Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. You already know Sergio Leone, and you may even know Sergio Corbucci. There’s also Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone, and Sergio Bergonzelli, but I don’t have room to write a book here! Sergio Sollima is a clever, versatile director who built sociopolitical concerns into his enormously entertaining filmography. He is maybe best regarded for his terrific crime films, including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY – both amazing places to start. He’s not the most prolific of “spaghetti” Western directors. In fact, Sollima only made three Westerns, all in the span of three consecutive years – THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, and RUN, MAN, RUN! – but they are more than enough to place him among the exalted ranks of Leone and Corbucci. All three of Sollima’s Westerns starred the Cuban-born Tomás Milián, who played the same role in two of them.
In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!, Tomás Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo. In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo spends the first several scenes entirely unseen, only discussed. He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired to find and destroy him. Now I happened to have seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, out of chronological order, so I knew going into it that Cuchillo may not be guilty of these crimes, but for most of THE BIG GUNDOWN, you are to assume he’s the bad guy. And that makes things complicated, because he’s so comical, funny and annoyingly likable. Cuchillo is a thief and a scoundrel, and he isn’t always too polite to women, but he wouldn’t do something quite so horrific as the act of which he’s been accused.
One of many interesting elements of THE BIG GUNDOWN is that you don’t know that Cuchillo is innocent for most of the movie, which gives the majority of the scenes some mighty fascinating tension. Cuchillo is a raging trickster and a puckish anarchist, a Bugs Bunny or a Daffy Duck, enjoyable and infuriating – and it’s frustrating to like him so much, if he is in fact the kind of man who the senator claims he is. Contrast this situation to what goes on in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY, where a hangman rattles off a list of all the crimes of which Tuco, Eli Wallach’s character, has been accused, including “raping a virgin of the White race, and statuatory rape of a minor of the Black race.” In Leone’s world, the way these offenses are added to a checklist is played — literally — as gallows humor. Leone isn’t interested in exploring these accusations, preferring the punchline to the possible pathology. In Sollima’s world, we still have the charming and devious Mexican bandit character, but not only is he more overtly interested in pursuing women throughout the course of the movie (Leone’s film runs almost three hours but has little time for female characters), but unlike Tuco, Cuchillo is definitively exonerated of egregious sexual misconduct. Considering they were both released within a year of each other, it’s fascinating to ponder the parallels and variations between THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and THE BIG GUNDOWN. Most obviously, these two wonderful films share a wonderful lead actor.
THE BIG GUNDOWN is primarily built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. This movie was made soon after that one. Sollima wrote it with Sergio Donati, who wrote for Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) among many others. Here Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a more heroic character than he did in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – but for much of the film we can’t quite tell for sure. Corbett can be pretty nasty, as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered – we know he’s bad; we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking. Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only even more satirical and way more sociopolitically engaged. There’s a scene where the two gunmen arrive at a ranch presided over by a beautiful woman who is surrounded by big beefy henchmen, and the subtext is practically exploding out of everybody’s ears. It’s hilarious and awesome.
There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum. It’s obviously one of the greats in the genre, having influenced everything from THREE AMIGOS! (in the form of the fancy-pants Teutonic killer with the monocle who haunts Corbett)to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Tarantino used parts of EnnioMorricone’s typically wonderful score). It’s also, not for nothing, one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. Ever! No exaggeration. Instantly one of my favorite movies of all time. And it’ll probably be one of yours too, maybe even as soon as you hear the rousing Ennio Morricone theme song.
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