Sunday, June 14, 2009

SARTANA: ANGEL OF DEATH (1969)

Gianni Garko may not be as well known a spaghetti western star as Clint Eastwood or even Franco Nero, but on the other hand, he was never made to sing in a Lerner and Loewe musical. What the man could definitely do is wear a suit of clothes, though Giuliano "Anthony Ascott" Carnimeo's film, his first in the Sartana series, raises questions about what else Garko was really capable of.

Is Sartana really nothing more than a suit of clothes? The opening credits actually invite you to ponder that point, which is relevant to the story at hand. The credit sequence is quite imaginative, or at least different for a spaghetti, starting with a mannequin and cut-by-cut building the Sartana costume on it. -- already presumably instantly recognizable even though Garko had only worn it once before at this point. We cut again to a living Sartana showing off some card tricks, but you notice quickly that we're only seeing the man from the neck down. You never do see Gianni Garko doing this stuff. But you might be distracted from that realization by the kick-ass theme music by the team of Vasco and Mancuso, the best music so far in the series. Take a look and a listen yourself, thanks to SpoonMHD.




From here we go to the town of Iron Hat, home of the North Western Bank, one of the region's soundest financial institutions.




Like Sartana, the NWB's bounty-killer security guards wear a recognizable uniform, which probably makes quite a deterrent as a rule. It's not likely to intimidate the man in the familiar hat and cloak, however, who arrives to make an everyday sort of financial transaction. Here's how banking worked in the Old West. Let's say you're a bounty killer. You've just gotten your man, but the local government isn't immediately able to pay out your reward. All you need to do is bring the corpse up to the teller window, dump it on the counter, and collect from the bank. The state or federal government will pay them back later. Only Sartana seems to have made a mistake. I'm pretty sure that bank rules require the wanted man to be dead before you bring him in for exchange, and this character proves to be very much alive. It turns out that the bank personnel have made a mistake, because that dude in black is not Sartana. That pales beside an even graver error: not all those liveried bank guards are actually employed by the bank. They join "Sartana" in riddling the place with bullets and taking $300,000. It's rare to see two small armies going at it inside a bank, but that's why God made spaghetti westerns.

We know that the perpetrator isn't Sartana because the director hasn't shown us Gianni Garko's face and the man's dubbed voice sounds mean. He's so mean, in fact, that he wipes out most of his cohorts shortly after the getaway. But the poor slobs in the movie don't know it isn't Sartana, so posters promptly put a $10,000 price on our hero's head. The invitation to cash in arouses the most eclectic collection of mighty men since Van Halen's "Pretty Woman" video. You've got some Indian dude. You've got genre badass Gordon Mitchell living in the lap of luxury, yet deciding this will give him something to do. You've got Klaus Kinski (back from the previous Sartana film) as a gambling addict who needs the reward money to pay off his debts. At one point, you have an entire town gunning for our innocent hero, as if they meant to share the reward.



Kinski: Will Work For...

Sartana is annoyed to discover that he could be impersonated so easily. He's also chagrined to learn that expert craftsman Homer Crown, who designed Sartana's signature spinning-top/bullet cylinder for his little four-barrel pistol, has been making knock-offs for practically anyone who asks. So there's nothing to be done but track down whoever impersonated him and whoever framed him. Once I saw the real man, I could confirm that the makeover I noted when I inadvertently watched the next film in the series, Have A Nice Funeral...Sartana Will Pay actually takes place in that film. There he has a clean-shaven chin and a full, blond mustache, while here he has the same stubble he wore in his first appearance as the heroic Sartana in If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death. I'm not the final authority in such matters, but I like the stubble better, though I suppose the big 'stache was an inevitable development once the series reached the Seventies.


