late Sergio Corbucci (1926-1990) had a long, prolific career in the Italian
film industry as a screenwriter and director, but little exposure in U.S. theaters
by comparison with his total output.IMDB credits him with sixty-three titles as director.By my count, eleven arrived on Stateside
screens, none of them earning Corbucci any real notice at the time.All were genre films -- first sword-and-sandal
movies, then Westerns -- before it was cool for critics to treat such products
seriously, especially dubbed imports.Three toga-and beefcake pictures -- “Goliath and the Vampires” (1961),
“Duel of the Titans” (1961), and “The Slave” (1962) -- were released on
drive-in and double-feature bills in the Hercules era.“Minnesota Clay” (1964) had a 1966 run
disguised as an American B-Western.“Navajo Joe” (1966) passed through theaters in 1967, earning a typically
dismissive review from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times (“results aren’t
worth a Mexican peso”).You had to use a
magnifying glass to see Corbucci’s name on the movie poster.In his 1994 autobiography, Burt Reynolds said
he only took the offer to star in the picture because he thought the director
would be the other Sergio . . . Leone.“The Hellbenders” (1967) came and went, also camouflaged as an American
production and promoting Joseph Cotten’s starring role.Cotten was a fine actor but hardly big
box-office in ’67.
Mercenary” (1968) enjoyed a higher profile in a 1970 release, but “Alberto
Grimaldi Presents . . .” dominated the credits, including the cover blurb on a
paperback novelization that touted the movie as “the bloodiest ‘Italian’
Western of them all . . . by the producer of ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’
” “Companeros” (1970) didn’t open in the
U.S. until 1972, and then only with limited distribution. “Sonny and Jed” (1972) followed in 1974. Neither made much of an impression as the
Spaghetti cycle waned here. “Shoot
First, Ask Questions Later” (1975), a sad attempt at comedy in the Spaghetti
twilight, loped through rural drive-ins. “Super Fuzz” (1980; U.S. distribution, 1982) was a Terence Hill police
comedy that the Times’ Herbert Mitgang said had “one funny gag a few minutes
before the end.” At least Mitgang noted
Corbucci and Hill by name as “longtime makers of spaghetti westerns.”
you were nostalgic for Italian Westerns in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, after the
cycle had come and gone in the States, you could read about Corbucci in
Laurence Staig and Tony Williams’ “Italian Western: The Opera of Violence”
(1975) and Christopher Frayling’s “Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans
from Karl May to Sergio Leone” (1981). There you would learn that one of Corbucci’s Westerns that never made it
to the States, “Django” (1966), was as wildly popular and influential overseas
as Sergio Leone’s movies. But good luck
in ever seeing it or Corbucci’s other Westerns, unless you might catch “The
Hellbenders” in a pan-and-scan, commercial-infested print on local TV.
to the advent of home video, cable, and streaming internet -- and in
particular, DVD and Blu-ray in which his films can be seen in the proper aspect
ratio and definition -- both the committed and the curious now have access to
virtually all of Corbucci’s thirteen Westerns, even the obscure “Grand Canyon
Massacre” (1964), his first powder-burner, co-directed with Albert Band. Is Quentin Tarantino justified in praising Corbucci
as “one of the great Western directors of all time”? Today, you don’t have to take Tarantino’s
word for it, or not; you can judge for yourself.
most accounts, a Corbucci Top Five would include “Django,” The Great Silence,”
“The Mercenary,” “Companeros,” and “The Specialist” (1969). The first four are all in relatively easy
reach in various formats and platforms. “Django,” “The Great Silence,” and “Companeros” have had domestic DVD
releases. “The Mercenary” hasn’t, but it
shows up periodically on cable channels, albeit in an edited version, and you
can find good DVD and Blu-ray editions with an English voice track through
Amazon and import dealers on the web.
Specialist” remains more elusive. Written and directed by Corbucci during his peak period, originally
titled “Gli specialisti” and also known as “Specialists” and “Drop Them or I’ll
Shoot,” this Western never played in U.S. theaters, has never had an American
video release, and is hard to find even on the collectors‘ market in a print
with an English-language option. Not to
be confused with other, unrelated films of the same name, including a mediocre
1994 Sylvester Stallone crime drama and an obscure 1975 B-movie with Adam West,
it is past due for official U.S. release on DVD. Or, better yet, on hi-def Blu-ray to give Corbucci’s
compositions and Dario Di Palma’s rich Techniscope and Technicolor
cinematography their due sharpness and color on home screens.
