A stranger in black (Gianni Garko) trails a stagecoach across a windswept desert scene, spooking an elderly passenger who remarks: "It's as if a ghost were following us." Her words prove fatal as she and her husband are shot by Morgan (Klaus Kinski), a stone cold killer who also bags the stranger. Meanwhile, a Mexican gang steal a strong-box full of loot from another stage, only to be killed by an American gang including Morgan and his boss, the wily Lasky (William Berger). It's all part of an elaborate insurance scam organized by local bigwigs Jeff Stalwal (Sydney Chaplin) and Al Holman (Gianni Rizzo), except the strong-box turns out to be full of rocks. And the stranger re-emerges, mysteriously alive. When one terrified outlaw asks who the stranger is, he replies: "I am your pallbearer", and guns a dozen men down with his fancy trick-shooting derringer. His name is Sartana.
Croatian born Gianni Garko originally played a villain named Sartana in the hit spaghetti western Blood at Sundown (1967). Producer Aldo Addobbati took a liking to the name Sartana and, having noticed Garko had upstaged the hero of that film, offered him the lead in his next picture. For his part Garko insisted on having script approval, claiming he was tired of all those Italian westerns where the hero is out for revenge. Co-screenwriter Renato Izzo concocted a story wherein a smart, sharp-dressed man of mystery turns a profit by putting himself between two rival groups, while avowed James Bond fan Gianfranco Parolini added the array of fantastical gadgetry that was to become Sartana’s trademark.
The end result was an enormous hit across Europe (though more of a cult movie amongst English speaking audiences), spawning four "official" sequels and, in typical copyright flouting Italian tradition, around a dozen similarly-titled rip-offs. One of these - Sartana Kills Them All (1971) - even starred Gianni Garko himself!
However, the film is more notable for introducing the Sartana character than for being especially innovative or compelling. The supposedly fresh plot created by Izzo, Parolini and co-scriptwriter Werner Hauff in fact steals shamelessly from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - though you could argue Sergio Leone owed Akira Kurosawa and Yojimbo (1961) for that one, and Kurosawa in turn borrowed a lot from Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest - and For a Few Dollars More (1965), right down to that musical watch that drives Lasky nuts. Leone's dog eat dog ethos is taken to its nth degree with double-cross piled upon double-cross till the plot grows near-incomprehensible. Jeff Stalwal is having illicit affairs with both Al's scheming wife Evelyn (well-played by Heidi Fischer) and the late mayor's widow Jane (Maria Pia Conte), who suffers a baffling off-screen demise. Al in the meantime is fixated on a cheerfully amoral saloon whore (Sabine Sun) and seems to be suffering some unspecified psychological problem. A glowering Mexican general with a ludicrously long name (Fernando Sancho) is thrown into the mix. One minute Sartana and Lasky are enemies, the next they're working together. And who the heck keeps swapping that gold for rocks?
Beneath the slick scope photography and spooky soundtrack by the ever-reliable Piero Piccioni, the film had a shoestring budget with outdoor scenes shot on a dump outside Rome. You can occasionally glimpse the sewage floating along the river. That must have been a fun shoot. The action sequences are well-staged by the underrated Gianfranco Parolini - who kick-started several other Euro franchises including Three Fantastic Supermen (1967) - but all that strutting and staring fails to aid his storytelling.
Klaus Kinski - by this stage a popular character actor in Euro westerns, horror movies and Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, although the credits still spell his name wrong - evidently filmed his scenes over a few days and is awkwardly inserted into the plot. Look closely and you'll notice he never interacts with his co-stars in any scene he's in. There is no reason for Kinski to be here, although he delivers reliably louche, reptilian evil while that other spaghetti regular William Berger smirks his way through another memorably despicable villain. The other notable presence here is that of Sydney Chaplin, son of silver screen legend Charlie Chaplin, whose admittedly less stellar career encompassed such classy highs as The Sicilian Clan (1969) and trashy lows like Satan's Cheerleaders (1977).
Parolini cranks up the horror movie ambience during the finale, hinting Sartana is some kind of spectral avenger, which became the series’ other notable trademark. Stripped of all pretence, it's a simple tale, entertaining but often frustratingly hard to follow. Sartana strides through it all, seemingly bullet-proof, killing dozens at a time, winning at ludicrous high stakes poker and followed by a cackling old undertaker (Franco Pesce), in yet another swipe from Sergio Leone. Gianni Garko is a handsome, athletic leading man and it's easy to see why his character caught on with European audiences. Although rival producer Alberto Grimaldi lured Parolini to craft the equally popular Sabata (1969) and its sequels, Garko stuck with this series over the next three entries, continuing with: I Am Sartana Your Angel of Death (1969).