Its vogue lasted a decade and then some, from Sergio Leone's 1964 A Fistful of Dollars (released in the U.S. in 1967) to Monte Hellman's 1978 art film China 9/Liberty 37. Often, fully half of the 300 films turned out by Italian companies in any given year were spaghetti Westerns, which could be trusted to sell tickets the world over--under a delirious variety of titles from market to market. They tended to be shown in sleazy grind houses, via spliced and tattered prints. What a pleasure to report that Blue Underground has gone back to the original, mostly pristine materials to produce the crystal-clear, gorgeously color-saturated, widescreen DVDs in this boxed set. Few audiences ever saw these movies looking better than they will on the home screen.
The present quartet affords an admirably varied and illuminating cross-section of the spaghetti Western as entertainment phenomenon and mirror of its troubled time. Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966), with a Gypsy-named protagonist (Franco Nero) dragging a coffin through a mud world of bigotry and double-cross, spawned sequels ad infinitum; this release is the first in more than 30 years to be struck from the original camera negative. Django, Kill! (1967) isn't "Django" at all--it's If You Live, Shoot! (how's that for existential absurdism!), a wildly transgressive fever dream set in "a totally guilty town" and boasting a band of flagrantly gay gunslingers, director Giulio Questi's variation on Mussolini's Black Shirts. The gem of the collection, Sergio Sollima's Run, Man, Run! (1968), features an infectiously funny performance by Tomas Milian as a knife-throwing scalawag who became an icon to late-'60s student radicals; this film of almost Leone-class visual grandeur has rarely been seen outside Italy. Director Sergio Martino claims that Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977) was "the last, perhaps next-to-last" of the spaghetti Westerns. The strain was showing--but even this preposterous fantasia about a hatchet-throwing eco-avenger (Maurizio Merli) exerts a goofy fascination.
Incidentally, the short documentaries spotlighting each film are very enjoyable in their own right. The scruffily aged Tomas Milian is a particular delight. --Richard T. Jameson