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DVD SAVANT
Savant PAL Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Django -
Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne

and
Django Shoots First

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

Sergio Corbucci's seminal Spaghetti Western Django was a big hit in both Italy and Germany and cinema-goers in both countries developed a special affection for Franco Nero's avenging gunfighter. Django's popularity was quickly noticed by a number of producers and distributors who sought to cash-in on the ensuing Django craze. Some chose to produce quasi-sequels which detailed the further adventures of the original Django character: Ferdinando Baldi's highly regarded Terence Hill (Ace High, My Name is Nobody) vehicle, Viva Django AKA Get the Coffin Ready is one such film. Other producers, like those responsible for featured title Django Shoots First, simply made a point of calling their film's completely unrelated anti-hero Django too. Some German distributors went on to further re-christen several more totally unrelated anti-heroes Django when they came to prepare the German language dub tracks for a number of genre titles. This was the case with Mario Lanfranchi's Death Sentence, here being marketed by Germany's Koch Media under its German release title, Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne. Finally, some cheeky genre entries, like Leon Klimovsky's low-budget but fun Some Dollars for Django, didn't even feature a character called Django even though the name was prominently displayed in their titles.

The two Django films featured here work to showcase the diverse nature of the genre: they're both built around revenge scenarios and they both pay small homages to film noir but Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne is a serious and artistic venture while Django Shoots First is a rollicking piece of popular cinema that doesn't take itself too seriously at all. Both shows feature some noticeably good art direction courtesy of Franco D'Andria.


Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne
Koch Media
1968 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / Sentenza di morte, Death Sentence / 90 m.
Starring Robin Clarke, Richard Conte, Tomas Milian, Adolfo Celi, Enrico Maria Salerno, Lilli Lembo, Eleonora Brown, Monica Pardo, Glauco Scarlini, Luciano Rossi
Cinematography Toni Secchi
Art Direction Franco D'Andria
Film Editor Franco Attenni
Original Music Gianni Ferrio
Produced by Alberto Puccini
Written and Directed by Mario Lanfranchi

Synopsis:

A young alcoholic, Cash (Robin Clarke), is too drunk to help when four gunmen attack and rob his brother. When he sobers up he hits the vengeance trail, hunting four quite disparate killers who have split up and surrounded themselves with dangerous henchmen. Diaz (Richard Conte) is now a wealthy farmer while the cruel and perverse Montero (Enrico Maria Salerno) has set himself up as a professional gambler. Both men are dispatched with little real trouble but things get trickier when Cash takes on Brother Baldwin's (Adolfo Celi) gang of pious enforcers and O'Hara (Tomas Milian), a demented albino who has a disturbing fetish for blonde women and gold.

Director Mario Lanfranchi was well known for his work in the fields of theatre, opera and highbrow television. So much so that he initially found it difficult to find a producer who would take his sudden desire to write and direct a Spaghetti Western seriously. Once a production deal was in place, Lanfranchi's professional reputation helped him to secure an interesting and capable cast and, although he was only equipped with a relatively small budget, he set about creating a very personal film. As a result, Lanfranchi's sole genre entry boasts a particularly distinctive look and a decidedly unusual ambience: two factors which make classification and rating by normal genre standards quite difficult. Both the film's art direction and its narrative structure (the story is told in four distinct acts) suggest that Lanfranchi endeavoured to bring some of his theatrical sensibilities to this show. There's plenty of well-staged action on display here but Cash's enemies are all clever and suspicious men and he is ultimately forced to employ ingenious and novel psychological tricks in order to get them to lower their guards. As such, all four of the film's acts eventually become what are essentially quite wordy, character and dialogue driven, two-man psycho dramas that Lanfranchi chooses to describe as "duels with words." The director gets some great performances from his cast, and employs some interesting close-up shots and editing techniques, during these scenes of verbal sparring.

