Tuesday, June 23, 2009


They say that imitation is a form of flattery, but I doubt whether Giuliano Carnimeo or Gianni Garko felt especially gratified by the proliferation of cheap movies using the name of Sartana, the character that Garko more or less created and Carnimeo developed into a spaghetti western institution. But such were Italian copyright laws, it seems, that there was nothing to be done about the exploitation of that good name. I guess you couldn't copyright a proper name in Italy; hence all the Djangos, Ringos, Trinities and so forth. Come to think of it, that may explain the weird elaborate titles attached to so many Italian genre films, horrors and giallos especially; they're less easy to copy.

But how quickly should we blame producer Enzo Boetani for the preposterous rip-off that Sartana nella valle degli avvolti proves to be? I don't know enough about the production or distribution history of the film. Looking at it, you could imagine that Boetani and writer-director Roberto Mauri had no intention of making a Sartana movie. Their idea seemed to be to put William Berger into a decent suit of clothes and try him out as a hero rather than a villain of the sort he portrayed in the first "true" Sartana film, If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death. It's Boetani's first film as a producer and the first and only for the production company, Victor Produzione. In some countries, it wasn't released as a Sartana movie. In Germany, from whence the DVD used by VideoAsia for their Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 2 set derives, the title is simply Der Gefuerchtete. In the U.S., it was both a Sartana and the more generic Ballad of Death Valley. But in France, Spain and Italy itself, it was clearly offered to the public as the latest adventure of Sartana.

What a crock! Berger bears no resemblance to either the early stubbly Sartana nor the later Garko model with the clean chin and blond moustache. He sports a more-or-less clean shaven face and a mop of blond hair, and his costume bears no great resemblance to the genuine Sartana wardrobe. But if you believed that Sartana was the only reasonably well-dressed gunfighter in the Old West, I suppose Berger might pass muster. You might even believe that Sartana is in some form of deep cover for the duration of the picture, since he is never -- in this English dub, at least, -- ever called Sartana by anyone at anytime.

Instead, everyone in Valley of Death is determined to call Berger by the name Lee Calloway, under which he has a $10,000 price on his head for bank robbery. We first meet him in a mirror, as a bounty killer walks into a tavern where he's playing cards. This Calloway promptly guns down his hunter ("He wanted gold but ended up with lead.") then visits an erstwhile partner who's been holding his money from a recent job. The partner has decided to keep the money and collect the bounty on Calloway. Instead, he dies. Fleeing, Calloway finds himself and his horse surrounded by a posse. Time for some very fancy gunplay or an all-out massacre, you suppose. What actually happens is hard to explain. Mauri shows Calloway firing low, as if, as I first suspected, at the posse's horses. Then there's an explosion of some kind at street level, breaking up one wall of horsemen so Calloway can ride out of town. There's nothing in the movie to set up that there was something he could blow up with a bullet. Maybe it's just a very powerful gun, though he never uses such heavy ordinance afterward.

So he gets out of town and the posse follows, but he's faster, except for two guys who ride up to him and explain that they are not part of the posse, but have a proposition for our hero. We next see Calloway breaking the three Gregg brothers out of jail. They stole a gold shipment, and Calloway's idea is that they should pay him half their plunder for freeing them. Their idea of gratitude is to immediately begin plotting to kill him. First they have to make a few stops, including a visit to a man who makes those music boxes with the little dancing girls on them, the sort they sell for a princely three dollars at the local saloon. The idea here seems to be that the tinkle of a music box (or a pocket watch) is an essential part of the spaghetti western soundscape. Anyway, the man seems to have ripped the brothers off, so they assume, so they kill him and decide to do away with Calloway, too. Any last notion you might have had that this Calloway is Sartana should be dashed by the ease with which the Greggs (Jason, the leader, Coughy, who coughs a lot, and Willy) beat and tie up our protagonist before leaving him to be blown up by a stick of dynamite. They forgot that the music-box guy had a daughter who comes home just in time to save Calloway and mourn her dad.

