Tuesday, 23 October 2012

La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown)


La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown) 
1966 Spain/Italy 
Directed by Sergio Sollima
Screening at the London Film Festival 2012

Warning: Spoilers standing off against each other, 
waiting to be the first one to fire. 

Well... I was more than a little surprised when I found that the organisers of the London Film Festival had chosen to acquire a restored print of one of my all time favourite spaghetti westerns, The Big Gundown, and screen it as part of their Treasures Of The National Archive section in this year’s programme of events. Particularly as I couldn’t remember if I’d actually ever seen it projected on a big screen or not. Hey, it’s actually two years older than I am (so it’s positively ancient) and when you get to my age all those revival and restored re-release screenings over the years blur into one. I just can’t remember all the ones I’ve seen projected at a cinema.

I’ve certainly seen the film a number of times on TV screenings and bootleg DVDs over the years though, so I was positively wetting my lips at the prospect when I found out, a few days before I went, that the definitive print they had restored was longer than anything we’d seen before (it was pretty much butchered on its initial American release and I think the US version is the one which gets shown on TV from time to time). Well I have to say that, if this sounded to good to be true... in some ways it certainly was. And in other ways, I guess it wasn’t.

That is to say... aww, heck... lets get the main disappointments out of the way first... before I remind you how amazing this movie is.

I’d been tipped off that this was going to be showing via the BFI earlier in the year chatting to the UK’s foremost authority on the Italian western, Sir Christopher Frayling, at a film fair (we always go to the same Italian soundtrack stall first, it seems). Well, he was there to say a few words about the movie before the screening started, as I knew he would be, and in it he impressed upon us how this was going to be a more complete version of the film than we’d seen before. I had a few alarm bells ringing in my head when he read an extract of a review out from the time of its original full length screening in the sixties, which described a particular scene. As he read it, I was nodding my head and thinking, “yeah, that’s a good scene and the score in that part is brilliant” etc... but then he said something along the lines of... “of course, we’ve never had the opportunity to see this scene ourself... so I hope to God it’s in there today.”

It was then that I started thinking... “Wait? What?”

So anyway... the screening starts and plays out and I am held spellbound but... it was, I have to say, no longer (and possibly not that much better quality too) than the bootleg edition which had been doing the rounds for over a decade and which could easily be picked up for a fiver. So this was a bit wrong. I sometimes wonder how these people who commission these things have never managed to get access to stuff which the fans have had for a while. It’s a bit bizarre.

A similar, surprising thing happened when I read a book about giallo movies about three years ago... the author had said that he just couldn’t get hold of the films he wanted to research so, in many cases, went with reviews and articles about them from the time. Since I seemed to have pretty much all the movies he was talking about not being able to get ahold of... well, all I can say is it’s about time all these various companies and academic types realised that we’re living in a global community nowadays. The internet and DVD as a universal format used as a bridge between various countries is a reality people are going to have to start getting used to... there are many fan edits and message boards for these kinds of things out there. Especially when it comes to stuff like spaghetti westerns.

The other eye opener for me is that they went with an Italian dub with English subtitles, even though the principal actors were both speaking English. it was understandable but... let me tell you how I think this works and how things like this happen...

The Italians don’t usually record sound when they’re making their movies, certainly at the time when these were made and I suspect things haven’t changed too much in recent years either, but I would be interested to hear if they have. Anyway, it’s all dubbed on after and the principal actors all speak whatever language they are comfortable with. This means that, as an actor, you have to know when a person’s going to stop speaking so you can come in on your cue because, more often than not, you won’t be able to understand a word they’re saying to you. The movie is shot like this and then dubbed, usually very badly, in various languages for release in different countries. Rarely, in any print, is the lip synch any good.

Now then, if the footage is cut out of a US release on its first run, there’s a chance that the sound for those scenes hasn’t been dubbed in English... so what usually happens with these things, when they are restored for the US and UK marketplace, is the language used is often English... but the reinstated scenes are Italian with English subs. For this screening the whole thing was dubbed in Italian with subtitles. I didn’t mind it myself, actually... but the best way to see this particular movie is probably in English for the scenes where they have the audio. If they want to spend money on it (aka, if they don’t want to be cheap about it), then they can always do what they did a few years back on the restored version of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly... which is get Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach back in the studio to dub the missing scenes and get another actor to impersonate the late, great Lee Van Cleef for his scenes. This seemed to work pretty well.

What’s the most interesting thing about this particular screening of The Big Gundown, though, is that in this version they chose to put the English language version of the song over the credits and end titles instead of the Italian vocal version. Not that I mind, I love the English performance of the song (by the same singer, Christy) but I just found it a strange choice, especially considering the proximity of the last word said in the film on screen in the English version and the deliberate juxtaposition of the crashing Christy vocal which follows it.

Which brings me to my other little grumble... Christopher Frayling apologised for the “screechy song”! I was gobsmacked... I love that song. What’s the world coming to when people can’t appreciate the opening title song to The Big Gundown.

Anyway... enough of that.

