Directed by: Sergio Sollima
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Thomas Milian
Grindhouse Releasing describes The Big Gundown as “the greatest Spaghetti Western you’ve never seen.” And to tell you the truth that’s probably selling it short. The Big Gundown has instantly become one of my favorite Westerns and one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in a while, and I’ve seen a bunch of great films in the last month.
Lee Van Cleef is named Corbett this time around but he’s playing the same bounty hunter character that he usually plays, this time he actually has the law on his side, well for the most part, I’ll touch on that a bit later. His adversary, Cuchillo embodied by Thomas Milian is an accused rapist and murderer of a twelve-year-old girl and is inevitably beating a trail to Mexico when Corbett gives chase. The story takes on a coyote and roadrunner feel to it as Corbett chases Cuchillo across Texas, with a few almost Tarantinoesqe vignettes thrown in. Corbett will catch up with him only to be tricked out of his horse. At one point Cuchillo manages to make off with his horse, gun and badge, in another scene he tricks Corbett into thinking he has been snake bit and steals his horse and gun yet again. Milian makes Cuchillo a likeable rouge until Corbett will inevitably show up and remind everybody that he is wanted for the rape and murder of a twelve year old girl. The longer the chase goes on the more desperate Corbett becomes and the more you learn about Cuchillo the more sympathetic he becomes.
Interestingly when they reach the border their roles reverse for a while. Corbett who is left on foot by Cuchillo yet again resorts to stealing a horse and revolver from a family on their way to California and when he continues to hunt down Cuchillo after he crosses the border he even ends up in jail after getting into a brawl in a brothel. Of course Cuchillo ends up in a cell next to him for also brawling in the towns other brothel. After a brief heart to heart Cuchillo digs a knife out of the ceiling of his cell, explaining to Corbett that he’s been there before, and escapes. Soon Corbett is bailed out and with some help he takes out after Cuchillo again only this time he’s not so sure that he is chasing the right man. I know I’ve seen this plot with Lee Van Cleef playing basically the same part only ten or fifeteen years older at least once and I would not be surprised if there are others so if you are a student of the genre you have a good idea of what comes next, but just in case I’ll leave off the plot description here.
I grew up on a steady stream of Westerns and War movies, but Spaghetti Westerns were always just a little suspect in my house. We took the “anti” in front of anti-hero seriously. When I got a little older of course this became the attraction and even my favorite traditional Westerns like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence had protagonists who didn’t really fit the heroic mold. Looking back now the idea that The Good The Bad and The Ugly was somehow less American or maybe even a little subversive seems quaint and silly. After watching The Big Gundown though I can see how my Mom and Dad may have thought I would be better off watching a good old-fashioned John Wayne western when I was seven or eight instead of those suspicious foreign movies. Not that it pounds you over the head with it but The Big Gundown looks squarely at the issues of class and race in a way that would have been unacceptable to a lot of audiences in the late sixties or even the seventies or eighties, and unfortunately even now. Of course politics are nothing new to westerns. High Noon is supposedly an indictment of McCarthyism, but I guess the politics are a little easier to wash down when it’s Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly on the screen. Don’t take that the wrong way the politics and social commentary are for the most part subtext, they don’t get in the way of a great chase or the battle of wits and will that Cuchillo and Corbett wage, they do add an interesting texture to an already compelling story.
So the story is excellent and Lee Van Cleef is Lee Van Cleef, he’s awesome in these kinds of parts. Thomas Milian holds his own against Cleef though, he’s the perfect lovable trickster, smart and as ruthless as he has to be but even at his cruelest there is a smirk and a twinkle in his eye like he knows that Cleef is going to get out of this predicament like he has all the others. The rest of the acting doesn’t quite rise to the performance that Cleef and Milian give, but Sollima had a pool of experienced actors to draw from and it shows, for what was intended to be a budget genre movie the supporting roles are well played. Sollima’s direction is not as stylized as say Sergio Leone’s but there is a subtle mastery in the shots Sollima builds. For all of the shots of men riding horses or characters holding guns on each other every one is unique. When Sollima does get fancy with the camera work there is always a reason. Did I mention that the score is by Morricone, and it’s Morricone at his swelling epic best too.
Grindhouse Releasing did a 2K restoration for the 95-minute US version that is included on the Blu Ray. It looks gorgeous. It’s mostly grain free but there is still plenty of detail. Nothing ever looks smoothed out. The only trouble spots are a few transitional scenes that I imagine the source material just didn’t stand up to the 2K restorations. There is no aliasing, moiré or any other digital artifacts.
The audio is presented in mono like the original. The US version suffers from the usual dubbed sound issues. There are some sync problems with the dialog though its nothing that’s ever serious and the foley can seem a little heavy handed. The Italian version is actually a little bit better in those regards, which is a little odd since it would have been dubbed just like the US version. Luckily there is absolutely nothing wrong with wonderful Morricone score.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
Grindhouse Releasing has set the bar for Spaghetti Western releases. All four discs come in a standard sized Blu Ray case with a cardboard slipcase. The artwork draws from the original marketing materials and while it’s a bit busy it’s effective. This edition includes Blu Rays for the US and Italian versions of the movie, a DVD of the US version and a CD of the Morricone soundtrack. There is an audio commentary and interviews with the director, screenwriter and Thomas Milian along with some other goodies.