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The Specialists

by Glenn Erickson Jun 20, 2020

Guest reviewer Lee Broughton returns with a review of a previously hard to find Gallic Spaghetti Western. Filmed in the Dolomites mountain range and primarily existing as a vehicle for the French rock ‘n’ roll singer Johnny Hallyday, this might well be Corbucci’s best looking Western. The respected French actresses Francoise Fabian and Sylvie Fennec bring a noticeable touch of class to a show that ends with wide shots of dozens of butt naked backsides.


The Specialists
Region B Blu-ray
Eureka Entertainment
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 104 min. / Gli Specialisti, Drop Them or I’ll Shoot / Street Date May 18, 2020 / £14.99
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, Francoise Fabian, Gaston Moschin, Mario Adorf, Sylvie Fennec, Gino Pernice, Angela Luce, Serge Marquand, Gabriella Tavernese, Andres Jose Cruz, Christian Belaygue, Stefano Cattarossi.
Cinematography: Dario Di Palma
Film Editor: Elsa Armanni
Production Designer: Riccardo Domenici
Original Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Sergio Corbucci and Sabatino Ciuffini
Produced by Edmond Tenoudji, Attilio Riccio and Sergio Corbucci
Directed by
Sergio Corbucci

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

A legendary hard man and sharpshooter, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), returns to his hometown of Blackstone in order to investigate and seek vengeance for the murder of his brother, Charlie. Word is that Charlie was lynched because he stole and hid the cash that he was transporting on behalf of Virginia Pollicut (Francoise Fabian), the owner of the local bank. Blackstone’s sheriff, Gedeon (Gaston Moschin), is a pacifist who has banned the carrying of firearms in town and he doesn’t take kindly to Hud’s arrival. In order to further his investigations, Hud has to seek information from Charlie’s woman Sheba (Sylvie Fennec), the saloon madam Valencia (Angela Luce) and his former friend-turned-Mexican bandit leader, El Diablo (Mario Adorf). As Hud’s investigations begin to slowly progress, a quartet of sullen, lazy and disrespectful hippies (Gabriella Tavernese, Andres Jose Cruz, Christian Belaygue and Stefano Cattarossi) start getting in his — and everybody else’s — way.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Specialists has been a particularly hard film to find in English speaking territories until recently and the show had in fact eluded me up until now. My reaction after so many years of anticipation is kind of mixed.

 

The Specialists features a great cast and it remains a well acted film. Johnny Hallyday was first and foremost a highly popular French rock ‘n’ roll singer but he could act and he enjoyed a successful second career in films. He’s particularly good in Patrice Leconte’s thriller L’homme du train (2002), a crime drama that plays like a modern day reimagining of Sergio Sollima’s classic Spaghetti Western Face to Face (1967). The classy-looking Francoise Fabian (My Night at Maud’s [1969]) and the always-delightful Sylvie Fennec (The Music Teacher [1988]) both do the film’s French acting contingent proud too. Gaston Moschin (The Conformist [1970]) and Corbucci regular Gino Pernice (Django [1966]) are left to do the heavy lifting for the Italian acting contingent while the busy Euro-superstar Mario Adorf (Major Dundee [1965]) adds marquee value that is international in scope.

The film’s production values are of a notably high quality too. The show’s costume designer Enrico Job provides some great looking garments that grant the film a pleasingly “revisionist” feel. Likewise, composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (Requiem for Gringo [1968]) provides a pretty good soundtrack score that successfully covers all generic bases. There are some brilliantly executed scenes to be enjoyed here and the action-packed and frenetically staged finale in which Hud takes on El Diablo’s gang is really quite superb.

However, there are a number of scenes present that feel too talky and feature fairly tedious content. The main offenders in this regard are the conjecture riddled dialogue driven scenes that were intended to add an air of mystery to the show: they function to pass on hints concerning what might have happened to Charlie while also offering enigmatic suggestions with regards to why Hud might be in town, what his intentions could be and why certain townsfolk should be afraid of him. Some of these scenes seem to go on forever without actually revealing anything of real importance. You can be sure that the presentation’s sub-titles writer earned his fee on this job.

