The Strange Legacy of Giulio Questi

Giulio Questi is an obscure figure in Italian cinema who left behind a small body of work of unusual genre explorations. I only really became aware of him during a panel at the 2019 Melbourne International Festival, when Peter Strickland singled out his film Death Laid an Egg [La morte ha fatto l’uovo] (1968) for mention. Questi fought against the Italian Blackshirts during World War 2 as part of the partisan resistance, turning to communist politics after the war and appearing in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) before turning to making films himself – two of which I recently viewed for the first time.

Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! [Se sei vivo spara] (1967) opens on a man’s hand as he slowly attempts to drag himself free of a mass open grave. The half-Mexican Stranger (Tomas Milian) – whose name is not Django (I’ll get into that later) – and his gang of Mexican bandits teamed up with a bunch of American bandits to massacre US Army troops and steal the shipment of gold dust they were escorting. When it came time to divvy up the spoils in the desert, Oaks (Piero Lulli) revealed that his gang of white American bandits were also racist scum and had no intention of sharing their ill-gotten gains. One of the Mexicans broke free and attacked the horses with a machete, hampering the gang’s ability to return to civilisation, before finally being gunned down, followed shortly after his compadres.

The Stranger is helped from the grave by Italians generically identified as “Indians” (Miguel Serrano & Ángel Silva) whose style of dress looks, if anything, more South American than North American. While he was unconscious, they’ve performed the astonishing feat of smelting all of the gold dust on his person into a surprising number of gold bullets. They wish to accompany him and observe his quest for revenge in return for being told what he saw in the afterlife.

Most westerns would spend the rest of the story following his trail of vengeance until he finally kills the boss of the gang and the end titles come up. Not this one. Oaks’ gang manages to reach a town at the edge of the desert (only ever named by the Stranger’s companions as “The Unhappy Place”), but the townsfolk are immediately suspicious when they attempt to buy new horses with gold. It’s not long before they attack the gang en masse, either shooting or lynching them all – except for Oaks, who doesn’t last long after the Stranger hits town. Rather than take the $500 he was offered to kill Oaks, he tells the saloon owner Templer (Milo Quesada) to hold onto the money until tomorrow while he gets some rest.

It turns out that Oaks isn’t quite dead, so dodgy ranch-owner Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel) – in an attempt to find out what happened to the rest of the gold – has him taken to the town’s nearest equivalent to a doctor. Unfortunately for Oaks, the doctor’s extraction of the first gold bullet sparks a new gold rush and the spectators descend upon his body in a prospecting frenzy. Meanwhile, Templer and the local pastor Alderman (Paco Sanz) – who doubles as the town moneylender – have already divided up the gold between them and hidden it away.

Where Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (and his many imitators) would have gone on to set the various venal town factions against each other, Thomas Milian’s Stranger instead drifts more-or-less aimlessly between them and intervenes sparingly, apparently unable to leave town until he has used up all of his gold bullets. In the process he uncovers the town’s various secrets. Templer is carrying on a long-term affair with saloon singer Flory (Marilù Tolo), which he feels an inexplicable need to keep secret despite his wife no longer being in the picture. Templer’s son Evan (Ray Lovelock) tears into Flory’s lacy clothing with his knife like an unhinged sex killer before leaving town and being held hostage by Sorrow as leverage for obtaining the gold. While most of the townsfolk are effectively unofficial members of a gang presided over by Templer, Sorrow’s gang consists of cowboys in identical smart black clothing who are heavily implied to be homosexual. The pale woman in grey (Patrizia Valturri) ripped straight from the pages of a Gothic novel, glimpsed gazing down on the town through heavily barred windows like an ominous spectre of death, turns out to be the hypocritical pastor’s wife, locked away years ago after she fell in love with another man. And the rest of the townsfolk can routinely be seen in the background kicking dogs or using children as foot-stools.

The whole staging and conception of the film is bizarre, not so much a revenge western as an afterlife rite of passage in which the Stranger must accompany his spirit guides on a descent into Hell and dispense with his material goods (rejecting payment and expending his supply of gold bullets) before he can gain some form of redemption and leave his life of violence behind. There’s even a sequence in which he is explicitly turned into a Christ figure, spreadeagled in the prison and stripped down to his loincloth, headband evoking the traditional crown of thorns, tormented by hallucinations of bats, iguanas and armadillos.

Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! more than earns its reputation as the weirdest Italian western ever made, joining the ranks of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Mexican western El Topo (1970) (generally considered the weirdest western any country has produced) and Jan Kounen’s French western Blueberry: L’expérience secrète (2004) (which I’d love to see but has so far eluded my grasp). It only lasted a week on its original release before being pulled out of circulation by the Italian censors, who ripped out 22 minutes of footage before allowing it to be re-released. The original cut was impossible to see until it was restored to its full length in 2003. Even in the complete cut some of Questi’s storytelling decisions can come across as arbitrary or haphazard, but Franco Arcalli’s flashes of disorientingly experimental editing techniques suggest that this was deliberate. It’s a distinctive work which will irritate some, but I for one think that the genre is much richer for its existence.

Anybody paying attention to the original Italian title will have noticed that the name “Django” is decidedly absent and that there is nobody named Django in the film. This can be attributed to the enormous popularity of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), the film which made Franco Nero’s career. In the wake of its success, the Italian film industry spent the next six years churning out unofficial sequels and ripoffs, haphazardly slapping the name Django onto unrelated characters or adding it to the titles of films even if no character by that name appeared. (It’s no real surprise that Quentin Tarantino would dip back into this well and appropriate the name for his own unrelated western Django Unchained (2012), although he did at least give Nero a cameo role.) In a further attempt to cash in on audience popularity, the film’s American distributor did their best to make it look like a Sergio Leone movie, cobbling together a trailer which omits any actual footage from the film in favour of crudely copying the opening credits style of Leone’s westerns – the only hint remaining of the original film is the theme music by Hungarian composer Ivan Vandor. As for the stars, Nero and Milian would later appear together in Corbucci’s Compañeros [Vamos a matar compañeros] (1970), an example of the more politically engaged subgenre known as Zapata Westerns.

