Sergio Corbucci (Django, The Great Silence) is known for his bleak, violent spaghetti westerns. The Specialists retains many of the themes that established his reputation but is an example of the much rarer French western. Shot in the Alps and starring French rock n’ roll icon Johnny Hallyday, it’s visually distinctive enough to be worth saddling up for, even if it was easily the least successful of Corbucci’s run of post-Django oaters, and has a weirdly conservative streak of hatred toward the counter-culture of the era running throughout.
A lone stranger, known as Hud (Hallyday), rides into Blackstone, Nevada. Firearms are banned in the town, but this doesn’t stop Hud looking for answers for the death of his brother Charlie. The luckless sibling was accused of robbing a bank and hanged without trial. Hud’s quest pits him against the town’s sheriff (Gastone Moschin), a one-armed Mexican bandit (Mario Adorf), and a formidable banker (Françoise Fabian).
The Specialists isn’t quite the straightforward tale of revenge you may expect. Hud’s determination to avenge his brother is central, but Corbucci is just as interested in how his return to Blackstone impacts its residents. It’s not long before it’s revealed how many people were involved in Charlie’s lynching in a flurry of recriminations and back-stabbing. A slight looseness to the twisty storytelling reveals that Corbucci and co-writer Sabatino Ciuffini were scripting on the fly, but there is at least a pleasing depth to the otherwise archetypal characters and some grimly humorous moments, such as one luckless bandito finding out what ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls’ really means.
Setting aside the silliness of the lushly picturesque Alpine setting standing in for arid Nevada, and the baffling decision to pluralise the title (Hud remains very much a singular entity throughout with a couple of nebulous affiliations), there is more than enough to enjoy in the sardonic tone and sudden efficiency of its violence. Hallyday brings a decent amalgam of Eastwood-like taciturnity and Van Cleef steeliness, even if he never gets within sight of their mythical status. Françoise Fabian also stands out as the banker Virginia, who basically runs the town with the triple threat of money, intelligence, and glamour.
For all Corbucci’s disdain of the hippy movement, there are a few idiosyncratic touches that also help to increase the film’s standing as an experience. Chief among them are the four modish bounty hunters that have rocked up in Blackstone. With their neckerchiefs, fur, and feathers, they’re more Buffalo Springfield than Buffalo Bill; and while Corbucci delights in having them dragged literally through shit early doors, they add a certain louche flavour that Robert Altman would later exploit through Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Also, a later scene that sees the entire town crawling naked in the street would not have been out of place in Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s wild phantasmagoria El Topo a year hence.
The handsome Blu-ray from Eureka has both French and Italian versions. The French dub is the one to go for, not only for the performances of Hallyday and Fabian in their own tongue; but for the frequent delight of the anti-hero’s name being pronounced, with a splendid Gallic plosive, as “‘Udd”. It might not be Sergio Corbucci’s most celebrated western, but with its neat eccentricities, tightly-edited action, and unusual location, The Specialist has been worth the effort of restoration.
Available on Blu-ray Mon 18 May 2020