The Specialists (1969) *** Blu-ray

June 30th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Sergio Corbucci | Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Gastone Moschin, Francoise Fabian | Western 104′

Casting is crucially important to the success of a film – even in the Italian Western where it was often lumbered with poor English dubbing, making it harder to discern how credible a character was intended to be (or incredible given the stylisation of the genre).

Even with the original language and decent English subtitles the lead is vital. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef were relaxed and laconic masters, of the less said and barely suggested school, who perfectly pitched their cunning minimalism to light the fuse for a violent gun raid or duel. Actors like Terence Hill and Franco Nero continued this tradition of self-confident strangers and equestrian loners. 

Johnny Hallyday (a famous French pop singer) is the star of Sergio Corbucci’s film The Specialists, but despite his lithe physique and good looks delivers a wooden performance – any charisma is in his athletics not his line delivery which hardly departs from its single register. He simply can’t act well. During the early development of the film Lee Van Cleef was hired but eventually fell out with the director. So the producer brought in Hallyday and a near-fatal flaw was planted.

Johnny Hallyday plays Hud who rides into the town of Blackstone, where his brother has been wrongly accused of robbing the bank. Without a proper court hearing he is then hanged. Hud is determined to avenge his brother’s death. One of the town’s most respected citizens has actually robbed the bank. So Hud is compelled to shoot his way through the corruption of Blackstone, stave off Mexican bandits, desiring their own share of the stolen money and then finally repel the furious dignitaries and townsfolk.

The Specialists is a revenge Western. On its first release Tony Rayns (in the MFB) described it as ‘dourly going through the motions of the Continental revenge western’ and for a large proportion of the film I wouldn’t disagree. The Specialists contains its stereotyped villains (a one armed Mexican bandit over-acted by Mario Aldorf); Sheba (Sylvie Fennec) the passive orphaned woman who pines for Hud; a world-weary sheriff (Gastone Moschin) and a cheated community acting as a vociferous chorus.

Now all this is agreeably entertaining if over-familiar material. We have to wait for the last act for some pleasing, if irrelevant, originality. Corbucci throws in an anachronism in the shape of three young male hippies who chose to anarchically misbehave. This politicisation of The Specialists has the hippies (looking like ragged leftovers from Godard’s 1968 Weekend) forcing the townspeople to crawl naked along the main street. Once capitalism’s naked self is revealed Corbucci has Hud, who has discovered the bank’s money, burn the banknotes and throw the part-ashy remains to the eager crowd below his balcony on the saloon. This humiliation is engendered by the hippie’s own humiliation, at the beginning of the film, when the nasty Mexicans force them to bathe in pig excrement. When they are rescued a respectable, middle class citizen cries out his thanks to The Mighty Hud (it’s hard to resist not calling Hallyday ‘Mud’ at this moment.) “I’m against drugs and hippies. I wanted to denounce them in The Specialists. I’m really against their attitude, and I hate Easy Rider.

If The Specialists had developed Corbucci’s intended critique then we might have had a relevant sour rather than obvious dour film. Sadly the film’s critical gestures don’t make for a coherent political western. The action scenes are effectively staged, there’s some beautiful landscape photography and a tuneful score. That said, I sat through The Specialists not really caring about the outcome of its slick revenge story. Lee Van Cleef might have convinced me if he’d been re-hired and also re-written the script. Yet we are left with a wounded Johnny Hallyday limping away on his horse, abandoning a beautiful woman and riding off into an over-filtered sunset. 

Did they forget that Hallyday is a singer? Why didn’t the producer insist on a scene where Hallyday strums his guitar and sings a bitter ballad? It all feels like a cynical case of the Mighty Hud unsung, when it could have been a focussed anti-hippy or agitprop version of a Johnny Guitar drifter. ALAN PRICE©2020


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