 

A loathsome money-grubber (Serge Marquand) is killed by a deftly wielded cash register early on but, apart from that, Corbucci doesn’t find room here for much in the way of the dark humour that is often found in his films. However, he does manage to litter the show with suitably odd or interesting bits and pieces. Hud wears a chainmail vest that is bulletproof. El Diablo had his right arm cut off as a young man after being wrongly accused of stealing bread and he now has a sharpened spur attached to his stump. El Diablo’s preferred method of settling minor disputes is to have a head-butting contest. The Mexican also has his own biographer and he spends a lot of screen time dictating his exploits for posterity. Charlie left Hud a very novel clue and artefact that he has to physically employ at a specific time of day in order to discover the whereabouts of the stolen money. Sheriff Gedeon is a keen fisherman.

The Specialists is probably the best looking of all of Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, shot for shot, it’s one of the best-looking Spaghetti Westerns, period. The film’s interior sets are all very good and some really effective lighting strategies are employed to illuminate them. The film’s action is captured by some outstanding cinematography by Dario Di Palma (The Clowns [1970]) who provides inch perfect framing while employing stylish camera angles and fluid camera movements. Corbucci’s trademark zoom shots are of course present from time to time but even these shots are made to look classy. Much of the film’s location scenes were shot in the countryside found in and around the snow-capped Dolomites mountain range in northern Italy. The stunning mise-en-scene that this landscape provides almost defies description: picturesque just doesn’t begin to describe it and it brings a real touch of class to The Specialists at a visual level.

 

It’s interesting to note the excellence of the film’s technical aspects because Corbucci was known for being a somewhat sloppy filmmaker much of the time: his films often feature blocking, framing and camera placements that look rushed or ill-thought out. However, Corbucci’s rough and ready attitude to such technical concerns possessed a degree of punkish charm that ultimately became a part of his auteurist palette. Sure he could pastiche and convincingly replicate the grand visions and cinematic brilliance of Sergio Leone when he wanted to or needed to (see the finale of A Professional Gun [1968] for evidence of this) but he was largely happy to plough his own — if at times imperfect — stylistic furrow.

As far as The Specialists goes, I get the impression that Corbucci had a very vocal and very forceful French investor hovering at his shoulder on set who was keen to ensure that the film’s apparently large budget was fully reflected onscreen. And it surely was. This looks like an expensive production that was strictly governed by early starts, short dinner hours and late finishes. All of which sounds like the absolute antithesis of the looser approaches to filmmaking that Corbucci preferred.

Maybe that’s why it feels like a good chunk of whatever life or soul that The Specialists’ script originally possessed was seemingly sucked out of it during the film’s production. In this regard The Specialists reminds me of Corbucci’s Compañeros (1970) and Sonny and Jed (1972). All three films feature highly capable actors and interesting enough scenarios that boast some excellent set-pieces but they also possess peculiarly flat ambiences, tedious and talky interludes and curiously un-involving wider narrative arcs. Just like Leone, Corbucci had complained that he was tired of making Westerns at this point in his career, so maybe he was just going through the motions when producing these films.

 

In the case of Compañeros, it’s easy to imagine an enthusiastic producer gushing, “Mr. Corbucci, you must give us a film just like A Professional Gun” and Corbucci thinking, “Great. I can do that. I’ll just deliver a remake of that film with a few plot points re-jigged.” With The Specialists, Corbucci effectively remade The Great Silence with a few of its plot points re-jigged. However, The Great Silence remains a superior film in terms of its originality, its art direction and costume designs and — perhaps most importantly — its ability to emotionally involve the viewer.

In one of the disc’s extra features, Austin Fisher reports that contemporaneous Italian critics were of the opinion that The Specialists’ less than original contents were an indication that the Spaghetti Western genre was running out of steam. Fisher acknowledges why they were justified in expressing such a concern but he counters it by invoking the old Genre Studies theory that argues that all genre films are inevitably a mix of repetition with difference. This allows him to then tease out the similarities that exist between The Specialists and a number of earlier Spaghetti Westerns.

However, Fisher neglects to draw upon any of the closely related Audience and Fan Studies theories that are of potential use in critiquing The Specialists. One such theory argues that fans of a particular genre are able to employ their accumulated knowledge of the genre and its internal workings (sometimes referred to as cultural or subcultural capital) in order to identify the original source of the “repetition” while simultaneously judging the effectiveness and value of any “difference” that might have been introduced.

