Sunday, June 7, 2009


Why are you laughing? It's my money. Only I can laugh!
--Lee Tse Tung

Mea culpa. I grabbed the second side of the first disc of VideoAsia's Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 2 set and played the movie on the top. It turns out that Buon funerale, amigos!...Paga Sartana is the fourth, not the third film in which Gianni Garko plays a character named Sartana, the third, not the second, in the "official" series about the invincible antihero of the old west, and the second, not the first film of the series directed by Giuliano "Anthony Ascott" Carnimeo. I'll have to backtrack and deal with Sartana, the Angel of Death sometime in the coming week.

By 1970, Sartana had evolved in appearance. In If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death he had what looks like a five-day growth on his face, not unlike his villainous godfather in Blood at Sundown, though his hair is a little longer and he's much better dressed. I don't know if the changes began with Angel of Death, but by Have A Good Funeral his chin is clean shaven and his moustache is quite blond and more filled out than before. The costume is pretty much the same and he still carries his adorable little four-barrel pistol, but in Funeral he also favors a deck of cards that he can throw like weapons, as well as a watch-chain that can snatch guns out of people's hands.

The title of the fourth film is actually relevant to the story this time, since our hero tends to throw money around to cover the expenses of burying the men he kills. "I executed them so I had to bury them," he explains, "I have an old habit of doing that." His expenses start mounting when he wipes out a band of killers who have just massacred Joe Benson and his pals inside an isolated cabin. Those who are about to die object to Sartana's interloping presence. "Better pray for your mortal soul," one tells him. "I'll pray for yours," he replies, as if punching the coolness clock. The killers, we should note, found a nugget of gold on Benson's body.

What's Sartana doing around here? We'll have to figure that out for ourselves, and the man himself has some figuring to do. He skulks around the ruins of the burned cabin the next morning and finds a Chinese man in western dress snooping about. He follows this person to the town of Indian Creek, where he establishes himself in the local hotel to watch the reactions when his victims are brought to town. Mary, the woman who runs the place, asks if Sartana is hunting for gold like so many other characters in these parts. "Yeah," he admits, "but I don't have to dig it out of the ground." In other words, he's what the spaghettis call a "bounty killer," while modern usage prefers the more euphemistic "bounty hunter."

Sartana sees the Chinese man from the burned-out cabin pulling another man in a rickshaw. The passenger is Lee Tse Tung (George Wang), who runs the local gambling house. Lee is described by a rival, Hoffman the local banker, as "A Chinese gambler who's a bad copy of Buddha, meaning he's very round and fat." He never gets out of the rickshaw, and sits in it like it was his throne as he surveys the goings on in his casino. He and Hoffman are rival bidders for the late Benson's property, making them the most likely suspects in Benson's assassination. For the moment, Sartana explores the Lee angle, losing at cards and offering a $20,000 letter of credit in payment (while expecting change) to see what Lee will do with it. Our hero notes that twenty grand was what Benson was asking for his land. After Sartana leaves, Lee notices that the visitor actually had a winning hand and lost on purpose. He takes the letter to Hoffman, who tells him it's a forgery -- and that the land has been inherited by Benson's niece Abigail, who's about to arrive from Wichita.

Abigail checks in to the hotel, where Sartana quickly latches on to her, explaining that he killed the men who killed her uncle. "You took ... revenge, didn't you?" she asks. "Hardly," he corrects her, "They were only hired to murder Benson. Before you take revenge you've got to find out who paid them." This requires him to dodge bullets at times, to kill men at others, and sometimes to leave them alive to see where they run. As the corpses pile up, the sheriff starts pressuring Sartana to leave town, but he produces wanted posters to prove his right to kill another set of gunmen. This is a lot of trouble to go to, but Sartana claims that Benson was a "good friend" of his, and there could be big money at stake if there's gold on Benson's land, as everyone but Abagail suspects. She doesn't suspect because Hoffman has been telling her the land is worthless so she'll take a small sum for it. Sartana makes mischief by raising his asking price, driving both Hoffman and Lee upward as one or both of them takes heightened measures to eliminate our hero.