The film starts with a fairly unusual narrative structure. Cash is pursuing his first victim, Diaz, through the desert. Both men are on foot and both men are nearly fit to drop. Diaz has two pistols but no water while Cash has a supply of water but no gun. As they call taunts to each other, Cash has a flashback which details the actions that prompted him to hit the vengeance trail. Diaz follows this with a flashback of his own which shows Cash arriving at his grand hacienda and wiping out his men before chasing him into the desert. With Diaz now desperate for water and psychologically unbalanced, Cash constructs an illusion that lures him to his doom. Richard Conte (The Big Combo, The Godfather, Ocean's 11) is convincing as an ageing bad guy who has reputedly turned over a new leaf, and he almost prompts a degree of sympathy for Diaz here. Diaz reckons that he has lived an honest life and has worked hard at building up a successful farm in the years following the attack on Cash's brother but Cash remains unmoved. Cash's next victim, Montero the gambler, is a pretty despicable character whose introductory scene shows him accepting a desperate opponent's young and beautiful wife (Eleonora Brown) as his stake in a make or break card game. Montero tells Cash that he doesn't play for money, he plays for the sake of playing: put simply, he gets a smug feeling of superiority when he takes on and beats the forces of destiny at the card table. The only money that really excites him is that which he purposefully sets out to win from poverty stricken gamblers: he knows that the poor really value their meagre stakes. Cash pushes Montero to the limit psychologically by cleaning him out and then forcing him to take on a gamble where each man's life is their stake. Enrico Maria Salerno, who does an expert job of bringing the slimy Montero to life, was the voice of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name character in the original Italian version of A Fistful of Dollars.

Things take a decidedly gothic turn when Cash goes after his remaining two victims. Brother Baldwin dresses like a parson and he affects the language and the mannerisms of a priest. But he's actually a callous enforcer who uses his gang of black-clad killers to terrorize innocent villagers. Cash's refusal to repent his sins and reveal the whereabouts of a mythical case full of stolen military gold drives Baldwin to distraction, giving the battered Cash the edge that he needs to turn the tables on this particularly nasty individual. Adolfo Celi (Danger: Diabolik, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Thunderball) is perfectly cast as the physically powerful and brutal pseudo-holy man. Genre stalwart Tomas Milian (The Big Gundown, Face to Face, Run Man Run, Django Kill, Companeros, Boccaccio '70) brings a touch of deranged magic to the proceedings with his portrayal of O'Hara, the disturbed albino. He makes a real impression dressed all in white except for a pair of black leather gloves, a black neck-tie and a dark brown gun belt. Cash tries to snare O'Hara by pretending to re-open a dying town's bank but O'Hara escapes from the trap and flees to his foreboding house that sits at the top of a bleak and craggy rock face. Deciding to target O'Hara's secondary fetish, Cash employs a blonde beauty to share his horse as he slowly rides through O'Hara's barren territory. O'Hara takes the bait, setting us up for a spooky night-time shoot-out in a reputedly cursed monastery and its attendant graveyard.

This might sound like a fairly standard revenge flick but it isn't. Lanfranchi states that he set out to create an experimental one-off and in many ways he succeeded. The most obviously different thing about this show is the soundtrack score by Gianni Ferrio: it sounds like a Spaghetti Western score that was recorded by a bunch of jumpy Jazz musicians who were just itching to leave the score behind and do some improvisational blowing (which they actually appear to do in a couple of spots). The use of instruments and musical time signatures associated with the Jazz and Loungecore movements makes some sense when the first appearance of Richard Conte immediately prompts memories of his film noir past. And these musical sounds are also reasonably well-suited to the sequences that play out in the dilapidated and sleazy saloon where Montero spends his days gambling. But, good as the music is, there are sequences where it plays just a little incongruously. More significantly perhaps, the music here generally fails to generate any kind of deep emotional response. Perhaps in recognition of Tomas Milian's status as a genre icon, the music does take on a more traditionally Spaghetti Western-like vibe for the show's final act: some appropriate organ work, vocal chants and choral voices are effectively thrown into the mix here.

