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  Big Gundown, The Giving Van Cleef The Slip
Year: 1966
Director: Sergio Sollima
Stars: Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Nieves Navarro, Gérard Herter, María Granada, Roberto Camardiel, Ángel del Pozo, Luisa Rivelli, Tom Felleghy, Calisto Calisti, Benito Stefanelli, Nello Pazzafini, Antonio Casas, José Torres, Romano Puppo
Genre: WesternBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is the best bounty hunter around, guaranteed to bring in his target, dead or alive. Today he has been tracking a trio of bad guys who he heads off at the outskirts of the forest, and fools them into thinking he is on their side. When they realise this is not the case, he makes them an offer, placing three bullets on a log and offering a small contest if they can draw before he does. Needless to say, they end up shot dead and Corbett gets to collect the reward, which gives him a pass to a society do where the leaders of the community congratulate him and allow him to mingle among their number. However, just as the party is going with a swing, there comes some harrowing news...

The Big Gundown, or La resa dei conti to give it its original title, was one of many Italian Westerns, and not only Westerns, to take genre moviemaking into a left-wing direction, using the traditional set-ups of the style to tell tales of how the Old West was a perfect example of capitalism gone mad, or at least dangerously unfettered. A Bullet for the General was probably the most celebrated of the examples from the nineteen-sixties, but this was not to be dismissed either even if it was in the shadow of that cult classic politically. However, while A Bullet wore its sympathies on its sleeve, Gundown was more intent on providing thrills in its cat and mouse game between Corbett and his wily quarry, a Mexican criminal called Cuchillo Sanchez, played by Tomas Milian.

In his starmaking turn Milian was a past master at sleazy roles, and he would return to them periodically over his career because producers knew he was just so darn good at them, but it was no two-dimensional villain he was asked to portray here, as there was a twist that may have been obvious should you have ever watched a few Spaghetti Westerns, yet also contributed to the championing of the underdog. At first we're meant to think Corbett is on the right side - as he does - for agreeing to hunt down Cuchillo, for the outlaw has been accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl, a crime so heinous you'd think there was no redemption possible for the criminal, yet as the story draws on you begin to have second thoughts.

Not about the crime, that remains distressing, but that Cuchillo may not be as guilty as the head of the authorities Brokston (Walter Barnes) insists. Again, not much of a shock to see an Italian Western backing the Mexicans against the white establishment, but it was conveyed with a disarming cheek, especially in Milian's performance, as if this was some twisted tale of Van Cleef's Elmer Fudd trying and failing to catch Milian's Bugs Bunny. He was no way as sophisticated as Bugs could be, but there was a definite Loony Tunes dynamic to their wary relationship as they race across the desert, meeting various folks along the way who may hinder one while assisting the other, and the other way around, an element of uncertainty in who will react either way.

While Bugs escaped unscathed from his predicaments, in this case both Corbett and Cuchillo suffered physically, with the latter even coaxed into finding shelter with a sadistic widow (Nieves Navarro) and her gang of studs by trapping a bull, as the beast flings him about in the process (presumably a brave stuntman stood in for the star, but it looks mightily convincing). If they're not finding methods of oneupmanship against each other, there's always someone else who wants to stick their nose in, and they both tackle settlers, Mormons (with an extremely dubious punchline to that sequence), prostitutes and bandits once the action moves south of the border to Cuchillo's homeland when they're not butting heads and outwitting their rival. Some dislike Van Cleef's less than capable character, more used to seeing him as the invincible superman gunslinger, but it was actually a nice change as we could not entirely predict how he would get out of the traps he faced. Director Sergio Sollima kept the pace up, the politics were not rammed down the throat, and Ennio Morricone's score was to the fore.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Sergio Sollima  (1921 - )

Italian director who turned in some of the best Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, as well as notable work in other genres. Made his debut in 1962 with a segment for the bawdy anthology Sex Can Be Difficult, but it was 1966's The Big Gundown that marked Sollima a director of intelligent, morally complex westerns. Face to Face and Run, Man, Run followed in the same vein, while Violent City and Revolver were tough, exciting thrillers. Largely worked in TV in the 80s and 90s.

 
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