BY FRED BLOSSER
On a windy night, a black-clad stranger rides into Daugherty City, Texas. He flips a coin to a scruffy drunk who is strapped for the price of a drink. He exposes a crooked dice game in the local saloon, where most of the townsfolk seem to be congregated.Then he departs. In the meantime, down the street, a gang of acrobatic robbers breaks into the bank and heists a safe containing $100,000 in Army payroll money. The getaway crew escapes town before a wounded trooper can raise the alarm, but out on the trail they run into the stranger, Sabata, who picks them off with a tricked-out rifle and recovers the stolen money.
Thus, in under 15 minutes of running time, Gianfranco Parolini neatly sets up the events that will drive the remaining 90 minutes of his 1969 Spaghetti Western, "Ehi amico... c'è Sabata, hai chiuso!" -- better known simply as “Sabata,” as United Artists retitled the English-dubbed version that debuted in the U.S. in 1970. The original Italian title translates to something like, “Hey, Pal, Sabata’s Here, You Lose” . . . or maybe closer to the film’s rambunctious spirit, “. . . You’re Screwed.”
Bracketing the opening credits, Parolini economically introduces most of the movie’s main characters, establishes their personalities, and through their interactions with Sabata and each other, defines the interpersonal relationships that will drive the plot.
Sabata (Lee Van Cleef), the sharp-eyed “man who knows,” as the drunk Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez) calls him, deduces that the men behind the attempted robbery are the local businessman Stengel, his partner Ferguson, and their crony Judge O’Hara (Gianni Rizzo). He approaches them and demands $10,000 in hush money. Refusing, Stengel dispatches one assassin after another to kill him. Stengel’s henchman Slim, a hulking gunman named Sharky, two hit men dressed like the Earp brothers, and a nervous killer disguised as a clergyman all try and fail. With each attempt, Sabata raises his price higher and higher.
An old acquaintance, barroom minstrel Banjo (William Berger), one of the supporting characters deftly sketched in the opening saloon scene, ambles in and out from the periphery, toting his own tricked-out weapon, a carbine hidden under his musical instrument. Sometimes he sides with Sabata for money, sometimes he works for Stengel; in any event, not to be trusted by either. He and a greedy saloon girl, Jane, have a sort of romance characterized by mutual boredom and availability. Carrincha and a mute Indian acrobat, Alley Cat (Nick Jordan), help Sabata.
Arguably, “Sabata” represented the high tide of Spaghetti Western popularity in the States in 1970, benefiting from the box-office success of Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking films and preceding the decline of the genre as it sputtered toward a slow box-office death in the mid-‘70s. Where Leone’s movies were generally panned by mainstream U.S. media on their initial release, but nevertheless attracted a small early following of more progressive critics, “Sabata” ironically met the opposite reception.
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