24 February 2010

The Original Franco Nero Django

Django (1966)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Franco Nero, Jóse Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak, Eduardo Fajardo, Ángel Álvarez.

Since I’ve gotten into the Italian Western mood, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on Sergio Corbuccio, the “other Sergio” of the Eurowestern. After Sergio Leone, he’s the best and most influential director in the genre. I won’t approach the movies chronologically, and instead just take them as they strike me. And what strikes me right now (although hopefully not with a bullet) is Corbucci’s most financially successful film, Django. No, it isn’t about a Belgian gypsy swing guitar player missing a few fingers on his left hand, although I love that Django with true Lindy Hoppin’ passion. This Django wields a machine gun, and also has some problems with his hands.

The first Italian Western to set the mold for the emerging genre revision was Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari), released in 1964. Italian directors had filmed Westerns before, but usually in imitation of U.S. models or the German “Winnetou” films. The previous year’s Duello nel Texas (titled Gunfight at Red Sands in the English version, and sometimes known by its title in Spain, Gringo) moved away from the usual Indian themes of previous Eurowesterns, but it still hewed close to the U.S. style. However, A Fistful of Dollars devised something sparser and bleaker than the classic Old West, one with a particular “Roman” flavor, ambiguous self-interested heroes, utterly depraved villains, and higher body counts.

As successful as A Fistful of Dollars was, it was the smash success of two follow-up Westerns released four months apart, Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and Sergio Corbucci’s Django, that caused the Italian film industry to fly into a shooting frenzy of Western movies. Django, released in Italy in April 1966, is the most important Eurowestern after Leone’s body of work; the film’s phenomenal success in Europe, North Africa (a major market for these films), and South America created a mini-industry of Westerns using the name “Django,” even if the film has no connection to the original … or sported a character named “Django” anywhere in the cast. (Django Kill is a famous example of a “Django-in-Title-Only” movie.) The popularity of the movie in West Germany insured that any Western starring Franco Nero—and quite a few non-Westerns—would get re-titled and dubbed into a Django film when released there. Only one official sequel was ever made, however. More about that later.

Django cemented the tight-lipped, fast-shooting, objective loner as the figurehead of the Italian Western, and upped the level of violence and brutality from Leone’s movies. It also added hefty amounts of action pitched almost at comic-book level overkill, plus strange scenes of prostitutes wrestling in the mud for no good reason. As Leone’s films turned more mythic and stately, Django and other films from its director Corbucci pushed toward exuberant and almost feverish pacing and set-pieces. Perhaps Leone was simply too arch a filmmaker for most other directors to aspire to. But Django presented a model—and a budget—that was easier to package and release.

Unfortunately, Django isn’t as well known in the Anglophone world as it should be. It was banned outright from the U.K. for over twenty years because of its violence. In the U.S. it received only a short and barely promoted grindhouse release in the early ‘70s, and a badly transferred VHS tape from Magnum Films. Anchor Bay put the film on DVD in its English-dubbed version in 2001, but not until the beautiful Blue Underground disc did U.S. audiences get a chance to savor Franco Nero’s performance as the title character in his own language.

Brushing aside the history, how does Django hold up today? Extremely well, although not with the general watchability of, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Its story is simple, but it also goes off on a tangent midway that feels as if another film is trying to start. It only has one genuinely slow point, and contains enough surprises, shocks, kills, and cool lines from its lead that it makes for irresistible genre entertainment. It will appeal far more to general Western and European cinema enthusiasts than an average viewer, who might find the low-budget look and slower section harder to enjoy. But it’s definitely a very good, often close to great, Western action picture—and quintessential viewing for people who want to explore the Eurowestern.
The secret of Django’s success is director Corbucci and star Franco Nero. Corbucci had directed three previous Westerns, all the year before Django: the forgettable duo of Massacre at Grand Canyon and Ringo and His Golden Pistol (a film he abandoned), and the interesting Minnesota Clay. But this was Corbucci’s true arrival in the land Leone was trailblazing, and he throws himself into it with over-the-top intensity. He was quite literally willing to get himself and his characters into the mud, and this film is filled with mud. Corbucci was an undisciplined director, adoring jittery camera movements, pans, and zooms, (a fistfight between Django and a rowdy bandit in a saloon flies all over the place) but it all has a sort of lunatic energy.

Nero, only twenty-three at the time and made-up with lines around his eyes to give him an aged look, is perhaps the greatest Italian Western star after Clint Eastwood. Steely and cool, and with a low, gravely voice that makes every thing he says an invitation to sudden and surprising violence, Nero is the epitome of awesome in a Western film. He’s a killing machine who never misses and can wipe out six men in one second … or forty in about two minutes. Give him an hour, he could probably annihilate the entire population of Arizona.

Django has some heroic and chivalric qualities of the stalwart cowboy heroes of U.S. films. But not many. When he strides into a dying town caught between warring factions, it isn’t on a horse but on his own feet, with a coffin dragged through the grime behind him. It’s a perfect Gothic symbol for this new sort of Western, with a hero pulling death along with him. The coffin contains a particular sort of death; the kind reserved for the southern racist fanatics and the exiled Mexican bandits who have made the town a war-zone empty of all except prostitutes and the shabby hotelier who hosts them.

