While it had its moment in pop culture from the mid '60s to the mid '70s, the spaghetti western recently re-emerged from the dusty, sandy streets that it commonly rested in when Quentin Tarantino released his hyper violent western Django Unchained, a film that proudly owed many a debt to the sub genre. While some of the filmmakers who make these films may take the term as reductive, the simplest way to explain the term "spaghetti western" is to say that it refers to Italian-made westerns made in the aforementioned time period.
Whereas classic American westerns at one point were usually imbued with horse chases, train robberies, good guys fighting bad guys, romance and, if the right parties were involved, a song number or two, the spaghetti westerns seemed to shun the good clean fun conventions. There was less emphasis on romance. The days of your favorite cowpoke whipping out a guitar and singing a happy tune were all but dead. The bad guys were still bad but the good guys really weren't much nicer. Rarely was anyone clean shaven. You could see the violence, hear the threats, smell the B.O., and feel the split-second air-conditioning of flies whizzing by to escape the oppressive heat that exhausted its wearied characters. While far from a swipe at the conventional style audiences had become accustomed to, it still forged its own distinct gritty identity. As you may have noticed, this week's issue is heavy on the western theme. With that in mind, here are a few spaghetti westerns that have stayed with me since I first laid my eyeballs upon 'em. This list doesn't do this subgenre near the justice it deserves. For a wonderfully anal-retentive guide to spaghetti westerns, might I recommend visiting the spaghetti western film database (spaghetti-western.net) or picking up Howard Hughes' book Once Upon A Time In The Italian West.
Once Upon A Time In The West
Two things that stick out to me most with regards to Sergio Leone's post Man With No Name epic: glacial pacing and Charles Bronson calmly breathing into his harmonica. This was the first non-Eastwood spaghetti western I ever saw thanks to a roommate's recommendation. Before that, most of my western awareness was centered around Clint glaring, John Wayne ambling, or old cowboy serials that showed on PBS. Bronson's mysterious harmonica man joins up with a desperado (Jason Robards) to protect a widow (Claudia Cardinale) from a barbaric henchman, played, in a rare villainous turn, by Henry Fonda. While this movie rules eight ways to Sunday in my book, for many it may pale in comparison to Sergio Leone's more well-known Man With No Name which is why I, like most folks would recommend ...
The Man With No Name Trilogy (A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, Good Bad and The Ugly)
The Big 3 of the genre. A morally ambiguous stranger enters town. He pits other morally ambiguous/villainous people against each other in one film then turns into a bounty hunter in the next film then finds himself in the midst of a full blown treasure in the final film. All three films are great. All three are dirty, dusty treats. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone does his thing culminating with the even more legendary theme to the final film in the trilogy. One film features the underrated and sometimes creepy Klaus Kinski while two of the films feature the badassery of Lee Van Cleef. All three feature the guy who would later be known as Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, and Philo Betto.
Written and directed by Sergio Corbucci, this film is most notable for inspiring Tarantino's 2012 film. With a plotline that echoes Sergio Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars — which echoes Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo — Django follows a coffin dragging drifter (Franco Nero) who finds himself embroiled in an escalating feud between Mexican revolutionaries and a gang of KKK types. Much like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name he plays the groups against each other in hopes of stealing some riches and getting a little revenge in the process. One hundred and 38 dead bodies later, the credits roll. Nihilistically good times indeed. With wince-inducing violent scenes like a character getting impaled on a cross or, hello Reservoir Dogs, ears getting sliced off (and fed to them), it's no wonder it was banned in a few countries. Along with plot elements and title, Tarantino also jacked the film's embiggening theme song by Luis Bacalov. Next to Ennio Morricone's The Bad And The Ugly theme, it is the most piece of music from the genre.
Thinking about it, it may be a mild stretch to call experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's movie a spaghetti western, but it definitely utilizes many of the components of one. The big difference is the spiritual/mystica angle as well as all the — I think it's safe to say — weird shit that he employs. I hear tell that if you like blowing the pot or dropping the acid, you'll find El Topo delightful. As it stands, I've only watched El Topo under sober circumstances. I lied. I had a large Dave's Triple Combo Meal while watching it. A leather-clad gunfighter is horseback with a naked child riding shotgun. He tells the seven-year-old boy that he's now a man and that he must bury his childhood toys in the sand. Symbolism and WTF-ery ensues. To this day, I'm not sure if I liked it but I know this abstract take on a genre (that already dances with abstraction as is) has proven to be, for better or worse, truly unforgettable in its own little way.