May 30, 2012

The Good, the Great and the Grungy

by Vadim Rizov

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Overviews of the spaghetti western inevitably begin with Sergio Leone, whose presentation of Clint Eastwood as the ultimate laconic Westerner grows more iconic throughout the genre-codifying trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Time progressively slows to a mythic crawl, as mundane quick-draw showdowns and bounty hunter pursuits become epic set pieces through sheer duration.

Westerns had been made in Italy and Spain before Leone (largely by non-Italians), but his worldwide success was unavoidably influential. Segments of Sergio Sollima's 1966 The Big Gundown anticipate 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, with another swoony Ennio Morricone score emphasizing similar slow visual coups. A showy tracking shot through an obscure Mexican village starts with two women at market and stops at a criminal's face being lathered in an open-air barber's chair. The man in pursuit is Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), an unofficial volunteer killer for Texas who's "more popular than David Crockett." Transparently corrupt railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes) wants him to run for Senate and offer official support for a new line. "I'm interested in Texas," Corbett moralistically scolds, "not your personal profit"—but accepts the shady deal anyway. One last job will seal his popularity: tracking down alleged child rapist and murderer Cuchillo (Tomas Milian).

The Big Gundown

Despite his disheartening susceptibility to official flattery early on, Van Cleef's Corbett still pulls off the requisite epic gun-slinging feats: the title's truth in advertising, with lots of Mexican stand-offs. In the opening, Corbett kills three robbers with cartoonish ease, having stayed ahead of them for 300 miles from Texas to Colorado. Untroubled by his Old Testament methods' brutality as such, it'll take his awareness of complicity with corrupt, sexually deviant business interests to force him into making sure his retributions are meted out correctly and accurately.

Gundown suffers from flatly lit interior scenes and Van Cleef's less-than-righteous behavior throughout. Compensations include copious gunfire and a memorably odd mercenary gunman in monocled Baron von Schulenberg (Gerard Herter), a stray German whose "good breeding" manners and sadism are intertwined. One fight nods to the director's (and genre's) sword-and-sandal epic roots, as a pitchfork stands in for a harpoon in near-gladiatorial combat between outlaws.

While spaghetti westerns make use of the traditional site of a frontier town surrounded by wilderness, there's never any space that—once finally purged of the uncivilized and murderous—can be expected to remain safe. The sense of a perpetually war-charged landscape is often made explicit in movies which make use of the Civil War and attendant lingering Mason-Dixon resentments. For Italians, their very own divide between the north and traditionally impoverished south finds a strong, deeply felt corollary here. In Sergio Corbucci's 1966 Django, the subject is racism: the film unambiguously condemns it, and any methods used to end it are acceptable.


First seen dragging a coffin across a muddy plain in excruciating real-time garbed in a poncho, the reveal of Django's (Franco Nero) face is delayed until after the credits, as if to delay the bad news that this man isn't Clint Eastwood. It's a dull opening made palatable by a grandiose theme song hinting at a presumably tragic romantic backstory ("now your love has gone away") never otherwise present in the story. Django comes to a small town and, unprovoked, insults the racist forces commanded by rogue Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), sneering "I thought [racism] was just for Southern pigs."

Eventually, Django reveals the source of his confidence: the coffin contains a machine gun, with which he handily mows down all challengers. He stands not just against racism but sexism, as manifested by bandito Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo). "I have the same right as every man toward every woman he likes," Hugo scowls when threatening sometime-prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak). "You sound just like Jackson's rapists," she spits back. Django's revenge against both types of wrongdoing is exhilarating in a Chuck Norris way, though craft takes a backseat to crude displays of force. Violent highlights aside, Django makes its strongest impression in its sodden town setting, one of the muddiest, squishiest-sounding in film history.

The film's up-with-armed-insurrection myth, no matter how poorly presented, was massively popular worldwide, a success attributed by Nero to viewers "who would love to be Django. They would like to go to the boss and say: 'Listen, from now on things are going to be different.' Django is that man." To capitalize on the association, producers of totally unrelated movies slapped the name onto their product. The "title" character (Tomas Milian) of Giulio Questi's 1967 Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! is actually unnamed and miles away from Nero's grim, comic-book-style destroyer. Left for dead after being double-crossed during a gold heist, he's brought back to life by Native Americans who agree to act as friendly natives in return for his testimony about what death is like. Do white buffalo roam the afterlife? they ask, but never get an answer.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

The stranger's pagan-tinged survival stands in opposition to institutionalized religious hypocrisy, represented by "merchant" Oldeman, who moans "I taught half [the town] how to pray" even while plotting a murderous path to prosperity. Astonishingly and inventively bloody, Questi's film is drenched in gory Catholic stigmata imagery, with the stranger tortured while lashed in the crucifixion position. Religion also tinge the finale of the original Django, with Nero using a graveyard cross to provide the necessary support for his lame shooting hand. These religious overtones are a distinctively Italian component of the spaghetti western, without an American counterpart in the original films' largely secular aims and content.

Film Forum's curated three-week examination of the genre is a reasonable cross-section (the only commonly cited staple that's missing is the 1970 comic hit They Call Me Trinity) of a genre still rarely closely examined except by dedicated cultists. The digital projections of Django and The Big Gundown are among the better shown there so far, but many films are on 35mm, a last-chance-to-see for New Yorkers. Dig in.

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Posted by ahillis at May 30, 2012 1:00 PM