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January 07, 2020

The Specialists


Le Specialiste / Gli specialisti / Drop Them or I'll Shoot
Sergio Corbucci - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Unlike some of the better known Italian westerns by Sergio Corbucci that featured marquee names that would still be meaningful for American viewers, The Specialists was topped by Johnny Hallyday. A major star in Europe known as the "French Elvis", Hallyday was virtually unknown in the U.S. except for a few Francophiles. As best as i can tell, The Specialists was never released theatrically in the U.S., and may well have never been intended for a wider international release. The two language tracks available are Italian and French. Perhaps this is a result of the use of the Italian track, but the acting seems much broader, more exaggerated, especially in the comic moments. Even more conspicuous is the use of nudity, a very infrequent element in any westerns even after the establishment of a more sexually liberated cinema in the late 1960s. Even in comparison to his other serious westerns, The Specialists may well be Corbucci's most nihilistic film.

The blond hair, unshaven face, and occasional cigar may remind some of Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's films. Hallyday's anti-social, anti-hero, gunslinger is named Hud, the same name as that of Martin Ritt's contemporary western with Paul Newman. Corbucci's Hud goes to the small town of Blackstone, Nevada seeking revenge for his brother, lynched after being accused of stealing money he was transporting on behalf of the town's bank. Hud is introduced saving a group of stagecoach passengers from being killed by El Diablo's bandit gang, recognizable by their comically oversized sombreros. The sheriff of Blackstone, the beefy Gastone Morschin in a more sympathetic role, tries to maintain law and order by disarming anyone who comes to town. If the basic premise seems familiar, Corbucci adds various unexpected twists.

In the same year that she played the title role in Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, Francoise Fabian portrayed Blackstone's banker, Virginia Pollicut. In one of the few comic digressions, Fabian invites Moschin into her bedroom for some conversation, casually asking him to stay while she takes a bath. What follows includes playful banter, strategic dropping of a bar of soap, and a completely uninhibited actress.

Without giving too much away, consider this quote from Sergio Corbucci about The Specialists: "The idea was to show that I was against the hippies. Listen, at this time the Manson business hadn't happened. . . . I am against drugs and hippies. I wanted to denounce them in The Specialists. I'm really violently against their attitude, and I hate Easy Rider."

Did Quentin Tarantino read Alex Cox's book on Italian westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die, the source of this quote? Perhaps Tarantino had seen the subtitle free Italian DVD. Remember that when Tarantino's Rick Dalton goes to Italy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he stars in a fictional western, Nebraska Jim by the very real Corbucci.

How this connects is that there is a small group of hippie type characters that appear in the opening of The Specialists, tossed in a pool of mud and shit by El Diablo's gang. They later show up in Blackstone, primarily as a source of annoyance for Hud. Where Corbucci's film roughly parallels Tarantino's is when these seemingly playful clowns show their own taste for power and desire to humiliate, and possibly execute, the town's citizens near the end of the story. If Corbucci is to be believed that his film was made before the Manson family made headlines, with the film released in November 1969, he apparently had an uncanny premonition that is jarring to say the least.

The Specialists is also unusual with the location filming in the French Alps. These are green fields surrounded by mountains. There is also a sequence with Hallyday and Moschin riding together in a narrow gulch between the sides of two mountains, emphasizing the shared spaces that bring them together, that are seemingly inescapable. The production design makes use of the wide screen and horizontal planes. Use of framing within the frame can be seen in a shot introducing the quartet of photo-hippies, huddled together between the front and back legs of a horse, and later, in a shot of townspeople observing a gunfight from behind the horizontal window of a saloon.

Alex Cox provides a conversational style to his commentary track. His feelings towards the The Specialists seems to have mellowed since the time he wrote about the film in his book, 10,000 Ways to Die. One interesting bit of information is how The Specialists originated as what was to be a collaboration between Corbucci and Lee Van Cleef. While there is no explanation as why there was an apparent falling out, Corbucci was later approached by a French producer looking for a vehicle for Johnny Hallyday. Cox points out what he considers some of the films weaknesses, but also makes clear that the blu-ray is the complete version with a moment of reckoning of the townspeople that has been cut from released versions.

If some of the digressions and use of nudity make this unusual for westerns in general, there are still enough elements to signify The Specialists as very much a Corbucci film. While the politics are played down in comparison to a film like The Mercenary, the bandit "El Diablo" believes he is speaking on behalf of the Mexican population that has been displaced by American westward migration. Hud is another one of Corbucci's anti-heroes who experiences a form of resurrection prior to a final judgment. The use of the graveyard is a favored location in several film. This blu-ray release is very welcomed - and if not quite as good as acknowledged genre masterpieces such as Django, still a reminder that serious consideration should be given to more than one maker of Italian westerns named Sergio.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 7, 2020 12:52 PM