Of all the struggling actors who headed to Europe in the '60s to kick-start their careers in spaghetti Westerns, Lee Van Cleef had the least to lose. After Clint Eastwood became a star thanks to 1966's A Fistful of Dollars, Europe quickly became the destination of last resort for B actors like Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson. Like an international gold rush, every tough guy with a stalled career hightailed it overseas to find fame.
Over the next few years, hundreds of low-budget Italian, Spanish, and German spaghetti Westerns were cranked out. Most were crude, awfully dubbed hack-work. But a few, like the trio of films Eastwood made with director Sergio Leone, are still rightly considered masterpieces on par with the epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Lee Van Cleef, with his beady, slit eyes, pencil-thin mustache, and malevolent smirk, rode along with Eastwood in the second and third films in Leone's ''Man With No Name'' trilogy: For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Until then, the rail-thin WWII veteran had been pigeonholed as bit-part villains in a string of films in the '50s. But he eventually got fed up with the business, dropped out, and took up painting... until he received a call and a plane ticket from Leone.
While Eastwood, Reynolds (1966's Navajo Joe), and Bronson (1968's Once Upon a Time in the West) returned to Tinseltown as conquering, international box office heroes, Van Cleef never left the spaghetti Western cheapies that changed his fortunes behind. Some would call this loyalty; others stupidity. Either way, the films Van Cleef made — like 1969's Sabata — are ripe for rediscovery.
Directed by Gianfranco Parolini (under the Anglicized pseudonym ''Frank Kramer''), Sabata is a stylish antihero western that owes as much to James Bond as John Wayne. At the outset of the film, Van Cleef's Sabata (''The man with the gunsight eyes'') is a shadowy figure dressed in black who rides into town on a dark, stormy night. Our first glimpse of him comes as he cups his hands to light a match and puffs on his signature cigar. He's a badass. But how much of a badass soon becomes clear as he swaggers into the town's saloon and exposes a dude cheating at craps with a pair of loaded dice. (For an almost identical scene, see Roger Moore in Octopussy.)
After a safe containing $100,000 is stolen from the local bank, Sabata dishes out some frontier justice and gets the money back. But it soon becomes clear that the rich dandies who run the town didn't really want the money found. They were in on the heist. So Sabata schemes to play both sides against the middle while picking fights with the men and politely declining advances from the ladies. Sabata's one smooth cat.
Van Cleef, with his long, graying sideburns and weaned-on-a-pickle scowl, looks like a sickly and more evil James Coburn (no stranger to spaghetti Westerns himself, by the way). His hat is black, his clothes are black, his horse is black, and, of course, his soul is black. All he cares about is exposing hypocrisy and getting the reward that's coming to him. No more, no less.
Sabata's a cool film, no doubt about it. At times, it's a bit too intricate for its own good. And there are a few too many colorful characters running around (a troupe of bank-robbing acrobats, a wandering musician who may or may not be a double-crosser and whose banjo-rifle seems to have been lifted by Robert Rodriguez for El Mariachi). But even so, it's no surprise that the character would return for two more films.
Van Cleef didn't suit up for 1970's Adios, Sabata. His role was assumed by Yul Brynner, who comes off more like a butch Neil Diamond imitator, what with his fringed chaps and open shirt. But Van Cleef did sign on for 1971's Return of Sabata. Both are interesting. But neither approaches the trigger-happy insanity of the original, in which a big, sweaty hitman in a sombrero comes to kill Sabata, draws his gun, and says, ''When I stop laughing, you're dead.'' He then begins to crack up maniacally.
Needless to say, Van Cleef puts a stop to his laughing for him.