Sergio Corbucci | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | Italy & Spain / Italian | 15 / R
The ’60s were a pretty exciting time for cinema. In France, the Nouvelle Vague were tearing up the rulebook and pushing forward their own techniques; in Britain, the James Bond series was ditching kitchen sink drama in favour of reinventing the action movie, turning itself into a global phenomenon in the process; and in Italy (and Spain) they were pulling a similar trick on that most American of genres, the Western.
Say ‘Spaghetti Western’ to most people and what they’re envisioning is the work of Sergio Leone, but you and I know it stretches much further than that. Aside from his works, the original Django is arguably the best known, so successful it spawned over 50 sequels and rip-offs (only one, made 21 years later, is official). With Quentin Tarantino adopting the name for his latest cinematic outing (in UK cinemas from today), I imagine its renown has only increased.
The titular gunslinger (Franco Nero, dripping with silent tough guy masculinity) is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, walking into a near-deserted town on the US-Mexico border dragging a coffin in his wake. There he runs afoul of a local Major, who consequently descends on the town with his 40-strong army… and that’s just act one! That alone would sustain plenty of films, but Django has more in store.
Much of the film plays as an action movie. There’s a lot of atmospheric ponderousness at the start, but once things kick off they rarely let up. In just over 90 minutes the film rattles through a damsel-in-distress rescue; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shoot-out; a 40-on-1 massacre; a raid on a fort; a barroom brawl (one of the stand-outs, that — anyone who thinks handheld ShakeyCam fights are a modern invention should take a look); a tense, silent escape; a brutal punishment (or two); a valley ambush; and a graveyard stand-off. I think that’s all, but I may have missed some. It’s practically a definition of bang for your buck, which I’m sure goes a long way to explaining its popularity.
It all culminates in a final act that’s remarkably fatalistic, almost to Shakespearean levels. Without wanting to spoil too much, nearly everything goes wrong and hardly anyone makes it out alive. The answers about Django’s past aren’t exactly cheery either. It’s all a bit doom and gloom, though ultimately not as depressing as it could be. But almost.
I don’t normally comment on the format in my reviews — especially Blu-ray, which I never feel well enough qualified to offer detailed comment on — but it’s fair to say the US Region A-locked BD from Blue Underground has questionable picture quality. Some would say it was atrocious. The film begins with a note that this transfer is from the original negative and there were some age-related faults, but if that leads you to expect the odd scratch or speck of dirt, you’d be wrong. Detail, colour, and so on are actually all very strong, but it’s like watching something on a not-quite-correctly-tuned analogue TV; like you’ve found the channel, but you’re one or two points off the optimum frequency. Or, to put it another way, it’s really snowy. As I said, I’m no expert in BD quality, but this looks like it needs a sympathetic dose of DNR. No one but fools want a waxy Predator-esque hack job, but the mess here is equally distracting. When the odd clear bit comes along, though, it looks gorgeous. There’s a UK version out on Monday, but obviously I have no idea if it’ll be any better.
Django is exactly the kind of film you’d expect Tarantino to love: violent (so violent it was denied a UK certificate until 1993), yet classically stylish, but with boundary-nudging parts, the odd vein of dark humour, and a rough-round-the-edges feel (no doubt because they started shooting without a finished story, and never had a full screenplay!) It’s not as slick as Leone’s work and, even with Tarantino shining a spotlight on it, won’t challenge the Dollars films or Once Upon a Time in the West for a place at the top table. But it is entertaining.
As noted, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in UK cinemas today, while Argent Films release a UK Blu-ray of the original on Monday.