Lanfranchi states that he wanted to make a Western that was completely unsentimental and he certainly succeeded in this respect. There's very little room for any emotional investment on the part of the audience here. So much so that it's tempting to assume that some sort of cultural influence might have been at work. Did the inherently highbrow and aristocratic Lanfranchi simply lack the (popular) cultural competencies needed to produce an emotionally charged, populist and crowd-pleasing Spaghetti Western? Or did he consciously dispense with the genre's populist form in order to produce a kind of 'high culture' variant that would demand to be viewed from an unemotional and uninvolved critical distance? I'm sure only Lanfranchi could say for certain. Robin Clarke turns in a good performance as the reformed alcoholic vengeance-seeker but Cash by design isn't really a character that we're meant to feel much for. He is a completely driven killing machine akin to Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More and Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West but he doesn't possess the same kind of sympathetic and emotionally involving back-story as those characters. Cash's flashback tells us nothing about his brother and we never really get to know anything about Cash. If Diaz is to be believed, Cash's brother wasn't a wronged innocent: he was a greedy and dangerous criminal who tried to dupe his four outlaw partners out of the proceeds of some nefarious joint venture. And Diaz even indicates that he and Cash had been known to happily socialize together under dubious circumstances at some point in the past. The idea that the film's plot simply details a falling out between Spaghetti Western gangsters means that the show never really develops much in the way of a clear-cut sense of moral dualism, and this allows Lanfranchi to dispense with noble, Sergio Leone-style duels when it comes to the settling of accounts: the hard-boiled Cash is happy to exact his revenge any way he can, even if it means delivering a bullet in the back. Cash is so focused on his vengeance that he even rebuffs two females who offer themselves to him. Lanfranchi's representation of the West itself is equally unromantic: most of the impressively designed and dressed sets consist of buildings and interiors that are poverty stricken and in need of repair.

The film's costume designs and art direction are really quite distinctive. Designed by Giancarlo Salimbeni Bartolini, much of the effectively aged and worn clothing on display here comes in interesting-if-untypical shades of green, red and brown while being fashioned in noticeably theatrical and flamboyant styles. The presence of some unfamiliar shades of autumnal-like colours in the film's sets and background decorations, and the occasional employment of some fairly theatrical lighting effects, further adds to the film's unusual look and ambience. Toni Secchi's cinematography remains both excellent and stylish: there are some great camera moves on display here and Secchi and Lanfranchi repeatedly make their static shots interesting by using door frames, arches, pillars, windows, leaning ladders, lounging bodies, etc, to create striking frames within frames. Secchi had previously worked as the director of cinematography on Damiano Damiani's classic political Spaghetti A Bullet for the General and he went on to direct the genuinely funny comedy Spaghetti Western Panhandle Calibre .38, which featured a charming, career-best performance from its leading star Keenan Wynn. When they are taken in isolation, all of the individual elements that make up Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne are revealed to be of a noticeably high standard and the show's bold aesthetic qualities certainly help it to stand out from the crowd. But I can't help thinking that Lanfranchi's desire to create something so noticeably different resulted in a film that is at times just a tad too un-generic to be fully accepted and appreciated by its target audience. Somehow I get the feeling that Lanfranchi would regard such an assessment as a real compliment.


Mastered from the original negative, this is a largely excellent presentation. The only print damage in evidence here is the odd fleck or minor scratch and the disc's image quality remains sharp throughout. The film's interesting colour schemes are presented in a particularly vibrant way and the disc's sound quality is pretty good too. There is no English language soundtrack on this disc but it does sport English language subtitles. I made use of the disc's Italian language soundtrack and, while the track does get a little 'crackly' in one or two places, there are no major problems here. A quick listen to the disc's German language soundtrack revealed it to be of a similarly good quality. The optional English subtitles present here are generally very good: they do contain a handful of misspelled words, and feature a couple of slightly garbled sentences, but these don't pose a problem at all. In the German language dub, and in the subtitles, Cash is renamed Django.

Koch Media get full marks for the extra features that they have provided here. The English language interview with Mario Lanfranchi contains some fascinating background information about the director and the film itself. His English language commentary track works to offer some insight into just what he was trying to achieve with his unusual take on the genre. Special mention must be made of the stylish deluxe packaging that Koch Media have afforded this release: a special edition in all but name, the disc is housed in a sturdy gate-fold digi-pack which is in turn housed in an equally sturdy card slipcase.

Note: some early pressings of this title were bedevilled by two glitches that have to be fixed manually. 1) Some older DVD players jump a chapter at the 59 minute mark: manually rewinding - as opposed to simply jumping - back to the start of the skipped chapter and hitting play allows the film to be picked up at the correct point. 2) Some older DVD players drop the English subtitles at the 9 minute mark: briefly hitting rewind and reactivating the subtitles via the remote control rectifies this problem.


