While Sergio Leone is the undisputed master of the Spaghetti Western, the most prolific by some way has to be Sergio Corbucci. Responsible for some stone cold classics of the genre, including Django, Navajo Joe and The Great Silence, Corbucci’s films are generally more cynical, downbeat, and more violent, while retaining the beautiful settings and operatic scores that make the genre so iconic.
The Specialists is not one of Corbucci’s best – it’s not terrible but it’s too messy with a meandering plot and no truly memorable characters. The mysterious Hud (Johnny Hallyday) arrives in the town of Blackstone to clear the name of his brother, who was hanged after supposedly robbing the bank. He quickly finds himself clashing with the town’s pacifist sheriff (Gaston Moschin) and the town’s wealthy elite, as well as bandit chief El Diablo (Mario Adorf).
In a lot of ways The Specialists echoes Corbucci’s masterpiece, The Great Silence. You have the drifter facing seemingly hopeless odds, the well meaning but ultimately ineffective sheriff, and a pretty downbeat ending. Where this fails in relation to The Great Silence is in the protagonist. French popstar Hallyday certainly looks the part, and is impressive in the action sequences but he’s not the best actor, especially when compared to the likes of Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero and Jean Louis Trintignant. These actors perfected their terse, laconic characters, whereas Hallyday often feels like a bit of a void.
The supporting cast themselves are generally fine, but their characters aren’t fleshed out and the town is populated with bland stock characters, alongside a poorly conceived group of anarchists. Also, despite the film’s main villain, El Diablo (Adorf) being full of quirks – having one arm, a stirrup as a weapon, and a young biographer taking notes of his deeds – these don’t come together to form a coherent character and he slightly fades into the background, making his final scene a little anticlimactic.
That being said, Francoise Fabienne is brilliant as the beautiful but duplicitous banker, and Gastone Moschin is memorable as the genial sheriff. Best known as the sinister Don Fanucci from The Godfather Part II, here Moschin is a much more decent character and serves as the moral centre of the film, receiving more screen-time than the ostensible hero.
I’ve heard it said of Corbucci that while he may not have directed a flawless film, he also never directed a film that didn’t have at least one brilliant scene in it, and this is true of The Specialists which features a handful of expertly executed sequences, including a wonderfully surreal final shootout between the anarchists and Hud, as the wealthy townsfolk are made to lie naked on the street. Fabienne’s subplot is also really interesting, and makes you long for a version of this film featuring her as the primary villain.
The Specialists is an incredibly derivative film, borrowing liberally from more successful Spaghetti Westerns, like The Good The Bad & The Ugly, The Great Silence and A Fistful Of Dollars. However it’s never dull, and as Austin Fisher puts it in his introduction, it exists perfectly as a “document of its industrial context“, a summation of genre conventions and the trademarks of Corbucci’s films. As such it’s an entertaining enough film and fans of the genre should enjoy it.
It’s strange, I don’t often listen to commentaries, but the special features on Spaghetti Westerns are almost without exception wonderfully entertaining. Alex Cox is on hand here to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek and incredibly knowledgeable commentary which is almost worth the price of the Blu-ray alone. Even when he’s pointing out the film’s numerous flaws, he’s curiously affectionate about it all, which is exactly what you want. Along with this is the introduction from Austin Fisher, which is informative and really helps you see past some of the less successful elements.