if you meet sartana, pray for your death - gianni garko

An insurance fiddle on a strongbox of gold is initiated by a scheming cabal of town dignitaries in Gianfranco Parolini's 1968 angel of death film ... If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death. Into the breach steps the Sartana (Gianni Garko), the most stylish character ever to set foot in the usually grubby and sweat-drenched world of the Spaghetti Western. He takes it upon himself to serve justice upon the outlaws, Mexican bandits and corrupt officialdom, in the process walking away with a coffin-load of loot, as he influences events, turns up unexpectedly, or simply takes matters into his own hands with the silver Sharp's Derringer and Winchester rifle that play integral roles in his personal arsenal.

Ample death, ample destruction and muchos double-crossing quickly follow.

Sartana, to give it the more popular and less unwieldy title, brings together such heavyweights of the Spaghetti Western genre as Gianni Garko (Blood At Sundown,$10,000 Blood Money), William Berger (Sabata, Face to Face), Fernando Sancho (Seven Dollars on the Red, Pistol For Ringo) and Klaus Kinski (And God Said to Cain, For a Few Dollars More), in a tale of treachery and betrayal that does its damnedest not to tow the line of cohesion, frequently wading knee-deep in the murky waters of convolution.

Indeed, full concentration is required when watching Sartana, just to remain level with the game as twists, turns, multiple deaths and complete randomness are thrown into what is nonetheless a visually gorgeous example of Italian cinematic cuisine.

The character of Sartana carries shades of Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) from For A Few Dollars More in dress, nonchalance and the fact he carries around a musical pocket watch that has a destabilising effect on the principal villain of the piece, Lasky (William Berger). Incidentally, Parolini would go on to reinvent the character as Sabata, specifically for Van Cleef, in the enjoyable Sabata and its awful sequel Return of Sabata.

Sartana is far more enigmatic than Mortimer or Sabata though (one a bounty hunter, the other a gambler), seemingly possessing a supernatural adeptness for being in the right place at the right time. When a hastily drawn villain - whose sole purpose in the film is to provide bullet fodder for the titular anti-hero - comments, "You look just like a scarecrow" (possibly the best dressed scarecrow in cinematic history, mind), Sartana replies, "I am your pallbearer." He continues this allusion to all things death-related throughout, claiming to be a gravedigger, a "first-class pallbearer", and aligning himself with the local undertaker, Dusty. The suggestion being that Sartana might actually be the angel of death, walking the earth to bring about the demise of those in need of it, or perhaps even a restless ghost, wronged in life, avenging in death.

Or perhaps, as with everybody else in this film, he's simply after the gold.

Sartana would go on to appear in four more "official" sequels, three of which continued with Garko in the lead role and saw Parolini handing the directorial reins over to Guiliano Carmineo (Find a Place to Die, They Call Him Cemetery). The motives of the character remained ambiguous throughout. The film's success, as in the case of Django, led to scores of unofficial rip-offs and title change cash-ins.

... If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death, despite its labyrinthine wrangling, is a solid Spaghetti Western, even if it doesn't benefit from the dusty reassurance of some Almerian scenery. Personally, I prefer the first sequel in this series, I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969), which is more of a reboot of the franchise under its new stewardship and features a returning Klaus Kinski, somewhat confusingly, in a different role.

Still, with a sumptuous shot composition, plus the silver Derringer, Lasky letting rip with the Gatling gun, and the final duel, Sartana has enough Spaghetti Western moments to keep fans of the genre more than happy.

california - spaghetti western starring guiliano gemma

Reduced to catching frogs for food, Confederate soldiers returning from the war are treated as second-class citizens and hunted down by a gang of bounty hunters (in a similar premise to The Great Silence), operating under the protection of local law enforcement agencies.

Guiliano Gemma (The Day of Anger, A Pistol For Ringo) plays Michael 'California' Random, one such soldier who takes the naive Willy Preston (Miguel Bose) under his wing. When his companion is shot in the back and strung up for stealing a horse, California travels to his parents' Georgia ranch to break the bad news. In typical style he falls for Helen, his dead comrade's sister, and following the senseless killing of three Confederates by bounty killer Rope Whitaker (Raimund Harmstorf) and his men, he gets caught up in the ensuing crossfire as federal agents arrive to take Whitaker down. The sister is taken hostage as the gang make their escape, and California vows to track down the bounty hunters and return Helen home.

Filmed in 1977, at the tail-end of the Spaghetti Western boom - a time when the "comedy" spaghetti had all but wiped the genre out – Michele Lupo's California, like Castellari's Keoma has an altogether more sobering feel to it. It's a film that, for the first act at least, knows that its time has passed. This is the death knell of the serious Western all'Italiana, and a sense of hopeless desperation pervades throughout. Perpetual rain and mud colour the canvas, as it does in Keoma, before the familiar dusty vistas of the Almerian badlands return for the final act, delivering us into the more traditional territory of the revenge-driven Spaghetti West.

Guiliano Gemma, in a welcome departure from his wide-eyed innocent act, pulls off the seasoned veteran role usually reserved for the likes of Lee Van Cleef and Gianni Garko, with the confidence of a man who has grown up in the genre (debuting 12 years earlier in 1965's Adios Gringo). His heroism, as with the best Spaghetti Western protagonists, is far from clear-cut, aiding and abetting a Wells-Fargo stagecoach robbery (For A Few Dollars More-style) to ingratiate himself with the fugitive Whitaker, and in perhaps the most shocking scene, smashing a whisky bottle into the mouth of the very same bounty hunter, neck first.

California works well as a reminder of how great this genre once was. It even ropes in another stalwart of Spaghetti Westdom in the guise of William Berger (Sabata, No Room to Die and many, many more), who is sadly underused as Preston senior, but still fulfils his position as an elder statesman of these wonderful films, as he did in Keoma.

The comparisons with the aforementioned Keoma are unavoidable. Both are twilight Spaghettis – classics filmed in the dying days of the late '70s - and both are tinged with a sense of gloomy pessimism. In the case of Keoma this lasts for the entirety of the film, whereas California manages to rekindle the original Spaghetti Western spark with its last half hour. For that reason, and despite what any other critic might say, California edges ahead of its twilight Spaghetti brethren, just because it avoids the navel-gazing and eventually takes us back to the genus's roots. It also has a far more traditional score by Gianni Ferrio, in contrast to the De Angelis one that tries its best to ruin Castellari's film.

I can recommend California to both newcomers and old-hands to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, the only problem I foresee you having with this rarity is getting hold of a copy.

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