VCI Entertainment: A Bullet for Sandoval (1969) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of VCI Entertainment

The Italian Spaghetti Western or action thrillers set in the American West largely filmed in Europe was increasingly common in the annals of gritty bilingual film productions throughout the 1960s and on through the 1970s.  Not as common however are Italian-Spanish hybrids of the Spaghetti Western as seen in writer-director Julio Buchs’ 1969 vigilante justice revenge thriller A Bullet for Sandoval, a film that just so happens to feature The Wild Bunch and Bad Day at Black Rock western heavy Ernest Borgnine and recurring giallo (parttime Sartana) mainstay George Hilton on opposite sides of the bullet riddled fence fiercely hungry for each other’s blood.  Though off to a somewhat shaky start and an arena of unforgiving violence that seems to move outside of the plights of both characters, the alternatively titled Those Desperate Men Who Smell of Dirt and Death nevertheless winds up providing a bleak and brutal Italian-Spanish action thriller with just a hint of neo-noir nihilism about it.

Rebel Civil War confederate soldier John Warner (George Hilton) deserts his post on the cusp of battle to jump the Mexican border in search of his fiancée who has recently given birth to their out of wedlock firstborn.  Upon arrival at the Sandoval hacienda, it turns out she died during childbirth with her father Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine) having nothing but contempt for John Warner and his son who casts both of them out into the unforgiving west.  Thought to be a cholera carrier, John and his firstborn are repeatedly refused refuge until the infant perishes, sending the fatherless widower into a blind fury who assembles his own ragtag band of criminal renegades who proceed to terrorize Northern Mexico, perpetually “avenging” his fiancée and son’s deaths.  Despite the increasing body count of innocent bystanders, John’s bloodlust only grows, leading towards a tense climax where the embittered John Warner and his sworn mortal nemesis Sandoval prepare to duel to the death.

Curious for how it starts off in John Warner’s corner only to switch sides with Sandoval and then move further out from both men’s plights, A Bullet for Sandoval co-written by three screenwriters is a steadily bleak Italian-Spanish Spaghetti Western that comes as close to being an everybody-dies downer ala Sam Peckinpah’s infamously violent modern Western.  Dropping viewers into the morally adrift netherworld of the confederacy with acute attention to costume period details before moving into the red-eyed enragement of John Warner’s newfound thirst for inconsolable vengeance, the film has the virtue of surrounding us with amoral characters which are hard to invest in but ultimately come together in some sort of unresolved conflict. 
Visually speaking this tightly composed panoramic widescreen effort lensed by Francisco Sempere of Cauldron of Blood shoots everything in dynamic close ups that zero in on intense performances from the central actors and Puzzle as well as Inglourious Basterds composer Gianni Ferro’s rusty dusty guitar and brass infused score give the dismal proceedings a kind of rough and ragged vastness underpinned by a low hum of doom.  The ensemble cast is generally good but the two leads locked in bullhorns played by George Hilton and Ernest Borgnine are the main reasons for seeking this mostly overlooked Italo-Spanish collaboration.  Both intense, committed actors who have played their fair share of heroes and villainy in the western subgenre, seeing these two with their king cobra fangs out for each other is something of a dark Spaghetti western delight in a story that can’t possibly end well.

Though restored in 4K by VCI Entertainment and MVD Visual working from the original uncut negative and aided by a running audio commentary by legendary filmmaker Alex Cox, A Bullet for Sandoval looks a bit rough around the edges transfer wise.  A bit muddy looking with frequent print damage and discoloration, the disc also appears to have some light frame rate issues which are only noticeable in scenes of the camera panning or characters on horseback riding across the terrain.  Still if you can get past some of these technical anomalies, A Bullet for Sandoval is truly an interesting offshoot in Italian-Spanish coproducing: a Spaghetti western with a less familiar set of snake scales whose coiled tail rattles more or less the same way even if it sounds slightly different.

--Andrew Kotwicki