The Specialists | Jeremy Isaac hails the return of the French Elvis in a sparkling Blu-ray 4k restoration of the 1960s Baguetti Western
Sacré bleux! There are 100s of Italian Westerns, loads of Spanish ones and even a few Brazilian entries (Glauber Rocha’s Antonio Das Mortes, for instance). But a French spaghetti Western? The Specialists is one of only a handful of ‘Camembert’ or ‘Baguetti’ oaters which, in itself, makes the film worthy of interest. It was helmed by Italian director Sergio Corbucci, known for violent spaghetti Westerns such as Django (1966) starring Franco Nero and The Great Silence (1968) with Jean-Louis Trintignant, as well as action comedies featuring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, who were also paired in Enzo Barboni’s Trinity entries. The screenplay was penned by Corbucci with writer Sabatino Ciuffini, from a story the two conceived with the help, it is rumoured, of Hollywood spag icon Lee Van Cleef. The movie was also released under the eyebrow-raising title Drop Them or I’ll Shoot, and is only now enjoying its home entertainment debut, half a century after its original premiere.
The film boasts neither top Hollywood stars such as Eastwood, Fonda, Bronson, Coburn, Steiger or Robards, nor classic European faces like Nero, Cardinale, Volonte, Koch, Trintignant, Kinski or, indeed Hill or Spencer. What it does have is Johnny Hallyday – the French Elvis, a Gallic music legend for nearly 60 years who sold more than 110 million records worldwide, earning 40 gold records, 22 platinum and three diamond, and who appeared in scores of films, including the award-winning supernatural 2002 hit L’homme du Train and the 2010 Macau-set Triad shoot-em-up Vengeance. He’s the perfect tough-guy selection for this underrated but rambunctious Franco-Italian-West German cowboy thriller.
The unsung but stalwart supporting cast includes Italian actor and producer Gastone Moschin, who found fame in the Amici Miei film trilogy (1975–1985), French actress Françoise Fabian, best-known for Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and Éric Rohmer’s 1969 French New-Wave drama My Night at Maude’s, Parisian ingénue Sylvie Fennec, who would later grace Goodbye Emmanuelle (1977) and German thesp Mario Adorf of Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum fame, who had recently turned down the role of General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and would also decline a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1972).
The story is simple and deliciously predictable: chainmail-wearing shootist Hud Dixon (Johnny) arrives in the remote frontier town of Blackstone where his brother was falsely accused of robbing a bank and then lynched. Hud is out for revenge, and through a series of cataclysmic pistol exchanges, head-banging bar-room brawls and a furious shootout with juveniles, during which the townsfolk are forced to lie face-down on the main drag while naked, he gradually uncovers the truth behind his brother’s murder and the stolen cash. Along the way he clashes with humanitarian Sheriff Gedeon (Moschin), seductive but formidable lady banker Virginia Pollicut (Fabien), the beautiful but innocent Sheba (Fennec) and one-armed Mexican bandit and former childhood friend El Diablo (Adorf). ‘If Hud comes here, he’ll have to kill every one of us,’ observes Gedeon at one point, and he’s not far wrong.
The dramatic locations represent a radical departure from the genre’s habitual backdrop of windswept Spanish/Italian desert townscapes. To be sure, the dust flies as fast and as high as the bullets in the explosive main-street gun battles, as snipers fall from church towers and El Diablo’s gang is ignominiously levelled. But the suggested Nevada setting of snow-covered mountain fastnesses and pine-clad escarpments (filmed in the Dolomites near Cortina d’Ampezzo in Veneto, the location for The Great Silence) evokes a sombre, wintry feeling reminiscent of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) or Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) – including a gloriously filthy mud bath. This newly restored version showcases the luminescent, crystal-clear camerawork of cinematographer Dario Di Palma (he famously lensed Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction Of Mimi in 1972), whose sweeping vistas across the stark but majestic landscape take the breath away.
The music score is impressive, too. OK, it’s not Ennio Morricone, or Franco Micalizzi (Barboni’s Trinity films) or Bruno Nicolai or Marcello Giombini (Gianfranco Parolini’s Sabata trilogy) – it’s Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, famous for many Hollywood scores including Orson Welles’s Othello (1951), Henry Hathaway’s Legend of the Lost (1957) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller (1974), as well as a clutch of 1960s sword-and-sandle epics – think Mediterranean party music. Here he juxtaposes the tried-and-tested elements of alternately grating and twanging electric guitar chords, haunting whistle and flute, menacing tom-toms and piano runs, delicate orchestrated passages, obligatory, doom-laden chimes and the light, harpsichord-like touch and offbeat vocals of the mellow but unmistakenably Euro theme tune.
This intriguing offering may not be on the same level as Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – and it didn’t come out in the UK until 1973 – but it certainly gives Django, Silence, Trinity and Sabata a run for their money. It also contains satisfyingly obvious nods to most of the genre’s eccentric iconography, in which devotees will luxuriate, and boasts unusual locations and strong turns from an out-of-the-ordinary European cast, topped by a towering performance from charismatic rock god Hallyday. Incroyable!
The Specialists is now available for the first time on home video in the UK as part of the Eureka Classics range from Eureka Entertainment with the following special features…
• 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration
• Restored Italian and French audio options with English subtitles
• Rarely heard partial English dub track
• Original English script
• Audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (OMG! This is fantastic. Apart from the film, this is the reason why you should add this release to your collection as you get loads of insides about the film, but Cox is also very entertaining)
• Cultural historian Austin Fisher on The Specialists (this is an insightful overlook from the Bournemouth University associate professor of popular culture about the film’s themes, legacy and parallels)
• French and Italian trailers
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Western authority Howard Hughes on both the film, and the ‘French-western’ sub-genre
[Editor’s note]: This piece was written by Jeremy Isaac, whose knowledge of the Western genre is unsurpassed. A brilliant features writer and sub-editor, he can be contacted via the following links for any possible freelance work: uk.linkedin.com/in/jerryjourno1 and jerryjourno58.wordpress.com/
Posted on May 27, 2020, in Western, World Cinema and tagged Eureka Entertainment, Johnny Hallyday, Sergio Corbucci, The Specialists. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
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