Johnny Liston (Anthony Steffen) has spent twelve years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He rides home to a dusty western town now controlled by his evil brother, the self-styled General Sartana (Gianni Garko), a whip-wielding sadist who extorts protection money from terrified townsfolk across the territory. Sartana has also married Johnny’s sweetheart Manuela (Angelica Ott), ostensibly to keep her under his protection. After somewhat callously abandoning Manuela to her fate, Johnny rides to the rescue of Joselita Rogers (Erika Blanc), who turns out to be the daughter of the man he was accused of murdering. Determined to prove his innocence and defend the townspeople, Johnny sets about ending Sartana’s reign of terror, which leads to the inevitable showdown between the brothers.
This dark and broody spaghetti western is significant for marking the first time Gianni Garko played a character called Sartana. Noticing the charismatic, Croatian-born actor upstaged nominal leading man Anthony Steffen, producer Aldo Addobbati recycled the Sartana name for the long-running series that cast Garko as a spectral avenger. It is amusing to see Garko play the kind of glowering brute he would gun down by the dozen in his later films, but Blood at Sundown (incredibly the third spaghetti western to bear such an English title while its original Italian name: Mille dollari sul nero translates as One Thousand Dollars in the Black, another riff on A Fistful of Dollars (1964)) has a substantial plot that lifts it above a mere novelty piece. Working alongside screenwriters Vittorio Salerno and Rudolph Knoblich, veteran giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi helps craft a compelling plot that runs on a unique tension in that neither brother wants to kill the other, and features some powerful scenes.
An intriguing Oedipal theme runs throughout the film as both brothers vie for the love of their monstrous mother Rhonda (Carlo Calò), who at one point bitterly remarks she knows Johnny didn’t kill Joselita’s father because “you need guts to kill.” Rhonda emerges a fascinating figure, not quite villainess, not quite tragic either. She swells with pride over the antics of her murderous son, but whips him whenever he fails and loves lording it over the townsfolk living in the mansion where she once worked as a servant. And yet though Rhonda makes the town’s women beg for help on bended knee, it is she who bravely routs Sartana’s climactic rampage. Indeed this is a rare spaghetti western with fairly substantial roles for women, including strong turns from Angelica Ott, Daniela Igliozzi as the girl who loves Manuela’s mute brother Jerry Holt (Roberto Miali), and Euro-horror icon Erika Blanc - back when she was playing blonde good girls instead of red-haired devil women in movies like The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) where she appeared opposite Anthony Steffen. A limited actor, Steffen plays well as the cigar-chomping strong, silent type.
Alberto Cardone directs with a degree of artistry sadly obscured by the dodgy print currently available on DVD. He favours lengthy, brutal punch-ups over the genre’s usual swift shootouts while the film suffers from the usual spaghetti sadism as Sartana guns down women, the elderly, a baby and at one stage, a chicken. What did it do? It’s a cynical film given how, with a few notable exceptions, the imperilled townsfolk are a vindictive, self-serving bunch barely worth saving. The script further fails to make a persuasive argument about standing up to tyrants since by doing so most of the supporting cast get killed. It ends with a quote from Leviticus (“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart”), but in spite of its ambitions is more a curate’s egg than a forgotten classic.