Johnny Hamlet (DE - DVD R2)
Gabe checks out the Spaghetti Western take on Shakespeare’s classic...
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Here’s a good question, how many filmed versions of Hamlet are there? This is, of course, not counting those videotapes you have in your basement of your nephew’s 5th Grade rendition. Seriously, though, how many? When the question is posed to IMDB.com, fifty results are displayed. These results are only of films utilizing the name, including the Kenneth Branagh version, the ill-fated Mel Gibson version, The Gay Hamlet, two films called Hamlet X, and the unfortunately titled Freddy Versus Hamlet, which is not what you think. This lengthy list doesn’t include such Hamlet based films as Kurusawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the highest grossing basic adaptation, Disney’s The Lion King.
Conversely, there are more than fifty unofficial sequels to the seminal 1966 Spaghetti Western Django. Some title gems include: Kill Django…Kill First, the seemingly disappointedly titled Django Always Draws Second, that films contradictory sounding follow up, Django Shoots First, the naughty Nude Django, A Pistol for Django (not to be confused with A Bullet for Django), the apprehensively titled Don’t Wait, Django…Shoot!, and my personal favorite, Django 2. Most of these films are not actually related to the original film, and are titled as they are in their respective distributors attempts at reselling a successful name.
What do these long, sometime hilarious lists have in common? Why, Johnny Hamlet, of course. In co-financing Germany, the film was advertised as another Django film, and in fact, this DVD release carries the longer German title on its cover. Now the two last things I ever thought I’d need were another Hamlet adaptation and another faux- Django sequel, but for some reason, when the ideas were crossed, my interest was peaked.
The plot’s first two thirds or so pretty much mirrors that of Shakespeare’s original, simply exchanging swords for guns, and Denmark for the Wild West. Johnny returns from war with dreams of his father’s ghost demanding revenge for his untimely murder fresh in his mind. He finds that his mother has married the chief suspect, his uncle, and that the general antagonism level of the town has risen. Johnny decides to win back his childhood love and trick his uncle into confessing to the murder, all the while avoiding his uncle’s petty thugs and the corruptible local sheriff.
Like most Spaghetti Westerns, Johnny Hamlet is long on style. Action is framed quirkily, colours bloom from the landscape, and costumes verge on garish. There are more eyeball close-ups than you can swing a six-shooter at, and faces are juxtaposed regularly with rocky backdrops. Also in keeping with the basic Italian film book, there is a multitude of Catholic imagery, including a scene where Johnny himself is crucified and left for dead.
Johnny Hamlet sets itself apart through its dreamlike qualities. Hypnotizing imagery isn’t necessarily a rarity in Italian Westerns, but such near abstraction is not exactly the norm. There is also an odd, stage-like quality to the film. The interiors are all very obviously sets, and special mention should be made of the underground cemetery, which is built from neon plaster no man could mistake for actual rocks. Not as obvious as something like The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari or Dogville, but just odd enough to be noticed. This may be in recognition of the fact that the text itself originated as a stage play, or perhaps the budget on this particular production was especially low. The stage play ambience carries over into some of the action set-ups, most of which could have easily been filmed from one wide angle. Characters rarely move further than a stage set could accommodate in a given scene, including some of the outdoor sequences. Again, the purpose behind this may be less significant than I seem to think.
The film’s weak point is its stagy action numbers. Quite often it is the action and style alone that make a Spaghetti Western great. With the exception of one rickety stairwell set piece, the action feels lethargic, and severely lacking in tension. When such an important ingredient is missing in a genre film that walks a thin line between art and schlock, the end result can be a devastating sense of apathy. Yes, in the end Johnny Hamlet doesn’t have but one scene a casual viewer is likely to remember twenty four hours after watching it. Because I, myself, am a fan of the genre, my opinion of the film is likely to be higher than that of the general public.
Johnny Hamlet is a pretty well worn film. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this anamorphic print is as good as the film will probably ever look. Artefacts like dirt and burns are present, as are a few track lines, but grain levels are surprisingly low, and detail levels high. The colour pallet is strange, full of intense pastels and unrealistic yellows, but I’m assuming it’s accurate, as the genre is often overtly stylized. If anything, I’d say the colours probably weren’t quite as bright as originally intended.
The digital cleaning process seems to have actually done almost as much damage as good, and the harder edges suffer. Actual edge enhancement isn’t too bad, but blocking and pixelisation are all too obvious. Backgrounds and dark areas are impaired by some pretty heavy low-level noise. In the end, it is these digital blemishes that warrant the heartiest griping, but aren’t enough to make the transfer seem a failure. All around, this transfer is pretty impressive, especially considering the age and anonymity of the title.
One of the integral elements to a successful Spaghetti Western is an ace soundtrack. It’s pretty much universally agreed that the master of the genre sound is the one and only Ennio Morricone. Francisco De Masi is no Ennio Morricone, but he does a pretty good impersonation. The music of Johnny Hamlet is a little on the silly side, but still works well enough. The DVD is presented in Italian and German mono, both of which have dubbed tracks as the film, like most Spaghetti Westerns, is a multi country financed and acted film, and was most likely recorded without sound at all. Both tracks are a little on the tinny side and lack any real depth of field. Distortion levels are relatively low and most of the dialogue is clear—though I suppose I was reading the subtitles anyway.
The special features are humble in size, but informative and entertaining nonetheless. The main draw is a thirty plus minute interview/featurette with director Enzo G. Castellari and a few other cast and crewmembers. Though a well-made documentary is always preferred (at least by me), this more or less gets the job done. Castellari is, like seemingly all aging Italian maestros (with the exception of Dario Argento), very warm and unpretentious. Thankfully, the German DVD producers saw fit to include optional English subtitles during his mostly Italian interview. There are a few moments where he attempts to speak in English, which are unfortunately not subtitled.
Besides the inter-feature (I've coined the term in print now), we get a small selection of frankly awesome psychedelic, Technicolor trailers, that make the film appear a bit better than it actually is, and a still gallery. The still gallery is packed with hundreds of images including stills and beautiful poster art I'd be happy to hang in my home.
Though not quite the classic I wanted it to be, Johnny Hamlet is interesting enough to hold the attention of most Spaghetti Western enthusiasts. The creative colour pallet is pleasant, the art direction intriguing. The DVD itself is, from what I can tell, the only English language version available. Despite a few A/V shortcomings, the disc is most satisfactory, and probably the nicest the film will ever look or sound.
You can purchase this title from Xploitedcinema.com.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 11th November 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono Italian, Dolby Digital Mono German
Subtitles: English, German
Extras: Interview with Director, Trailers, Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Cast: Andrea Giordana, Gilbert Roland, Horst Frank, Ignazio Spalla, Enio Girolami
Length: 91 minutes
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