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Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Van Cleef Notes" - 2006 Entertainment Weekly Article

Chris Nashawaty on the spaghetti Western ''Sabata'' from an August 2006 article in Entertaiment Weekly Magazine, which coincided with the release of the Sabata trilogy on DVD.

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.



  1. Well this guy in interesting but wrong on a few points. Lee Van Cleef never dropped out. He continued to work as an actor right up to For A Few Dollars More EXCEPT after the 1950's, it was mostly in television. Indeed Lee went right back to doing television work when For A Few Dollars More wrapped. Strong evidence that at that point, Lee didn't see himself becoming a big star in Italy and Spain in just a year. Lee did several TV jobs including Larado, Gunsmoke, My Mother the Car and Branded before he was asked by Leone at Clint Eastwood's suggestion to return to Europe for Good, Bad and Ugly. I have a hunch that Lee knew that he was going to do Big Gundown for For A Few Dollars More/Good, Bad and Ugly producer Alberto Grimaldi. Once I read an interview with a TV director who was doing a three part Branded and he mentioned Lee. He said Chuck Conners had helped arrange for Lee to have a part in the show so he could come up with airfare to Europe and Lee told him that he had to go over there and try it and see if it pans out because if he stayed in Hollywood he would died. Said Lee said he just doesn't work enough now to pay his bills.

    To help pay his bills, Lee began painting and remodeling houses between TV jobs and NO movie jobs had come his way since 1962. This is 1966, so it had been four years since anybody in Hollywood had offered a film role to Lee.

    And Lee did come back to the states in 1969 for Barquero and next he did another US film "El Condor" which was shot in Spain at some of the same places as the Leone films and most other SWs. But for some reason, Lee didn't catch on like Bronson and Eastwood. So it was back to Europe and for the rest of his career it was working mostly there but always ready to work in the states when the offer was there. 1972: The Magnificent Seven Ride was a US film shot in and around Los Angles. Nowhere to Hide was a made for TV film that served as a pilot for something Lee had always wanted. To star in his own US television series. But it was picked up by NBC. In 1979 Lee did a small part on the US TV special "When the West Was Fun" starring Glen Ford. 1980 and 81 Lee worked in the US on The Octagon and Escape From New York and finally got another TV job in 1983 which was The Master.

    Oh well. It is funny to read things with mistakes. Us Lee Van Cleef fanatics are the only ones who can pick out these mistakes I guess.

  2. I my post had a mistake:-) Nowhere to Hide was NOT picked up. It was to be a NBC TV series starring Lee Van Cleef, Charles Robinson and Russell Johnson titled "Skanlon".