The Film: 4/5
Originally released in Italy in November 1966, Sergio Corbucci’s fast-paced Italian western gem Navajo Joe did not see its theatrical bow on screens across the U.S. until more than a year later courtesy of United Artists, the same studio that had already seen great success with their Stateside distribution of Sergio Leone's epic Dollars trilogy. First released on DVD seven years ago, this surprisingly tough and often overlooked entry in the spaghetti western genre gets its first U.S. Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber as part of their impressive Studio Classics line.
A gang of marauders led by the odious Mervyn “Vee” Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) and his brother Jeffrey (Lucio Rosato) have been reduced to waging a brutal campaign against peaceful Indian tribes so they can sell the scalps of the innocents they butcher for a dollar a piece at the nearest town. After arriving at the town of Esperanza, Duncan and his loutish followers are approached by Chester Lynne (Pierre Crossoy), a former prison acquaintance of the gang’s leader who is currently employed by the people of Esperanza as their doctor, with a tantalizing proposition: there’s a Wells Fargo Express bank train on its way to Esperanza carrying $500,000 in cash, and Lynne is willing to split the loot evenly with Duncan if he and his gang successfully execute the heist. The only person standing in their way is Joe (Burt Reynolds), the sole survivor of a Navajo tribe slaughtered by the Duncan gang who is hell-bent on bloody vengeance of the Biblical variety. Skilled as a warrior and tracker, Joe offers his services to the defenseless citizens of Esperanza in exchange for a dollar reward for every scalp he collects from the Duncan gang. He has also stolen the front cars of the bank train containing the money the outlaws seek, and when they return to the town to reclaim what they had originally stolen they play right into Joe’s hands and the stage is set for a spectacular confrontation from which very few will walk away from clean.
Navajo Joe was the late Dino De Laurentiis’ attempt to break into the massively popular spaghetti western market that had exploded on an international level with Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Dollars trilogy. Selected for the job of director was the prolific Sergio Corbucci, who boasted extensive background in various cinematic genres that raked in big bucks in Italy such as peplum (Duel of the Titans) and horror (Castle of Blood) but really his stride in westerns with 1964’s Minnesota Clay. Italian western fans know him best for the original Django, the film that made a world cinema action icon out of Franco Nero, as well as the haunting, snowbound The Great Silence with Jean-Louis Trintignant and a diabolically brilliant performance from Klaus Kinski. Corbucci made Silence as his follow-up to Navajo Joe in the very same year and is my personal favorite film of his, but its unexpectedly downbeat finale kept it from achieving the solid global box office success of the director’s more audience-pleasing features.
The original story by Ugo Pirro (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) was fleshed out into a lean, straightforward screenplay by Piero Regnoli (Nightmare City) and future Italian action cinema maestro Fernando Di Leo (The Italian Connection). Regnoli and Di Leo often commit the cardinal screenwriting sin of stuffing too much expositional dialogue into the mouths of their characters, doubtlessly due to the lack of character development in earlier scenes, but they craft some serious heavies in the form of the Duncan brothers and their gang, a solid supporting villain in Dr. Lynne, and a ready-made iconic hero in the film’s titular avenger which provided a young Burt Reynolds with one of his first lead roles in a motion picture. By all accounts the experience of starring in a bloody Italian western was not a pleasant one for the future star of Deliverance and The Longest Yard (hence the actor’s absence from the bonus features on this disc), but I’ll be damn if Reynolds’s stoic star power wasn’t on full display at this stage in his career. He’s on top form as the unflappable and lethal Joe, great with a deadly weapon and a cool one-liner, and Reynolds dominates through sheer screen presence alone.
At the time he was primarily known for playing Quint Asper on the blockbuster television western series Gunsmoke and had only but a few credits starring or co-starring in some rather unexceptional movies like Operation C.I.A. Perhaps De Laurentiis and Corbucci sensed that Navajo Joe could make Reynolds an international star as Leone’s classics had done for another struggling actor only known for starring in a TV western, Clint Eastwood. Navajo Joe might not have been the smashing success that could secure its star an instant table in every restaurant in which he chose to dine, but it did well enough to guarantee Reynolds more work down the road. He starred in his own television detective series, the short-lived Hawk, and carefully garnered his status as a top box office draw (which earning another shot at TV stardom with Dan August) in the years that followed.
