Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Kino Lorber Studio Classics - SABATA and THE SCALPHUNTERS on Blu-ray ""

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics - SABATA and THE SCALPHUNTERS on Blu-ray

SABATA (1969; Gianfranco Parolini)
Right from it's extremely catchy opening theme song, SABATA lets you know it's going to be a fun time. Spaghetti Westerns of this era find themselves in the unenviable position of existing in the shadow of the work of the masterful Sergio Leone. If one ever wants to demonstrate to a neophyte film fan what a director does, one need only illustrate with a few Leone films and walk away.
SABATA at least has the distinction of a lead role filled by Leone regular and all-around badass Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef seems a man who was just built for westerns. His profile (especially when shaded by a cowboy hat) and remarkable voice were a resume which no director in their right mind could ignore. To say he made himself iconic in both THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is a drastic understatement. Few actors could go toe-to-toe with Clint Eastwood in a western (or any other setting) and leave you wondering who that "other guy" was and wanting to see him again in another movie as soon as humanly possible. Those who have anointed Steve McQueen as the quintessential cool guy never saw enough Lee Van Cleef movies. The man is cool personified. And SABATA is a fantastic showcase for how cool he can be.
SABATA is a great character for Van Cleef to play. Upon first glance he feels a lot like his character from A FEW DOLLARS MORE, but a bit more altruistic. Sabata is of course a master marksman, almost superhumanly so and even possesses the ability to throw coins strategically. His draw is blindingly fast as well. Sabata doesn't always choose to be lethal with his gunplay though. He's one of those sharpshooters that uses his firearm to do much more entertaining things than killing (like shooting legs off of chairs a clipping strings on banjos). When he does fire his six-shooter, the soundtrack rings out with that indelible "Italian gunshot sound" - that powerful piercing sound we first became accustomed to hearing in Leone's films. I love that sound. It is to spaghetti westerns what the sound of a light saber is to STAR WARS movies. So once we've established that Sabata is awesome, he needs a good villain to challenge him. This film has a good villain in the form of a homicidal rich fella with lots murderous toys to entertain himself with. As Lee Van Cleef characters are known to do, Sabata decides he wants to extort a little money from this evil hombre and that of course leads to the inevitable hiring of another gunman to take Sabata out. It's a showdown worth waiting for most assuredly. There's plenty of great standoffs in the movie as a whole.
This film spawned two follow-ups - first, ADIOS, SABATA in 1970, which saw Yul Brynner taking over the character and then RETURN OF SABATA in 1971 where Van Cleef did indeed return (to the role). All three of these films were directed by Gianfranco Parolini (billed here as the Americanized Frank Kramer) who was unfamiliar to me but is clearly a dude with a good amount of pinache and makes an energetic movie dripping with style.
SABATA is one of several westerns (DEATH RIDES A HORSE comes immediately to mind) that truly makes me wish Van Cleef had been given more opportunities to be an action hero/leading man in Hollywood. He is as dynamic an actor as any of his contemporaries and how the went relatively unrecognized is beyond me.

This Blu-ray has not much in the way of extras (other than a theatrical trailer), but the transfer is quite solid and shows off the stylish 2.35 to 1 compositions rather well. Colors pop pretty good too. 

THE SCALPHUNTERS (1968; Sydney Pollack)
Burt Lancaster never ceases to amaze me with the deftness and flexibility he has to inhabit all different kinds of characters. From an affable Robin Hood-esque hero in something like THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, to a dastardly villain in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, the man has some unrivaled acting chops. He has gone from an actor I enjoyed to basically one of my favorites as I've watched more and more of his films. One piece if Lancaster cinema I only saw for the first time a few years back was Robert Aldrich's film ULZANA'S RAID. It has a somewhat bleak western setting and and Lancaster slotted into it so perfectly. THE SCALPHUNTERS was a film I was only slightly aware of prior to this Blu-ray release. I must admit that I tend to make assumptions about what a movie is like just based on the cover art. The Blu-ray cover of THE SCALPHUNTERS suggested something a little bleak to me as an initial impression. I was thinking it might be something along the lines of ULZANA'S RAID, which is a film I like quite a bit. The rousing score for THE SCALPHUNTERS from the great Elmer Bernstein sets a pleasant tone right out of the gate though. I was given the immediate impression that this film wouldn't be quite as bleak as I initially ascertained. Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is a world weary (but cunning) fur trapper who, while making his way back with a full load of hides, happens upon a group of Kiowa Indians determined to take his wares from him. As a consolatory gesture of trade, the Indians give Bass a runaway house slave (Ossie Davis) they had previously taken off of another group. Bass reluctantly agrees to the "trade", but keeps a close eye on the Kiowas as they begin to celebrate. They get drunk and just as Bass and his slave are about to sneak down and take his hides back, the Kiowa fall under attack from a gang of sleazy "scalphunters" led by an evil fella (Telly Savalas) who kill all but one of them and take their scalps as well as Bass' load of furs. Bass ain't about to let this scum take the fruits of his labor so he pursues the gang. The tone of the film is interesting in that it waivers from mostly light comic western to slightly darker moments at times. It's deftly handled by director Sydney Pollack. THE SCALPHUNTERS falls between some of Pollack's earlier films like THE SLENDER THREAD (his auspicious debut) and THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED and just before one of his early masterpieces , THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY. Pollack is a very solid craftsman and I was pleased to see yet another example of the variety of genres that he took on as a director. The Cast includes of course Lancaster (who is outstanding, as always), but also Shelley Winters and Dabney Coleman  (who is bearded and almost unrecognizeable) among a few other familiar faces. The aforementioned score by Elmer Bernstein is great and it is his music that really gives the film an elegant, jubilant energy as well as evening out the slight tonal shifts.

Like SABATA, this Blu-ray is also a bare-bones (except for a trailer) release. The transfer is strong though, even better than SABATA. Also like SABATA, THE SCALPHUNTERS was shot in scope and the Blu-ray presentation brings out the color and detail in this gorgeous format. THE SCALPHUNTERS features more majestic outdoor vistas shots in general which looks excellent in widescreen.

Both SABATA and THE SCALPHUNTERS arrive on Blu-ray on July 22nd. For more information head on over to Kino Lorber. Also due out on that day are WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (which I reviewed here:

FYI - All four titles are currently on sale at Amazon for $16.99 a piece (43% off):

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