Django Shoots First
Cinema Club
1966 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / Django spara per primo / 92 m.
Starring Glenn Saxson, Fernando Sancho, Evelyn Stewart, Nando Gazzolo, Lee Burton, Erika Blanc, Alberto Lupo, Marcello Tusco, Antonio Piretti, Valentino Macchi
Cinematography Riccardo Pallottini
Art Direction Franco D'Andria
Film Editor Otello Colangeli
Original Music Bruno Nicolai
Written by Sandro Continenza, Massimiliano Capriccioli, Fiorenzo Carpi, Vincenzo Flamini, Giovanni Simonelli and Alberto De Martino
Produced by Edmondo Amati
Directed by Alberto De Martino

Synopsis:

Glenn 'Django' Garvin's (Glenn Saxson) search for his estranged father ends when he finds his body in the possession of a bounty killer. Django shoots the bounty killer dead and heads for the town of Silver Creek in order to pick up the reward money himself. When he links up with a local eccentric, Gordon (Fernando Sancho), Django is informed that his father actually owned half of the town. The pair decide to prise Django's rightful inheritance out of his father's crooked business partner, Kluster (Nando Gazzolo), resulting in a series of violent confrontations and double-crosses. Matters are further complicated by the actions of Kluster's duplicitous wife Jessica (Evelyn Stuart) and the sudden arrival of a mysterious stranger called Doc (Alberto Lupo).

This film opens with what is surely one of the best plot devices ever cooked up by the genre's writers: Django invites an approaching bounty killer to share his camp fire and food only to discover that his guest has his estranged father's body in tow. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that this Django isn't really a wholly typical genre anti-hero. He may have the Man With No Name's quiff and beard but his clothes (kind of utilitarian cowpoke duds) make him look like a country boy who is out of his depth in the Wild Spaghetti West: consequently, when Django forces a duel situation, the bounty killer figures that he can take care of him with a trick shot from a concealed gun but Django is smarter and more experienced in gunplay than he looks. He's also a lot more talkative than most genre anti-heroes: post-gunfight he talks to both himself and his father's body as he agonises over whether he should claim the reward money himself. Django generally projects a fairly light and easy-going personality, especially when he's romancing the Silver Creek saloon's pretty barmaid, Lucy (Erika Blanc of The Devil's Nightmare), but he can turn nasty when he has to: Glenn Saxson's take on generic machismo is reasonably good. Saxson displays a great deal of confidence here, and he brings a kind of Giuliano Gemma-like sense of fun to his role, but he doesn't exude enough charisma to make a particularly big impression as a genre anti-hero. However, his approach is so inoffensive that negatively comparing him to the genre's more iconic actors would be both unfair and inappropriate.

Fernando Sancho (The Man From Nowhere), the undisputed king of the Spaghetti Western Mexican bandit players, is present here in a rare outing as a gringo good guy. Gordon is an eccentric character who likes the smell of money so much that he spends his days idly hanging around inside the Silver Creek bank. Sancho looks great in his well-designed gringo outfit and he turns in a really note-worthy performance, expertly providing just the right amount of mild comic relief in a couple of spots. In many ways Gordon is like a gringo antecedent of the supporting Mexican characters that Ignazio Spalla/'Pedro Sanchez' played in each of Gianfranco Parolini's three Sabata films. Just like those characters, Gordon proves to be a valuable asset to his new-found anti-hero benefactor. Also helping Django out here is the mysterious Doc: Doc sports a smart Douglas Mortimer-cum-Sartana-like outfit and he possesses a handy gadget-rigged cane. We're not sure where Doc's loyalties lie at first but he comes to play a major part in one of the show's film noir-influenced sub-plots. (....Spoiler begins) Jessica Kluster is an out and out femme fatale who brazenly tells Django, "I always try to be on the winner's side." Doc is a face from her past who's had his fingers burnt by her scheming ways and wants revenge. Trouble is, when it comes to the crunch, he still seems to be hopelessly under her spell (....spoiler ends).

The chief bad guy here is the town's boss man Kluster who was also Django's father's business partner. It seems that the pair were involved in smuggling guns and when they were found out they drew lots to decide who would go to prison and who would remain at liberty to look after their business interests in Silver Creek. He's not too happy when Django starts pushing him for his father's fifty percent share of the town and he reacts by amassing an army of bad guys to keep Django and Gordon at bay. (....Spoiler begins) Consequently we're not too surprised to discover that it was the devious Kluster who convinced Django's father to escape from prison before sending a bounty killer after him. When Django discovers this his quest for monetary gain becomes bolstered by a desire for revenge but he finds it hard to effect either when Kluster successfully puts him in the frame for the killing of a bank clerk and the theft of $300,000 (....spoiler ends). Kluster is aided and abetted by Ward, a particularly nasty bad guy who holds sway over a number of equally dangerous henchmen. Django bests Ward and a few of his men in a series of over-dramatic but well choreographed fist-fights. As it turns out, the duplicitous Jessica Kluster (Evelyn Stuart of The Leopard and La Dolce vita) proves to be a very unpredictable and dangerous handful too.

