Active Essentials: Spaghetti Western Shoot-Out
"..there's two kinds of people, those with loaded guns, and those who dig..."
Spaghetti Western is a term, initially derogatory, that refers to the rush of European Western films that flowed from the creative tap of the 1960s and '70s. Most of these films were directed by Italians (hence the name) and co-produced with Spaniards and Germans. Occasionally Asian companies would involve themselves. Originally ignored by cineastes the world over, the Spaghetti Western genre finally gained respect as a valid art form after the cycle of films had finished.
Spaghetti Westerns are most often characterized as violent, crass, socio-politically metaphorical, and rooted deeply in Roman Catholic symbolism. The genre, though producing some classic films, was really just another Italian film fad, hence its enormous volume. Other Italian film fads include George A. Romero inspired Zombie movies, Mad Max inspired Post-Apocalyptic movies, Star Wars Inspired Space Operas, and Giallo murder mysteries. Giallo films and Spaghetti Westerns are unique in that the works of Italian filmmakers inspired their fads.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (aka: Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966)
Though not necessarily the best European Western, Sergio Leone's epic Civil War era romp is easily the most recognizable, and in turn may be the quintessential Spaghetti Western. The plot follows three bandits: Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach) on the trail of a fortune in burried gold during the American Civil War. There are double, triple, and quadruple crosses aplenty as the three ultimate anti-heroes slug it out for superiority.
Though the story isn't anything to get too excited about, master filmmaker Leone works wonders with his juxtaposed landscapes and close-ups, reveling in both the tiniest detail and the vastest scope. The three leads are so memorable that they have become the templates of the genre, the cool soft spoken one, the charmingly vicious villain, and the surprisingly crafty clown. Eastwood and Wallach are often played against type when on screen together, Wallach acting as the strait man to Eastwood's dry sense of humour.
Ennio Morricone's much counterfeited score is essential to the picture's success, and stands as one of the most recognizable scores in cinema history, including the instantly recognizable opening credit's score and the hauntingly beautiful 'The Ecstasy of Gold', which can be heard at the top of most Metallica concerts. Morricone's signature sound became the anthem of the genre with earlier Leone Westerns, but this score was to become his trademark.
The film had a definite monetary advantage over most Euro-Westerns, and Leone cramed every penny of the budget into frame. In the end, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is justified in its three hour length, even if the story could've been easily summed up in 90 minutes simply because it's such a joy to watch. This is the perfect mix of entertainment and art.
Being a beloved film, it has never been hard to find The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on DVD, but until 2004's special edition no DVD did the film justice. MGM went all out for the release, loading a second disc with documentaries, interviews, even including tiny poster reproductions in the oversized box. The image quality was a vast improvement over earlier, non-anamorphic releases, effectively producing a crisp and clear transfer without losing any of the film's rustic charm.
The only problems with the disc were audio related. Though the 5.1 English remix does wonders for Ennio Morricone's classic score, sound effects sound artificial, due to the fact that some of them have been reproduced. This reproduction issue spreads to the newly reinserted "lost" footage, which was never dubbed into English. Instead of simply reverting to the Italian track during these scenes the producers saw fit to bring Wallach and Eastwood into a studio in order to redub their lines. The two ancient actors sound just as old as they are, and the Van Cleef impersonator brought on for Sentenza's scenes actually sounds better than the aging thesps. Those concerned with DTS audio might want to seek out the Japanese release.
I should note that this could've easily become a list of essential Sergio Leone films. In the interest of diversity I decided not to include Fistful of Dollars, the film that started the Spaghetti Western craze, and the other thematic prequel to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More. Both films are available in most regions, but no release holds a candle to the exquisite U.K. double disc releases.
Along with Fistful of Dollars, Django was the key film that ushered in the Spaghetti Western invasion. The massive international appeal of Franco Nero's title character lead to roughly fifty false sequels, effectively turning the name into an adjective. Germany was especially fond of the name, and a great number of Westerns released in the following years carried it. This fanfare was hard earned however, as Django really is a masterpiece of the genre. The story follows a particularly gruff lone traveler happening upon a small, muddy, and surprisingly gothic western town in peril. Behind him, Django drags a wooden coffin, the contents of which will remain a mystery until the time the right moment arrives.
Nero was one of the poster boys of the genre (along with Eastwood, Thomas Milan, and Van Cleef). His cool demeanor and rugged good looks were often beaten into supple putty by the third act of his Westerns, and Django was no exception. The film's violence, once considered shocking, has lost some of its bite over the past forty years, but the sequence where a man is force fed his own ear can still manage to push the bile in even the most jaded viewers throat. Sergio Leone may have defined the look of the Spaghetti Western, but it was Django director Sergio Corbucci that defined the genre's utter brutality.