Aldo Sambrell, who had supporting roles and uncredited bit parts in all three films of Leone’s Dollars trilogy as well as Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker, makes his sleazy villain Mervyn Duncan a great adversary for our revenge-seeking anti-hero. Nicoletta Machiavelli (The Hills Run Red) supplies the film with sympathetic sex appeal as a half-breed maid who sees the decent human being within Joe’s hardened exterior, while Fernando Rey of The French Connection (and its inferior 1975 sequel) and Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire plays the town’s neutral priest with a combination of foolish piety and misplaced confidence. Tanya Lopert (Fellini Satyricon) and Franca Polesello (Il Sorpasso) play a pair of busty saloon performers who turn to Joe for protection from the Duncan gang and are quite good in their limited roles. Pierre Cressoy (Seven Guns for the MacGregors, also co-written by Di Leo) excels as the sniveling secondary villain of the story, but he’s no match for Sambrell’s sadistic charisma.
Corbucci demonstrates a master’s command of the widescreen frame with the assistance of his brilliant cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti, who would go on to shoot The Great Silence and Super Fuzz for the director as well as Salon Kitty and the infamously troubled and decadent Penthouse Films production Caligula for Tinto Brass. The imposing desert locations of Spain and the interiors shot back at De Laurentiis’ Cinematografica Studios in Rome are brought to sweaty, sun-baked life and the multiple gun battles and horse chases are realized with blood-splattered gusto, giving Navajo Joe some much-needed punch when the pacing starts to lag (though editor Alberto Gallitti does his best to keep that from transpiring). The film’s most iconic contribution to popular culture is the original score composed by the one and only Ennio Morricone. Alexander Payne utilized the ear-splitting howl of rage and grief from the opening seconds of Morricone’s main title theme at several points during his 1999 high school-set political satire Election, and anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill V.2 will no doubt recognize the theme as the music that accompanied David Carradine on his final walk as well as the pressure cooker action piece “Silhouette of Doom” from the close quarters brawl between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah. Morricone would also work with Corbucci on The Great Silence and continue to prove for decades to come why he is the best composer of Italian westerns there ever was. His operatic compositions make even the slower moments of Navajo Joe achieve a mythic grandeur far beyond its limited scope of ambition. It gives me great relief that the legendary Morricone can next be heard on the soundtrack for Tarantino’s upcoming western The Hateful Eight, for that is a match made in movie geek heaven that has been a long time coming.
Now in the hands of MGM, which remastered the film for broadcast on their HD cable channel, Navajo Joe receives its first Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber in an AVC-encoded 1080p high-definition transfer that is framed in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio from the film’s theatrical exhibition. Though this is very likely the best Corbucci’s violent little adventure will ever look on any home video format, the quality of Kino’s visual presentation has its share of flaws. The 35mm Techniscope image looks crisp and boasts strong colors and pronounced details most of the time, but the occasional softness still manages to creep in and act as a distraction. It’s possible that someone on the restoration team got a little carried away with digital noise reduction because close-up shots bear the mark of unnecessary smoothing. Overall this is a good transfer, but its inconsistencies keep it from earning a higher score. Fortunately the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is a little better as it is able to replicate the film’s original mono sound mix with fine clarity and a noticeable lack of distortion. The English-dubbed dialogue doesn’t sound too tinny and meshes well with the blaring Morricone score. No subtitles have been included.
Kino’s resident film historian Gary Palmucci (also the company’s Vice President of Theatrical Distribution) offers up an informative commentary track that is only hampered by too many instances of dead air and lack of any genuine insight into the film and its creators. A trailer for Navajo Joe is supplemented by additional trailers for other Burt Reynolds vehicles available on Blu-ray from Kino: White Lightning, Gator, and Malone.
Navajo Joe may not be one of the best Italian westerns or even one of Sergio Corbucci’s finest hours in the genre, but fans of full-blooded, gunpowder-reeking action yarns from the land of quality pasta and corrupt politicians will find there is a lot to love about Burt Reynolds’ first and only turn as a spaghetti western badass. Kino Lorber’s new Region A Blu-ray release deserves high marks for a decent video and audio transfer. Just needed a little more work in the supplements department.