Friday, November 11, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Sartana the Gravedigger (1969)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The North Western Bank is supposed to be the most secure bank in the West. Guarded by ridiculously uniformed men, a gatling gun and some choice examples of the art of safe-building, nothing and no one should be able to get away with an assault. But a very tricky gang of robbers manage to get inside and make away with several hundred thousand dollars. One of the bad guys seems to be the famous bounty hunter Sartana (Gianni Garko), or at least a guy with Sartana's dress sense and gun. Turns out Possibly-Sartana is also the mandatory bandit who kills off his partners in crime to have all of their ill-gotten gains for himself.

Understandably, the authorities put a nice little price on Sartana's head.

Of course, everyone's favourite cloaked bounty hunter is innocence itself and feels the dire need to find out who framed him for the robbery. To make his job more difficult, quite a few of Sartana's colleagues (and supposed friends) in the bounty hunting biz decide that they'd very much like to have Sartana's bounty, the moral and practical problems (surely, there must be easier prey than Sartana) notwithstanding.

Sartana's search for his enemies leads him at first to his old acquaintance and friend, the hobo thief Buddy Ben (Frank Wolff). Buddy sends him to a guy named Dynamite Butch who probably helped outfit the bank robbers, but Butch is murdered before Sartana can talk to him. That will be a repeating problem in the bounty hunter's pursuit of his hidden enemies. Whoever knows something gets killed before Sartana can acquire the information he wants.

And then there are Sartana's colleagues to cope with, guys with names like Shadow (Jose Torres), Deguejo (Gordon Mitchell), or the delightful Hot Dead (Klaus Kinski), who is only in the bounty hunting business to pay off the debts his incredibly bad luck at gambling brings him.

Somehow, the man in black still manages to follow a trail I didn't manage to actually comprehend and arrives in the perfect little town of Poker Falls where he will spend the last thirty minutes of the movie, killing people and having fun.

The ground rules I have set when writing about some of director Giuliano Carnimeo's other Spaghetti Westerns also apply to Sartana the Gravedigger. That is to say, the film is lacking in the depth the films of directors like the Sergios brought to the genre. Neither politics, nor social commentary, nor even slightly complex (and complicating) character work seem to interest Carnimeo. Words like "light" and "fluffy" come to mind, and if I were a less happy-go-lucky kind of guy, I'd probably spend most of this review complaining about the film's utter lack of subtext.

That would of course be quite unfair to Carnimeo's achievements in this particular movie. I believe the director must have put quite a bit of energy into excising every Spaghetti Western cliché and archetype that could even vaguely be connected to a reality outside the film; the only element that could be read as even vaguely meaningful for the world at large is the inevitable evilness of rich men, but even this aspect is treated with so little interest by the director that the greatest effort couldn't convince me to interpret this point as even slightly politically motivated, be it consciously or subconsciously.

Instead of using his imaginary West as a place to apply his theories about the nature of man, the corruptive influence of capitalism, or to break the American concept of Manifest Destiny into little pieces, Carnimeo treats his West as a giant playground. Seldom is the Spaghetti Western as close to the spirit of kids playing Cowboys and Bandits as it is here, but it's also seldom that a Spaghetti Western's utter lack of earnestness works as well as it does here.

Sartana the Gravedigger is dominated by a sense of the absurd and the whimsical that at times makes it feel as if it had been scripted by a very clever child, following every idea that comes to its mind whenever it does come to its mind. If you expect a strong, clear narrative, you'll probably run away in terror. This is the sort of movie that doesn't have any problem with just leaving its hero and the main narrative behind for ten or fifteen minutes just to check in and see what a minor character with little actual importance to the main plot like Kinski's Hot Dead is doing on his search for Sartana. Not much of import, as it turns out, but who cares about that as long as what Kinski is doing is fun to watch?

Looking for fun instead of meaning or narrative structure is very much what Carnimeo makes his business here. The film merrily flutters from one scene to the next, not very concerned with how everything hangs together, but very concerned with making every single scene fun to watch for its audience.

Carnimeo shows itself to be a very creative director when he needs to be. The director goes from (actually funny, for once) comedic bits to exciting and inventive action scenes, to the sort of iconic looking shots that give the Spaghetti Western genre some of its power as if it was the easiest thing in the world. While the film's script is as loose and episodic as they come, Carnimeo's direction feels tight and assured - a far cry from the Wtf-style other light Spaghettis like Ferdinando Baldi's The Stranger Gets Mean utilize.

The director is assisted by a bunch of character actors - basically everyone you see in every second Spaghetti Western - visibly having a blast with their weird and exalted roles. Even often wooden Gianni Garko shows a bit of charm, even enthusiasm, and Kinski is as funny and relaxed as I've ever seen him.

With so much sparkle coming from the screen, one would be quite a curmudgeon to not like Sartana the Gravedigger. I, for one, won't be one this time.

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