Just watched this again (in the Italian dub) – I’ve seen it many times before but not for a few years. I am more convinced than ever that this is Sergio Corbucci’s best film.
The first and foremost quality is its screenplay – tremendously focused and fast-moving. Even with gratuitous exploitation scenes like the mud-wrestling, and Django’s rather laboured real-time stealing of the gold, the film clocks in at just over 90 minutes. The story develops in unexpected ways – Django is more interested in Jackson’s gold, which will buy him a new life, than in killing the man himself, and he rejects Maria because he’s afraid of the consequences for her. The film has a great gothic atmosphere, with its ghost town and graveyard and Django’s sinister coffin. The characters are perfectly cast. Franco Nero has great presence in a similar star-making role to Clint Eastwood’s in A Fistful of Dollars. Loredana Nusciak’s beautiful face is full of character and feeling. Eduardo Fajardo is wonderfully slimy as the murderous racist villain.
On a technical level, Giancarlo Simi’s superb sets and costumes make a virtue of the low budget. The quagmire of the main street makes the Elios set look like an actual derelict town, in contrast to its artificial air in many other movies (This looks like it was inspired by The Seven Samurai, which if I remember right has a similar fallen tree in the middle of its muddy village street). The bleak settings and drab costumes offset the scarlet hoods and scarves to stunning effect, and the crude design of the hoods themselves turns Jackson’s men into demented scarecrows.
The editing (by Nino Baragli, Leone’s editor of choice) is excellent and the action scenes superbly choreographed. In the saloon shootout, notice how the man by the door falls out of one shot and into the next, making that sequence a single fluid moment. The camera work is sometimes a bit shaky, especially when zoomed in, but full of great shots – Django’s encounter with the Mexicans at the cemetery, tinged with the last rays of the setting sun; the wagon returning to the town at dusk under a full moon; the subjective camera views of the arrival at Fort Charriba and especially the fight between Django and Ricardo.
The music by Luis Enriquez Bacalov is great and adds to the atmosphere – particularly the early scenes in the saloon (“Fruscii Notturni”) and Jackson’s target practice (“La Corsa”).
I haven’t seen Corbucci’s first westerns, Red Pastures and Massacre at the Grand Canyon, but by all accounts they follow the conventional American form. Django seems to come from nowhere, a work of genius, inspiring the best from everyone involved. In terms of quality, I think only The Hellbenders comes close to it in the director’s later work. The Great Silence is a tremendous film but much more flawed, both technically and structurally. A Professional Gun is spectacular but shallow and Companeros is an undisciplined re-hash of it. (On the subject of these Zapata films, it’s interesting that the Mexicans in Django – who describe themselves explicitly as revolutionaries in the Italian version – are portrayed as sadistic bandits,of no political interest whatsoever.)
I still remember the day I first saw Django, on VHS at a friend’s house in the early 80s. About 10 seconds into the title sequence I thought: “I am going to love this film.” I still think it’s a masterpiece today.