Six-Gun Sorrow: Corbucci’s Gli Specialisti (1969)
From The Spaghetti Western Database
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In his comprehensive liner notes regarding director Sergio Corbucci for the recent Arrow Video (U.S. only) release of Django (1966), noted Spaghetti Western authority Howard Hughes quite accurately refers to that film, Il Grande Silenzio (1968) and Gli Specialisti (1969) as the director’s ‘Blood & Mud’ trilogy. Corbucci seemingly had little interest in replicating the American west’s desert belts or established genre topography, and instead sought to echo the coldly astringent state of his deeply broken protagonists via milieu and climate – trading sun, sand and sculpted buttes for rain, sludge, quicksand and (most memorably) snow. But that collective title serves only to link the films via their aesthetic tissue. There is something about that particular trifecta – along with Corbucci’s oft-overlooked 1964 film, Minnesota Clay – which lends itself to another umbrella term. Something born of feeling; of an unexpected weight lent exclusively by this erratically brilliant filmmaker. Leone may well have been the genre’s premiere stylist, designing the template via precision and a patented widescreen composure, but Corbucci was the movement’s heart donor, transplanting real feeling into a sub-genre which hitherto expressed little interest in humanising its population.
Corbucci is often recognised for his leftist-political parables trussed up as mainstream genre fare (notably his diptych of Zapata westerns, Il Mercenario (aka The Mercenary aka. A Professional Gun) , and Vamos a matar, compañeros (aka Companeros) ), but Gli Specialisti (1969) bares all the marks of a director exhausted by the futility and ill-reward of a specific political allegiance. The film, therefore, seems to play out as nothing more than an ideological shrug on behalf of its director, Corbucci rendered somewhat beaten and disillusioned as both citizen and artist (no surprise given the then-state of the [Italian] nation and his recent string of professional disappointments). We know that, domestically and commercially speaking, the Spaghetti Westerns were geared toward Italy’s working class and proletariat; they played best – and spoke directly – to the workers and the marginalised who recognised and/or projected something of themselves onto the underdog anti-hero who rallied against an unchecked corruption, packing out the second and third-run cinemas and helping the factory-line filmmaking zeitgeist continue. But here, with Gli Specialisti, it’s difficult to see who, exactly, Corbucci made his film for. This is a cold, uncaring film, bleak and dispassionate. Il Grande Silenzio (1968) may contain the World Heavyweight Champion of Downbeat Endings, but Corbucci imbued that film with a crystalline fragility which served to temper the film’s overall harshness whilst simultaneously reinforcing its wrecking ball finale. There is no such warmth to be found in Gli Specialisti, and the film remains an unforgiving ordeal, as grimly seductive as it is undeniably repugnant.
The plot is simple, maybe even negligible: Infamous gunfighter Hud Dixon returns to the town of Blackstone, Nevada, in order to find out what happened to his dead brother, who it seems was lynched by the community, vigilante-style, for his alleged part in a rather suspect bank robbery. This, of course, isn’t the whole story, and Hud will ruffle many feathers in order to uncover a satisfying truth. However, I have no further interest in exploring plot machinations here. What fascinates is Corbucci’s penchant – and knack – for creating a perverse, persuasive mood born of cruelty and despair. This is Corbucci’s trademark west: a twisted landscape populated by hollow, haunted men who are so empty inside and bereft of spirit that their bodies seem to welcome the intrusion of enemy lead.
