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 grind houses, 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-'60s 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. --Richard T. Jameson
Saddle up and strap on your holsters for this outrageous quartet of Spaghetti Western classics! Along with "Django, Kill!" (1967, 117 min.), "Run Man Run" (1968, 121 min.), and "Mannaja: A Man Called Blade"(1977, 96 min.), exclusive to this collection is the new special edition of Sergio Corbucci's classic, "Django" (1966, 90 min.), restored for the first time from the original camera negative recently discovered in a Rome vault untouched for over three decades! Franco Nero stars as the lone, coffin-dragging stranger who roams the West towards a destiny ruled by vengeance. A landmark classic packed with indelible images and some of the most shocking brutality of any Spaghetti Western ever made, this is the still-controversial epic that defined a genre, launched a phenomenon and inspired over 50 unofficial sequels! Also included for the first time is the optional Italian audio track featuring Franco Nero's own voice. Following two years of extensive restoration, this is the most stunning and complete version of "Django" you'll ever see in a powerhouse box set that'll blow you away!