That Sergio Sollima lacks the epic grandeur of Sergio Leone is evident from the first moments of The Big Gundown. Shots proceed with bare utility, of a group of outlaws arriving at an agreed-upon meeting point and coming across a man they believe to be a hired accomplice. Long shots of both the bandits and the other man (Lee Van Cleef) give a seemingly complete, unremarkable picture of the setting and the conversation. Slowly, however, the shot facing the bandits begins to pan over until a hanging corpse is revealed, the body being that of the actual accomplice as Van Cleef’s character reveals himself to be Corbett, the bounty hunter on the trail of the others. Sollima’s ostensible straightforward, even downright basic style thus reveals its capacity to surprise, and if The Big Gundown looks so much simpler and smaller than one of Leone’s towering works, its deceptive style makes for a more thorough, complex political statement.
The remainder of the film takes a similar approach to its plot: moving ever forward but constantly pivoting to take in some strange, episodic element that creates an increasingly mired moral landscape that demands thoughtfulness from the black-and-white Corbett. Dispatched by businessman Brockston (Walter Barnes) to bring to justice Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a man wanted for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, Corbett runs across a number of scenarios that present a fractured view of American and Mexican civilization. Rushing to save a young woman from Cuchillo’s clutches, Corbett learns only after saving the woman that the 13-year-old is the child bride of an elderly Mormon, and his acceptance of their religiously sanctioned bond renders his revulsion of Cuchillo’s as-yet-unconfirmed predatory nature slightly hypocritical. Similarly, Corbett’s confidence that Mexican authorities and townspeople will aid his quest runs afoul of deeply anti-American sentiment in a country inflamed by revolution that confronts the bounty hunter’s forceful sense of purpose with a sociopolitical context that disorients his sense of border-transgressing righteousness.
At times, the film takes on shades of the surreal. Corbett himself stalks after his prey like Yul Brynner’s robot in Westworld: He almost never breaks his horse into so much as a gallop, yet he always seems to be one step ahead of Cuchillo, who can always escape but never run far before the next encounter. Entire sequences come in from nowhere, as one that locates hunter and hunted at the isolated ranch of a wealthy widow who oversees a group of belligerent men who lust for her and get out their aggression in sadistic violence. Redolent of the Circe episode of The Odyssey, or the description in Toni Morrison’s Beloved of young men fornicating with animals to abate their desire for the lone woman in their midst, this diversion dregs up a primal masculine angst in the great loneliness of the West. The gunfight that eventually breaks out between Corbett and the ranch hands punctuates their confused id, and Corbett’s victory exposes how desperately the woman needs devoted subjects to feel whole.
While Leone, of course, dabbled in antiheroes, their goodness is usually made apparent in short order. The Big Gundown, on the other hand, devotes much of its runtime to gradually re-contextualizing Cuchillo, and if the budding respect between him and Corbett telegraphs that he might not be so guilty after all, the film nonetheless effectively uses its ostensibly disconnected scenes to expose more and more of his true character as well as forcing Corbett to consider the shades of gray that inform a world he erstwhile simplified. (The longer Italian cut, included for the first time in an official U.S. release on this disc, spends much more time at the outset establishing Corbett’s myopia in detail, though the Stateside release version is no less clear about how limited his worldview is.) Unorthodox but precise editing patterns eschew the bridging scenes that pad out most westerns, cutting from violent act to violent act. The omissions may seem like an attempt to hold attention, but they serve the purpose of casting the West as such an unforgiving place that Corbett and Cuchillo cannot help but band together to face it. Despite the punchiness of its title and its superficially utile direction, The Big Gundown is one of the subtlest and most thematically rewarding of spaghetti westerns, and one of the few whose greatest pleasures lay outside its gunfights.
The English-language version of the film has been given a 2K restoration that results in the best-looking home-video release for a spaghetti western since Once Upon a Time in the West hit video. Flesh tones are captured in all natural tans, and colors pop as well as they can while coated in dust and sweat. A few image inconsistencies, such as hazy frames and an odd flickering effect in a shot late in the film, appear to be endemic to the print, not a fault of the mastering. The Italian cut of the film, placed on a separate Blu-Ray disc, has obviously been handled with less care, its colors not as pronounced and with a generally softer image. Nevertheless, it looks fairly strong in relation to some other westerns released on Blu-Ray. The mono track of both releases is solid, prioritizing Morricone’s deafening cues over all else, but such is the nature of all westerns to sport one of his scores. It does make an included isolated score track feel somewhat redundant though.
A batch of interviews with Sergio Sollima, Tomas Milian, and screenwriter Sergio Donati touch on the film, spaghetti westerns in general, and, in Milian’s case, an entire career. The best of them is Sollima’s one that focuses solely on the production, a half-hour discussion filled with concise appraisals of Lee Van Cleef and Milian’s strengths, a contention with the term "Italian westerns," and a smattering of smaller details, such as a confirmation of suspicion that Brockston’s German henchman is modeled after Erich von Stroheim. An audio commentary with western enthusiasts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke offers a wealth of detail about the production and the film’s context among classic and contemporary westerns, as well as shrewd observations like Cuchillo’s resemblance to Chaplin’s Tramp. But the pair sometimes sound so giddy it’s as if two fans just wandered into a recording booth and sat down; also, it’s hard not to tense up when they laugh off some of the film’s darker moments, such as dismissing the Mormon child bride as a "minx." Trailers and T.V. spots round out the package, along with some previews for upcoming Grindhouse releases that show the label, which has only just shifted to high-definition, has big plans. As one final, and most welcome, bonus, an included CD comes with Ennio Morricone’s excellent score.
Grindhouse Releasing marks its true arrival on the Blu-ray market with a package worthy of one of the finest spaghetti westerns.