Django Shoots First swings towards the more populist end of the genre but there's nothing wrong with that: this remains a thoroughly engaging and entertaining show in a rip-roaring kind of way. Parts of the film (Django's romance with Lucy, the cute stuff involving Lucy's kid brother, the over-cooked fist-fights, the sequence where Django gets pinned down on a rock face by Ward and his sharp-shooting men, etc) vaguely bring to mind the kind of scenarios found in American B Westerns from the 1950s. Funnily enough, genre stalwart Bruno Nicolai provides a splendidly bombastic, rousing and catchy soundtrack score that sometimes sounds like a loving, Spaghetti Western-tinged tribute to the kind of music found in those very films. Nicolai's enjoyable and involving music compliments some generally very good, and at times outstanding, cinematography: the ultra-stylish sequence where Django and Gordon meet up and cautiously walk down Silver Creek's main street, in full view of Kluster's amassed ranks of intimidating bad guys, briefly begs comparison to Sergio Leone at his swaggering best. Director Alberto De Martino and cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini consistently make impressive use of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame and the show's action is generally covered from a variety of interesting angles. Vittorio Marchi's set designs and Gaia Romanini's costume designs are impressive too: there are so many great costumes on display here that we are left wondering why Django ended up being lumbered with what has to be the blandest outfit in the show. A number of busy and well-staged crowd scenes would seem to confirm that this show had the benefit of a decent sized budget.

So far so good. Unfortunately the film is made a little uneven by the inclusion of some slightly ill-fitting, jokey and cartoon-like set-pieces that attempt to give a comedic feel to parts of the show's finale. The biggest offender here is an overly long and slapstick barroom brawl. Django throws a party for the town when some stolen money is retrieved and he then proceeds to initiate the saloon-based brawl: the ensuing mass fight is actually a pre-planned distraction which allows a number of the film's main protagonists to sneak away and move towards their final settling of accounts unnoticed. De Martino does a great job of tying up the show's loose ends as its final chapter unfolds on Silver Creek's dark and deserted streets before finally moving to the confines of a nearby graveyard. But the director then seems to decide that the show just can't end without a few more gags to accompany the silliness of the brawl: the result is a couple of humorous false endings that really only function to prevent Django and Gordon from leaving town. One of the humorous sequences is notable for featuring an early genre appearance by Luigi Montefiori/'George Eastman': he pops up as a cigar smoking, poncho clad stranger who has just enough screen time to deliver the film's final jokey pay-off line. De Martino's decision to end what had been a reasonably 'serious' film on an overtly light-hearted and humorous note does actually add to the film's curious sense of charm but it also loses the show a couple of points in my book. Don't take this criticism too seriously because the splash of humour present here doesn't really have a drastically negative effect on the film. Truth be told, the comedic content of the barroom brawl, etc, is really no different to the sort of silliness that is deemed perfectly acceptable in all manner of supposedly 'serious' American Westerns. But, looking at things from a specifically generic point of view, the humour here does slightly dilute the overall impact of the film's largely decent attempts at Spaghetti Western-style grittiness and film noir-style dramatic intrigue.


The UK-based Cinema Club imprint used film elements controlled by Canal Plus studios for this release. As such the picture quality is near enough excellent: the disc's image quality is sharp and the odd fleck is the nearest we get to anything like print damage here. Unusually for a British company, Cinema Club have chosen to release the film with its original Italian soundtrack only. The quality of the Italian soundtrack, which is supported by forced English language subtitles, is excellent. The English subtitles themselves are of a pretty much excellent quality too. All in all this amounts to a handsome and welcome presentation of a previously little seen genre title.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne rates:
Movie: Good ++ / Very Good -
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Mario Lanfranchi interview (in English), Mario Lanfranchi commentary track (in English), image gallery, alternate opening titles, two trailers and a booklet (in German)

Django Shoots First rates:
Movie: Good ++ / Very Good -
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None


Packaging: Django - Unbarmherzig wie die Sonne: Gate-fold digi-pack box. Django Shoots First: Keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2005



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