The overlook presents the films of franco nero
It’s been far too long since we had our friend Paul from LovelockandLoad to write for us. But we start 2013 correcting that by persuading the wonderful Overlook head honcho to tell us all about Mr. Django himself, Franco Nero. As one of cult cinema’s enduring and charismatic icons, it’s about time you got to know all about the great man who has wowed audiences worldwide for the past several decades. And now, here’s Paul with a few words…
Franco Nero is a name that is synonymous with Euro Cult cinema for good reason – in a career that has spanned fifty years the Italian-born actor has appeared in over 130 films and more than 40 shows made for television. And that’s not to mention his prolific career working in theatre. In a filmography that takes in almost every genre you can think of, it is the western that Nero will be forever associated and DJANGO the film for which he will be remembered the most. With Quentin Tarantino’s new film DJANGO UNCHAINED (in which Nero makes a cameo appearance) due in cinemas on 18th January, it seems like the perfect time to look back over the career Nero has carved out and the ripples his legacy continues to make in popular culture.
The actor was born Francesco Sparanero in 1941. By the early 1960s he was making appearances in Italian films under the much punchier, billboard-friendly moniker Franco Nero. After supporting turns in several films Nero took centre stage in what would become his signature role, that of the swarthy, coffin-dragging avenger in Sergio Corbucci’s seminal Italian western, DJANGO. The film is a landmark not only in Nero’s remume but also the pantheon of Italian westerns. While many cite Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS as the first ‘spaghetti’ western, it followed a handful of other, less memorable films that were made in Italy during the early 1960s. But it was Leone who had sparked interest in audiences and popularized the genre with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, a film that went on to become an international box office sensation (and source of controversy as it became the subject of a lawsuit in Japan where it was successfully sued by Akira Kurosawa and Toho for plagiarising YOJIMBO – a film that was later ripped-off by numerous other Italian westerns and poliziotteschi!).
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was followed by FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE soon after and the floodsgates were opened for the next decade, with 100s of spaghettis following hot on the heels of Leone’s films. While DJANGO was one of many movies released in the wake of Leone’s, it’s as important in terms of the influence it had on subsequent films. Corbucci’s film is set in an incredibly violent world where its characters die the kind of terrible, agonising deaths that are only hinted at in the Leone’s ‘Dollars’ films. DJANGO left little to the imagination; its depiction of violence so unflinching that it caused much trouble with the British censor (BBFC) and remained banned in Britain for 25 years! It’s safe to say that Corbucci’s approach to on screen carnage, along with the demise of the restrictive Hays Code (the oppressive code of practice that all American films had to adhere to up until the late 1960s) had a colossal impact on Hollywood and in particular watershed films such as BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE WILD BUNCH. So Nero was extremely fortunate to be the lead in such an iconic, far-reaching film as it assured his status as a lead for many years to come.
Post-DJANGO it was inevitable that Nero would be the go-to guy for more of the same and many other westerns followed but the actor was also savvy enough to diversify his slate, also opting to appear in the likes of the horror THE THIRD EYE, lavish Hollywood musical CAMELOT and Elio Petri’s superb psychological drama A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, the latter two both co-starring future Mrs. Nero, Vanessa Redgrave.
But it was the westerns that were Nero’s bread and butter and he made a plethora of films within the genre, many of which were standout films including Lucio Fulci’s MASSACRE TIME and two great collaborations with Sergio Corbucci, A PROFESSIONAL GUN and COMPANEROS!, both feature amazing Ennio Morricone scores. As the sixties gave way to the seventies the popularity of the spaghetti western had begun to wane but Italy’s newfound genre du jour, the giallo (stylized murder mystery thrillers so called because of the giallo—the Italian word for yellow–jackets that adorned their literary counterparts), was packing audiences into cinemas. Nero even dipped his toe in the giallo pool with THE FIFTH CORD, an excellent genre entry directed by Luigi Bazzoni from 1971 that was photographed by renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
But the giallo was not a genre where Nero would be prolific. By coincidence that same year two films were released in the United States that would cause yet another seismic shift to the faddish nature of Italian film production. The films were THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY, two rip-roaring police thrillers in which brutal cops literally stopped at nothing to close a case. THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY both smashed box office records around the world and it wasn’t long before they became the blueprint for many Italian filmmakers to work from for the rest of the 1970s. The poliziotteschi was born.
