HANGING FOR DJANGO – Blu-ray review

According to an article I may or may not have actually read, during the shooting of “The Big Lebowski” Jeff Bridges was very concerned with his motivation. To prepare for each new scene, Bridges asked a random Coen brother, “Did the Dude light one up on the way over?” The answer was always, “Yes, the Dude lit one up on the way over.”

On the set of the spaghetti western “Hanging for Django” (1969), one can imagine director of photography Franco Villa asking director Sergio Garrone, “Do we use the zoom lens for this shot?” Garrone’s answer: “Yes, we use the zoom lens for this shot. We use the hell out of it.” Garrone’s reason? Because we freaking paid for that zoom lens.

“Hanging for Django” (the title is an American ploy – there’s no Django in sight, or a hanging) doesn’t concern itself with petty issues such as motivation either in terms of camera movements or characterization. Cause and effect is something for artistes to worry about, and the notion that editing should create a sense of coherence is strictly an unproven theory.

Action’s the thing, and Garrone doesn’t like to waste time establishing… well, anything. Heads and tails are snipped off virtually every shot, as the movie lurches from one set-piece to another, hustling from motion to more motion. We don’t see fights start, we’re simply thrown right into the middle of them. A character can collapse in the desert in one shot, and step from behind a curtain to finish a gunfight miles away in the next. Maybe it all makes more sense if you light one up, but even a total square can’t help but appreciate the kinetic spectacle.

Italy’s film industry may be the world’s most efficient in terms of rapidly gearing up to cash in on the latest craze. In the trendsetting wake of Sergio Leone, Sergio Garrone (all spaghetti western directors were required by law to be named Sergio) was happy to join in the frenzy and kickstart his nascent career by churning out spaghetti westerns by the yard. A decade later he would make the jump to horror and then to “erotic Nazi” exploitation films, but “Hanging for Django” was pure pasta.

The nominal plot takes us back to a barbaric time when American businessmen exploited cheap Mexican labor and blamed government regulation for forcing them to do so. When immigrants start winding up dead, the alleged killers earn a reward on their heads, and that catches the attention of two bounty hunters: Johnny Brandon (Anthony Steffen) and Everett “Preacherman” Murdock (William Berger). Brandon wants justice, Preacherman just wants cash. They’re both duke out with ruthless entrepreneur Mr. Fargo (Riccardo Garrone) and his seemingly endless supply of goons. There are a couple pretty senoritas involved too.

That’s about it for the story. What about character? Not much. Preacher wears black, reads his bible, and drinks milk. Brandon’s primary defining attribute is looking like Clint Eastwood, at least when costumed with the appropriately sculpted stubble and chomp-ready cigar. The film exists almost exclusively for a series of gunfights with the occasional knife fight thrown in, and also a shovel that gets thrown through some poor schmuck’s torso. The athletic camera and hyperactive editing provide most of the color, and it’s enough to make “Django” the cinematic equivalent of a real page turner.

The film’s got plenty of gusto but of a rather generic kind; it’s very much the work of a filmmaker gamely imitating more talented craftsmen and getting by, but little more. The film lacks signature sequences or truly memorable images, settling for a series of snappy tableaux that retain the viewer’s attention until the movie drags a bit at the end. Steffen and Berger were major players in the spaghetti cycle, but neither is given a chance to flash much personality. Nobody gets any downtime; they just hurtle forward letting their costumes and grimaces do whatever heavy lifting the camera and the Steenebeck can’t handle. It works. It’s fun. Just keep your expectations in check. It’s no “Heads You Die, Tails I Kill You.”

The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray from Raro Video is described as a “New HD transfer from 35 mm negative print.” The weakest part of this high-def transfer is the relatively muted color scheme and a somewhat drab grayish pall to some of the outdoor scenes. However, the overall look is surprisingly strong with minimal damage from the source print and solid if not overly sharp image detail. Fans of spaghetti Westerns are used to watching badly worn prints; this is a major step up from most such experiences.

The Blu-ray offers English and Italian dubs, both in Dolby Digital 2.0. There is no “correct” version as the film was released in both forms. Obsessive types might be pining for lossless audio, but what we get here is solid enough for the task at hand. Like most movies in the genre, “Django” is powered by a plucky guitar-heavy score and the transfer preserves it well enough. Otherwise, the sound design is mostly functional with minimal sense of depth, but fairly clear throughout. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The only extra is a 14-minute feature titled “Two Bounty Killers for a Massacre,” though it’s printed on the back of the Blu-ray as “Bounty Killer for A Massacre.” It’s two, don’t worry. The feature is really an interview with Manlio Gomarasca of Nocturno Cinema, who provides a brief overview of director Sergio Garrone’s career along with clips from “Django.” It’s worth watching for the information about a director you probably don’t know anything about.

A slim 8-page booklet includes a short uncredited essay and a filmography for Garrone.

Film Value:
The film’s Italian title is “Una lunga fila di croci” which Google translates as “A Long Row of Crosses.” It was also released in America as “No Room To Die.” There are no Djangos, hangings, or crosses, but there is plenty of dying, so none of the titles really provide truth in advertising. What you get is a stripped down action film with peppy editing, crazy camera angles, and lots of scowling men with cool hats. It’ll do.