|'); document.write(''); //-->
reviewed by Lee Broughton
For years I found the idea that a Shakespeare play had been adapted into a Spaghetti Western fairly unappealing. Spaghetti Western producers were adept at dreaming up new and original avenues for the genre to traverse but, on paper, Johnny Hamlet sounded like a pretty desperate novelty seeking exercise to me. However, the impressive roll call of genre personnel who worked on Johnny Hamlet meant that I couldn't ignore the film forever and the news that Germany's Koch Media had issued the show on DVD prompted me to finally take the plunge. And I'm glad that I did because Johnny Hamlet is actually a really fine genre entry. There's enough of the Hamlet story present for it to be recognizable but (thankfully) the film's scriptwriters allowed themselves room to rewrite a number of plot elements and to expand Shakespeare's original narrative in directions more suited to a Spaghetti Western. The results are really quite impressive. Koch Media's release of the film features Italian and German audio tracks that are supported by English subtitles.
Director Enzo G. Castellari is an action cinema specialist who also has a keen eye for great cinematography when circumstances and budgets allow. As such, his approach was perfectly suited to the Italian Western genre and he was responsible for some notable genre entries. Here he delivers a succession of superbly choreographed fistfights and action scenes but the feeling is that Castellari and cinematographer Angelo Filippini put just as much effort (if not more) into devising pleasing and impressive ways in which to capture the action. There are striking compositions and camera angles present throughout Johnny Hamlet and virtually every shot in the film boasts inch perfect framing. There are some really outstanding approaches to camera movement in evidence too. Check out the disorientating close-up shot wherein an inverted camera slowly orbits Johnny's head as he lays prone on the floor, deep in thought. For a dizzy moment it seems as though he's actually floating on air, kind of rotating in a face down position, with no visible means of support.
Another factor in the film's favour is the presence of art director Enzo Bulgarelli. Bulgarelli's impressive costume design and set decoration work on a number of key Spaghetti Westerns suggests that he should be afforded the kind of praise that is usually reserved for Sergio Leone's set/costume designer, Carlo Simi. Here Bulgarelli covers art direction, set design and costume design duties and his work is excellent. One unusual but impressive set found in the film is a graveyard that is actually set inside a huge cavern that is accessed via a crack in a cliff face. Interestingly, some exterior work was done in the Ciudad Encantada (enchanted city) found in the mountains near Cuenca, Spain. As identified by Spaghetti Western location hunter Yoshi Yasuda, the unique and otherworldly (but in actual fact naturally formed) rocks found in the enchanted city can also be seen in Conan the Barbarian.
Also worthy of special mention is the film's intriguing opening scene. While the sound of a battle rages on the soundtrack, the camera focuses on a close-up of Johnny's bloodied face. He has a surreal vision of his father, a cloaked figure who stands with his back to Johnny, shrouded in a mysterious red-lit mist. As a gothic organ piece plays, Johnny is presented with a short slow-motion flashback that shows him chasing his lover, Emily (Gabriella Grimaldi), over a bridge. The flashback over, Johnny begins gliding towards his father but he suddenly wakes up. Exquisite camera angles are employed to reveal Johnny's spatial position beneath a caravan on a beach, and it is revealed that he is being cared for by a troupe of traveling performers who are dressed liked the pirate and clown characters often found in Jean Rollin's films. As the performers struggle to rehearse Shakespeare, Johnny makes to leave and the film's first bout of gunplay erupts. The whole sequence plays like something from a lost European art house-cum-surrealist classic. Genre stalwart Francesco De Masi provides the superbly effective soundtrack score found here. It's a pretty diverse score, incorporating elements that are akin to gothic horror films and period romances at times, but it works really well.
The film also benefits from some extremely well observed casting and uniformly good acting. Andrea Giordana (The Dirty Outlaws) is perfect as Johnny. He's fast on the draw but his tender age and hot-headed nature make him quite vulnerable. Gilbert Roland (Between God, the Devil and a Winchester) is superb as the assured, calm and intelligent old friend who seems to be continually rescuing Johnny from dangerous situations. Horst Frank (The Grand Duel) turns in a fairly subdued but still menacing and penetrating performance as the deceitful and villainous Claude. Enio Girolami and Pedro Sanchez project a good mix of wickedness and guile as Claude's dangerous henchmen and they possess a great line in provocative, gunfight prompting quips and dialogue. Sanchez is perhaps best known as Sabata's scruffy assistant-cum-companion but, clean-shaven and sporting a different haircut, he's barely recognizable here. Manuel Serrano's Mexican bandit Santana is a classic Spaghetti Western character type. His fetishistic obsession with a uniquely designed set of medallions plays an interesting part in Johnny's investigations. The film was based on a story by Django director Sergio Corbucci and the Corbucci connection, and the fact that Johnny has to literally lace his pistol into his injured gun hand during the film's tense finale, resulted in the show being marketed as a Django flick in Germany.