Hud Dixon (Johnny Hallyday, sometimes billed as "Halliday"), a notorious gunslinger, returns to his hometown of Blackstone, Nevada. His brother Charlie had agreed to transport the money in the Blackstone bank to a neighboring, more secure location to keep it out of the hands of El Diablo (Mario Adorf), a rapacious bandit. The shipment disappeared in transit, the townsfolk accused Charlie of stealing it and lynched him, and the money is still missing. Hud arrives to investigate. As soon as he rides in, the townspeople, fearful of his reputation, want to lynch him too. Three women show an interest in Hud: the seductive Widow Pollicutt (Francoise Fabian), who inherited the bank from her late husband; good-hearted saloon girl Valencia (Angela Luce); and Sheba (Sylvie Fennec), a pensive teenager whom Hud rescues from a beating by her abusive father, Boot (Serge Marquand). Hud suspects that Boot was involved in his brother’s death and the disappearance of the missing money, but he isn’t sure how.
“The Specialist” deals in three favorite themes of Spaghettis in general and Corbucci in particular: the enigmatic gunman of superhuman ability, the town with secrets to keep, and greed as an overriding human passion. The movie’s outdoor location photography in the Italian Alps, all towering mountains and green valleys, gives it a different look from the sun-blasted Spanish desert terrain of most Spaghettis. It also underscores, in contrast, the meanness of Blackstone and its residents. Like the inhabitants of the towns in Corbucci’s “Navajo Joe,” “Django,” and “The Great Silence,” the people of Blackstone are cowardly and grasping. Christopher Frayling called the movie an “anti-hippie polemic” because the characters include four scruffy, self-proclaimed young “revolutionaries” who drift into town and do little more than sit around smoking pot, freeloading, and harassing the sheriff. One of them looks eerily like Michael Jackson in his early-‘80s Sgt. Pepper jacket. Another is discovered to be a girl when her shirt is yanked open, baring her breasts (she’s blase about it). Near the end, abandoning even lip service to their avowed “peace and love” philosophy, they gleefully find guns and order the townspeople to strip naked and crawl in the dirt.
Frayling is right as far as his comment goes, and accounts indicate that Corbucci loathed hippies. “There are too many real problems in the world for me to accept the disinterested passivity of these people,” Corbucci said in an interview quoted by Alex Cox. However, the script doesn’t discriminate in its jaundiced view. The movie opens with the four hippies themselves being humiliated during a stagecoach robbery by El Diablo’s gang, while the well-dressed, paying passengers stand passively by, at gunpoint, relieved not to be the ones being bullied. Once the other major supporting characters are introduced, they hardly present positive role models either. The strikingly beautiful Widow Pollicutt is devious and predatory, the sheriff is well-meaning but ineffective, like Frank Wolff’s lawman in the Smokey Bear hat in “The Great Silence,” and El Diablo is a violent egomaniac who keeps a scribe on hand to write up his exploits in glowing “Art of the Deal” terms. Valencia and Sheba are the only supporting characters presented sympathetically. When Hud is wounded, they’re the only ones to step up and help him. But they lack the social status and strength of personality to counterbalance the spiritual poverty of the community. The film ends on a typically bleak Corbucci note after the mystery of the missing money is solved in a barrage of gunfire between Hud and El Diablo’s invading gang.
Johnny Hallyday is a French pop/rock superstar whose career began in the Elvis era. His popularity in Europe and Asia may have helped the overseas market for “The Specialist,” an Italian-French-German production. At the same time, since he was and is largely unknown in the U.S., the casting may have chilled any odds for a theatrical release of the picture Stateside during a period when Spaghettis with American names on the marquee at least had a foothold. With an outfit and demeanor that simulate Franco Nero’s, Corbucci’s better-known leading man, he’s surprisingly good as the pistolero of few words. Francoise Fabian has a nude scene, rare in Spaghettis before the 1970s. There’s an overly long head-butting scene that’s supposed to be funny, a harbinger of the lame slapstick in Corbucci’s final Spaghetti, “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later,” but thanks to the wonders of home video, it can be fast-forwarded through without any harm to the rest of the movie.
According to the online Spaghetti Western Database, there have been several DVD editions of “The Specialist” overseas, but some are now out-of-print and none appears to have English dubbing or subtitles. With some detective work, you can find at least one good copy on the collectors’ market with English captions, but only die-hard Corbucci fans are likely to invest the time to search. A version of the film is posted in its entirety on YouTube, without options in English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTtwDoYe18A Unless you understand French (the voice track) or read Portuguese (the subtitles), you’ll have some difficulty in following the story. Corbucci enthusiasts would welcome a good domestic multi-format release, with English subtitles and supplemental extras, to give “The Specialist” wider visibility among home video audiences and critics.
FRED BLOSSER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE ADVENTURE NOVEL "THE SAVAGE PACK". CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM AMAZON