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, HIGH CRIME is universally considered to be the first poliziotteschi and it was Nero who would be cast as the film’s protagonist, dedicated detective Belli. Castellari’s eye for amazing stunts and action coupled with a groovy score by brothers Guido and Maurizio de Angelis were the right ingredients to make a runaway hit and the film was the catalyst in creating a whole new type of movie-going experience. The poliziotteschi films came thick and fast, with filmmakers such as Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi and Stelvio Massi all becoming prolific within the genre. Marino Girolami (aka Franco Martinelli), a veteran Italian filmmaker, and father of Enzo Castellari’s, also got in on the action and made two films starring newcomer Maurizio Merli. Merli was cast for his looks which shared more than a passing resemblance to those of Nero and grew a ‘tache and dyed his hair to seal the deal. The films, VIOLENT ROME and SPECIAL COP IN ACTION are great fun but aren’t in the league of HIGH CRIME. Nero would collaborate with Castellari on further films including vigilante thriller STREET LAW (which Castellari maintains he wrote before DEATH WISH came out the same year) and KEOMA, which is considered by many to be the last great spaghetti western.
Nero was sensible enough to counter his starring in popular films with appearances in artier fair directed by renowned filmmakers. Films such as Damiano Damiani’s HOW TO KILL A JUDGE and Luis Buñuel’s TRISTANA went some way to make up for the shortfall in critical respect that would evade the westerns and poliziotteschi films. As the eighties dawned, Nero was still maintaining a career that straddled commerce and respectability but with the film industry in his native Italy in decline, work in other European countries and the US become increasingly commonplace for the actor. His post-1970s era highlights include the Cannon cheesefest ENTER THE NINJA, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s QUERELLE and lead bad guy duties opposite Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 2. It was also during the eighties when Nero finally returned to the character that had made him famous in DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN, to date the only official sequel to Corbucci’s film. It wasn’t just the late director’s dark, violent approach to the material that had allowed DJANGO to endure for two decades before the cameras rolled on the sequel. There had been a slew of other gritty cowboy films made in Italy after Corbucci’s seminal film that had also borne the name ‘Django’, all unconnected to the original and none starring Nero. DJANGO KILL!, DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN and DJANGO THE BASTARD are just three of the scores of films that were made and branded in a bid to cash-in on the Corbucci/Nero phenomenon and regardless of the motives of the unscrupulous producers involved, many of these films are very good.
Nero reteamed with Castellari again in 1993 for the Western JONATHAN OF THE BEARS and the pair has stated its intention to make another western together but as of time of writing this has yet to go into production, even though names as varied as Quentin Tarantino, Ethan Hawke and Nero’s one time stepson-in-law Liam Neeson have all expressed an interest in appearing in it.
Of Nero’s recent output, the most irresistible was the romantic drama LETTERS TO JULIET. While the film is quite forgettable, it’s lush locations in Tuscany and onscreen reunification of Nero and wife Vanessa Redgrave (the couple finally tied the not in 2006 after being together on-and-off for forty years) more than make up for the shortcomings of a whimsical tale of an young American woman’s quest to reunite a pair of wrinklies who’ve spent almost a lifetime apart. Fabio Testi, one of Nero’s contemporaries and fellow poliziotteschi stalwarts, also appears.
There’s no denying that Franco Nero’s most memorable films were made in the 1960s and 1970s but he has a body of work and a level of respect that will be remembered among his fans for years to come. Many of his biggest fans are the filmmakers who continue to cast him in their own films. In addition to his turn in the Tarantino film a second sequel to DJANGO was also announced and its enterprising young filmmakers (including Mike Malloy, the director of poliziotteschi documentary EUROCRIME) are currently trying to raise finance, and given the phenomenal success of DJANGO UNCHAINED, it would seem like a certain goer. So forty years down the line Nero is still making films and his most famous role is back in the forefront once again. Viva Django! Viva Franco Nero!