was arguably the success of A Fistful of Dollars that really set the ball
rolling on the slew of shameless spaghetti western rip-offs and cash-ins that
proliferated throughout the 1960s, as film-makers jostled to get a taste of the
sauce and chow down on a cut of the rewards from what quickly became a very
profitable arena in which to be operating.
rode into town a little later than popular gunslingers such as Sabata, Django
and Ringo, but he made enough of an impression to warrant a number of official
sequels – and several unofficial ones too. Just five legitimate Sartana films
were lensed, with Gianni Garko (billed as John Garko) headlining in four of
them and George Hilton just one. Cucumber cool antihero Sartana was notably
more dapper than most of his mud-spattered box office rivals, a real snappy
dresser in fact; with his black cape lined in red silk, sharp matching cravat
and crisp white shirt, he cut a fine figure riding through desolate wasteland,
deck of cards in one hand, natty miniature four-shooter in the other, always
ready to spit out a death sentence when the moment was called for. In the first
film he even retrieved a musical pocket watch from a corpse and proceeded to
use its tinkly chime to taunt his nemesis.
fabulously contrived titles of the five films belied a series of enjoyable
enough but not exactly top-tier western actioners. Dripping with all the
requisite tropes of the genre, and occasionally sprinkling a few unexpected
condiments into the pot, they’re perfectly watchable fare, but it’s unlikely many
would favour any of them over a Sabata instalment or, indeed, an Eastwood
classic. If, for this writer, there’s any problem at all with the Sartana
series – and it’s one that prevents them from residing up there among the
genre’s finest – it’s that in every instance a plot suited at best to the
50-minute TV episode format was, out of necessity, stretched to feature length,
the resultant slightness of narrative rendering them all far too leisurely
five official Sartana films have now been issued on Blu-ray by Arrow Video in
an impressive collectors’ box set. Accompanied by an illustrated book, each
film is individually packaged and boasts reversible sleeve art, and the entire collection
is housed in an attractive slipcase.
series kickstarter was 1968’s If you meet Sartana pray for your eath (O.T.
Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte), directed by Frank Kramer, a.k.a.
Gianfranco Parolini. (Note: in Italian film titles, only the first word is
capitalised.) Among the most enjoyable of the quintet, the plot concerns a pair
of dodgy bankers who hire a group of Mexicans to steal a strongbox filled with
gold, subsequently allowing them to claim on the insurance. In fact, the
precious cargo has been substituted with rocks, the valuable contents having
already been squirrelled away in a coffin. Following the heist, the Mexicans
are quickly eliminated to wipe out any evidence of the scam. It’s up to Sartana
to uncover the truth and retrieve the gold. Any anticipation engendered by the
opening credit “with the special participation of Klaus Kinsky” (sic) is
swiftly quelled; it’s anything but special, for the A-class actor – who
possessed one of cinema’s most expressive faces (and intimidating grimaces!) –
is relegated to sideline status for much of the action. At least any
disappointment on that score is appeased by the presence of a satisfyingly
formidable bad guy in the shape of wild-eyed, buttercup-chewing William Berger
as Lasky, who, when he’s not gleefully massacring bandits with his hand-cranked
Gatling gun, proves to be a single-shot marksman, planting bullets
centre-forehead in more unfortunates than it’s possible to keep tally of. An
ace cardsharp, Sartana makes a fast enemy of Lasky when he cleans him out at the
poker table. Despite the paucity of plot, director Kramer manages to sustain
interest, layering in double and triple crosses as Sartana gently manipulates
the wrong-doers into turning on each other. There’s a stab at comic relief too
in the form of Franco Pesce as the town’s undertaker, but for this writer his
theatrical gurning and cartoonish mannerisms eclipse the intended amiable
quirkiness to become distractingly irksome.
2K restoration from the original film materials displays a fair amount of
grain, but aside from one brief moment of picture damage at the outset and a
slightly protracted patch of vertical scratching further along, the print is in
very respectable shape. The film can be viewed in either an English dub or its
original Italian with newly translated English subtitles. Supplements comprise
a commentary from film historian (and Cinema Retro contributor) Mike Siegel, an
interview with director Kramer, a helpful guide to the characters in the
Sartana universe, and a gallery of artwork and stills.
year later, in 1969, I am Sartana, your angel of death (O.T. Sono Sartana, il
vostro becchino) was unleashed. In this one our man (Garko again) appears to
have been involved in a bank robbery and finds himself at the top of the most
wanted list, with a $10,000 dead or alive price on his head. He didn’t do it,
of course, so has to hunt down the real perpetrator to clear his name, whilst
evading bounty hunters hot on his trail and intent on bagging the reward. It’s
a decent enough follow-up from director Giuliano Carnimeo (credited as Anthony
Ascott), which showcases another fine Garko performance (with Sartana now
displaying a knack for sleight of hand card tricks) and the return of Klaus
Kinski (spelt with the “I” this time) in a meatier, albeit less threatening
role, that of a gambler-cum-bounty hunter with the best character name of
anyone in the entire run of Sartana pictures: Hot Dead. Unfortunately, Franco
Pesce (uncredited this time) is also back, now promoted to town mayor,
fortuitously only briefly on screen but every bit as annoying. The story
unfolds at a sedate price, but Ascott and cinematographer Giovanni Bergamini
keep things percolating with some stylish set-ups, the camera lurching sideways
whenever bodies spin and hit the dust. One brief scene stands out for this
writer, if not for the right reason; when Sartana dodges a spray of bullets
from a trio of pursuing gunmen by zigzagging left and right, any sense of
suspense is undermined by spurred memories of the amusing Peter Falk/Alan Arkin
‘serpentine’ sequence in 1979’s The In-Laws!
had access to the original camera negative for this one and the 2K restoration
is very nice indeed. Again sound options are English and Italian. Extras
comprise a commentary from historian and filmmakers C Courtney Joyner and Henry
Peake, interviews with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and stuntman Sal Borgese,
plus a gallery of European poster art and German lobby cards.