Gli Specialisti is a tough film to pin down and yet it casts a deadly spell. Certainly, within the hazy political fabric of the film, it is near-impossible to discern for whom Corbucci stands. Predictably, Corbucci hates the townsfolk – these rich, weak, pampered, fearful lemmings – but he also clearly loathes the hippies (supposed paragons of the hard left) who themselves are portrayed as anything but peaceful and pacifistic, but rather as an annoying bunch of antagonistic wankers. The expected sympathy might ordinarily have fallen at the doorstep of bandit El Diablo’s clan (as Sollima had done with the peon’s champion Cuchillo in La resa dei conti (aka The Big Gundown)  and 1968’s Corri, uomo, corri (aka Run, Man, Run), but they, too, are rendered imbecilic, with a demonstrated criminal ineptitude and their Neanderthal solutions to civic unrest (head-butting as legislative reform?). The law, as represented by Gastone Moschin’s pacifistic sheriff, is rendered naïve and ineffectual. Perhaps most surprisingly, Corbucci demonstrates a total lack of empathy for – or interest in – his alleged hero, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), who remains distant and aloof throughout. The camera merely follows ‘The Great Hud’ (as his reputation would have him known), documentary-style, refusing to get involved or invested in his journey beyond visual memorandum, creating an unbridgeable chasm between viewer and protagonist. It’s as if Corbucci is challenging us – daring the viewer – to find somebody to root for and/or get behind. Hud is a complex anti-hero. He seems bored with life, untouched by feeling or purpose. Corbucci gives him a token motive of revenge, but even then he doesn’t seem overly compelled to solve the mystery or equal any outstanding ecumenical score. He has nothing to live for and nothing to die for, and the film ultimately leaves him stranded in an alien world he neither understands nor truly belongs, a fate far-crueller than death. When referred to as ‘friend’ in cavalier fashion by the scheming Cabot (Gino Pernice), Hud makes a point of saying he has no friends. When uttered by the sullen Hallyday, this doesn’t seem like lone-wolf posturing or mere poseur cool typical of the genre; you believe wholly that this man is incapable of forging – let alone sustaining! – any kind of rapport between himself and another human being. He might be our nominal hero but Hud cuts a tragic, destitute figure. By this point in his career, French pop sensation Halliday had already appeared in a clutch of high-profile films, but what could so easily have been dismissed as stunt casting in order to secure finance or ensure substantial box office return is revealed to be a canny move. With his slight frame, lank hair and low-key canine charm, Hallyday makes for a slyly beguiling lead.
And what of the other characters populating Corbucci’s film? If we can’t identify with Hud, then who? Let us look elsewhere. Gastone Moschin’s sheriff may, along with Frank Wolff’s Gideon Burnett in Il Grande Silenzio, be the most dimensional and real of all Spaghetti western sheriffs. He is a contradiction – a lawmen in a lawless land yet a self-proclaimed pacifist. Again, this is the pessimist in Corbucci talking. Peace is a wonderful ideal, he is saying, but an absolute fallacy. Moschin’s sheriff is portrayed as an immovable idealist, but Corbucci makes sure to foreground the naivety that comes with such idealism. Some would say an ideal is worth dying for, but Corbucci counters this notion with typical detachment. Sheriff Gedeon is killed unexpectedly and quite unceremoniously, just as Wolff was in Silenzio. Attempting to reason with Mario Adorf’s bandit, the lawman is shot point-blank in the forehead. He is dead. Corbucci does not dwell on his passing because it was inevitable from the very beginning. ‘You fucking idiot,’ the director condemns via said death scene. ‘See? Your foolish ideal got you killed.’
Françoise Fabian, the highly respected French actress who appeared in such New Wave classics as Éric Rohmer’s excellent Ma nuit chez Maud (aka My Night with Maude) (1969) and Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1970), is Virginia Pollicut, the film’s ostensible villain. Corbucci is repeatedly lauded for his use of strong women in his westerns, but it is rarely acknowledged that here, in this film, he places his female front-and-centre, establishing Pollicut as a powerful, intelligent and fiercely independent figure, gender be damned. Fabien is both highly effective and gorgeous to look at (when Hud insults Pollicut by calling her ‘old and all dried up’, one can’t help but wonder if our hero is either asexual, gay, a staunch misogynist or merely suffering from glaucoma, but however you look at it, that line of dialogue just simply doesn’t work given Fabien’s obvious beauty).
The lone sympathetic character in the film is Sheba (Sylvie Fennec), but she too is cast aside by both Corbucci and Hud, and is denied a much-needed moment of tenderness in favour of further cool dispassion. The film toys with something between her and Hud, cruelly leading her – and the viewer – to believe there might exist the promise of reciprocated feeling, but not only is she denigrated along with the rest of the townsfolk in the final act (forced to strip and crawl through mud), but she is ultimately spurned by Hud and left to rot along with the rest of the avaricious parasites who populate Blackstone. At least in Il Grande Silenzio, the director granted Silence and Pauline a certain clemency, allowing a brief, heart-breaking intimacy to blossom. No such reprieve exists here. This is a dark, ugly world populated by human cockroaches. Gli Specialisti has an odd, misanthropic aspect to it which leaves a bad taste in the mouth, yet the picture remains inexplicably compulsive; watching it is tantamount to attending the funeral of a loved one and feeling guilty for having a good time. Corbucci was always very good at this; he brought a rare emotional resonance to the genre, contrasting the immense loneliness of the self against the vast open spaces of the western setting. True, he took great pleasure in the re-assimilation of the corporeal (i.e. much torture, wounding, disability, mutilation and killing), but he often complemented this with a rough-hewn sensitivity anomalous to the genre. One could easily take the characters of Minnesota Clay, Django, Silence or Hud and transplant them into any of Antonioni’s so-called trilogy of modern malaise (L'Avventura , La Notte , and L'Eclisse ) and have them be a perfect fit for that director’s glacial self-exploration and patented naval gazing. Like Antonioni’s protagonists, Corbucci’s gallery of lost souls are all suffering some kind of existential crisis, riding yonder in a perpetual state of ennui, all isolated from their fellow man and left to consider their place in a rapidly changing world. They just happen to be crack marksmen, mercenaries and cowboys as opposed to vainglorious urbane modernists.
