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Italian westerns were unheard of in the United States until Sergio Leone's Dollars films with Clint Eastwood broke through the import barrier. Those hits opened a flood of product good and bad, some of it brand new and other titles a year or two after running the rounds of European theaters. Continentals of all stripes have always crazy about American westerns, and as U.S. production began to thin out the newer, leaner & meaner Italian product began to take over the market. The last two Dollars films were produced by the relatively youthful Alberto Grimaldi, who quickly made more deals, not just for westerns but also for celebrated art films by Federico Fellini, Gillo Pontecorvo, Elio Petri, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. A lot of the money came from United Artists, while Grimaldi's first western follow-up was partly financed by Columbia pictures.
Known in the United States as The Big Gundown and as Der Gehetze der Sierra Madre in Germany, the Italian La Resa dei Conti is the best bet for newcomers looking to expand beyond the four or five Leone-related Spaghetti western titles. Grimaldi designed it as a star vehicle for Lee Van Cleef, his 'discovery' as a leading character in For a Few Dollars More. The hawk-nosed Van Cleef had served in the trenches of American oaters for nearly twenty years, getting kicked around (and usually shot deader than a doornail) as a uniquely memorable slimy bad guy. By the middle '60s Van Cleef's career was on the wane, but Grimaldi and Leone realized that the tall, weasel-eyed gunslinging veteran had exactly the authoritative screen character that was needed. Visual impact and style are everything In Spaghetti westerns, and fine-tuned acting (not Van Cleef's forte) is less vital. One of the posters for The Big Gundown referred to his latest Leone hit, with the tagline "Mr. Ugly Comes to Town!"
The sprawling La Resa dei Conti (literally, "The Settling of Scores") is an episodic adventure that shows its 'committed' director Sergio Sollima touching on political content that he would soon make his central concern: revolution, political oppression. The story by Dollars scribe Sergio Donati has definite opinions about class distinctions, greed and injustice. For the casual viewer, the peculiar pleasures of the Italian Western are all here. The Mexicans look like Iberians, and even the saddle bums tend to ride pureblooded Spanish show horses.
Legendary Jonathan Corbett (Van Cleef) blasts down a trio of outlaws in the New Mexico mountains before attending the gala wedding of the daughter of the wealthy railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes). Brokston is gathering power around him in the form of paid gunmen and 'friendly' politicians and judges, and has the notion of running the well-known Corbett for the Senate. But word comes that the ruthless Mexican outlaw Cuchillo (Tomas Milian) has raped and killed a young girl. Corbett sets off to capture or kill the wily bandit, with the promise of Brokston's campaign backing when he returns. Cuchillo leads Corbett on a wild chase, involving encounters with a widow in a ranch house, a wagon train of devout Quakers and various deadly adversaries. Cuchillo runs like the wind and is faster with his throwing knife than are most men with a gun. Corbett soon suspects that the uncouth but principled Cuchillo may have been framed for the crime, and his suspicions grow when Brokston brings an entire hunting party with him into Mexico to help capture the bandit. Brokston's chief guest is Baron von Schulenberg (Gérard Herter of Caltiki, il mostro immortale), a preening Prussian eager to challenge Corbett to a shooting match. When Corbett changes sides the conflict is resolved in a series of deadly standoffs -- with pistols, rifles and knives.
While nowhere near as lavish as the Leone films, La Resa dei Conti nevertheless stands tall among Italian westerns. Lee Van Cleef cuts a fine presence throughout, only once or twice straining to fill the shoes of a leading man. The lack of other big star names is offset by the personable Tomas Milian. Looking as much like a young drifter in Rome or Madrid as he does a Mexican peasant turned folk outlaw, he provides a strong contrast with Van Cleef. Corbett rides and walks with a dignified authority. His feet protected by only the thinnest of sandals, Cuchillo runs like a rabbit through tall grass and tumbles among the desert rocks. He also spends a large part of his time caked in mud, dirt and sweat. We meet some women that love Cuchillo, so he must slow down sometime or another. I can imagine Sollima and Donati envisioning Cuchillo as a more earthy version of Horst Buchholz's character in The Magnificent Seven, crossed with James Coburn's knife throwing skills from the same movie.
The villains are fairly obvious from the beginning. Corbett shows his law 'n' order attitude by toying with the three fugitives in the mountains. We immediately recognize the fat cat Brokston as a bad guy, and the duel-obsessed von Schulenberg is an immediate candidate for gun-down targetry. As we might easily guess, Corbett's mission to kill Cuchillo is a fraud to pull attention away from the real culprit. In the all-talk no-action leftist Italian politics of the day, Brokston is a decadent of the degenerate upper classes, claiming the privilege to squash little people whenever he sees fit. So don't expect any deep or complex investigation of why bad things happen in the West.
