The Specialist (Sergio Corbucci, 1969)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddFrench pop superstar Johnny Hallyday is Hud, a solitary gunfighter devoted to avenging the murder of his brother falsely accused of robbing a bank and hung by the townsfolk of Blackstone, Nevada.  Riding into town, Hud finds himself caught between the town’s plotting elite, their by-the-book sheriff, and the gang of bandits outside of town led by the one-armed El Diablo.

Sergio Corbucci and cinematographer Dario Di Palma create a stylishly cynical revenge Western unlike any other.  Featuring memorable scene-chewing performances by Gastone Moschin and Mario Adorf and roles by the beautiful Françoise Fabian, Sylvie Fennec, and Angela Luce, The Specialist is a strange, disillusioned parable presented here in an exclusive high definition restoration from the original Techniscope negative.

Special Features:

  • Brand new restoration from the original 35mm Techniscope camera negative
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original Italian and English soundtracks in uncompressed PCM mono audio
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • A Man Called Hud – brand new interview with star Johnny Hallyday
  • Hooray for Pollywood – brand new interview with star Francoise Fabian
  • Archived interview of director Sergio Corbucci
  • US, European, and international trailers
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Austin Fisher

MMC! doubles down on the Spaghetti Western’s other “Sergio” with The Specialist.  Also known as Specialists, Gli specialisti, and Le Spécialiste, some confusion is created over whether the film’s title is meant to be singular or plural – Corbucci changed the title in Italy from the singular to the plural.  Perhaps this explains the discrepancy, although any potential uncertainty seems fitting with this curious film.  A recently discovered draft of a script, signed by Corbucci and Lee Van Cleef, bears the title Il Ritorno del Mercenario, suggesting a connection to The Mercenary (1968), however The Specialist proved to be a very different film from the one conceived in that script, carrying forward only a few of its ideas.  Despite being separated by barely more than a year, The Specialist conveys a sentiment far removed from the high-spirited and ultimately hopeful approach of The Mercenary.  There is no common good or cause to rally around in The Specialist; only corruption and exploitation to exterminate.  And, oddly enough, Corbucci’s violent and uncompromising outsider opposing this unscrupulous society arrives in the form of the French Elvis, Johnny Hallyday.

Hallyday plays Hud, a prototypical Spaghetti Western hero – few words, steady gaze, quick draw.  He arrives in Blackstone, Nevada, where his brother was hanged without a trial for allegedly embezzling a small fortune from the local bank.  Hud’s search for the missing money and his quest for vengeance is complicated by the town’s craven and cowardly inner circle led by the bank’s crafty overseer, Virginia Pollywood (Francoise Fabian); by the town’s dutiful sheriff (Gastone Moschin); by a one-armed revolutionary-turned-bandit called El Diablo (Mario Adorf); and by a quartet of juvenile hippies happy to make trouble and harass townsfolk.  Hud proclaims early in the film that he “hasn’t got a single friend in this world,” but with so many rivals also seeking the bank’s lost funds, Hud is well-served to find support in Sheba (Sylvie Fennec), an attractive young woman keeping up a small home outside of town, and Valencia (Angela Luce), a fetching saloon worker quick to defend Hud against the accusations and plots of the town.

Gli specialistiCorbucci maintained that The Specialist was a political film, and its bleak atmosphere and deadly serious tone causes it to be placed alongside Corbucci’s Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) as the final film in the thematically linked Blood and Mud Trilogy.  With The Specialist, Corbucci takes aim at … well … everyone.  Corrupt capital, the passive bourgeoisie, enabling legal authority, failed radicals, and a meaningless youth movement all find representation in The Specialist and Hud puts each in his crosshairs, ultimately rejecting all aspects of Blackstone, including the fortune at issue.  There is no revolution here to pursue nor is there any redemption to be found.  It is notable that The Specialist concludes not with Hud’s triumph over the sheriff, El Diablo, or Virginia, but over the hippie foursome that does little more than hang out and annoy for nearly all of the film.  Despite having no place in the plot that killed Hud’s brother, the film’s climax, involving the young people stepping into Blackstone’s power vacuum and forcing the townsfolk to strip naked and crawl through the dusty main street, sees Hud face down the young people and reveal their cowardice one last time.  Such was Corbucci’s contempt for hippie culture’s pacificism.

No discussion of The Specialist is complete without addressing its star Johnny Hallyday.  Johnny (as he is simply known in France) was an extremely popular yé-yé performer who was looking to put behind his clean-cut image following his return from military service in 1964-65.  While pursuing artistic credibility as a more mature artist, Hallyday, like Corbucci, had little regard for the longhairs and the flower children of the late-’60s, getting into a rivalry with French singer Antoine (who suggested in song that Hallyday belonged in a zoo) and recording the track “Cheveux longs, idées courtes.”  Thus, Hallyday’s casting in a violent, defeatist Spaghetti Western, playing an anti-establishment figure against the youth movement, is entirely understandable.  And The Specialist was a success in France, even inspiring a comic strip based on the film, but Hallyday’s relationship to the film and its themes goes farther than these often cited points.  Johnny has been a musical magpie throughout his career, ready to record a French version of an American hit at a moment’s notice.  Through the ’60s, Hallyday encouraged the French to “danse le twist” and recorded en français versions of The Animals’ “House of Rising Sun,” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” and Los Bravos “Black is Black” moments after their initial releases.  The Specialist is another American product (the Western) interpolated into a European context (the Spaghetti Western) and one that Hallyday again shamelessly exploited, in many ways forecasting his experiments with Dylan-esque protest songs, country music, and various cover albums that would define the performer in the 1970s.  Hallyday never quite fits the film genre, always feeling somewhat out of the Western’s time and place and existing in opposition to any suspension of disbelief.  This is a common problem for popular musicians appearing on screen, although Hallyday’s issue seems particularly comparable to that of Elvis as Hallyday has always embraced the tackiness of his own showmanship, never shying away from it.  Accordingly, a self-conscious tension is created by his presence.  It might undermine the film on its own terms, but it also makes it memorable.  It gives The Specialist a puzzle that lingers once it’s over and that encourages revisiting for both enjoyment and curious interrogation.  Hallyday’s dissonance is also his secret success.

Specialist PosterThe Specialist‘s dissonances are not limited to Hallyday’s lightness in portraying a hardened gunfighter.  The Dolomites struggle to stand in for the Rockies, and The Specialist seems even more garish and grotesque than usual for the genre, but these are also the eccentricities that distinguish this movie from the rest of its genre.  Arrow Video is a label daring enough to embrace the bizarre qualities of The Specialist (aka Drop Them or I’ll Shoot) and the addition of Corbucci to their catalogue feels like a hopeful inevitability.  Having released Day of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967), Cemetery Without Crosses (Robert Hossein, 1968), and Requiescant (Carlo Lizzani, 1967), Arrow has already begun moving from canonical to alternative Spaghetti Westerns.  The Specialist could maintain that trend, drawing the label farther into the vagaries of the genre with a wildly entertaining title featuring a prominent director and unlikely celebrity lead.

Credits:  No home media edition of The Specialist exists of any quality, and so there are no special features to port over from other releases.  With Johnny Hallyday still a major star and Françoise Fabian still a prominent actress in Italy, we’ve included new interviews with each.  We’ve also tapped Austin Fisher once again to provide a booklet essay.  The Specialist is conspicuously absent from his Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema, but his explicitly political reading of Corbucci’s films and The Specialist‘s very critical view begs for his commentary.  No post on the Spaghetti Western is possible without reference to the invaluable The Spaghetti Western Database, including its film review by Scherpschutter.

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