Calloway catches up with the Greggs and has it out inconclusively with them. He disarms them, but Jason and Coughy get away while Willy is killed in a melee. They have no weapons, but Calloway has lost his horse. They know he won't kill them until he finds the gold, so they decide to have some sport with him, leading him on a trek through the titular deadly valley and letting him sweat while they keep at a safe distanct to taunt him from.

"You silly Calloway person! Your father was Sartana and your mother was a herring! You make excellent target practice for our taunting, boy cow!"

Our hero barely makes it through the desert, and has only enough strength to fire his weapon to catch the attention of a passing stagecoach. As the Greggs watch, the coach's female passenger picks up the poor man, conveying him to her hacienda. The Greggs hang around outside rather pointlessly (Coughy recognizes this, but Jason wants to avenge Willy) while gets a good invigorating bath of soapy water, followed by just as invigorating a flesh bath courtesy of his hostess. In a profound case of second thoughts the morning after, she tells her ranch hands that this is Lee Calloway the wanted criminal and urges them to catch him. But mere lassos can't hold the mighty Calloway. He shoots down the ranch hands, silently judges the lady for a moment, and moves on.

He finally catches up with the Greggs, who finally got tired of waiting on him and went to claim their gold. The finale piles lameness upon lameness. Don't expect a big showdown between Calloway and Jason Gregg, because Mauri thinks it'd be more interesting if he suspensefully crosscut between the gun battle and a scorpion crawling around. He throws in a few shots of music box dancers, too, which Calloway has brought to the show for no good reason. The payoff: Jason is dispatched not by our ersatz Sartana, but by the scorpion. The sting kills him in about two minutes, which I'm given to understand is record time. Maybe someone should make movies about the scorpion. And then the U.S. Cavalry arrives. Do they want their gold back? Hell, no! Turns out there was an important strategic document mixed in with all the gold. That's all they wanted Calloway to fetch for them. The gold? He can keep it!

At best, Valley of Death is an idiot cousin to the genuine Sartana series. Berger tries to project some of the attitude, mostly with a persistent smirk, but the script undercuts the mystique by requiring Calloway to get his ass kicked by the bandits and endure near-death in the desert. Part of Sartana's appeal is based on his mostly-unflappable mastery of all situations. Comparing him to James Bond makes sense in that respect. Calloway, by comparison, is set up as a master criminal, only to be made a hapless victim for the middle part of the story before being outrageously rewarded at the end. It's as if the first reel or so was from a different movie. The actual story of the film is pretty flimsy, as you may have noticed. In its present form, it's only 78 minutes long, but manages to seem both choppy and padded.

Nevertheless, it is occasionally picturesque thanks to some decent outdoor cinematography by Sandro Marconi, who did similar work for If You Meet Sartana. Also, good film music wasn't hard to come by in Italy, no matter how cheap your movie was. Augusto Martelli gives this show a decent score and a theme song, "King for a Day," that is actually picturized, as the Indians say, within the film by the comely Betsy Bell, who must endure some foot fondling by Coughy for her trouble.

Given VideoAsia's reputation, I'm surprised they didn't take a completely unrelated film and call it a Sartana movie to fill out their set. But this item looks like it comes from the German set that provided source material for several other Sartanas in the VideoAsia collection. Like those, this one has German titles at the beginning, and while they run, the characters on screen speak in German. The film is letterboxed, but it doesn't look like the 2.35:1 claimed at IMDB. The picture quality is good, but it does look like some of the image is cropped on the sides, though not defacingly so. Overall, it's okay to look at, if not to watch. If there are William Berger fans out there, they ought to like it. Otherwise, it's for spaghetti-obsessives only. You might as well look at it if you get the Sartana set, but it wouldn't be worth getting in its own right, I'm sad to say.

In lieu of a trailer, here's SpoonMHD's upload of the Italian opening credits, including the first version of "King for a Day."

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