 

The act of doing this is argued to be a cognitive and pleasurable endeavour for the genned-up and active (rather than passive) genre fan that automatically kicks in whenever they watch a new genre film. Unfortunately, the repetition found in The Specialists lacks so much in the way of difference that it hardly serves to test and affirm the viewer’s wider knowledge of the Spaghetti Western genre and its internal workings at all.

In The Specialists, The Great Silence’s Sheriff Gideon becomes Sheriff Gedeon; both men are bashful around women; both men die because they are too trusting of villains. Both films feature a duplicitous financier called Pollicut and feature a hero who lodges with an oppressed young woman who lives on the outskirts of society. Both of these heroes feel compelled to rescue a group of captives at their film’s end despite being severely injured. In both films a friendly redheaded saloon girl-cum-prostitute is on hand to help out and so on, and so on.

Whether we chalk this up to self-plagiarism, lazy scripting or a wilful effort to frustrate and distance the audience is anybody’s guess. But spotting and processing these jarringly obvious similarities doesn’t bring much in the way of the kind of genre knowledge-based pleasure that Audience and Fan Studies theorists allude to.

 

However, the film’s biggest failing might be the fact that we never become fully aligned with Hud, who manages to keep everybody in the film (and the viewer) at a distance by repeatedly making it clear that he’s the ultimate lone wolf who has no need for friends. Worse still, we never become fully invested in Hud’s vengeance mission. Corbucci doesn’t show the heinous act that provokes the need for vengeance onscreen and he roundly fails to give the viewer a really compelling reason to hate the wrongdoers or want them dead.

Charlie’s death appears to be the consequence of a group enterprise that was covered up by the entire town but Hud only identifies two guilty parties: he kills the first one before discovering that they were guilty and the second one dies at the hands of a third party, so there’s actually very little in the way of emotional payoffs to be found in the film’s vengeance scenarios. It’s only in the film’s final moments that we come to realise what a bunch of lowdown money-grubbers the townsfolk really are. Suffice to say that the whole town does get to pay a heavy price of sorts in the end.

Given that the flashback is one of the key narrative and stylistic tropes of the Spaghetti Western, it’s hard to fathom why Corbucci didn’t employ one in order to show Charlie’s demise. Maybe Corbucci avoided a flashback because the film is supposed to mostly focus on Hud’s ongoing investigation into the mystery surrounding Charlie’s death. If that’s the case, Corbucci should have made the investigative aspects of the narrative a bit more interesting and compelling because, as it stands, Hud is a pretty poor operator when it comes to getting meaningful information out of people.

 

Ultimately we have no emotional connection to Charlie. We don’t even know what he looked like beyond a quick flash of an old photograph. We have to make do with expository dialogue but this dialogue and the scenes that it appears in don’t possess the emotional timbre or the dramatic edge to make a meaningful impact on the viewer. For a master class in how Corbucci might have approached this assignment in a more engaging and successful way, see Mike Hodges’ compelling and involving investigative vengeance drama, Get Carter (1971).

Another major misfire here was the inclusion of the quartet of hippies. In the presentation’s audio commentary Alex Cox cites an interview with Corbucci in which he describes how much he detested hippies. In Corbucci’s opinion the hippies were lazy parasites who had not stepped up to play their part in the Left’s push for political change during 1968. As such, he set out to use the film to telegraph his hatred for the subculture. The hippies here don’t have a function beyond allowing Corbucci to vent this hatred and their intermittent appearances become annoying and get in the way of the film’s narrative development.

 

It’s fair to say that the viewer is guided to hate the hippies more than they’re guided to hate those who killed Charlie and that is surely another reason why The Specialists doesn’t really work as a vengeance movie. Corbucci was a leftist himself and his films — including The Specialists — feature much in the way of anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois scenarios and sentiments. So to have him taking pot shots at both the hippies and the bourgeoisie simultaneously here adds a sense of ideological confusion to the proceedings.

Major spoilers are contained in the next four paragraphs!

