January 2, 2013

RETRO ACTIVE: Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (1967)

by Nick Schager

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed revisionist Spaghetti Western Django Unchained.]

Unrelated to Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) save for its title, which was tacked on at the last second for marketing purposes, Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! takes the Spaghetti Western into the realm of the grotesque and surreal—and, in the process, proves to be one of the genre's all-time unsung gems. Giulio Questi's saga is a mishmash of the biblical, the Shakespearean, and the outright peculiar, tracking an unnamed Stranger (Tomas Milian)—ostensibly the story's Django, though he never drags around a coffin—as he rises from the dead to chase down the bandit comrades who double-crossed him out of his share of gold and then shot him and his Mexican mates. The Stranger's Christ-like resurrection will be followed much later by his crucifixion at the hands of a crime boss named Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel). Such continuity screwiness, however, is part and parcel of the hodgepodge nature of the film, which will soon introduce a saloon singer named Flory (Marilù Tolo) who doubles as a desert town Lady Macbeth, as well as a woman (Patrizia Valturri) locked away in a room by her wacko religious husband Alderman (Francisco Sanz) for daring to love another.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

After being saved by two Native Americans, who crave knowledge of what the "other side" is like, Django finds his betrayer Oaks (Piero Lulli) in a small town on the edge of the desert that his Native American saviors call "The Unhappy Place." In truth, it's more like "The Insane Place," given that an intro pan through the street reveals a naked child, a young girl strangling a boy, a woman crazily biting someone's hand, and another boy's face underneath the boot of a smiling man. The Stranger's arrival as a vengeful spirit in this hellish settlement recalls High Plains Drifter, though director Giulio Questi and screenwriter Franco Arcalli's tale deals with greed—and the violence and misery it entails—in a manner far more loony than Clint Eastwood's daring revisionist Western. Discovering that Oaks and his men have been killed and hung for their gold, the Stranger quickly winds up in the midst of a battle for the precious loot between saloon owner Templer (Milo Quesada), the God-fearing Alderman, and kingpin Sorrow. These cretins are all gripped with an avarice that leads them to betray and murder at a moment's notice, while the Stranger himself participates in their machinations with an attitude that's pitched somewhere between existential anguish and laid-back disinterest.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

The Stranger's ambiguous attitude toward the events ensnaring him enhances the overriding vagueness of Django Kill, which vacillates between strangeness, goriness and sociopolitical commentary at random. Fully restored to its nasty original form after years of censorship, the film is outright gruesome in its depiction of both the scalping of one of the Stranger's Native American sidekicks—an act that, witnessed by white men smiling and licking their lips, is part of the film's censure of the treatment of America's indigenous population—and in the sight of Oaks being literally torn apart by the townsfolk, who covet the gold bullets lodged in his body. Meanwhile, sexual obsession comes in the form of Templer's son Evan (Ray Lovelock), whose lust for dad's nefarious paramour Flory leads him to slice up her clothes in a fit of unbridled erotic violence. The fact that Evan later commits suicide after being kidnapped by Sorrow and, via a shot of his shirt being removed, apparently raped by the villain's homosexual henchmen, only further transforms the proceedings into a surreal hothouse stew of brutality, gluttony and desire.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

Such madness is clearly meant to convey the destructiveness of greed, and yet Django Kill feels driven less by moralistic intent than passionate manias, which bubble to the surface in unexpected and explosive ways. Shot in endlessly tight, sweaty close-ups by regular Sergio Leone collaborator Franco Delli Colli, and visually bolstered by rapidly edited sequences that lead to hallucinatory horror, Questi's film has no dramatic cohesion, and Milian—routinely sporting a headband and a vest that reveals his naked chest—alternates between hysterical overacting and confused underacting. That unevenness, however, is indicative of the omnipresent craziness that defines the action and peaks during a finale that involves Sorrow joking around with his parrot—which demands, and then receives, an alcoholic beverage—and Alderman and his wife, whom The Stranger had previously wooed, going up in flames, albeit not before Alderman has his head drenched in molten gold. It's a striking vision of man being mutated beyond repair by his own ravenous materialistic hunger, and one that's aptly followed up by the final image of the Stranger riding off toward the horizon—a clichéd moment turned bonkers by two foreground children holding string over their eyes and crowing "I don't believe in you!", as if to challenge the existence of the Stranger and, by extension, this bizarre film itself.

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Posted by ahillis at January 2, 2013 7:00 PM