Plot Outline: Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is a famous lawman/bounty hunter who, much like the mounties, always gets his man. After attending a party where a high ranking official tries to get him to run for some form of office, a group of young men alarm everyone and tell how they saw a Mexican man rape and murder a twelve year old girl. Corbett, being the man he is, decides to help out and rides out looking for the young bandit. He soon finds out the young Mexican is Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian) who happens to be heading for the Mexican border. Corbett sets out to find this young man and bring him to justice, but who is Cuchillo and is he truly guilty of this nefarious crime?
The Review: Your loyal webmaster ‘il pantsman’ is having a bit of a spaghetti western revival this week. You just know if there’s going to be a Spaghetti Western revival there’s going to be something with Lee Van Cleef in it too! It has only taken my second film to delve into the Van Cleef goodness, and The Big Gundown is most definitely Cleeftacular to say the least. Lee Van Cleef was just an awesome human being and there is no denying it. Even when the man made bad films he was still undeniably charismatic. Hey, my good friend Kid Caffeine and I have been obsessing over him ever since we both watched Master Ninja 1 on Mystery Science Theater 3000 a few months back. He just seemed so rugged, like a less southern Sam Elliot (and don’t doubt the brilliance that is Sam Elliot). Seeing him as a Master Ninja just filled me with some kind of bizarre joy that I find hard to put into words. Not to mention the fact that the man wasn’t exactly in the best shape of his life (mid-80s), and seeing a elderly man jump up in the air about four feet and kick out a lamp that happened to be falling before he ever made contact with it, is just plain funny. He could do more than westerns, as he demonstrated in Escape from New York, but he was just destined to make his bread and butter off westerns. Italian westerns in particular. The Big Gundown is just one of the many ‘sgetti westerns he made during his heyday. I believe if you ask around you’ll likely here this called one of his best too. Well, excluding Sergio Leone’s films, as usual.
It could just be me, but I couldn’t help but feel The Big Gundown came pretty close in emulating Leone’s style. Film’s like Sabata and Django took little aspects from the formula Leone created, but created something wholly their own. Certain things within The Big Gundown struck me as more of an attempt to replicate what Leone did however. Take for instance, the introductory title sequence which is basically ripped straight from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. The colored photos, almost cartoonish with a blistering Morricone soundtrack pumping over the audio track. You really have to see it to put the two together, but it is fairly obvious. The only things missing were cannons blasting and that old familiar theme. Even if the film isn’t the most original product to come from Italy, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a heck of a lot of fun. That’s really all one has to ask for in a genre-film such as this. Entertain me and you get my love, and that probably explains why I’m such a Fulci fan. Aside from the shades of Leone that one might not feel too comfortable with, there’s really not all that much to hate. There is a lot of style throughout, allusions to the samurai films of old and of course; GUNFIGHTS! Plenty of them as a matter of fact. Van Cleef basically spends the majority of the film chasing Thomas Millian (this is the second film I’ve seen him star in, after Compañeros), and pretty much every town he walks into he ends up shooting a few people. While watching the movie and being so impressed with the director’s style, I was kind of building the end of the film up in my head. It’s my own dumb fault I suppose, but I thought it would be one of two things. One, it would be a BIG GUNDOWN as the title suggests, but it’s really not that big at all. Two, I thought it might be a great duel along the lines of Leone. It does lean a little toward the Leone style, but after re-watching The Good the Bad and the Ugly earlier today, it just doesn’t compare. That doesn’t mean it’s not good in its own way. Actually, it’s pretty darn great, but my ignorance forced me to expect more.
As I’ve said, the director did a great job with what he was given. The very first sequence in the film just blew me away. A really cool introduction. In it a couple of bandits walk upon Cleef sitting down near a campfire. They take him to be their contact, but as Cleef soon points out, their contact is hanging from a tree by his neck right behind them. One of the bandits claims that they can kill him with one bullet, so Cleef lays out three, one for the each of them. They walk up one by one and collect their bullets and prepare to die. The scene struck me as something from a samurai film for some reason (minus the guns and bullets of course). It’s a very pulp idea and rooted in a strong sense of machismo. The director might not have been inspired by Kurosawa or any of his contemporaries, but maybe those that inspired him were. The line between the western and the samurai film has always seemed very close and the similar style is not surprising. Thomas Milian is just as great here as is expected of him. His role doesn’t give him enough screen time to really flesh out a character as he did in Compañeros, but he’s basically playing the lovable tramp here. You would expect his character to be given a little more attention really, but for what it’s worth, he does a great job once again. Chewing scenery like a fat man at a buffet. Lee Van Cleef… well, do I really have to say anything? Cleef plays the toughguy he does so well and that’s why I love the big ape. Smoking a pipe and blasting a revolver, that’s how I like to see my mustachioed lawman. Oh, and did I mention Ennio Morricone delivers yet another classic film score? Well, he does. It sounds familiar to some of his early works, but his re-working of Beethoven’s Fur Elise is just remarkable.