Friday, February 23, 2007

The Big Gundown

The Big Gundown
dir. Sergio Sollima

Run, man, run.


February 13, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

A young girl, a real young girl, has been ravaged and murdered. Government endorsed vigilante lawman Jon Corbett is going to stop at nothing to catch the motherfucker who did it and watch him bleed. The motherfucker is Cuchillo Sanchez, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t the craftiest, dirty-fightingest scumbag on this piece of shit maneatin’ planet. I’ll be double-damned if you don’t love fucker by the end of this picture.

Largely due to the bravura performance of Tomas Milian, who plays Cuchillo, The Big Gundown stakes its place as arguably the greatest non-Sergio Leone spaghetti western (Lee Van Cleef’s strongest performance, a glorious score from Ennio Morricone, no-nonsense direction from Sergio Sollima and the intellectually complicated subject matter may also contribute).

The first taste of the sort of man Cuchillo is comes from a scene where he appears to be taking a second victim, another pre-teen, a blonde Mormon girl. He bathes giddily in a river beckoning the young lass to join him in the fun. Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) to the rescue! Cuchillo’s playfulness and good humor is a shocking display of objectivity on the part of director Sergio Sollima. With dramatic irony in place, the audience well aware of Cuchillo’s predatory tendencies, the scene plays out as if Solima just stumbled across Cuchillo taunting the pre-teen from the water and found it simply a source of mild amusement. The confrontation with Corbett is doubly strange, considering that it occurs so early in the movie. The set-up is one suggesting an endless chase, and the hero and villain are already facing off? Wait, Corbett gets shot? Already? I would call it a spoiler, if it didn’t occur so soon in the story. Cuchillo, caught red-handed and practically naked, rags hanging from his skin, starts blubbering like a fool when threatened by Corbett. Pathetically and half-mockingly repenting to God, Cuchillo, by flailing and whimpering on his knees manages to coerce the young girl into, get this, shooting Corbett! Cuchillo has a great belly laugh and takes off. When Corbett comes to, an old Morman man thanks him for protecting his wife and apologizes for his getting shot. Wife? Yes.

Nothing as it seems is the status quo in The Big Gundown as Corbett, used to fighting for simple right and wrong, is now drowning in a world where a raping murdering motherfucker is actually charming and likable. There will be no take ten paces and “draw!” with these two. Cuchillo barely picks up a gun the whole movie. Instead, he uses a knife, whines, squirrels his way out of trouble and runs about like a chicken with its head cut off from scene to scene through Texas and Mexico, every once and a while injecting a political diatribe about the state of his oppressed peasant culture, which are all strikingly genuine. Slowly Corbett discovers his foe is not as simple as things seem and he is faced with not only being outsmarted by this ruffian, but having his ideological and geographical worlds turned upside down.

The wonderfully junky and comical candy scenarios and characters in The Big Gundown coated with the hard emotional shell of poverty, rape, murder and desperate fatalism make a delicious masterstroke of moviemaking. This picture is the missing link between the bombastic poetic schlock of the spaghetti western genre and the intense character studies as haunting political and emotional landscapes of the Sam Peckinpah genre (yes, he deserves his own genre). In other words, come for the goofy hijinks, rousing score, snap dialogue and fun performances, stay for self-critical crises of ugly introspection, dishonorably charming cheating motherfuckers and brain-busting, jaw-droppingly brave motion picture creation.

1 comment:

Kalen Egan said...

I'm wondering, now, why Sergio Sollima hasn't been wildly celebrated as one of the great Italian genre filmmakers? He's clearly the Monte Hellman to Leone's Peckinpah... moreso than even Sergio Corbucci, I think (who, for my money, made the best of all the Spaghetti's with The Great Silence)

Yeah, I'd go ahead and bet that any Sollima you watch will be incredible in some unexpected way. Of the few available on DVD, I definitely suggest you see Violent City, Revolver, and The Big Gundown's sequel-- Run Man Run.