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Collectors are well aware that the major studios have slowed releases of video discs to a crawl, and are instead licensing out more and more of their fan-coveted library titles to smaller DVD and Blu-ray labels. Olive Films has been issuing movies from Paramount and Republic, and Twilight Time is offering a quality line of selected attractions from Fox, Sony, and soon, MGM. Just about the only major not outsourcing is Warner Bros., which now distributes older titles from Paramount as well, through their market-savvy Warner Archive Program. Even more confusing to the more dedicated collectors are the many American pictures now available exclusively from European labels, on region-coded discs that won't play on normal American Blu-ray players. Collectors now scrutinize disc offerings on Amazon.uk and Amazon.it, hoping to find desired titles unavailable through normal channels in the United States.
This review is of a new disc readily available in Region "A", and playable in U.S. machines. I compare it to a German Region "B" released just last year.
Back in 1968, Americans talked about Spaghetti Westerns exclusively in terms of Clint Eastwood; the cult of Sergio Leone would take a few years to filter down to the kids with 8-track tapes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) playing in their cars. More enthusiastic fans would follow the multitude of Italian westerns that flooded American screens, from scores of Django pictures to arty efforts like Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968), with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski facing off in the snow.
The general rule of thumb with Italo westerns is that everyone admires the impressive pictures of Sergio Leone, who leaves the rest of the sub-genre on a much lower plane. One small step below the Clint Eastwood 'Dollars' films is Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (La resa dei conti; original Italian release year 1966). The stylish adventure was conceived as an immediate spinoff from the Leone oevure, a chance to feature the newly recognized star Lee Van Cleef. Young producer Alberto Grimaldi made an impressive multi-picture deal with United Artists, which he also expanded to include a number of projects by noted directors like Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo and Bernardo Bertolucci. The Big Gundown can boast the participation of some of Leone's top collaborators, including cinematographer Carlo Carlini and designer Carlo Simi. The music score by Ennio Morricone, with a main theme sung by Cristy, may be the composer's most exciting work in a western.
This is the first western by director Sergio Sollima, who like Sergio Leone followed the trend from away sword 'n' sandal pictures toward violent riffs on the American genre. Although not as inspired or talented as his predecessor, Sollima generates a sense of heightened drama that eludes most Italo oaters. The Big Gundown concocts a classy entrance for the respected lawman Jonathan Corbett (Van Cleef), who blasts down a trio of outlaws in the very first scene. Corbett is then enlisted by the burly, glad-handing railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes) to hunt down and kill Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican accused of raping and murdering a little girl. As an added attraction, Brokston offers the lawman support for a Senatorial campaign. Chasing Cuchillo into Mexico, Corbett finds that capturing the wily bandit is a tall order. Along the way, the lawman learns more about the real motivations behind Brokston's urgent manhunt.
With a plot idea coincidentally similar to Richard Brooks' The Professionals (1966), The Big Gundown shapes up as one of the earlier 'political' westerns. Italian filmmakers often made politics a major motivation for their work, but films directly addressing contemporary politics usually did not do well. 'Committed' directors instead put themes of social justice into more popular genre pictures. Director Sergio Corbucci would film several movies in which the Mexican Revolution commented on present-day political struggles. The biggest villain would typically be a Yankee capitalist, a function filled in this movie by the greedy, arrogant Brokston.
Lee Van Cleef's transformation from lower-case Hollywood bad guy to international star is well known; he was signed for For a Few Dollars More (1965) because Leone recognized him from small but memorable roles in a dozen classic westerns. Producer Grimaldi could hire the actor at a good price as well. Van Cleef's earlier attempts to establish himself in substantial roles had stalled out at the low-budget level. Neither his Quisling scientist in Roger Corman's science fiction thriller It Conquered the World (1956) nor his Eurasian Communist General in Sam Fuller's China Gate (1957) garnered much serious attention. What had made Van Cleef well known were his hawk-like facial characteristics and sinister, intense eyes. Leone had cast Van Cleef against type as a respectable character in For a Few Dollars More, and in The Big Gundown he graduated to full-on hero status. Despite a leg injury that made riding a horse painful, the actor prospered as a western hero. Turning his image around 180°, Van Cleef eventually played the role made famous by Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972).
