Sergio Leone's Mr. Ugly takes center stage in Sergio Sollima's epic spaghetti western THE BIG GUNDOWN, out on a typically loaded Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray/DVD combo.
Texas bigwig Brockston (Walter Barnes, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER) is planning a massive railroad project and needs some push with the government. He offers to back a senatorial campaign for former sheriff turned bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) in exchange for his advocacy of the project. When they learn in the midst of the wedding of Brockston's daughter (Monica Strebel, SLAUGHTER HOTEL) to landowner Chet Miller (Ángel del Pozo, HORROR EXPRESS) that a local twelve-year-old girl has been raped and murdered by Cuchillo (Tomas Milian, DJANGO KILL), Brockston sends Corbett hunting after the fugitive before he can get across the Mexican border. Slippery Cuchillo proves to be as good with a blade as Corbett is with a gun, leading Corbett in a game of cat and mouse populated by typically colorful spaghetti western characters – including the horny queen bee widow pig farmer (Nieves Navarro, better known to Italian sexploitation and giallo fans as "Susan Scott"), Mormons, monks, American prostitutes, Mexican prostitutes, and jaded Mexican police – to the Mexican border. Cuchillo makes it across the border and out of Corbett's jurisdiction; but, by that point, it's personal.
Although thoroughly entertaining, THE BIG GUNDOWN doesn't thrill on the same level as Alberto Grimaldi's Sergio Leone productions (or even Grimaldi's and Sollima's FACE TO FACE which really needs a US release, although UK company Eureka canceled their Blu-ray and released it DVD-only because Grimaldi's HD master was lacking), and one can't help but think that Grindhouse chose the film – as part of their Columbia Pictures deal that also included CORRUPTION and THE SWIMMER – primarily for its cult value (Milian's wily Mexican characterization, the horny widow, the punchline to the Mormon sequence, and the arch performance of Gérard Herter [ADIOS SABATA] as Brockston's aristocratic bodyguard Baron von Schulenberg) and only secondarily with spaghetti western fans in mind. The plot twist is fairly predictable, and Sollima and usually talented cinematographer Carlo Carlini (SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE) are not as adept as Leone at staging bravura setpieces, with the climactic three-man standoff comparing poorly in terms of tension to that of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.
Ennio Morricone's soaring score continues his – and the genre's – eclectic use of instruments and includes a theme song called "Run Man Run" – which became the title of Sollima's and Milian's sequel two years later – sung by "Christy" (Maria Christina Brancucci, better known for the theme song "Deep Deep Down" for Morricone's DANGER: DIABOLIK score) and also works in Beethoven's "Fur Elise" as von Schulenberg's leitmotif. An Italian/Spanish co-production – with the Spanish side represented by Argentinean writer turned Spanish producer/director Tulio Demicheli (ASSIGNMENT TERROR) – the English and Italian credits sequences favor the American, Italian, and German cast members over the Spanish apart from a few larger roles. Uncredited in these versions are such recognizable faces as Hungarian old-timer Barta Barri (MONSTER DOG) as a gunfighter-turned-monk, Fernando Sánchez Polack (CANNIBAL MAN) as the sheriff of Willow Creek County, Mirabel Martin (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED) as Mormon girl Sarah, and Frank Brana (SLUGS), Luis Barboo (CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL), and Fernando Bilbao (THE VAMPIRE'S NIGHT ORGY) as some of the widow's rancheros.
Grindhouse Releasing's four disc (two Blu-rays, one DVD, and one CD) special edition features two cuts of the film. On the first Blu-ray, we have what is labeled as the "Expanded U.S. Cut" (94:48) – which adds three short English-dubbed scenes to Columbia Pictures' eighty-nine minute U.S. theatrical version (the chapters in which they occur are denoted on the Blu-ray and DVD with an asterisk in the menu) – while the second Blu-ray features the "Italian director's cut" (110:18). The DVD part of the package only includes the expanded US cut. While the German Explosive Media Blu-ray offered the option of watching the Italian cut in English with optional English subtitles for the cut scenes, Grindhouse's Italian cut only features the Italian audio (in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono) with optional English subtitles while the expanded U.S. is offered up with only an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track and no subtitles. Presumably the Italian cut comes from the Italian HD master seen on the other releases, while the US cut – better-looking in my opinion, although the Italian cut is better story-wise – comes from Columbia's materials. Both feature a couple coarser-looking shots during Corbett's first encounter with Cuchillo, but those shots seem to have been optically enlarged since the reverse angles are of similar quality to the rest of the source.
The English version is accompanied on the Blu-ray and DVD by an audio commentary track by western enthusiasts C. Courtney Joyner (scripter of a number of Empire Pictures/Full Moon productions) and Henry C. Parke (of the blog "Henry's Western Roundup") who had both previously recorded a commentary track for Blue Underground's DVD of Giancarlo Santi's THE GRAND DUEL. Joyner focuses on the film's Marxist political elements (which represented not a condemnation of American capitalism so much as Italian fascism) and suggests that several of the cuts were to tamp down on that angle – including explanations of the characters' motivations and Corbett's more ambivalent reactions – while Parke suggests it had more to do with pacing. They point out that Columbia seems to have wanted to minimalize details of Corbett's background (although they do not point out that United Artists did the opposite with FISTFUL OF DOLLARS by adding on a U.S. shot prologue to explain the motivations of Eastwood's material). Note that the pair of western enthusiasts, so they do not necessarily demonstrate the kind of encyclopedic knowledge of the spaghetti western genre, the technicians, and the idiosyncrasies of Italian filmmaking, so a lot of their observations are contrasting the aspects of the film against the norms of American westerns (they do touch upon the journeyman aspect of Italian filmmaking as filmmakers and technicians adapted themselves to various genres).
When Ennio Morricone's soundtrack was released in America by United Artists soundtrack LP, it had only thirteen tracks while RCA Italy's later 1981 LP had 23 tracks. GDM in Italy released a 24-track CD in 2001, but the soundtrack CD included here is the expanded 25-track edition issued by GDM in 2012. The expanded U.S. cut Blu-ray and DVD also features an isolated music and effects track (in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono on the former) while the Italian cut Blu-ray features a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo isolated score track which is actually a reconstruction using the album tracks rather than the music stem of soundtrack (which would have been mixed down to mono). The Italian cut also features an optional subtitle commentary track on the score. The commentary not only includes remarks about each of the cues as they occur, but also points out scenes deleted from the American cut and their narrative value. Although the mono DTS-HD Master Audio Italian track is in great condition, one almost wishes that Grindhouse had been able to marry this stereo reconstruction of the track to the dialogue and effects as the score has a thrilling and vibrant presence here.
The Blu-ray and DVD of the English cut also feature a handful of interviews including two with Sollima (all shot in 2005). In "Sergio Sollima Remembers THE BIG GUNDOWN" (29:02) in which he says that Italian producers balked at his and Leone's proposal to make Westerns in Italy. Spain had made a couple small westerns, and the locations used made the idea seem more plausible. THE BIG GUNDOWN began with a treatment given to him by producer Grimaldi. Sollima did not like it as written and propose an alternate version, reversing the ages of hunter and hunted, making the "villain" more likable, fleshing out their backgrounds including the racial and class aspects. He recalls working with Milian and Van Cleef – commenting that the latter's natural expressiveness in the role of an expressionless gunman – as well as Donati and Leone. In "Sergio Sollima: Struggles Against Genre" (27:55), Sollima distinguishes "Western all'Italiana" and "spaghetti westerns" (a term he violently rejects). He classes himself as a lover of American westerns, and spaghetti westerns as bad imitations of "Western all'Italiana". He classifies the Cuchillo character as one that did not yet exist in American or Italian westerns, a sub-proletariat peon (which he compares to Toshiro Mifune's character in THE SEVEN SAMURAI).