And what of Adorf? This hugely charismatic actor can usually be counted on for deft comic relief without descending into broad caricature, but here the bandit El Diablo seems just as power-hungry and puddle-deep as the town fathers, with no discernible political motivation – revolutionary or otherwise – governing his actions. In place of anything substantial, we are given a readily identifiable physical trait: El Diablo has only one arm, albeit one cannily topped with a boot spur. Such attention to detail was par for the course for Corbucci, who always displayed a keen eye for certain visual minutia. Look at Hud’s clothing – he wears a protective chainmail vest which might seem slightly incongruous within this setting, more appropriate to a peplum picture, say, but is not without precedence within the Corbucci canon. I am, of course, referring to the alternative, upbeat ending to his own Il Grande Silenzio, wherein Silence defeats Tigrero and his men wearing that peculiar armoured hand. Did Hud and Silence both have access to the same medieval armoury? It’s one thing for Joe to forge a haphazard chest-plate out of scrap metal in Per un pugno di dollari (aka A Fistful of Dollars) (1964), but quite another to have an exquisitely crafted glove or an intricately woven mesh garment. Dubious practicalities aside, the vest looks great, and it bestows Hud with a most unique look, quite different from anything else within the genre. In fact, the costume design in Gli Specialisti is excellent throughout. When Hud emerges from his hotel room for his first evening proper in Blackstone, he does so wearing a distinct burgundy jacket, apparently cut from velvet, which seems both impressively modern and yet reassuringly appropriate. It’s another arresting touch, worthy to be filed alongside Django’s fingerless gloves or Silence’s fur-lined lapels.
Beyond such ambivalence toward his characters, there exists a palpable anger in Corbucci’s dispassion. Again, he seems to care about everything to the point that it all seems pointless (it is here that I might question the conclusion reached by Alex Cox, who posits in his book 10,000 Ways to Die that this is the work of a director who no longer cares – it occurs to me that Corbucci might care too much). Indeed, his political infusion is so strong as to cancel itself out and render the film apolitical. Like a citizen desperate for change but unsure who to vote for, he commits to nothing and nobody in the end, balloting only indifference. Corbucci as director – as artist – feels defeated, exhausted, bitter, and thus his film feels utterly desolate and derelict of anything approximating hope. In terms of sheer feeling, Gli Specialisti might well stand as the perfect symbiosis between filmmaker and film.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Corbucci was well known for his broad humour and jovial personality, and even in the midst of this downbeat fable, the master can’t resist a sprinkling of levity. How else to explain the flustered sheriff fumbling for the soap as Virginia takes a bath, or Cabot’s carnal boasting when trying to lure that very same woman back into his bed? Such moments might play as base, easy, and cheap, unwelcome even, but they prove integral to the director’s oeuvre. It’s almost as if Corbucci was ashamed of his own greatness, of the depths of true resonance he was capable of reaching within a genre framework, and he somehow felt compelled to reassure the viewer that he wasn’t taking his work as seriously as tone and climate might imply. (I stand by my earlier assertion that Corbucci shared much in common with Antonioni with regard to their handling of certain lead characters, Antonioni in his afore-mentioned trilogy and Corbucci with this quartet; both were able to diagnose a certain existential angst within their protagonists, and both set out to explore that internal landscape of loneliness and disconnect. Antonioni, of course, chose to tell his stories via prolonged silence, reflective surfaces and the suffusion of sterile, modernist architecture, embracing an obvious pretension along the way. In stark contrast, Corbucci’s canvas was frayed and filthy, dashed in blood and horseshit, etched in injury and incorporating the most meaningful Silence of all. Indeed, it is Corbucci’s apparent lack of lofty ambition which makes his work seem so effortless, so authentic in its moments of profundity – he strains for nothing yet frequently achieves brilliance. We should be forever grateful that he chose to remain in our sandbox, a true champion of the genre; the Spaghetti Western’s own Skid-Row poet.) Corbucci’s finest joke plays out at the very end of the film. As Hud rides off into the sunset (in a stunning shot expertly captured by De Palma), perforated with bullets and bleeding out heavily, Angelo F. Lavagnino’s aggressively haunting main theme kicks in and the credits roll. Here, all named cast and crew are rendered in bright, multi-coloured lettering. This, surely, is Corbucci fucking with his audience to the very end: after 105 minutes spent painting an uninviting world from a mute, colourless palette, the director chooses to sign off with bold, broad, rainbow strokes? It’s classic Corbucci, and the joke is on us.
