflesh-stirring drive and emotion. The ballad and central theme by Morricone are, frankly, as hummable and unforgettable as anything the great composer ever wrought.
The Big Gundown is finally, without a doubt, one of the greatest westerns ever made in Italy and an extremely worthwhile picture for both film and genre aficionados.
What's truly wonderful here, is that Grindhouse Releasing's complete package (in Canada via VSC) is as first-rate as the very best home entertainment releases from, say, the Criterion Collection label. The wealth of interview material is staggering and deeply enriching, the international marketing media galleries are thoroughly overwhelming and what you get with this package is more than worth its price tag.
There are four - count 'em - FOUR great discs: a gorgeous Blu-Ray of the original director's cut in Italian, the English language and runcated American release version on Blu-Ray, a DVD version of the film which includes a superb CD-Rom supplement that painstakingly takes you through the very interesting differences of the European and American versions and, for lovers of great music, a gorgeous CD of Morricone's soundtrack.
Seeing Sollima's unexpurgated original film would have been quite enough for me, but I have to admit that I was so blown away by the movie that the supplements more than provided the kind of added value material that not so much enhances the experience of seeing the film, as it expertly provides a magnificent combination of scholarly and practical materials that allow you to marvel at the film's artistry and importance.
A gorgeous and nicely written glossy booklet, a nicely designed jacket and slipcase, an attractive and nicely navigable menu plus a delicious bonus of numerous 60s/70s Euro-Grind trailers all contributes to making Grindhouse Releasing/VSC's disc one of the best home entertainment packages of this year.