“The Good, the Bad and the Violent.”
The term “spaghetti western” is given to any western produced in Europe, mainly because most of them were Italian-made in whole or in part. Germany and Spain were also quite active producers. Spain actually provided many of the exteriors for all the European-produced westerns. Between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, over 600 such films were made. For most people, the Sergio Leone trilogy starring Clint Eastwood produced in 1964 to 1966 really marks the beginning of the spaghetti western, but actually, Italians were producing westerns with American expatriate actors like Rod Cameron or Gordon Scott as early as 1961. With the Leone films, many of the genre’s basic components were set, however: no-name bounty hunters, searches for fortunes, revenge for some sort of betrayal, dusty/desert settings, Mexican/American Southwest locales, no dearth of violence and killings, and distinctive music from the likes of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai.
The popularity of the spaghetti western faded in the late 1970s just as did the interest in westerns generally. In the case of the spaghetti western, the harbingers were the appearance of entries that began to parody themselves — particularly the Trinity series featuring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer — and then the need to combine several of the more popular characters in one movie in order to draw in the filmgoer.
We’ve already had a dozen or more of these westerns made available on DVD — many by Anchor Bay as well as the Leone trio from MGM. Now Blue Underground, by way of Image Entertainment, has released an attractive box set containing four titles, three of which have not previously been out on DVD. Three of the films are from the genre’s heyday, while the other is from its waning years. Among the four is Django, only available in the box set. The other titles — Django Kill!, Mannaja, and Run Man Run — are also available individually.
Django — Django arrives in town pulling a coffin behind him, having already irritated the region’s two warring factions by rescuing an attractive young woman from their clutches. The two factions are a group of Mexican bandits and a Ku Klux Klan-like gang of outlaws. Django finds himself tested in a series of confrontations with both factions, coming out on top in unlikely fashion. Finally, however, he is subdued by the KKK gang and his hands are crushed as punishment for his interference. Despite this seemingly impossible-to-overcome handicap, Django drags himself to one final confrontation in the town’s graveyard.
Django Kill! — A stranger (never identified as the “Django” of the title) allies himself with a gang of Mexicans and Americans who steal a gold shipment from a stagecoach. Soon after, however, the Americans double-cross the Mexicans and leave them all for dead including the stranger. The stranger manages to survive with the aid of two itinerant Indians. He tracks the gang to a town known as “The Unhappy Place” only to find that most of the gang has already been dealt with by the townspeople. But there are factions within the townspeople that quickly come to the fore when the prospect of keeping the stolen gold arises. The stranger soon finds himself in the middle of a virtual war filled with torture, violence, and death.
Mannaja — Blade is a bounty hunter who seems equally proficient with a small hatchet or gun. After capturing an outlaw on the run by cutting off his hand, Blade takes his prisoner to a nearby town. His welcome there is far from warm. It soon transpires that the town is under the thumb of McGowan (the owner of a nearby silver mine that employs most of the townspeople) and his chief lieutenant, Voller. Blade manages to make an enemy of Voller almost immediately, and his dealings with McGowan are no more rewarding. McGowan’s daughter becomes a flashpoint for a split between Voller and McGowan and that draws Blade into a violent confrontation between the two. Blade takes McGowan’s side, but it soon becomes apparent that there is a past history between Blade and McGowan that will complicate any lasting relationship.
Run Man Run — Cuchillo is a thief and general troublemaker (with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of knives) who finds himself in jail with a Mexican revolutionary. The latter offers Cuchillo money to help him escape even though he’s scheduled to be released in a day’s time anyway. It appears that there are a number of people interested in the revolutionary’s release because he knows the whereabouts of a cache of gold that is intended to finance the Mexican revolution. Things do not go quite according to plan, and Cuchillo finds himself holding the secret about the gold’s whereabouts and on the run from pursuing bandits, American agents, a sheriff-turned-bounty-hunter named Cassidy, and Cuchillo’s own fiancée.
Django has two things going for it — a great opening in which Django is seen dragging a coffin behind him as he makes his way across the landscape while the credits roll, and a town’s main street that has more character than all the rest of the film combined. The coffin angle is a pretty good one, as it builds some nice suspense as to what the coffin contains. It doesn’t seem likely it’s a body, given Django’s nature. His handiness with a gun suggests that dead bodies are a dime a dozen to him, so why would he be lugging one around? When he decides to face down four-dozen men singlehanded with only the coffin at his side, we begin to have an inkling of the sort of thing it might contain. As for the town’s main street, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more muddy thoroughfare in any film. It seems to have its own source of water to keep it muddy too. Anyway, it’s a great place for numerous dead bodies to fall as well as an arena for a fight between three female characters. Beyond the coffin and the street, there’s little else to recommend this film, however. I know some people extol its virtues in the spaghetti western canon, but it’s hard to see why. None of the main characters is very interesting, and Django himself is a very poor man’s Man with No Name. The story is another variation on the Yojimbo plot that A Fistful of Dollars had already mined to better effect. The acting is in general poor; the action scenes are even more unbelievable than usual; and the dubbing is terrible. The latter is a concern because listening to westerns in the original Italian just doesn’t seem right, somehow.