Django Kills has been released on Blu Ray as part of 88 Films’ Italian Collection, using an English language print with optional Italian soundtrack. Disappointingly, Eric Zaldivar’s bonus featurette Django Kill and the Evolution of Tomas Milian (2017) isn’t up to the level of his other work for the label, being surprisingly dismissive of the film itself, but is much better when discussing the career of the film’s star.

Questi followed up his calculatedly ramshackle western with the far more polished (but no less bizarre) Death Laid an Egg, an unconventional giallo with an art house gloss, a respected cast and a smidgen of science fiction to taste. The grime of his first film has been replaced with an ultra-modern sheen of crisp geometry, pristine whites and vibrant colours.

The story centres around an automated poultry farm owned and run by Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), who live on the property and are occasionally harassed by their understandably aggrieved ex-factory workers, unceremoniously laid off when the wealthy couple decided they could do just as well without them. They are currently sharing their residence with Anna’s younger cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin), a seemingly guileless young woman who is secretly carrying on separate affairs with both of them.

We first meet Marco as he is in the progress of murdering a prostitute in a posh hotel while being observed from the adjacent apartment’s balcony by Mondaini (Jean Sobieski), a younger man who is later revealed to be working on an advertising campaign for a consortium of poultry suppliers who feel that the public needs to be taught to properly appreciate chicken. He later accompanies Gabri to a party thrown by Marco and Anna for a group of their married friends which turns into a weird pseudo-swinger’s game. Visiting the party briefly is Luigi (Renato Romano), a man suffering memory loss from years of electroshock therapy who had earlier latched upon Marco as the only face he could recognise from his past (and who is completely absent from the shorter “giallo edit” which was the only version available until recently). To top it all off, the factory’s on-site chemist (Biagio Pelligra) has been experimenting with chicken embryos, ultimately managing to produced a headless and wingless chicken, a practically boneless ovoid of quivering flesh which sparks Anna’s maternal instincts and Marco’s disgust.

One of the delights of the giallo genre is the convoluted plotting involving characters with messy interrelated agendas. Closest to the surface is Marco’s desire to orchestrate an elaborate accidental death for his wife, ideally following this up by running off with Gabri (who firmly insists that she has no interest in doing so but doesn’t exactly attempt to dissuade him from his murder plans). Questi carefully doles out snippets of conversation between his characters to obscure the exact nature of their discussions or their underlying motivations, playing similar tricks on a visual level to trick the audience into thinking they’ve seen one thing when something else entirely is going on. Franco Arcalli is once again on hand as editor, cross-cutting between plot threads and seemingly unrelated shots to create a kaleidoscopic impression of associations which both serves Questi’s purposes of obfuscation and provides a greatly enriched storytelling experience. Dario di Palma’s cinematography and shot composition elevate the visuals significantly above those in Questi’s previous film. Layered on top of it all is a magnificently avant-garde score by composer & conductor Bruno Maderna, contrasting frantically off-kilter assaults of percussion and electronics with smoothly romantic strings and disjointed stabs of flamenco-tinged pop. The most striking use of his score comes early in the film when Marco believes he has spotted an intruder in the factory. The female voice of the suspected intruder blends so seamlessly with the sounds of the machinery, the chickens and Maderna’s music that it’s impossible to tell for sure whether her words are real or imagined. (At least in the original Italian version – I haven’t watched the English dub for comparison, so I’m uncertain whether it comes across as well there.)

It’s a genuine surprise to see the calibre of actors Questi managed to secure for this oddity. Gina Lollobrigida was an international star with a body of work stretching back over twenty years who was in position to take only those roles which appealed to her, although it wasn’t long afterwards that she began a slow transition from acting into photojournalism (foreshadowed by her character’s skill at photography). Jean-Louis Trintignant didn’t receive his big break until 1956 with Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman [Et Dieu… créa la femme] (reviewed here), but by this point had worked with talented directors such as Georges Franju, Claude Chabrol and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The much younger Ewa Aulin had previously worked with Trintignant on Tinto Brass’ thriller Col cuore in gola (1967). Her ensuing career was split more-or-less evenly between sex comedies set in the Middle Ages and a more respected body of work in the thriller genre.

Nucleus Films have lavished Death Laid an Egg with their attentions for the Blu Ray release. The BFI’s James Blackford fills in the known details of Giulio Questi’s life and career, while soundtrack collector “Lovely Jon” provides a detailed appreciation of the score along with a potted history of trends in the collector’s market. There’s a tangential 2009 interview with the director and a commentary from genre experts Kim Newman & Alan Jones (still unwatched). There was also a limited edition release including a copy of the soundtrack on CD, which I am deeply gutted to have missed out on.

Giulio Questi and his co-writer/editor Franco Arcalli would collaborate on one more film – the much less easily available supernatural horror Arcana (1972), reputedly his weirdest film (!) – before a nine year gap in Questi’s career, after which all of his work was for television. Arcalli was far more fortunate, working as both an editor and screenwriter for directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Liliana Cavani until his death in 1978. Six years later he would receive one final posthumous credit for his contribution to the screenplay for Sergio Leone’s last film, the epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

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