After more than a decade of playing routine roles in undistinguished features and TV shows, squint-eyed tough guy Lee Van Cleef finally found fame in a pair of Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). No fool, he seized the day by starring in a string of European-made cowboy flicks until the spaghetti-Western trend ran its course in the mid-’70s. Van Cleef’s boldest attempt at creating a gunslinger franchise all his own was Sabata (1969), a tongue-in-cheek adventure that tried to blend James Bond-style gadgetry with the usual spaghetti-Western tropes of elaborate heists, histrionic music, and unsavory supporting characters. Slight and unmemorable, the picture somehow did well enough to warrant both an ersatz sequel and legitimate follow-up.
The fake successor came first. Originally titled Indigo Black, the film released in the US as Adios, Sabata stars Yul Brynner instead of Van Cleef—dialogue was re-recorded during editing to give Brynner’s character the same name as Van Cleef’s, presumably to cash in on a successful brand. Although helmed by the same director as the original picture, Gianfranco Parolini (billed as “Frank Kramer” on all three Sabata flicks), Adios has none of the wink-wink novelty of Sabata. Instead, it’s the usual mean-spirited formula of revenge and robbery, and the only colorful element is the prissy villain, an Austrian colonel with mutton-chop sideburns who gets orgasmic joy from murdering people with offbeat weapons. Brynner, who looks like a lost member of the Village People with his open-chested shirt and head-to-toe fringe, gives a performance that makes his later appearance as a robot in Westworld (1973) seem dynamic by comparison. Like all three pictures bearing the Sabata brand, this one is also interminably long, even though it’s only 104 minutes.
After this bizarre detour, the real Sabata returned in, well, Return of Sabata. With Van Cleef back in his dandyish duds (a fun change of pace from the usual spaghetti-Western grunginess), Return of Sabata is the most interesting movie of the three, even though it’s terrible. What gives the picture energy is not the middling story, but rather the wall-to-wall gonzo energy of Parolini’s direction. Seemingly afflicted with the cinematic equivalent of ADD, Parolini goes overboard with whiplash zooms in all three pictures, but Return of Sabata is shot like the whole crew was jacked up on crank. The opening sequence is incredibly arch, a candy-colored shootout photographed with tricks from the Fellini playbook (clowns, fisheye lenses), and there’s some very strange business later with acrobats using slingshots and trampolines during a heist. The usual spaghetti-Western shortcomings add to the weirdness, from awkwardly dubbed dialogue to narrative leaps that suggest whole scenes were snipped during editing or simply never filmed. Wackadoodle filmmaking isn’t quite enough to make the trite script palatable, however, and Van Cleef does a lot more posturing than he does performing—but at least there’s something cooking inside Return of Sabata, which is more than can be said for the other pictures.
Adios, Sabata: LAME
Return of Sabata: FUNKY