Sollima is a better than decent director, if not an innovator or as visually inspired as Leone. The various episodes with the wagon train, the brawls and horseplay at the muddy ranch, etc., don't seem essential to the storyline and don't stick in the memory. The 'big gundown' of the finish occurs in a generic desert landscape. Even so, La Resa dei Conti avoids the "all action, no visual finesse" monotony that infects potboilers like Navajo Joe. And it's less drawn out than Van Cleef's next (and bigger-scale) western, Death Rides a Horse. Cinematographer Carlo Carlini filmed both movies in Spain, and the images have a polish comparable with Leone's work.
What really makes La Resa dei Conti stand out, and puts it on the high shelf next to the Leone pictures, is the MUSIC. For basic action excitement, this must be Ennio Morricone's best western theme. The main titles promise a lot, and Morricone delivers when the final leg of the Chuchillo hunt begins, a race across the desert landscape: "Run Man, Run!" Frequent high-range singer Cristy practically screams the lyrics "Never! Never!", which conveys Cuchillo's response to those that would capture him. I've seen La Resa dei Conti a number of times now, but it's always desirable for another viewing spin for its music score alone.
Explosive Media's Region B Blu-ray + DVD of The Big Gundown (La Resa dei Conti) is primarily for the German-speaking market, and so carries the German title Der Gehetze der Sierra Madre on its cover. The HD video on view is a restoration of the uncut Italian version, which was never circulated off the continent -- the American cut was chopped by 25 minutes! The Techniscope transfers look great, and compare well with MGM's Blu-rays of the Leone films.
Ulrich Bruckner of Explosive Media has years of experience in home video and is a major authority on Spaghetti westerns. This matters because his releases pay attention to detail that studios, for some reason, can't or won't trouble themselves with. This edition puts a lot of effort into a multi-lingual presentation: German, Italian, English. The German version is the default. The long Italian version is uncut and complete in picture and sound: choose this option and the show plays straight.
Choose German (which was slightly cut) or English (grossly cut) and interesting things begin to happen. It looks as if Columbia accepted an English-dubbed version from Alberto Grimaldi's Italian production company, cut it down to double-bill length, and threw out the audio trims. This Blu-ray plays the entire 110-minute picture, with the surviving English portions synchronized properly. When an Italian-only segment comes up, it may be a whole scene or a just a single dialogue line. For those sections the language reverts to Italian and English subtitles pop up.
The result is the uncut show Spaghetti fans want to see, with an instant lesson in studio digest-version editing techniques. Little pieces were pulled out of dialogue scenes, lines that add depth to the characters. I presume that the American cut also dropped a lot of non-dialogue material, but it's impossible to figure out what those pieces might be. The only odd cut I hear in the tracks is the segue to the last music cue, which seems rather rough. Of course, it's possible that it always was a bit rough, in all versions.
The two-disc set also includes a DVD disc with a slightly shorter (106 minute) running time, which is the effect of the PAL format's 25fps playback rate. I don't consider myself a nitpicker but after hearing Morricone cues music on CD I respond almost immediately to hearing the 4% PAL acceleration. The big extra is a 24-page booklet with color illustrations and an informative essay by Steffen Wulf -- albeit in German (I can read every 7th or 8th word ... maybe). A selection of trailers is offered as well.
A second DVD Bonus Disc has more extras. The long featurette Spaghetti Western Memories contains mostly uncut interviews with director Sergio Sollima and actor Tomas Milian. Sollima gives a spirited rundown of his interest in the genre. He calls Milian the "James Dean of his time." Tomas Milian explains why he was temperamental and impatient on film sets. The featurette uses quite a few clips from Sollima's Face to Face as well.
A very long "Lee Van Cleef" trailer reel is present, along with an entire soundtrack for the film -- 24 full cuts.
Around 2000 I dashed over to Sony on the invitation of a restorationist friend, who needed to screen Columbia's only surviving original Technicolor print of The Big Gundown. It was the most ragged, scratched mess I'd ever seen, with breaks and splices seemingly every few seconds and places where half a reel was missing. My friend said, "Well, I guess we should just keep this print for possible color reference!" There was no way to follow the plot. Not exactly the best way to see a movie for the first time. If you have all-region capability, this German Blu-ray of The Big Gundown aka La Resa dei Conti or Der Gehetze der Sierra Madre is the way to go.
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