Tomas Milian in Django, Kill: sometimes a man has much reason for looking distracted
Quentin Tarantino is wrapping up his new movie Django Unchained, inspired by the 1966 spaghetti Western Django and its myriad successors (much as Inglourious Basterds was inspired by the cartoonish 1978 Italian war movie The Inglorious Bastards). This is probably a big reason why an eccentric 1967 Italian item named Django, Kill is being accorded a Blu-ray release. Still, there are other reasons why it should be seen to be disbelieved. Here are a review of it and some related reviews I wrote for Amazon some years back, when an enterprising fringe entity named Blue Underground was preparing to release a DVD 4pak that included Django, Kill (which isn't actually a Django movie at all). If my recollection is correct, the release was stalled, perhaps permanently, by legal action. The release of my reviews was not.
Django, Kill (If You Live, Shoot!)
Consensus holds that Django, Kill—more properly, If You Live, Shoot!—is the most depraved, decadent, and altogether delirious spaghetti Western of that definitively depraved, decadent, and delirious genre. Tomas Milian plays a Mexican outlaw brought back from the dead to wreak vengeance on his former gringo colleagues. Too late: the gang has already fallen afoul of the most thoroughly corrupt town in Eurotrash history. Where to begin describing this twisted tarantella? It starts with so many crisscrossed flashbacks that you could mistake it for a sequel. One story pretty much ends, to be succeeded by another, like an old silent feature by people used to making one-reelers. Then there's Mr. Sorrow and his pet army of black-shirted, teeth-flashing gay gunslingers. And the naked Milian, crucified and left to be ravished by rats, bats, and an iguana. Director Giulio Questi intended certain political overtones. Discuss amongst yourselves. P.S.: This is the uncut version.
THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN COLLECTION
Starting with its very name, the bizarre international hybrid known as the spaghetti Western was always a bit of a joke—but a joke that packed a wallop, and left viewers with jaws dropping in a combination of disbelief, astonishment, and sometimes admiration. The stylistic hallmarks, nihilistic tone, weirdly Latinate atmospherics, and postmodern self-consciousness of its imaginative universe made for an intoxicating breed of pop entertainment that changed not only the Western genre but also popular culture at large.
Its vogue lasted a decade and then some, from Sergio Leone's 1964 A Fistful of Dollars (released in the U.S. in 1967) to Monte Hellman's 1978 art film China 9/Liberty 37. Often, fully half of the 300 films turned out by Italian companies in any given year were spaghetti Westerns, which could be trusted to sell tickets the world over—under a delirious variety of titles from market to market. They tended to be shown in sleazy grindhouses, via spliced and tattered prints. What a pleasure to report that Blue Underground has gone back to the original, mostly pristine materials to produce the crystal-clear, gorgeously color-saturated, widescreen DVDs in this boxed set. Few audiences ever saw these movies looking better than they will on the home screen.
The present quartet affords an admirably varied and illuminating cross-section of the spaghetti Western as entertainment phenomenon and mirror of its troubled time. Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966), with a Gypsy-named protagonist (Franco Nero) dragging a coffin through a mud world of bigotry and double-cross, spawned sequels ad infinitum; this release is the first in more than 30 years to be struck from the original camera negative. Django, Kill! (1967) isn't "Django" at all—it's If You Live, Shoot! (how's that for existential absurdism!), a wildly transgressive fever dream set in "a totally guilty town" and boasting a band of flagrantly gay gunslingers, director Giulio Questi's variation on Mussolini's Black Shirts. The gem of the collection, Sergio Sollima's Run, Man, Run! (1968), features an infectiously funny performance by Tomas Milian as a knife-throwing scalawag who became an icon to late-Sixties student radicals; this film of almost Leone-class visual grandeur has rarely been seen outside Italy. Director Sergio Martino claims that Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977) was "the last, perhaps next-to-last" of the spaghetti Westerns. The strain was showing—but even this preposterous fantasia about a hatchet-throwing eco-avenger (Maurizio Merli) exerts a goofy fascination.
Incidentally, the short documentaries spotlighting each film are very enjoyable in their own right. The scruffily aged Tomas Milian is a particular delight.
RUN, MAN, RUN!
Little known outside Europe, this picaresque spaghetti Western is among the most entertaining of the breed. Tomas Milian plays Cuchillo ("little knife"), an irrepressible scamp at large in post-Juarista Mexico who becomes custodian of a secret: where to find the fortune in gold meant to bankroll the people's revolution against the repressive Díaz regime. Now, Cuchillo is not politically minded. Cassidy (Donal O'Brien), a Texas gunfighter, used to be, but he's weary of fighting noble battles and wouldn't mind having that gold himself. Both characters wrestle with their inconvenient better instincts while tilting with a variety of adversaries. Directed by Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Run, Man, Run! boasts an elegant mise en scène almost worthy of Leone. The exuberant score is by Ennio Morricone, no matter what the credits say, and Milian's theme song became an anthem for student protestors in 1968. John Ireland contributes a charismatic cameo as a populist generale.
MANNAJA—A Man Called Blade
They call him Blade (Maurizio Merli) because mostly he lets his hatchet do his talking for him. He's searched 20 years to find the man responsible for his father's death. This is puzzling, since the guy is right where he always was and where Blade started from. The real villain of the piece is not this economic-ecological despoiler (Philippe Leroy), a shrunken husk in a wheelchair, but his lieutenant (John Steiner), a blond fascist who looks like a twit version of Rutger Hauer and sounds like a cross between John Glover and the police chief in Young Frankenstein. (Blade is also blond, with a hairdo reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking's.) Sergio Martino, whose action direction is ludicrous, was obliged to fill many scenes with fog because the last Western town set in Italy was falling down around him. This was, he claims, "the last, or maybe next-to-last" spaghetti Western. None too soon.