The next spin of the wheel, 1970’s Sartana’s here... trade your pistol for a coffin (O.T. C’è Sartana...vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!) nullifies the expression “third time’s the charm”. It isn’t. Director Ascott returns, with George Hilton slipping into Sartana’s fancy boots, but it’s a pretty dull affair. We’re back in gold lust territory once again, with a plot that’s little more than a variant of that in If you meet Sartana pray for your death. A crooked town dignitary handling gold from local mines is replacing it with sand before shipping it out, then hiring bandits to steal it enroute to its destination, enabling him to stash away the real stuff for himself. In the title role, Hilton admittedly looks more formidable than Garko, but he’s less stylish and exponentially less interesting. This isn’t the best of them then, not only because it’s re-treading earlier ground but also because it lacks a decent bad guy. So saying, the late on arrival in town of Charles Southwood as the uber-suave Sabbath – he rides in, impeccably attired, sporting a rather feminine white parasol – goes some way to compensating. Erika Blanc’s saloon Madame gets some good material to work with too.
The 2K transfer, again from the original camera negative, is once more very pleasing. As well as the English/Italian sound options, bonuses comprise interviews with Hilton, Blanc and Tony Askin (who appears in the film, uncredited, as a henchman), and a gallery of poster art and German lobby cards, the latter evidencing that a retitling converted it to a Django movie (in which Sabbath is also rechristened as Sabata)...which speaks volumes for the interchangeability at the time of these western antiheroes.
The fourth title out of the gate, released later the same year, was Have a good funeral my friend... Sartana will pay (on-screen title on the UK release: Have a nice funeral on me, amigo... Sartana will pay, O.T. Buon funerale amigos!... paga Sartana). Following his one film break, Garko is back, blonder than when last we saw him and now sporting a moustache (which really doesn’t suit him), whilst Anthony Ascott steps up for his third shift at the tiller. The land of a murdered man takes the unnaturally keen interest of a town banker, who’s prepared to pay his heir a princely sum for what is purportedly only several acres of worthless dirt. A suspicious Sartana investigates. Yes, it’s all about gold (again!), and that pesky Pesce is back (demoted once more to undertaker), but this entry is by far this writer’s pick of the bunch. For starters our man’s handling of a deck of cards has become even more imaginative; with a single swiftly-propelled deal he can snuff out the flame of a candle or, in more desperate circumstances, utilise one as a razor-sharp weapon. Then there’s Bondian gadgetry and even some martial arts action dropped in during the final showdown. And it’s impossible not to mention the presence of the very lovely Daniela Giordano as the dead man’s niece, who may not be all that she first appears. What really serves to lift this one, however, is Bruno Nicolai’s score. The three previous films utilised the work of Piero Piccioni, Vasili Kojucharov/Elsio Mancuso and Francesco De Masi respectively; all of them got the job done perfectly adequately, but not one left a lasting impression. Nicolai’s compositions here bring echoes of the Morricone greats to the table and it’s remarkable what a difference that makes.
Again sourced from the original camera negative, the picture quality on Arrow’s 2K restoration is superb. English and Italian sound options aside, the feature can also be watched in the company of another C Courtney Joyner/Henry Peake commentary. The slender bonus materials on this one consist of an interview with writer/actor/stuntman Roberto Dell’Acqua along with a gallery of poster art and lobby cards.
1970’s Light the fuse...Sartana is coming (O.T. Una nuvola di polvere...un grido di morte... arriva Sartana) – the third to be released that year and the last roll of the dice for the official series – was again helmed by Ascott, and Nicolai is back with another noteworthy score. This time out Sartana’s on the hunt for several million dollars’ worth of gold and counterfeit banknotes, but naturally enough there are a number of scumbags out to nab it for themselves. It’s actually not a bad finish to the series – there are better and there are worse – and Garko’s fourth spin in the title role actually finds him getting pretty roughed up for a change. But it’s structurally a bit of a mess, with so many duplicitous ne’er-do-wells vying for the prize, forming allegiances and then busting them, that it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. Massismo Serato is always good value for money though, and as big bad Manassas he makes for a fine rogue. Yet he’s trumped in that respect by José Jaspe as the sweaty, swarthy, piratical General Monk. The splendidly over the top finale which finds Sartana sitting in the middle of the street playing an organ, the pipes of which flip down to convert into single-shot cannons and rapid-fire machine guns, makes for a suitably bizarre but highly memorable finale.
This one is the fourth for which the Arrow had access to the original negative materials and picture quality is excellent, with English and Italian sound options now standard. The supplements comprise further interviews with Sal Borgese and Ernesto Gastaldi, plus – at last! – reminiscences from the main man, Gianni Garko, and Giuliano Carnimeo (Ascott). A step-through gallery of lobby cards and euro posters brings the distinctly desirable set to a close.