03 March 2010

Movie Review: Navajo Joe

Navajo Joe (1966)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Burt Reynolds, Aldo Sambrell, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Fernando Rey.

Have you ever wondered where that bizarre but hypnotic “screaming music” in the Kill Bill films comes from? If you have, then please make the acquaintance of Navajo Joe. But watch him with that knife.

Navajo Joe was Sergio Corbucci’s first film after Django turned into a wild hit. Django came out in April, and Navajo Joe followed in November. Sergio Corbucci, the Great Italian Western Director, had arrived. Navajo Joe isn’t one of his classics, or at the level of Django for iconic power—but if you want wild action, here you go.

The Indian-centered Western was a popular theme in the earlier Eurowesterns, such as the “Winnetou” series in Germany and most Italian-produced films before 1963. Although Navajo Joe has a Native American lead character, it is much more a revenge/lone gunfighter film than any of the earlier Indian-themed Westerns. It was producer Dino De Laurentiis who fixed onto the idea of an Indian hero, in which Corbucci wasn’t that interested, and it shows. The movie has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans. White killers scalp them, and Joe gives a speech to a sheriff in a saloon about how he is much more a “true” American than a man whose parents were born in another country. Otherwise, Corbucci sees Joe as essentially another lone avenger character.

Joe is a Navajo brave—actually, he could be of any tribe, because the film squashes them together and more or less centers on the standard movie model Apache—on the trail of an enormous troop of bandits under the leadership of Mervyn “Vee” Duncan (Sambrell). Joe wants Duncan’s band dead because they killed his woman and massacred his whole tribe; although the dialogue reveals this late in the picture, the prologue showing the massacre of Joe’s tribe makes it obvious what is going on. Joe stalks and picks off the bandits, often leaving his victims with a Navajo symbol (or the film’s approximate guess of one) carved on their foreheads.

Duncan is a rare depraved Italian Western baddie with a motivation for his actions. He’s a self-loathing half-breed who hates that side of himself to the point that he’s made a career of scalping Indians and selling them to towns that pay a dollar a scalp. Sambrell, a veteran of many Westerns, puts great intensity into the role and gives the best performance in the film; he’s also got the backing of some fine character actors who specialized in bandits.

Duncan’s band loses its Indian-killing business in the town of Peyote, which has no more interest in paying for scalps. But a mysterious man visiting the town proposes that Duncan seize a train carrying a consignment of cash to the needy town of Esperanza. The bandits ambush the guard on the train and kill them and the civilians aboard, but Joe then takes the train himself and drives it and the money to Esperanza. When the bandits come to take back their loot, the townspeople look to Joe to protect them from Duncan’s planned massacre and save the money needed to revive the town. That’s right, a lone Indian plans to protect the cold hard cash of the white settlers. Vengeance carries a price in social justice, apparently.
Burt Reynolds’s involvement in the movie is tangled up in anecdotes. Reynolds has claimed that at the time he was cast, he believed that Sergio Leone was directing the film, and couldn’t back out when he found out it was actually Sergio Corbucci. “Wrong Sergio,” he liked to joke. Which makes me wonder that if Reynolds had tried acting in another Italian Western he would have ended up with Sergio Sollima. Corbucci, apparently, thought he was getting Marlon Brando for his lead. After Reynolds turned into a major star, he liked to make swipes at the film, such as cracking that the movie was only shown in airplanes and prisons, where people couldn’t walk out. Apparently Burt Reynolds feels better about the film today, at least according to its assistant director, Ruggero Deodato, who became an important genre director himself.

Reynolds’s performance is a split one. He’s poor with his dialogue scenes, and his post-dub sounds uninspired. If his voice weren’t so recognizable, I would almost assume that another actor had dubbed him. Whenever Joe has to remain still for any period of time, Reynolds discomfort with the part starts to seem obvious. But Joe in action is a sight to see, and Reynolds throws his whole body into making the character lethal and an acrobatic joy to behold. Joe might be a distant relative of the John Rambo who appeared in the movie version of First Blood and its sequels: a stalking hunter at home with nature and a bloody knife.