The series has clearly gone in a comic-book like direction by this point. The action scenes are set up more like sight gags, and Sartana has developed a power like Batman (or Droopy Dog, depending on your frame of reference) to be exactly where he needs to be. One example of this is when he somehow realizes that a man in a secret chamber behind a barroom mirror is going to try to shoot him. After Sartana drives him out of the bar, the gunman flees practically to the other end of town to take shelter in a church, only to find Sartana there reciting the 49th Psalm: "For he sees that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish and leave their wealth to others." Other characters have gimmick weapons, too. Hoffman, for instance, dispatches an erstwhile associate with a hollowed-out ledger book that has a spring-activated gun inside. This even inspires a pun in the English dub that might not have been possible in the original Italian, when Hoffman reflects, "It was bound to happen sooner or later."

Antonio Vilar as Hoffman somehow reminds me of Hedley LaMarr -- not Hedy.

Some of these scenes are just ridiculous, and some are just pointless, as when the film makes a big deal of the arrival of four brothers come to take revenge on Sartana for a minor character's death, only to have our hero eliminate them in a couple of minutes.

Others have exactly the desired kick-ass effect, as when a funeral procession turns into a gallop-by shooting at a barber shop, provoking a chase scene in which gunmen burst out of their coffins and start blasting away at Sartana, who of course puts them back in their proper places.

In the end it comes down to Sartana and Lee Tse Tung, who has just paid out $100,000 to Abigail Benson for the land, only to learn the truth about Joe Benson from our hero. Old man Benson was a con man, it turns out, and the land is as worthless as Hoffman wanted people to believe. Sartana was in the neighborhood to collect a bounty on Benson (no killing required), and stuck around to drive up the price so he could then take a cut to cover what Benson owed to Sartana's nameless client. This news pisses Lee off to no end. So he bursts out of his rickshaw and starts whaling away at Sartana with kicks and chops. Sartana vs. Kung fu! And he didn't see it coming! Lee lands some shots and has our hero reeling. "Hey, I thought you were an invalid!" a distressed Sartana complains. "No," Lee answers, "it's only that I'm a lazy man."

And so, however this fight turns out (and you must learn for yourselves), Sartana and his foe are brothers under the skin. Our hero has defined himself during the picture as a lazy person, someone unwilling to make money by mundane methods. He's as much an underworld character as the people he manipulates and kills. While the series Sartana is defined as heroic or a "good guy" compared to his villainous Blood at Sundown precursor, he is no paragon of virtue by any means. The best that can be said for him is that he cons the cons, or that those he does to have it coming. That distinction only matters, of course, if you don't believe we all have it coming, and watching a Sartana film, you do have to wonder sometimes. We're even left with a suspicion at the end that Abigail Benson isn't as innocent or virtuous as she seems, though she gets off easy regardless with a hint of future romance with Sartana. But that's the spaghetti west for you. It's the western stripped of all pretension that people are building civilization, leaving a hard-boiled or cynical attitude many still like better than the overdone affirmation of earlier American films.

Have A Good Funeral is one of the Sartanas taken from German DVDs for the VideoAsia set. You can only tell they're German from the title card auf deutsch and an "ENDE" card that appears slightly abruptly at the end of this film. The letterboxing appears to be correct, and while the image itself could be sharper, it's clearly a vast improvement on the dupes used for the two earliest films. Carnimeo's direction is energetic and there are plenty of nice widescreen images, thanks in part to Stelvio Massi's cinematography. Bruno Nicolai provides a serviceable if generically jaunty spaghetti score. This film differs strongly in tone from both the more American style psychology of Blood at Sundown and the semi-spooky attitude of If You Meet Sartana, but it's still good stuff, so I expect Angel of Death to be just as good. We'll find out soon.

Light one up, Sartana -- you've earned it!

The DVD picture is definitely better than this trailer uploaded to YouTube by ItaloWestern, but this is the only trailer available in English.

So for a better idea of the picture quality, here's a German trailer uploaded by ShobaryWesterns.


Rev. Phantom said...

I've yet to see any "Sartana" films or any "Ringo" films or any "Trinity" films for that matter. I've dedicated this summer to catching up on some Spaghetti Westerns that I haven't seen yet. I just added the Spaghetti Western Bible Part 1 to my netflix queue, they don't have part 2, but 1 has VIVA DJANGO which I can't wait to see.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., I've actually avoided Spaghetti Bible 1 because I have an aversion to Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer, probably because I expect to dislike their overtly comical films. I'll be happy if you can persuade me to try them.