The concept of a town broken and silenced between rivals is taken straight from A Fistful of Dollars. But Django doesn’t come to Mud City to play the Mexicans led by General Hugo (Bódalo) and the Klansmen under Major Jackson (Fajardo) against each other for a profit à la Clint Eastwood. He’s come for revenge against Jackson and his racists, although the movie dwells only briefly on the history of Django’s tragedy. Our hero takes on the job quickly, enraging Jackson after he shoots some of his men on the edge of town while they are trying to burn the prostitute Maria (Nusciak) on a cross. Django later comes face to face with Jackson in the town’s only surviving business, a saloon, and proves he has a killer behind-the-head pistol shot. Jackson’s army of forty men in red hoods (apparently a better choice for the movie’s color scheme than white hoods) then descend on Django in the soggy main street, where they meet Django’s “Little Friend”—the machine gun he stores in the coffin. The death tally skyrockets.
The machine-gun massacre is the film’s highlight; who wouldn’t thrill to watching a Western hero chop through a sea of Klansmen, the sort of bad guys who target poor working Mexicans as a substitute for skeet-shooting? The killings aren’t overly graphic; Sam Peckinpah would pack more meat into his squibs three years later with The Wild Bunch. But it’s still an extreme scene unlike most Westerns made up to the time.

Django never again reaches this level of intensity, and instead peals off in a different plot direction as the hero helps General Hugo steal a gold shipment from a Mexican fort over the border. Corbucci certainly makes some valiant attempts at reaching the previous excitement, such as the notorious ear-cutting scene that’s responsible for the film getting banned in some countries, and inspiring Quentin Tarantino to try a similar gag in Reservoir Dogs.

For the finale, Django gets gutsy again, delivering a brutal beating and a slow and tense finale in a twisted graveyard, which looks like the same one that Gregory Peck and David Warner would dig around in ten years later in The Omen. The Papal trappings of many Italian Westerns were never more obvious than here, where a prayer turns into the litany for a final duel among crosses.

Nero dominates the cast. Except for Spanish actor Ángel Álvarez as the comic hotel owner Nathaniel, the rest of the performers are an average bunch. Neither villain Bódalo or Fajardo (Agrentine and Spanish respectively) makes much impression, and Fajardo’s Major Jackson gets too much vacation time in the film’s middle, even though he’s the target of Django’s vengeance. Italian actress Loredana Nusciak has a naturalistic beauty for the setting, but Maria is a vacant character whose role hovers as undefined for too long as she gets swapped around between men. It feels as if Corbucci included her simply for the sake of having a female lead.

Luis Bacalov’s music is good, although he isn’t yet at the peak of his Western composing skills. His theme song is memorable, even if the lyrics tend toward a romanticism that doesn’t fit Django well. There’s also a rambunctious Mexican-flavored piece for the robbing of the fort, shades of what Bacalov would do later that year in A Bullet for the General.

Costume and set designer Carlo Simi is the architect of the Eurowestern look, and had a long association with Sergio Leone. For Corbucci, Simi provides a much different style, with emphasis on a damp and murky wild west. There’s much more green than in other westerns, but instead of a lush prarie the vegetation looks more like grotty and fetid mold clinging to moist stones. But mud is the principle design element, which makes the blood-red scarves on Jackson’s racists murderers leap out. The movie has tighter compositions because photographer Enzo Barboni shot it in 1.66:1 “flat” aspect ratio instead of the widescreen Techniscope process that was popular at the time in Europe. It was the right choice for the grimy and sometime claustrophobic West of Django.

Django is a must-see film for anyone interested in the history of the Western, and the first stopping place for a viewer who has seen all of Leone’s films and wants to know what other Italian Westerns are worth his or her time. There are better films to come, and Corbucci would mature into superior pictures over the next few years, such as The Great Silence, The Mercenary, and Compañeros, but Django is as good a place to start as any. And it’s easily available in the states. The Blue Underground DVD has the original Italian dub, and not only is the original script superior, but the Italian makes a huge difference in Nero’s performance. The actor who dubbed him in the original English dub has too friendly and high-pitched a voice, nothing like the distinctive baritone of Nero in part. Most Italian Westerns, even those without a U.S. star, work fine in English dubs: half the actors are Spanish, French, or German, and they get dubbed by Italian actors. But Django is a 100% superior film when Nero has his own voice. I never felt too joyous about the movie until I heard the Italian dub and heard Franco Nero roll the R on the world “porco” as he insults Major Jackson.
Nero would return to play the role once more in the only official sequel, the strange Django Strikes Again (Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno). Released in 1987, when the Western was as absent in Italy as it was in the U.S., the sequel is really an excuse to mount a Rambo: First Blood, Part II copycat, a subgenre huge in the country at the time. Django, living in a monastery and dressed similar to another famous Nero character, Keoma, takes a cruise into the Amazon jungle. It has a few decent moments, such as the first time Django pulls out his trademark machine gun from a grave, but it hardly seems like the sort of story that would bring the real Django out of retirement. Corbucci was too ill to direct (he died in 1990), so Nello Rossati helmed the film under the pseudonym “Ted Archer.”

The screen captures posted here I took from the Blue Underground DVD, and should give you an idea of how beautiful a restoration job the company did with the film.

Next in our Corbucci series: Minnesota Clay

Enjoy Bacalov’s theme song: