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“William Lustig Presents”: Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe and The Mercenary

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“William Lustig Presents”: Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe and The Mercenary

Second only to Leone, Sergio Corbucci is the king of the spaghetti western. In the same years that his two most successful films—Django and The Big Silence—respectively came out, Corbucci made Navajo Joe and The Mercenary, which New Yorkers have the privilege of seeing in their Techniscope glory thanks to “William Lustig Presents,” an annual showcase of overlooked genre gems at Anthology Film Archives. B-sides though they may be, Navajo Joe and The Mercenary both bring on euphoria as assuredly as hit singles.

On the other hand, westerns are as gritty as pop music is sugar-sweet, and Corbucci’s, which celebrate violence even more so than sex or money, are no exception. Navajo Joe is such an overt ode to blood-spilling that the pre-titles sequence features the grisliest opening sight gag imaginable: A bandit on horseback shoots the title character’s wife, then rides off with not just her jewelry, but her scalp too.

After the titles have rolled, we learn that this bandit leader, Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), has been collecting Native Americans’ scalps as if for sport, to curry favor with the sheriff of Esperanza. It sure is stranger than fiction: Once upon a time, the U.S. government doled out “scalp bounties” to such ruthless vigilantes. At this point in the film, though, the sheriff tells Duncan he’s taken the initiative too far, that killing innocent women and children is evil. From here on out, the man is persona non grata in Esperanza. After initially rejecting Navajo Joe’s (Burt Reynolds) offer to protect them from Duncan, the people of Esperanza wisely decide to enlist Joe in singlehandedly taking on Duncan’s gang of bandits.

The ass-kicking that ensues affords Reynolds an incredibly dynamic starring role. He and his horse routinely fly over rocks and rivers to catch Duncan and his band by surprise. Corbucci masterfully frames these moments when Joe sneaks up on the bandits, as in this shot where Corbucci zooms out from the bandits in the pit of a valley to reveal Joe up above on horseback, poised to shoot them down:

Sergio Corbucci

Despite how well Corbucci’s kinetic camerawork and Reynolds’s energetic performance synergize, Reynolds reputedly resented working with Corbucci. The story goes that he only signed on to the project because he thought it would be by Sergio Leone. When he couldn’t get out of his contract, he resorted to joking throughout the shoot that he was with the “wrong Sergio.” After the film was released, Reynolds called it “so awful, it was shown only in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave.”

Maybe Burt’s right and the initial reception of the film was hostile, but the film has earned a bevy of admirers in the ensuing decades. Both Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino are such big fans of Ennio Morricone’s rousing score for the film that they quoted sections of it in their respective films, Election and Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Furthermore, Navajo Joe blazed the trail for films that depicted the Old West from at least partially the Native American point of view. It wasn’t until a few years later, with revisionist westerns such as Little Big Man and Ulzana’s Raid, that Hollywood caught on and started featuring sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles. Above all, though, Navajo Joe stands out for its narrative economy and visual extravagance. Nearly every shot—from the close-ups teeming with rage to the meticulously composed masters—is eye candy. The film thus feels like a feature-length trailer, a quality it shares with The Mercenary.

The Mercenary also features cruelty as pervasively as Navajo Joe. Whereas even the titular hero is mistreated in Navajo Joe, though, The Mercenary is essentially a hopeful film about an unlikely pair of revolutionaries, Paco (Tony Musante), a Mexican peasant, and Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero), a Polish mercenary. Early in the film, Sergei crosses paths with the pathological Curly (Jack Palance), whose mission it is to stop Sergei from helping some Mexicans smuggle silver across the border. Right after figuring out their operation, Curly kills the Mexicans, the Garcia brothers.

Sergio Corbucci

United by a common enemy, Sergei and Paco team up not only to wreak vengeance on Curly, but also to pillage villages they pass along the way and, later, to start a revolution.

Although the revolutionary spirit of the film secures it a safe spot in the Zapata western sub-genre, the running joke is that Paco hasn’t got a clue what a revolution is. After his love interest, Columba (Giovanna Ralli), says to him, “They’ve mistaken you for Simon Bolivar,” one night Paco asks Sergei who Bolivar is and what it means to start a revolution. Sergei removes the sheet from Paco’s bed to reveal Columba asleep next to him, face down and naked, and explains the concept of revolution by analogizing her behind to the poor (“the bottom” of society), her head to the rich, and her smooth back to the difficulty revolutions face in overcoming class disparities.

Adding to the zaniness of this sleazy scene, and another equally startling one in which Paco goes flying out a window into a muddy, dung-drenched pig sty, the film sparkles with moments in which a gun shot sets into motion an elaborate camera movement which in turn triggers a symphonic shootout. See below, in which Corbucci zooms out from a medium shot of the man by the shack to the trumpeter, who sounds the start of a showdown:

Sergio Corbucci

While specific, well-choreographed scenes like the shootout above and Sergei’s suggestive diagram for revolution are blasts, they’d be nothing without the human dimension that the eccentric cast of characters brings to the table. Palance stands out for his villainous turn as Curly, who turns a relatively trite climax into near-Shakespearean drama. When Curly finds himself up against Paco, now a face-painted, circus-freak torero, for a final showdown in an abandoned bullring, he looks as much like a clown as Paco. The black curls that dangle over his forehead are childish, his dress shirt and tie are as peculiarly angled as his face, and the white flower he sports on his lapel is envelope-pushingly effeminate.

As satisfying as Curly’s demise is, nothing can prepare the audience for the joy that comes during Paco and Sergei’s final moments together before going their separate ways at the end of the film. Bracingly felicitous and optimistic, their farewell is uniquely serendipitous—more like the end of a Rohmer film than any sort of action flick.

In between Navajo Joe and The Mercenary, Corbucci directed several other westerns, including Death on the Run and Johnny Oro, neither of which was particularly successful. According to Alex Cox, Corbucci actually didn’t enjoy making westerns at all, and declared that he was calling it quits in ’67. We have fate to thank that he persevered through a few more pictures, for The Mercenary—which Tarantino has called one of his 20 favorite films of all time—is one for the ages.

For more information about Anthology Film Archives’s “William Lustig Presents” (July 15 – July 25), click here.

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcftIUE6MQ

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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