The spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s were a booming period, with many colouful characters. You had the coffin-toting Django, the fun-loving Trinity (plus Bambino!), and the gadget-laden Sartana. Picking a favourite sure is tough work!
After a showdown with Mexican bandidos, the wily gunslinger Sartana ventures to the mining town of Appaloosa. There he discovers the mayor behind a shifty plan-He sends shipments of the miners' gold dust out to the city, where it's 'conveniently' raided by bandits, who blow up all evidence. Sartana begins upsetting the apple cart by egging on the bandidos, led by the crazy Mantas, and watches the sparks fly. But an unexpected spanner comes into the works with the arrival of fellow gunslinger Sabbath...
I first encountered Fistful of Lead when I saw the DVD in a local library some years back, and had a chuckle over the derivative title. Since I adore spaghetti westerns I was quick to watch it, and had a really good time! While Fistful of Lead certainly is shorter, its proper title is actually the far superior (if wordy in a distinctly Italian way) Sartana's Here...Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin.
Fistful of Lead is part of the popular Sartana series, by technicality. Those films starred Gianni Garko as the titular hero, and with a unique blend of genres, he was in 4 films altogether. Spaghetti westerns would invariably receive unofficial sequels, with Django getting dozens. Fistful of Lead is notable in that it's not part of the main series (not even having the same lead actor), but is regarded so highly by fans it's considered to be the official unofficial entry.
The plot is pretty simple, and this could be a positive or negative. It's basic enough that we always know what's going on, but the finer details and machinations going on do make it a bit convoluted in places, as you expect from a spaghetti western. With this in mind, a simpler plot was perhaps the right idea, even if it's not as grand as it maybe could have been.
The film begins bit by bit, showing us first how Sartana discovers the plan, then his sojourn to a little ghost town occupied by the bandits. We see how he operates, from his prowess as a gunfighter, to his mind games, and of course his fancy gadgets. Once this small-scale first act is over, the film opens up, with Sartana arriving in Appaloosa and beginning his own plan.
While not an outright comedy, there are plenty of funny moments in Fistful of Lead. One in particular is when mayor Spencer first meets Sartana at the point of his gun. After learning he's also the sheriff, Sartana remarks that Spencer is probably the preacher too, and he responds by smugly bleating "You wouldn't shoot a man of the cloth, would you?".
Sartana is your typical Italian western hero. Slightly amoral, with no qualms about racking up a body count. He's really only in it for the money, but he will try and do the right thing, if only in a broad sense. He often puts on a show for whoever's watching, but it's easy for we the viewer to understand. There's nothing worse than a confusing hero, and while his enemies or allies might not know what to think, we always do.
With his use of gadgets, Sartana is known as the James Bond of the West. This aspect is less pronounced than other entries, but still present enough to be distinctive. Where else can you see a bread gun in the old west? His multi-barrelled derringer is a neat weapon too. Despite his enemies having no way of knowing his gadgets (since all witnesses die), Sartana rarely reuses them. There is a great callback in a final shot!
The townsfolk are in the middle. We mainly see sexy saloon owner Trixie, who's trying to play both fields if it means more business. Then of course there's villainous would-be mastermind Spencer, and his right hand thug Baxter. He and Baxter share a sudden and ignominious end, which is fine, since let's be real, either were ever a threat to Sartana.
Mantas is a fun baddie, and loves being evil. He has some visually distinct henchmen too, so it's a shame in a way when they die. Mantas's death is a little disappointing. I don't mind how it happens, but it's so unceremonious, getting killed like just another henchman.
The last character is Sabbath, an effete cowboy who favours good literature, parasols, and other men (we guess). He doesn't show up until an hour in, which is slightly disappointing, but at least it allows for everyone else to get the development they need. And once he's in the picture, it feels like he was there all along. His relationship with Sartana is great, and they could easily share a buddy series together.
The last act is a hoot, with enough action to satisfy, and more twists than you can shake a stick at. The final duel between Sartana and Sabbath is a hilarious pissing contest, with each using their ludicrously good marksmanship, until one of them actually runs out of ammo! This leads to some creative final moments. The only problem is that it's got to end with one of them biting the dust! Sabbath is such a great character you'd hate to see him die. After the duel is done, there's a twist, but just when you think all is lost for our hero, we get the best surprise of all! This leads to a funny ending that will leave a smile on your face.
We've got a good cast here. George Hilton is a fun lead. Like Gianni Garko before him, he's a reliable cowboy who knows to not take things too seriously. Sultry Erika Blanc is a beauty as always, and does well. Charles Southwood does a lot with a little time, giving a distinct performance, while Nello Pazzafini is entertaining as the unhinged bandido.
The direction is standard, with a few neat touches. We get cool angles during duels, and a cool split screen effect. My only criticism is that sometimes the action comes so fast it's hard to tell exactly what trick Sartana has even done.
Like many spaghetti westerns, Fistful of Lead is commonly found in fairly ratty prints. While I think high quality versions exist (thank goodness!), the low quality can often be part of the fun! That is true for this film too, except for a few little issues, such as the sand actually looking like gold dust.
The music here is fun! Really it's nothing to write home about as far as Italian westerns go, sounding much like any other, but it all sounds good regardless. There's a typical western main theme, and more, including the elegant Sabbath leitmotif.
Fistful of Lead is a fun spaghetti western to check out. Obviously it's not an A-list classic, but hey, neither are most of the really enjoyable ones. The film would spawn the two Hallelujah films (unless they came first. Anything's possible with these movies), where George Hilton would have further ludicrous adventures, which I'll be sure to talk about someday soon...