Thursday, December 19, 2013

Culture Shock 12.19.13: 'Big Gundown' is a Western gem rescued from obscurity

Fewer and fewer vintage films are finding their way to DVD, much less to the high-definition glory of Blu-ray. Too many still languish, in need of restoration and preservation, in the vaults of indifferent studios.

So, give indie distributor Grindhouse Releasing all due credit not only for rescuing "The Big Gundown" from obscurity, but for giving it a release worthy of "Citizen Kane," or "Vertigo," if Hitchcock is more your flavor.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says "The Big Gundown" is the best spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone, and if that isn't true, it's not far off the mark.

Leone set the standard for the genre with his Clint Eastwood-starring "Man with No Name" trilogy and his operatic "Once Upon a Time in the West," which turned everyman Henry Fonda into one of the screen's great villains. His success spurred many imitators, most famously Sergio Corbucci's "Django." But director Sergio Sollima's "The Big Gundown" (1966) is the cream of the crop.

Lee Van Cleef, who upstaged Eastwood in Leone's "For a Few Dollars More," stars as John Corbett, a bounty hunter looking to turn his reputation for cleaning up Texas into a political career. But Senate campaigns don't come cheap, even in the 1800s. So, when a rich businessman (Walter Barnes) offers his backing in exchange for help getting a railroad through his property, Corbett accepts. After all, the railroad is good for all of Texas, Corbett figures.

They've barely sealed the deal when news comes of a 12-year-old girl's rape and murder, and the lone suspect is a knife-throwing Mexican outlaw called Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). What better campaign publicity could you ask than bringing in a notorious child rapist and murderer to face justice? It's all so convenient. Too convenient, as it turns out.

Finding Cuchillo is surprisingly easy, but keeping him is another matter. Corbett may have cleaned up Texas, but he has never faced anyone quite as wily as Cuchillo, who tricks his way to freedom time and again, and charms beautiful women with raw machismo.

Milian plays Cuchillo with charisma to spare. He may be a rogue, but we don't believe for a minute he's really guilty. For once Van Cleef is the one getting upstaged, and that's by design.

Van Cleef delivers a measured performance that pays off when we get to the "big gundown" the title promises. The inevitable showdown pits Corbett against the businessman's personal hired gun, a monocled Prussian baron (GĂ©rard Herter) who left a pile of dead duelists back in Europe.

Cuchillo starts out disillusioned with both the Mexican government and the revolutionaries looking to overthrow it. By the end, Corbett is left wondering if politics north of the border is any better.

Like other Italian-made Westerns, "The Big Gundown" is filmed on location in Spain, and Sollima and cinematographer Carlo Carlini make the most of the desolate yet gorgeous Mediterranean locale. This is an Old West that's deadly yet seductive, especially as reproduced on Blu-ray by Grindhouse Releasing.

It has been a banner year for Grindhouse, coming off last year's tragic death of company co-founder Sage Stallone (son of Sylvester Stallone) at age 36. First there was Grindhouse's Blu-ray/DVD combo of the little-seen Peter Cushing horror flick "Corruption," marking the 100th anniversary of Cushing's birth.

Now there's "The Big Gundown" ($39.95 suggested retail), a four-disc release that belongs on every cinephile's shelf. The set includes two Blu-ray discs (the English-language version and a longer Italian cut with English subtitles), the English-language version on DVD and a CD of revered film composer Ennio Morricone's energetic score.

It's a lavish presentation of the sort more films deserve.

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