There are quite a few different copies of the original Django on the market, but the general consensus seems to be that Blue Underground's release is the best. The earlier Anchor Bay release (which is OOP) did come with one of the few "official" sequels, Django Rides Again, but is missing snippets of original footage, and utilized a slightly more blurry transfer. The additional scenes on the Blue Underground disc are available in Italian only, and when watching the film in English this temporary language shift can be a bit jarring. This is still preferable to the slightly embarrassing MGM re-dub on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Blue Underground disc also features the original Italian track, which includes Nero's actual voice.
Django Kill ... If You Live, Shoot! (aka: Se sei vivo spara, 1967)
Tiny Cuban sensation Tomas Milan stars as The Stranger, not Django, in this, the best of the in name only Django follow-ups. The only similarities between the films are the levels of brutal violence and the gothic atmosphere. In fact, Django Kill ups the anti in these fields, making it one of the most surreal, moody, and graphic Spaghetti Westerns ever made. The Stranger, a full blooded Mexican outlaw, is betrayed by his white accomplices and left for dead in a shallow, sandy grave. He returns from the dead (it's left up to the audience to decide if he simply survived his wounds, or if he is in fact a sort of zombie) to exact revenge. When he catches up to his killers, The Stranger finds that local citizens far more brutal than he have already strung them up.
Django Kill is a strange film, stranger than most found in the genre. The nonsequential editing and artistic camera work make it an essential, as does a stoic performance from the normally charming and light-hearted Milan. The film was very controversial in its day not only because of its violence, but because of its severe moral ambiguity and its portrayal of homosexually inclined bandits. Though there is no actual on screen rape, the implication of brutal and humiliating violation is thoroughly implied. Yet Django Kill doesn't run on shock value, and most of its barbarous nature is natural in the confines of the story. This is one Spaghetti Western that could accurately be defined as a psychological horror film.
Picking a DVD version of Django Kill is a no-brainer, you go with Blue Underground's release. All things considered, William Lustig's company seems to be the place to go for R1 genre releases. This DVD is one of only four Euro-Westerns as yet released by the company, a list which includes the original Django (see above), Milan's fantastically fun Run, Man, Run, and the eerie Mananja: A Man Called Blade. Every one of these releases could've been easily included in this editorial, as they are not only excellent examples of the genre, but well produced DVDs to boot.
Massacre Time (aka:Tempo di massacro, 1966)
Though mostly remembered for his ultra-violent horror films, Italian director for hire Lucio Fulci made a few forays into the realm of ultra-violent westerns. He shot three on his own (five if you count his two White Fang adaptations), and co-directed another. Of these Massacre Time seems to be most generally regarded as his best addition to the genre. The only other Fulci Western I've seen was Four of the Apocalypse, which is more attuned to the director's style, but ultimately too broad in scope and thin in actual plot. Massacre Time was released right on the heels of Django, and features a very Django-esque performance from star Franco Nero.
The plot concerns the usual prodigal son's return to his hometown in a time of violence. The son, Nero, is forced into violent vengeance when enough of his family and friends are murdered at the hands of the town titan's son, Junior Scott, played with an odd irreverence and pathetic whininess by Nino Castelnuovo (think Juaquin Phoenix in Gladiator). Nero is eventually joined by his drunken half brother on his quest, played by George Hilton. Hilton pretty much steals the show as a sort of Western Drunken Master who shoots and fight like a God when entirely sauced. Nero plays the straight man, but is given a few clever lines. After attempting to confront the tyrannical Mr. Scott and being whipped nearly to death by Junior, Nero tells his half-brother that "Scott was seeing guests today, I'll try again tomorrow", seconds before collapsing in pain.
All in all, this is a quirky character piece, but Fulci gets a few chances to shine during the well orchestrated fight scenes. The middle section barroom brawl is surprisingly well choreographed, as a pretty vast majority of Spaghetti Westerns lack real planning when it comes to fist fights. Nero's near death experience at the end of Juniors whip is breathlessly brutal, and Hilton's side saddle, multi-foe gun attacks are wonderful.
Due to the presence of an anamorphically enhanced transfer, the Eagle Pictures' Italian DVD release is the best. The enhancement is an improvement over other releases, but still has some pretty wicked problems with artefacts and contrast issues. The still available Hong Kong release has even more video issues, most of all being that it's displayed in an incorrect and squished aspect ratio. Neither version has much in the way of extras, but both are affordably priced. Some accounts state that Studio Canal may have an upcoming release, which would most likely be an improvement over all previous versions.
Sartana (aka: Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte, 1968)
With much more actual plot than the average Euro-Western, Sartana (not to be confused with Sabata) tells the usual tale of a badass blessed with the gift of murder on the trail of lost gold. Though it's not uncommon for the genre, the sheer volume of betrayals and back stabs, coupled with the uncommon gab and general friendliness of its title character is what sets Sartana apart from the majority of the pack. Featuring a memorable guest appearance from the always memorable Klaus Kinski, Sartana, like Django spawned its share of rip-offs featuring the character's name but not the actual character. Sartana and Django even faced off once.