Lest it not be obvious by this point, I am an unwavering champion, apologist and unrepentant defender of Gli Specialisti. I think it might be one of the most neglected Spaghetti Westerns of them all, and it misses masterpiece status only by a couple of bullets. The drawbacks are negligible but obvious. The fight scenes are rubbish. The brawl at the bar with Hud pitted against Boot and his cronies should be one of the genre’s best (creatively incorporating ice, a weaponised till and metal tongues into the action), but it is so poorly choreographed and haphazardly shot that it looks like a bunch of school kids re-enacting what the scene should have looked like. Punches fail to connect. Some parts are inexplicably sped up. It’s as if Corbucci filmed the rehearsal as a lark but then opted to retain it in the final cut. It’s a jarring scene, and it frustrates on each and every viewing. Another distraction is Corbucci’s recycling of character names, which intriguingly hints at a shared-world with regard to his westerns. Is Virginia Pollicut related to that son-of-a-bitch Henry? Brother and sister, perhaps? It’s not unfeasible – both are premium bastards. And Frank Wolff’s Sheriff Gideon from Silenzio here becomes Sheriff Gedeon. Did Corbucci and his co-writer Sabatino Ciuffini really seek to distinguish two extremely similar characters by simply switching a single vowel? It’s a minor infringement, but sufficiently distracting to anyone familiar with Corbucci’s work. And yes, some of it is a little sloppy, but such imperfections are now recognised as being integral to this great director’s work. Certain technical deficiencies (the heavy gauze in the opening sequence of Silenzio; the boomerang potatoes in that same film, lazily tossed into frame by a crewman just off-camera; unstable zoom shots; scrappy editing et al) have somehow became synonymous with Corbucci’s style and should be embraced. Again, whilst no technical formalist, Corbucci somehow managed to produce selected works which conjured true greatness.
Gli Specialisti’s greatest asset might well be its emphasis on a palpable despondency. The tone here is utter despair. The Spaghetti Western often threatened to trespass into the gloomy realm of the Gothic, and here Corbucci leans heavily in that direction. This is an unremittingly sombre film, with Dario De Palma’s crepuscular cinematography bathed in an autumnal splendour which signposts the apocalypse. (I based this piece on a viewing of the recent 4k UHD disc from France, and the picture quality is a thing to behold. You can buy it from Amazon.fr, but only the UHD disc has English subtitles, not the regular Blu-ray.) So too does Angelo F. Lavagnino’s complex score flirt with an underlying melancholy, although – much like the film itself – never stoops to blatant manipulation in order to elicit its desired response. Corbucci could be a blunt, on-the-nose filmmaker at times, but Gli Specialisti finds the director in a somewhat subdued mood (that is, as subdued as one can be whilst handling material which climaxes with mass nudity and communal denigration).
And so Gli Specialisti continues to hypnotise as a visual elegy. No, it isn’t as good a film as Django (although I must confess to rating it higher personally), and it certainly doesn’t eclipse his signature piece Il Grande Silenzio. Nor is it a more complete or subversive work than I crudeli (The Hellbenders), his callous masterwork from 1967. But it remains a singular experience nonetheless, and, along with the criminally underrated Minnesota Clay, deserves serious reconsideration. Within that brief clutch of films, Corbucci imbued the Italo-western with a rarefied pathos, making sure his alleged heroes paid for their actions not only through bodily injury and a hard-won martyrdom, but, more damningly, via the violent disseverance of the soul.
Just let’s not mention Il bianco il giallo il nero (1975).