Django Kill! (also known as If You Live, Shoot!) is certainly a cut above Django. It’s a longer film (almost two hours) with a more coherent storyline and much better-defined characters. The length does work against it a bit, as the film bogs down noticeably in the middle, however. Django Kill! is generally considered to be one of the stranger and more controversial entries in the spaghetti western genre. Several graphic scenes cut from the English-language release have been restored to this version. Even without them, though, the film is a strange amalgam of resurrection, torture, violence, the supernatural, vampire bats, poison darts, sexual degradation, and a golden mask that highlights the film’s climax. The set design is effectively done, with good attention to detail. Tomas Milian as the usual no-name protagonist gives a fairly animated performance, but most of the rest of the performers are adequate at best. The English dubbing is an improvement over that in Django, although one song early in the film sounds laughable.
Mannaja (also known as A Man Called Blade) is in many ways the best film in this set. Ironic then that it comes from the period of the genre’s final gasp. After the initial burst of creativity in the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, the genre descended into comedic parodies of itself in the early 1970s — Trinity Is Still My Name (1974), and the like. The appearance of films such as Four of the Apocalypse in 1975 signaled a resurgence during the late 1970s, however, and it is during that period that Mannaja was made. The lead character as played by Maurizio Merli, despite the usual tendency to taciturnity of the no-name protagonist, is certainly the most appealing of those in the set. (The film was Merli’s only spaghetti western. He specialized in Italian action films, often playing a cop.) There is a more obvious degree of humanity to him and he has a backstory that provides some rational motivation for many of his actions. His opponents are more clearly-defined also, not to mention effectively acted by John Steiner and Philippe LeRoy as Voller and McGowan respectively. The film has its share of bloody violence, common for the genre at the time, and even features a slow-motion sequence á la The Wild Bunch. Key to the film’s success is its tight editing that brings the tale to a satisfactory conclusion in just over 90 minutes. Mannaja, along with Run Man Run, shares the honors for the best music scores for the films in the set.
Run Man Run is a sequel of sorts to one of the genre’s best films — The Big Gundown — which starred Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian, and was directed by Sergio Sollima. Unfortunately, in Run Man Run, Lee Van Cleef is no longer around and we are left with Milian playing his Cuchillo character as the lead. The character is quirky, but it’s just not strong enough to sustain the two-hour running time. The film tries to replace Van Cleef’s character with an American fortune hunter named Cassidy (played by Donald O’Brien), but he’s too bland to have the desired impact. Veteran American actor John Ireland is almost unrecognizable in a small role as Mexican revolutionary General Santillana. There is a disjointed feel to the film’s story, as it tries to cram a great many locations into the running time, but there is no doubt that some of the sequences are inspired under Sollima’s direction. Particularly memorable is a chase on horseback through deep snow. In the end, one remembers Cuchillo’s knives most about this film. We all know about the six-guns that seem to have an inexhaustible supply of bullets in them in many westerns. Here Cuchillo seems to have a similar supply of knives on his person, conveniently pulling one out whenever all seems lost. It reminded me of the Mickey Mouse cartoon “The Band Concert” wherein Donald Duck seems able to produce a new flute from every part of his body no matter how many times Mickey takes one away from him.
Django Kill!, Mannaja, and Run Man Run all have 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers that look very nice indeed. The images are crisp and clear with generally vibrant colour. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is very good. Edge effects are minimal. Django has a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that generally reflects its source material — the film’s original camera negative unearthed in Rome. Where the source is in good shape, which is most of the time, the image is fully as good as any of the other three titles. In a few places, however, the negative has suffered from deterioration and the result is the occasional sequence looking blotchy and out-of-focus. Despite this, the film looks substantially better than on any previous video incarnations. All four films have Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks available in both English and Italian, with optional English subtitles available. The mono tracks are all in good condition with dialogue clearly presented and free of age-related hiss or distortion.
The box set excels in the area of supplementary material. Each title has an interview segment featuring either the star or director or both. All the interviews (featuring the likes of Franco Nero, Tomas Milian and directors Sergio Sollima and Guilio Questi) prove to be very informative compared to so many standard promotional interviews. Each disc also has the original theatrical trailer, trailers for the other three films in the set (accessible by easily found Easter eggs), poster, and still galleries, and informative liner notes by authorities in the spaghetti western field. The Django and Mannaja discs also contain some talent biographies, while the Run Man Run disc features a different main-titles sequence for that film and a rarely-seen, almost 40-minutes-long, and quite entertaining 1960s documentary about the spaghetti western called “Westerns Italian Style.” Taken all together, there’s a wealth of material on spaghetti westerns here that should satisfy the most ardent fan.
As with so many spaghetti westerns, the titles included in this new box set each tend to have an impact that transcends their individual parts. There is a certain surrealistic quality about nearly all such features that results from the exaggerated violence mixed with realistic prop and costume detail and the mainly European actors in the midst of a uniquely American milieu (even if Spain is usually standing in for that milieu). The four examples included here are all worth seeing although some of their reputations exceed their actual quality. I would rank the films from best to least as Mannaja, Run Man Run, Django Kill!, and Django. Blue Underground has certainly treated these films with both dignity and affection. The transfers are all of a high standard and the supplementary material is interesting and informative on every film. Recommended.