In "Tomas Milian: Acting on Instinct" (29:48), the actor gives a career-wide interview starting with leaving Cuba before Castro, his Actor's Studio training under Lee Strasberg, finding work in Italy (while dreaming of working in American cinema) starting with Mauro Bolognini's THE BIG NIGHT and his reservations about being dubbed (he accepted because he had debts stateside). He started doing Italian films and co-productions, but he did not get any Western roles because he was viewed as an intellectual actor, so he pushed his agent to find him one. His first western was BOUNTY KILLER, although it was released after THE BIG GUNDOWN, and he seems prouder of the latter (he also dislikes the term spaghetti western). He briefly mentions the sequel RUN MAN RUN – leaving out DJANGO KILL!, and DEATH SENTENCE – but he mentions TEPEPA because it featured Orson Welles. He does not mention FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE by name but he does recall working with Fulci (for which he also did BEATRICE CENCI). He compares Cuchillo to his "Nico Giraldi" comedies, but he skips over his crime films, Antonioni's IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN, and much of his American work with the exception of Steven Soderbergh's TRAFFIC.
In "Tagliatelle in Los Angeles: Sergio Donati Interview" (12:03) – shot in 2013 – the animated screenwriter speaks about his working relationships with Sollima, Alberto Grimaldi, Carlo Ponti, Dino De Laurentis, and Sergio Leone (who got him a contract with Grimaldi after he wrote the dialogue for THE GOOD, THE BAND, AND THE UGLY). He discusses the origins of THE BIG GUNDOWN in an idea by Franco Solinas (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) set in Sardinia. He recalls that Sollima didn't write anything but would add dialogue here and there (that Donati would then try to get rid of), and discusses the film's left wing ideas. He recalls that Leone had a problem with the Italian title LA RESA DE CONTI ("The Settling of Scores") because Morricone had used that as the title to a music cue in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, so Leone considered the title his property. The earlier 2005 "Sergio Donati Bonus Interview" (11:51), he recalls his beginnings as a writer authoring three giallo novels in the fifties for Mondadori, the rights of which were purchased by producers but not filmed (WEB OF VIOLENCE was not made until 1966). He ended up writing scripts for directors – including Riccardo Freda – that went unfilmed until he met an assistant director named Sergio Leone. Their initial collaboration – a horror film – also went unfilmed so Donati went into advertising during which he did ghostwriting. Leone contacted him about doing FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but he passed on it (finding the idea of an Italian western ludicrous, especially an Italian western of YOJIMBO). He would end up doing uncredited writing on FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, but that lead to an association with Alberto Grimaldi which netted REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT, THE BIG GUNDOWN, and FACE TO FACE with Sollima.
There are also two trailers (both running 2:14) which introduce Van Cleef as "Mr. Ugly", and Italian theatrical trailer (3:56) as well as five TV spots (2:06) and five still galleries featuring over one hundred and twenty images. The DVD also features trailers for the Grindhouse releases AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, THE SWIMMER, and GONE WITH THE POPE; however, the Blu-ray of the Italian cut has considerably more space and includes the following trailers: AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, CORRUPTION, THE SWIMMER, MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE, GONE WITH THE POPE, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, ICE HOUSE (as LOVE IN COLD BLOOD), POOR WHITE TRASH 2 (AS SCUM OF THE EARTH), CAT IN THE BRAIN, THE BEYOND, CANNIBAL FEROX, THE TOUGH ONES, PIECES, and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. The Blu-ray of the English cut features an Easter Egg trailer for the aforementioned Sollima/Milian western RUN MAN RUN (3:41) while the Blu-ray of the Italian cut features an extract from the Sergio Donati interview focusing on Sergio Leone (7:39). The DVD features the Donati Leone extract as an Easter Egg as well as outtakes from the Milian interview (7:54).
Besides the music commentary subtitle track on the Italian cut, the included booklet also features an essay on the music by Gergely Hubai (as well as a track listing for the CD on the back of the booklet). The booklet also features an essay on the political aspects of the film by Joyner and an essay by Hubai about the differences between the Italian cut and the original U.S. theatrical cut. A DVD-ROM .pdf file on the DVD features an expanded version of the essay with a bullet point rundown of the differences as well as a 6-page Columbia Pictures Editing Memo (which also specifies that the three deleted bits contained here in the expanded U.S. cut were left in the TV version, no doubt to compensate for censored portions). (Eric Cotenas)
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