It’s the action of Navajo Joe that makes it worth seeing. This is one of Corbucci’s most straightforward films, with little meaty material outside of its set pieces. Thrills it does provide, since Corbucci was a superb action director. The film only takes a few breaks from Joe stealthily stabbing foes, leaping onto them from rocks, or pumping out shotgun shells in a frenzy. The bandits’ assault on the train is an excellent lead-slinging update on the attack on the ranch from Minnesota Clay. And it wouldn’t be a Corbucci film (or an Italian Western, really) without the hero receiving a savage beating from the sadistic baddies. But Joe himself also deals out a helluva a smackdown to the villain, one that’s nearly uncomfortable to watch as the blows from a shotgun barrel land in steady barrage. In the climax, Corbucci pulls out a fantastic in-the-face kill as an exclamation mark on all the action. You can see why some critics blew a gasket over the increasing violence in the genre when they saw a scene like this, but it’s a moment that must be a kick to watch with a full theater audience.
The movie manages to achieve a touch of transcendent beauty in its closing moments. The more emotional Sergio Corbucci who loves wistful and bleak endings emerges here; it’s a shame more of this passion didn’t get to the rest of the film, for it could have made Navajo Joe one of the director’s masterpieces. Instead it settles for being a good action Western.

The cast sports more women in important roles than most Italian Westerns, with the three saloon girls from Peyote who learn about the bandits’ plot playing key parts. The “lead” actress, the beautiful Nicoletta Machiavelli, has burn-the-screen charisma (and one killer name!) but her character of the half-Indian Estella is so insubstantial that it seems as if it were a part that got hacked down in rewrites until almost nothing was left. Estella would be the romantic interest for Joe if Sergio Corbucci were the sort of director who permitted such things.

The highest-profile actor in the supporting cast is Fernando Rey, who gained fame in the U.S. as the slippery French drug lord in The French Connection. Rey does nothing important here, however, as the town priest of Esperanza, and the dubbing takes away anything interesting he might have done with the bland part.

This was Ennio Morricone’s first score for Corbucci; this would turn into as successful a collaboration as that between Morricone and Leone, peaking with the brilliance of the music for The Great Silence three films later. Morricone purposely established a different style for his scores for Corbucci’s films to distinguish them from his scores for the other Sergio. Navajo Joe, however, is a transitional work that still has many similarities to the “Dollar Trilogy” films. The music is based on a screaming imitation of Native American chants, with a wordless female solo often wailing in a mixture of joy and pain. The rousing chant “Na-ha-ho Joe, Na-ha-ho Joe” is as catchy as anything Morricone ever wrote, although the semi-comprehensible English lyrics come across as a tad silly. “He’s like a myth, you read your name.” I think that’s what they’re saying.
Navajo Joe is Corbucci’s first Western shot in an anamorphic widescreen process: the ubiquitous Techniscope, “The Poor Man’s Cinemascope.” Photographer Silvano Ippoliti captures some wonderful vistas and compositions, such as wide shots showing all the bandits riding into town in a stretched out line, but I think Corbucci’s films feel more at home in a tighter frame.

United Artists distributed Navajo Joe (the title is the same in Italy) in the U.S. in late 1967 to cash-in on the fever from their release of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy.” This makes Navajo Joe the most widely shown of all Corbucci’s films in this country theatrically, and also the most accessible on DVD, since MGM/UA has put out a good widescreen transfer you can pick up in most video retail stores. It’s a no-frills disc, like much of the UA back catalog, but few Italian Westerns ever get such good visual treatment in Region 1 from a major distributor.

Because Navajo Joe is such a standard Italian actioner, it’s probably the easiest of Corbucci’s films for a newcomer to experience. No heavy politics, big violence that doesn’t hit extremes (with one exception), and subdued lunacy. If viewers can get over the strangeness of Reynolds’s black wig and wooden vocal delivery, they should have a good time. And they’ll be prepared for Corbucci’s greater works like Django, The Great Silence, and CompaƱeros.

Next in our Corbucci Series: The Hellbenders 
Previously: Minnesota Clay

Scream along with Ennio Morricone’s main theme: