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The Dirtier Side of the Old West:

Hud the Specialist

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Western Wednesdays)

(This one’s dedicated to Make Mine Criterion! [aka spinenumbered] who wrote a lovely what if release scenario on the film, which I’ll leave a link to below. Sorry it’s not Arrow Video MMC, but I hope it’s still good.)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Some spoilers may follow)

(This review is of the Italian language original version of the film)

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Gli Specialisti (Le Specialiste/The Specialist/The Specialists) (1969) R **** ½

Johnny Hallyday: Hud Dixon

Gastone Moschin: Sheriff Gedeon

Françoise Fabian: Virginia Pollicut

Sylvie Fennec: Sheba Johnson

Mario Adorf: El Diablo

Angela Luce: Valencia the Saloon Girl

Serge Marquand: Boot Johnson

Renato Pinciroli: Lord the Gravedigger

Gino Pernice: Cabot the Gambler

Remo De Angelis: Romero

Andrés José Cruz Soublette: Rosencrantz (as Andrés José Cruz)

Gabriella Tavernese: Apache

Stefano Cattarossi: Kit

Christian Belaygue: Buddy

Written by: Sergio Corbucci & Sabatino Ciuffini

Directed by: Sergio Corbucci

Synopsis: Lone gunfighter Hud travels to the town of Blackstone to clear his dead brother Charlie of false bank robbery charges. The locals of Blackstone are all frightened when Hud is seen entering the town, clearly knowing more than what they’ve said. Complicating matters for Hud in his quest is a decent, but pacifist, Sheriff, the lusty Lady Bank President, ally turned enemy El Diablo, and a group of teenaged hippies, all with their own agendas.

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After the cold, bleak, and nihilistic success that was Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence), Sergio Corbucci went back (or forced in some instances) to the traditional roots of the Western with Gli Specialiste (The Specialists). Italian Western regular Lee Van Cleef pitched a concept to several directors, though it’s unknown whether he wanted to star in the project, about a gunman who goes to a town with an unscrupulous, save for a few decents, population that knew the truth behind the death of his brother. Corbucci ended up liking the idea, and in the tradition of his ground-breaking Western Django, has the setting in a muddy and grimy little hamlet where everyone is either physically dirty or morally dirty. Taking a page from Robert Hossein’s film Une Corde, Un Colt…. (Cimitero senza Croci/The Rope and the Colt/Cemetery Without Crosses) in that there’s very few good characters, even the character the audience is supposed to support has a sense of meanness and cruelty in him. No one is really spared the pangs of guilt, even those who are actually good are forced to undergo some suffering simply because of their geographical association to the plot. This darker atmosphere makes for a more realistic feel to the film, and even tells of how the West really was. Corbucci does offer some light-hearted moments in the film, as he had in Silenzio, though this go-around is a little sparing, but still effective.

Surprisingly, very little gunfights and violence take place within the film. The film is  more story and character driven, playing up a kind of psychological effect, having both the characters and audiences wonder who will crack first and reveal who in fact was responsible for having Charlie set up as the perpetrator of the crime he’s accused of. Hud spends the majority of the film asking questions and trying to figure out who played what part in the bank robbery, and quickly discovering nearly everybody has something to hide. What little violence is shown is done so in a very quick and effective fashion, the majority of the violence being a brawl between Hallyday and several tough guys of the area, only two or three major gun battles occurring.

Johnny Hallyday, the French equivalent of Elvis Presley is very effective and compelling in the role of Hud. Like with many classical Anti-Heroes of the Italian Western little to nothing is gone into regarding his past, though it’s clear there’s some bad blood between him and some of the citizens. For the most part, he seems to just be a gun for hire who has received word of his brother’s death and is looking for answers. Hallyday’s blonde hair and blue eyes made him comparable to the early Eastwood prototype, as did many other Northern Italian actors, but his charm and gazes allow him to generate a kind of empathy for the character, who clearly wants to avenge his brother, but isn’t sure if bloodshed can be avoided. Hallyday also uses some soulful looks for Hud, showing in many ways he’s a fairly decent man, only trying to survive in a harsh and sometimes lawless environment, where many men must make their own justice. In a rare showing for Italian Westerns, the hero engages in a fight with his fists, rather than his gun. Hallyday, who was still very young and athletic looking, gets to take on three or four guys all at once and does very well in dispatching them in proper fashion, sometimes using objects to help him out. Unlike many Italian actors, with the exception of the likes of Franco Nero and Giuliano Gemma, who seem to look more like schoolboys in a schoolyard tiff, Hallyday looks like a real fighter, and is very believable when throwing punches and kicks.

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Gastone Moschin, an Italian actor who started out in comedies, got his first taste of serious dramatic style parts in the role of Sheriff Gedeon, though is almost always referred to as just Sheriff. Moschin’s Sheriff is a fairly decent and good man, but his pacifism makes him not overtly effective at his job, though he appears to have his moments at getting things done. Moschin plays his character as a man who clearly wants to maintain law, order, and peace in his community, but not wishing to resort to any kind of violence or assertiveness have him come off as weak and as a pawn for the town’s de-facto leader Mrs. Pollicut. Moschin’s background in comedy served well for the film’s occasional light-hearted moments spread throughout, though for the most part he plays the role straight. Despite Moschin’s menacing stares and hard features that would earn him acclaim in Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (Caliber 9), this proved to be his only Western appearance, and he’s quite good at it. While some of his features pointed to Italian heritage, his gruff voice and hard look would’ve made him a great main villain, henchman, or other lawmen and bounty hunter types for later films. It’s plausible the genre’s decline into comedy led to this decision.

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Françoise Fabian, a noted French character actress who also did some work in Italy, exudes a sultry exoticness as Virginia Pollicut. Making history as the first and, (so far to this author’s knowledge) only female villain in the Italian Westerns, Fabian plays Pollicut as an independent woman who holds a mighty sway and iron fist over the town of Blackstone. She clearly has intimate knowledge of the conspiracy against Hud’s brother Charlie, but her growth in power to being Bank Presidant has the entire commuity scared out of it’s wits. She’s shown as having a past with Hud, but her wiles, ambition, and two-faced personality were too much for him, and even when she sees him again at his brother’s grave, he’s still very wary of her. While women tended to have very little to do in Italian Westerns, except to be objectified, beaten, and raped, Claudia Cardinale’s role in C’era una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) and Michele Mercier’s role in Une Corde, Un Colt….. began a brief, but necessary change in parts written for women in these films. While Nieves Navarro had played a much similar character in Una Pistola per Ringo (A Pistol for Ringo) in 1965, it wouldn’t be until the events of 1968 would major changes be made. Having Fabian play a character in full control of her life and destiny, going to the point that she’s able to bend all the men of the town to her littlest of whims was very revolutionary, and quite a revelation for the times. Fabian also broke ground by doing the first full nude scene in the Italian Westerns and while the sex sells idea may pop up, the scene shows another extant of the authority she holds.

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Mario Adorf, a Swiss-German, Italian actor is a zany pleasure as the bandit El Diablo. Adorf plays up one of Corbucci’s favorite, though morbid, themes in his films: a character with a disfigurement or handicap as Diablo only has one arm. While clearly eccentric and crazy, Adorf is able to convey that in spite of Diablo’s ravings and musings, he’s still not someone to be messed with. The character isn’t seen very much in the film, but he’s one of the people who played a big role in Charlie’s frame-up. A revelation for Hud is when Diablo tells him Charlie and he had partnered up for a crime, but whether Charlie was involved in the Blackstone robbery is up in the air. In spite of having one arm, Diablo is shown to be very resourceful and is even able to fight the Sheriff only using his head. While Adorf isn’t on screen much, what little time he is on he makes sure he is noticed.

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The only downside to Corbucci’s film is the presence of the hippie like teenagers. Corbucci made no secret he hated the Hippie Culture and Movement, referring to them as lazy, passive, and drug-addled. He even goes as far as to portray the foursome he uses to represent them as dirty, unkempt, vagabond urchins with no respect for anything, which clearly wasn’t the case for the majority of them. It makes one wonder if Corbucci wasn’t jealous of the waves, noise, actions, and reactions the Hippies were able to make and incite in the late 1960’s, particularly in the aftermath of the Student Riots of May 1968. Corbucci, who was a committed leftist, saw others like him during Mussolini’s dictatorship be arrested without cause and imprisoned without trial, and might have clearly been upset all the Hippies were getting were slaps on the wrist, brief imprisonments, and fines for their actions. That the Hippies generation was inciting change where his couldn’t might have also made him bitter and resentful. Even if these ideas are true, that still wouldn’t allot him the right to bash them, as all they ever really wanted, and still do, is peace and universal brotherhood.

(Let me apologize profusely for this rant, but I felt something had to be said about this aspect of the film. I don’t claim for certain any of this is true, but enough evidence within the film itself and Corbucci’s background to at least suggest something like this is based in fact.)

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Other than Corbucci’s rants against Hippies, the film is still very excellent and does well in showcasing that everyone has at least one skeleton in their closet and no one is ever purely innocent. Excellent acting, including a surprising wonderful performance from Johnny Hallyday (think of it as his better version of Charo!), good atmosphere and setting, fine camera work, and a good script are the highlights of the film. While more of a Mystery Western than an Action Western, the film still has good bursts of action that will satisfy fans of the more traditional aspects of the Italian Western. Dark like Une Corde, Un Colt…, but not nearly pessimistic like Il Grande Silenzio, Specialisti offers many traditional elements of the genre, but also takes it to new levels to set it apart from the pack and is rightfully there with the pantheon of great Italo Westerns.

(After reading so much about this film from the IMDB and The Spaghetti Western Database, I was not disappointed when I finally viewed the Blu Ray release I imported from France. The film might be a little more cynical, but it’s far from downbeat as others would probably claim. The transfer and audio is excellent, the only negative being when the film is viewed in the original Italian language there are forced French subtitles. The 4K UHD release does include translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack, but only on the 4K disc. With 4K being so expensive both disc wise and player wise I would strongly recommend really thinking about if it’s worth the investment. For myself I’m happy with regular Blu Ray’s and my region free player,  but if 4K is of interest to anyone out there, go for it.)

All images are courtesy of Images and their respective owners

For more information

The Spaghetti Western Database/ Gli Specialiste

Please read and enjoy this wonderful little piece from Make Mine Criterion!

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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