The Big Gundown has fun with the exploits of Tomas Milian's sandal-clad, earthy peasant Cuchillo, who lives by his wits and seems to have a girl friend in every town. Cuchillo tries to seduce a Mormon maid and is forced to fight a bull by some rough ranchers. He proves to be Corbett's equal in the strategic double-crosses favored by writer Sergio Donati, a veteran of the Sergio Leone pictures. As might be expected, the more Corbett learns about Cuchillo, the more he comes to respect him. The crown of villainy shifts to Brokston's associate Baron von Schulenberg (Gérard Herter of Caltiki, il mostro immortale), a preening Prussian eager to challenge Corbett to a shooting match. Accompanied by Ennio Morricone's soaring music score, The Big Gundown concludes in a series of duels with rifles, six-guns and a knife as weapons of choice. In the film's most dynamic sequence, Cuchillo flees cross-country on foot, chased by a full mounted posse. The screen is electrified by Morricone's electric guitar, which is followed by vocalist Cristy's frantic song "Run, Man, Run". Cuban-born Tomas Milian would return as Cuchillo in director Sollima's follow-up feature, Corri uomo corri (1968), which for America was re-titled Run, Man, Run.
Grindhouse Releasing's Blu-ray + DVD + CD of Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown is an excellent pressing mastered from prime sources apparently held by Sony Pictures: the show begins with a glorious Columbia logo. Fans of Lee Van Cleef, Ennio Morricone and Spaghetti westerns hardly need a recommendation to seek this title out, but some explanations are in order.
The Big Gundown was unavailable on Blu-ray until a year ago, when the German concern Explosive Media released an impressive Region B (Europe only) pressing, that collectors with all-region players are still buying. The big difference between that and Grindhouse Releasing's Region A disc has to do with the versions of the film being offered. The original Italian release, entitled La resa dei conti ("A Settling of Accounts") is a full 110 minutes long. It underwent drastic editing for foreign markets. Columbia's American version cut out almost 25 minutes, dropping entire scenes and pieces of several others, especially in the first reels. The initial showdown between Corbett and the three outlaws seems rather rushed in the shorter cut, and speeds to a perfunctory conclusion. The impact is weakened considerably.
The difficulty in creating a definitive The Big Gundown on video is that everyone wants to see director Sollima's superior full-length cut, but the distinctive vocal performance by Lee Van Cleef is available only on the shorter Columbia edited version. English dialogue tracks either weren't recorded for the footage not seen in America, or they were thrown away. The two Blu-ray releases address this problem very differently.
Last Year's Explosive Media Blu-ray found a creative way to keep the full Italian cut for the English and German language options as well. The Italian audio track is of course intact and uncut. On the other two language options, whenever scenes come up for which English or German audio does not exist, the track reverts briefly to Italian with the appropriate subtitles. Thus the viewer can see The Big Gundown with (mostly) Van Cleef's original voice, but also see it full-length. Initially it is rather odd to hear characters pop back and forth between languages in the middle of scenes, but it's also an educational experience: we see exactly how Columbia sucked 25 minutes out of the film. The editors pulled isolated dialogue lines out of Brokston's party sequence, yet still maintain full continuity. The Explosive Media package is a 3-disc set, with the feature on both Blu-ray and DVD;, a second DVD contains a generous helping of extras and an encoding of the entire Ennio Morricone feature soundtrack score.
For most American consumers, the new Grindhouse Blu-ray + DVD edition of The Big Gundown will be the way to go, simply because the purchasing of foreign Region B Blu-rays is practical only for fans willing to invest in multi-region equipment. Grindhouse's transfer of the Techniscope feature has a bit of an edge for sharpness and color, and the framing finds a little more image on the sides. It's also a four-disc set. Disc One contains the Columbia cut-down, extended to 95 minutes by adding three scenes from the long cut that have no dialogue, and therefore no language conflicts. The abbreviated pace is still very noticeable. Disc two in the Grindhouse set is the 110-minute original Italian cut, which has a polished audio mix that, of course, re-dubs Van Cleef in Italian. A third disc is a DVD of the 95-minute Columbia cut-down. The Grindhouse disc also has the entire The Big Gundown Ennio Morricone soundtrack album, but on a separate Compact Disc. About six years ago, I paid about $30 to have just this music on a GDM import CD.
The Grindhouse extras include a full commentary by Henry C. Parke and C. Courtney Joyner, who also contributes liner notes accompanied by music authority Gergely Hubai. Their discussion includes an analysis of the differences between the long and short versions of the movie. Exclusive interviews let Sergio Sollima, Tomas Milian and writer Sergio Donati speak about their work, and galleries of promotional art and stills, trailers and TV spots finish the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Gundown Blu-ray rates:
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.