Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
When the American movie cavalry ran out of steam on the Western genre front, the Italians quickly swooped in. If you aren't terribly familiar with Italian cinema, this might seem like a cheap trick with even cheaper imitators piggybacking off the success of their predecessors, but not all of it was a fast cash-in. Some of the reimaginings were uniquely unforgettable, and that's where 'Django' enters the picture.
Sergio Corbucci's 1966 gunslinger doesn't aim to be as operatic as Sergio Leone's groundbreaking 'Dollars' trilogy, but its violence and pulp style was certainly grand. Of course you can't discuss Leone's films without acknowledging Akira Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo,' which by defalt Corbucci's gritty western also makes nods to. The film has its own admirers, however, and spawned over 30 unofficial sequels who tried to bank off its success.
Our title character's an amoral hero (Franco Nero) who has wandered into dangerous territory where two warring tribes have torn the town apart. The ruthless killers come in the form of a bigoted Major and his army of red-hooded killers who terrorize the local whorehouse and anyone else who gets in their way. On the other side of the line is a Mexican bandit General and his cruel compadres. Lots of people die, because Django is quick on the draw -- and damn he looks good doing it.
Where Leone goes, Corbucci takes things a step further, which helps separate the film from the mediocre knockoffs. Django doesn't roll into town on a horse looking like your average cowboy, he's clad in all-black and dragging a coffin behind him. The war-torn town isn't just a forgotten dust bowl -- it's more like a mud-covered wasteland in hell. It's the kind of place where the bad guys don't just slice an ear off their victims, they shove it down their throats afterward. That kind of seething, vile intensity -- with a healthy dose of black humor -- not only sets 'Django' apart from its spaghetti brethren, it creates a mythology that feels right at home on the pages of a comic book.
The final frame in 'Django' pictorializes this sentiment. After a rough and tumble showdown with the main baddies, our reluctant hero drags himself up the hill to carry on, taking dramatic pause at the carnage below. His getaway didn't come easy though. He had to carry out his deadly task after his hands were trampled and beaten to bloody stumps while kneeling before a cross and balancing his gun against it. It's an over the top scene, helped along by the mustache twirling of Major Jackson -- who although he doesn't wear the getup of a supervillain, has a team of satanic-looking henchmen acting as his visual menace.
Filming the epic in Spain and the studios of Rome gives the whole thing an additional oddball layer of Euro ambiance that accentuates the stranger in a strange land vibe throughout. The visual squalor of 'Django's' post-apocalyptic meets Catholic church style is nicely highlighted in our frame, and allegory abounds if you choose to find it. These are just a few of the quirky aesthetic choices that pull us further into the Italo-fantasy film.
Corbucci's visually inventive, savage saga comes in like a lion and goes for broke. 'Django' was the forerunner for the director's wild, violent style that he continued to perfect in 'Navajo Joe' and another rule-breaker, 'The Great Silence.' It's in this movie, however, that we first get to watch the evolution of something special that helped define the spaghetti western as an iconic genre.