Koch Media's presentation of Johnny Hamlet is near enough excellent. The disc's picture quality is great: the film's bold colour schemes really shine through and the picture is sharp. The sound quality of the disc's Italian audio track is very good for the most part and the optional English subtitles play just fine. The film itself is supported by some really impressive extra features. The image gallery here is really extensive and features lots of behind the scenes shots and press book materials. Strange Stories of the West is an excellent thirty-four minute long documentary that covers a number of Enzo G. Castellari's Westerns. Castellari is the main interviewee here but there are also appearances from Franco Nero and Francesco De Masi too. One amusing anecdote tells of a business meeting between Castellari and Charles Bronson that descended into a machismo-fuelled muscle flexing competition. This documentary is primarily in English but features English subtitles where necessary. The DVD comes encased in Koch Media's splendid deluxe packaging.
Bruno Corbucci (Sergio Corbucci's younger brother) tries his hand at directing a Spaghetti Western here and, on a technical level at least, it's not a bad effort. Shoot, Gringo, Shoot is a reasonably decent looking film but the show is let down by a script that cannot decide whether to play things straight or go for laughs. Koch Media's release of the film features Italian and German audio tracks that are supported by English subtitles.
This show's uneven tone is a little frustrating at times. The scenes that are played straight work reasonably well. The same can be said of the crazily comedic and light-hearted sections. Unfortunately director Bruno Corbucci failed to find a really satisfying way of fitting these two divergent approaches together. Things start off in a pretty gritty manner with Stark engineering a really novel prison break. He subsequently hunts down and kills a double-crossing former partner and it is this action that leads to him being press-ganged into undertaking the mission to kidnap Fidel. Fidel is introduced when Major Doneghan's gang raid a casino. The gang's members are an amusingly motley bunch and they enter a designated town by pretending to be a raucous wedding party. Doneghan plays the excited and amorous groom and Pik (Gigi (Luigi) Bonos, Now They Call Him Sacramento) plays the barely dragged-up but blushing bride. It's crazy and daft stuff but Keenan Wynn, Gigi Bonos and the rest of the cast are having such a ball that it would be churlish not to go with the flow and enter into the humorous spirit of things.
The humour continues with periodic appearances by Doneghan's pet duck, Sydney, and the detailing of the gang's bizarre 'shoot the target if you want to get paid this month' ritual. The gang's really abysmal bugle player raises a wry smile too. Once Stark has kidnapped Fidel, things turn slightly more serious again but the action remains firmly tongue in cheek. With Fidel continually giving Stark the slip, the pair wind up playing cat and mouse with each other in what at times plays like a re-run of Blondie and Tuco's desert ordeals in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Corbett and Cuchillo's escapades in The Big Gundown. A welcome diversion from the pair's tit for tat actions arises with the appearance of Jocelyn (Erika Blanc, Django Shoots First) and her family, who are traveling to a new ranch after being forced out of their old home by hired guns. The family's predicament seemingly gives Stark a bit of food for thought. Stark eventually gets Fidel home and it's at this point that Corbucci pulls what can only be described as a master stroke. Things turn determinedly gritty and deadly serious when Corbucci sets up a totally unexpected twist ending that leads to a pretty well executed mass shootout.
Shoot, Gringo, Shoot is no classic but it possesses a number of elements that act in its favour. First off, Keenan Wynn is an absolute joy here. He's not quite as impressive as he is in the later (and much better) Spaghetti Western comedy Panhandle Calibre .38 but he does plenty to entertain: Corbucci undoubtedly got value for money when he cast Wynn. Put simply, it's a real treat to behold a screen icon like Wynn enthusiastically mucking in with wild abandon on off-the-wall projects like this and the even crazier Panhandle Calibre .38. Gigi Bonos is an amusing and entertaining character actor too and he makes a great foil for Wynn to play off against. There's also the novelty of finding Flipper star Brian Kelly playing a fairly amoral, bullwhip wielding, Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Fabrizio Moroni as Fidel makes a decent enough sparring partner for Kelly. Composer Sante M. Romitelli provides a quite decent soundtrack score. His comedic cues aren't especially notable but he supplies a couple of very good fuzz-guitar led pieces that appear during the film's more serious moments. Finally, that twist ending comes right out of nowhere with satisfying but devastating effect. It's well worth sticking around for.
Once again, Koch Media have delivered a near enough excellent presentation of a pretty obscure film. The disc's picture quality is great while the sound quality of its Italian audio track is very good. The optional English subtitles play fine. Frank Wolff's Western, Italian Style documentary can be found amongst the disc's extra features. As ever, the DVD comes encased in Koch Media's splendid deluxe packaging.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Deluxe packaging
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.