Much has been written about The Specialists’ finale over the years. To all intents and purposes, Hud collapses dead after his final confrontation with El Diablo. But we then cut to the saloon where Sheba and the saloon girls are fighting to save Hud’s life. Outside, the hippies suddenly go rogue and order all of the townsfolk to strip naked and crawl along the town’s main street. The hippies then declare that they will slaughter all of the townsfolk unless Hud comes out and faces them in a gunfight.

 

Some have suggested that this final scene is a bit of Western-themed surrealism that prefigures the kind of imagery that would soon be encountered in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). In fairness, Corbucci had used this kind of nudity in a limited way in the past (see Kowalski (Franco Nero) and Paco’s (Tony Musante) failed attempt to humiliate Curly (Jack Palance) in A Professional Gun). Furthermore, the nudity in The Specialists does pre-echo the subsequent humiliation of the hateful bourgeois coach passengers in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite (1971).

However, here’s my take on The Specialists’ final scene. We know that Corbucci had a penchant for killing off his heroes. Navajo Joe’s (1966) eponymous hero (Burt Reynolds) appears to be at the point of dying when he’s last seen in that film. Clay (Cameron Mitchell) and Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) die at the end of Minnesota Clay (1964) and The Great Silence respectively. We know that Corbucci felt compelled or was contractually obliged to shoot “happy endings” for both of those films and that he went out of his way to make these endings play fairly ridiculously in the hope that they could never be legitimately used (Minnesota Clay’s “happy ending” was used in some territories).

 

It’s easy to imagine a French producer saying to Corbucci, “Mr. Corbucci, you must do for our Johnny Hallyday what you did for our Jean-Louis Trintignant. But, please, please, please, Mr. Corbucci, LET OUR JOHNNY LIVE.” And Corbucci, with his right hand behind his back and his fingers crossed, replying, “Sure, we can let Johnny live.” Daft as it may seem today, the sight of so many bare arses writhing around onscreen for such an extended amount of time in a film from a genre that rarely featured nudity at all was really pushing the envelope in 1969. Put simply, the finale of The Specialists is so pointedly silly and outrageous that it plays like Corbucci made it so on purpose, with the hope that it would be too controversial to use (thus forcing the producers to self censor the film and have it end with Hud’s death).

Spoilers end

I’m glad to have finally seen The Specialists and it’s a film that I will undoubtedly return to at some point soon. However, this show was always going to compare unfavourably to The Great Silence. The Specialists is by no means a bad film — and if you’re in urgent need of a Spaghetti Western fix it will do the trick — but I can’t help feeling that Corbucci foolishly squandered an opportunity to make a really brilliant film here given that he had such a fine and capable cast and crew at his disposal.


 

Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray of The Specialists is as good as they come. The picture quality of this colourful presentation is absolutely superb. I’m not sure whether it’s down to the quality of the light found in the Dolomites or the expertise of the show’s camera crew but this 4K restoration of The Specialists looks fabulous. Three language soundtrack options are offered here: English, French and Italian. The French and Italian language dub tracks are both of an excellent quality and they are both supported by optional English subtitles. These two dubs are slightly different in terms of tone and content and their subtitles reflect that. The English language dub is fairly ropey and it is also incomplete (the audio switches to the French track supported by English subtitles during the scenes where the English language dub track cuts out).

Beyond Austin Fisher’s talking head piece discussed above, this presentation holds a few more extra features, including the film’s English language dubbing script. Director Alex Cox provides an audio commentary, though his engagement with and enthusiasm for the film fluctuates a bit. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Cox’s thoughts on Spaghetti Westerns but this is one of his more subdued efforts.

Cox does provide some good contextual information though, citing an interview with Corbucci in which he talked about his attitudes towards hippies while also revealing that the film had initially been developed in collaboration with Lee Van Cleef. Two trailers round out the extra features though the first 2000 copies of The Specialists do come with a slipcase and a booklet that features two essays by Howard Hughes. The first essay covers the film’s production while the second essay is a whistle stop tour of French made Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns that feature French actors and French characters.

Reviewed by Lee Broughton


The Specialists
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Alex Cox, interview with Austin Fisher, the film’s English language dubbing script and two trailers. A booklet and a slipcase come with the first 2000 copies only.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 14, 2020
(6292leewest)

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Text © Copyright 2020 Lee Broughton

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.