It's easy to forget how Enzo G. Castellari actually started out in the Italian film industry, considering that his popularity is usually associated with later work such as spaghetti swan song Keoma and poliziotteschi like The Big Racket and Street Law. With that in mind, a look at Castellari's third directorial effort, made in 1968, once again reaffirms his qualities as a film maker even in his early years. Loosely based on the Shakespeare tragedy, Johnny Hamlet is a spaghetti western that follows the conventions of it's genre as much as it does break them. While the film's more than solid cast alone pushes it above the countless crops of mediocre copycat westerns, it's Castellari's occasional bursts of creativity that truly make Johnny Hamlet one of the most enjoyable examples in the genre.
The story largely adopts the events of Shakespeare's original, aside from exchanging the location of Denmark with a Western town called... Danark. After being plagued by nightmares, Johnny Hamlet (Andrea Giordana) comes home from war only to see that his father has been murdered under mysterious circumstances. His mother is now married to Johnny's uncle Claude (Horst Frank), who claims to have found and killed the murderer of his brother. Johnny doesn't quite believe him, and rightfully so. Together with his friend John Horaz (Gilbert Roland), he sets out to find the real killer of his father.
The names tell everything. Castellari doesn't hold back when it comes to referencing his source material. Johnny Hamlet is filled with intrigue and betrayal just like you expect from the play, and seeing it adapted to a western context is refreshing. It has been tried before; but never as successfully as seen here. The surreal opening is one of the most original scenes in the film: Johnny dreams of his father's death and awakens on a beach, surrounded by the members of an acting troupe who are rehearsing Hamlet. Johnny then visits his hometown's cemetary-in-a-cave and finds the grave of his father. As Johnny mourns his father's death, the camera spins around his head - vertically. Somber choir music complements the shot. It's beautiful and strange, but most of all, comes as a surprise for anyone expecting the Hamlet influence to be much less stern.
While unfortunately, Castellari never really finds the time to return to this mystical approach again, instead settling down to more ordinary narration for the rest of the film, he (and I'm sure cinematographer Angelo Filippini played some part in it as well) demonstrates an incredible attention for detail in every shot. He likes to play with poetry and religious symbolism (a characteristic trait he would later on develop further in Keoma) but never lets it slip to heavy-handedness. I would have loved to see the surreal aspects expand, but Castellari opts - or maybe the producers did - for the safe route, and progresses the story in a more orthodox way. We see the usual amount of brawls, shootouts and horse riding, although it's all accompanied by the consistently stunning cinematography. The director tells his tale competently, and luckily throws in a few more crazy ideas at the end, but just doesn't come close to the brilliance of the first 20 minutes anymore, even with thoroughly magnificent performances by Gilbert Roland and the ever charismatic Horst Frank.
But don't let the shadow of what the film could have been get in the way of what it actually is: One of the most unique spaghetti westerns around, with a great cast, a catchy score by Francesco DeMasi (who sadly passed away last November) and unusual locations. If you've already worked your way through the filmographies of Leone, Corbucci and Sollima, Johnny Hamlet is the next one to get.
Koch Media has a strong reputation in Germany for being really passionate about their releases, this one is no different. It also marks the first time the title ever sees the light on DVD worldwide. The disc has been put together with great care and is perfectly importable, coming with English subtitles on the main film as well as the bonus features. Koch did a great job with the remastering, the picture shows the inevitable signs of age, but is otherwise exceptionally clear and crisp.
The featurette "Strange Stories From The West" mainly consists of a very insightful interview with Enzo G. Castellari himself, who talks about Johnny Hamlet and his now passing career in general with a cheerful, nostalgic passion that moved me very deeply. We learn that not only was Johnny Hamlet one of the many movies re-titled and -edited in Germany to ride the wave of the original Django's success, but was also retitled to "Quella Sporca Storia Nel West" (Strange Stories from the West) in Italy itself, as the producers thought a title containing "Hamlet" wouldn't attract the right audience. Overall, a very intriguing interview filled with many fascinating anecdotes and it makes me happy to see there are people still caring about the subject.
So if you can get your hands on this DVD (The original German title is Django - Die Totengräber warten schon), give it a try - and with all these DVD companies putting out such high quality releases, I hope that sooner or later, more work from Castellari will eventually surface.