If you’ve not seen The Big Gundown before and you like spaghetti westerns... then you really need to check this one out. It’s one of the greats. Lee Van Cleef plays Corbett, a respectable bounty killer, who is more in it for justice than any money he may make from it. When a local big wig offers to fund Corbett’s future political ambitions, one of his “favours” is that Corbett track down a Mexican who has raped and killed a child... a Mexican by the name of Cuchillo (the knife). However, this is a film about political corruption and, as he tracks down, captures, loses and retracks down Cuchillo, who is played absolutely brilliantly by a scene stealing Tomas Milian, it becomes clear that Cuchillo might not actually be guilty of any crime other than being poor and that Corbett is being used to blame and kill a man to cover up the crime of the son-in-law of the man who sent him on his mission.

The film includes various action sequences which highlight both Van Cleef’s stoic and sturdy ‘avenger of justice’ and Milian’s ‘young hippy’ of a character who relies on his animal cunning to always stay ahead of Van Cleef and the performances really are a joy to watch. We even have some sequences with Nieves Navarro (who giallo watchers will best know under the name Susan Scott) in them as a lady landowner of a ranch full of men she keeps fighting amongst themselves for the promise of her sexual favours (sexual favours which both Corbett and Cuchillo indulge themselves of, I might add).

Sergio Sollima is one of the more conscientious of the genre directors and this western is beautifully shot, much like you’d expect from something by either of the other two great ‘Sergios’ of the form, the genre’s kickstarter Sergio Leone and, equally, Sergio Corbucci. Vast landscape canvases with various shots showing figures large and small in contrast to each other, against the flat surface of the cinema screen... it’s all bold stuff and I can tell you, you really get a lot more out of Milian’s subtle facial reactions when you see this on a large screen. It’s just fantastic.

There’s a fair but of action and a lot of humour all put into the mix with a more serious political (possibly) subtext which ultimately leads to a heartwarming alliance for both of the characters you’ve been cheering all along. Lee Van Cleef’s opening sequence where he takes down three criminals after giving them each a bullet of ammunition (in a beautifully framed shot which would have echoes later down the road for the spaghetti western) and Cuchillo’s opening sequences, where he outsmarts Corbett before you even get to see his face... are equal delights.

And, of course, there’s the music.

Ennio Morricone’s masterful score (arranged and conducted by another great Italian composer, Bruno Nicolai) is almost overpowering but the film is strong enough to stand up to the pounding and lyrical humour that Morricone throws at it (a piece for this which specifically references one of the villain’s penchant for classical piano is even used, completely out of context, in the opening shots of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). The action writing is superb and it’s all mixed into the foreground like it needs to be... in those days the sound guys and the directors had a little more respect for the power of the score... not like these days where it’s often buried within the mix. Seeing it with this score coming out loud at the cinema was fantastic and I have to confess I was toe tapping to a lot of the movie as I was watching... hope the guy sitting next to me didn’t mind.

One thing about this screening which was very gratifying was that the venue was so full... it may even have been a sell out (and it wasn’t in a small screen either). To counter that, though, I thought it was kinda sad that the average age of the audience attending seemed to be people in their 50s and 60s... younger people need to see this great stuff and get inspired by it too. It blows away a lot of modern action movies!

Since this movie has been recently ‘restored’ (although I think it might be the same as the old Japanese Region 2 DVD in terms of content... if you quite rightly don’t want to go down the bootleg route) then I’m pretty sure that this is currently being prepped for either a US Region 1 or UK Region 2 release, although I’m told that the new German release DVD uses the same restored master as this one, from the same company.

Either way, it’s a film every fan of these kinds of westerns will want to see and, if you like this one, I can tell you now that the sequel, once again starring Tomas Milian as Cuchillo and from the same director, is at least as good as (if not better, although sadly without Van Cleef) than the first one. It’s called Run, Man, Run after the chorus from the song in The Big Gundown (Seeeeeee! It was popular enough a song to name a sequel after the lyrics!), has a blinding score by Bruno Nicolai (there are rumours as to who actually composed it, put about by the director in many interviews, but I’m told by a specialist in this field that those rumours are untrue) and it would, obviously, make a great double bill with this one. Curious thing about Sergio Sollima though, is that he’s a director who doesn’t like endings. So, while The Big Gundown has a lot of closure in it... you are left with the feeling that there is more to be told just around the corner. Run, Man, Run is even more blatant in ending the film at a point where you think you are in the middle of the story... so if you’re a fan of the traditional beginning, middle and end format of storytelling, you’ll just need to adjust your hat a little. You won’t want to miss out on either of these two movies.


  1. Oh, fantastic. I'm definitely going to add this to my queue. You capture the important bits, the trivia, the context. And I can't believe you're on speaking terms with a foremost authority on spaghetti westerns! Ah, wait, I can!

    1. Ha! Hi Bucko.

      Well I don't actually KNOW Sir Christopher Frayling but I do tend to ask him a question or have a chat every time I see him (I think we just tend to go to the same things).

      I stayed after a screening of THE GREAT SILENCE to argue with him about his "facts" once... but he's a great guy and he's on a lot of the DVD commentary tracks.

      Saw him do a great lecture at a museum once on Sergio Leone. Good fun.

      Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read this and leave a comment.

      All the best to you.