Our hero actually has help of a sort from a sidekick, Buddy Ben, played by Frank Wolff in slovenly mode. The script makes a mostly successful effort to keep us guessing whether this guy will backstab Sartana or not, but the character himself isn't that interesting. A disappointing thing about this film is that it sets up these big-time bounty killers to chase Sartana, only to throw less interesting characters at us who prove to be more important to the plot. Gordon Mitchell, for instance, doesn't show up after his introduction until the film has less than ten minutes to go, and even then his motivation for pursuing Sartana seems like a secondary matter. The Indian, played by Jose Torres, comes off better. He gets a cool scene in which he pins Sartana down in a miner's cabin and seems to have an answer for every escape attempt. Sartan tries to lasso his rifle from his horse's saddle and drag it to him, but the Indian shoots the rope. Sartana throws dynamite at him, but he shoots it out of the sky. It's fun to see Sartana sweat these things out sometimes.

Kinski has more yet to do, but his bounty killer emerges as a kind of comedy relief character. He's saddled with a theme motif that has reminded more viewers than me of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The running gag is that he's a better gunfighter than a gambler, but can't help himself. "I'm a pig" when it comes to gambling, he says at one point. This extends to a scene where he loses at cards to a fellow passenger on a stagecoach. In this case, he finds that the man's wife, seeming to snooze next to him, has actually been spying on him and signalling hubby with her foot. Amazingly, Kinski resolves this situation without shooting anyone, though he does get to wipe out a gang of bandits, whom he has loaded on top of the coach so he can cash them in in town.



When he finally catches up to Sartana, it's in a casino, so he's surrounded by temptation. Complicating things further is the revelation that Sartana is yet another of his creditors. This makes Kinski reluctant to kill him, after all, because it might look like he was welshing on a debt. This sets up a curious confrontation with a more curious resolution: a happy ending for Kinski. This is another instance where Angel of Death (also known as Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino, commonly translated as "I am Sartana, your gravedigger," among many alternate titles) is less brutal than it could or possibly should be.



Angel of Death is, in my opinion, the weakest of the series so far, though there's enough going on to keep it an entertaining film. Carnimeo doesn't seem to have a real grasp of what to do with Sartana yet. The character doesn't retain the quasi-supernatural vibe he had in If You Meet Sartana, and comes the closest here to being just a generic spaghetti hero. Part of the problem is that this film is focused on Sartana himself in a way the ones that come before and after aren't. In those, the writers came up with settings and situations for Sartana to intervene in as a dangerous x-factor. In Angel of Death, nothing more is at stake than Sartana's own name, however good that might be. That's plotting at a comic-book level, with no offense meant to modern comics. Fortunately, I can assure you (since I saw it last week) that Carnimeo got his act together by the next film.



Nor is Angel of Death without good moments. I've already mentioned Sartana's battle with the Indian bounty hunter. Now I'll add a nicely done action scene in which Sartana has to fight his way out of a hostile town. Carnimeo films a lot of this from inside the moving covered wagon as Sartana shoots down enemies, only to have more appear. The director also experiments with violent camerawork that he won't repeat in Have A Nice Funeral. When people get shot in this film, Carnimeo seems to slap the camera around so that it tips and lurches as Sartana's victims tumble and fall. He definitely deserves credit for trying things with the widescreen image in the honorable spaghetti tradition. If you like spaghetti westerns in general, you'll probably like this one.

As with Have A Nice Funeral, VideoAsia has used a German DVD copy of Angel of Death (the German title translates to something like "Sartana: Corpses Were Like His Daily Bread"). The letterboxing appears to be correct and the picture is sharper than Funeral was. So whatever the ethics of the Grindhouse Experience Sartana package, the aesthetics of it are quite satisfactory this time.

Between Have A Nice Funeral and the next "official" Sartana film starring Garko, imitation Sartanas began to appear, as if invited by the concept of Angel of Death. Before moving on to Carnimeo's Light the Fuse...Sartana is Coming, I'll take a look at some of the imitators stating next week.

3 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

I just ordered a Sartana set that features 4 Sartana films on one disc. Based on your reviews I can't wait to check 'em out.

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., I'm curious to know if they're alternate versions of the ones I've seen or will see. I know there's another edition of Have A Nice Funeral easily available, but I don't know how it compares with the VideoAsia/German disc.

What I deleted, by the way, was not just spam but spam in a foreign language. Don't make me switch to moderation, folks! I dislike the idea of extra work.