The character was actually named after an antagonist played by actor Gianni Garko in another film that was wildly popular in Germany. Garko himself demanded the script changes, which ended up separating his character from the glut of Eastwood clones bogging down the market. According to the DVD interview, Sartana's original script was a basic revenge tale. Sartana was known for his use of gimmick weapons, in this film he uses a tiny four shooter easily concealed with-in his sleeve. Apparently this gadget theme was carried on into other Sartana films, and though I've not seen those films, I can imagine such a thing could get out of hand.
Wild East Productions released the cleanest version of this beloved film, but for some reason decided to squish the original aspect ratio (either 1.78:1 or 1.85:1) into the super wide 2.35:1. Those with solid players and TVs featuring a bevy of zoom/anamorphic options may be able to desqueeze the frame, but the rest of us are left with unfortunately wide faces on our screens. Besides this, the DVD is an acceptable one, even featuring a lengthy and informative interview with the film's star and trailers to other Sartana films (as in official sequels).
Day of Anger (aka: Giorni dell'ira, I, Blood and Grit, 1968)
Lee Van Cleef was involved in some of the finest achievements in Euro-Western cinema, and Day of Anger was no exception. Made in that magical year of 1968, the film was one of the first of its kind to make direct references to the still young genre. Though Spaghetti Westerns on the whole are referential, or even post-modern works, Day of Anger thematically alludes to the Italian productions that came before it, rather than American Westerns of the Hollywood Golden era or Japanese Samurai epics. Effectively it is a Spaghetti Western about Spaghetti Westerns. This trend was started by Leone with Once Upon a Time in the West and continued most specifically in the Leone produced (and Tonino Valerii directed) My Name is Nobody. Filmmaker Alex Cox would continue the trend in the '80s with a series of Nuevo-Spaghetti Westerns.
Van Cleef stars as Frank Talby, a loner who finds his way to a small Arizona town in search of a large sum of money owed to him. Giuliano Gemma co-stars and Scott, the local social misfit and scapegoat, who's berated and beaten by the townsfolk at every chance. When Talby defends Scott and takes the fledgling sharp-shooter under his wing, the young wanna-be is ready and eager to help his new mentor in taking over the town. But Scott is torn when Talby's blood lust shines through, and is forced to second guess himself.
The interesting thing about Day of Anger isn't its plot, which is based on any number of classic master and student tales, nor its affinity for high action (more than the average Euro production). This film is special for what it says about the genre, specifically that these anti-heroes may in fact be villains when seen through fresh eyes. Van Cleef's Talby really isn't any more a monster than Eastwood's Man With No Name, or Nero's Django, he simply finds himself in a situation where earning back the money he's owed will require violence against the possibly innocent. This idea was explored more impressively in Eastwood's own Oscar winning masterpiece, Unforgiven. Had Van Cleef lived a bit longer he might not've been out of place in Eastwood's film (one can catch a cameo from Eli Wallach in Eastwood's later production, Mystic River).
Wild East, a company who, if you haven't guessed it yet, specializes in Spaghetti Westerns, released the best version of Day of Anger, though the disc is out of print from most sources. Video quality is average, only really hindered by a lack of anamorphic enhancement, and both the original Italian and English tracks are clean, if not a little tinny. Included on the disc is a few trailers, some interviews, and most specially a stereo music only track. The music track isn't exactly necessary because of the film's lack of music, but is something that should be included on other genre discs. Quite often the music of Spaghetti Westerns is just as important as the visuals, and with the exception of a few collections, doesn't get the full respect it so richly deserves.
Death Rides A Horse (aka: Da uomo a uomo, 1968)
This, the third Van Cleef picture on my list (forth, had I not forced myself to remove For a Few Dollars more), happens to be a DVD I've already reviewed. In the interest of space and time I'll offer up a link.
Once Upon a Time in the West (aka: C'era una volta il West, 1968)
Sergio Leone's final Western ([/i]edit: No, Duck You Sucker, was his final directed Western. That's an oversight on my part[/i]) stands as one of the finest films of all time, of any genre. It's almost unfair to include it on this list of Spaghetti Westerns due to American co-founding, but seeing that Leone was effectively the Godfather of the genre I couldn't help myself. I could go on for days about this film, but keeping in mind the point of my editorial here, I've decided to keep my focus on its importance to the genre.
Though there were plenty of good Euro-Westerns made up until the late '70s (some consider Mananja: A Man Called Blade or Keoma to be the real genre finales), Once upon a Time in the West is essentually the last word on Spaghetti Westerns. The maestro outgrew the genre with this film, and even wanted the film's breathless opening shoot-out to star Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef, which would've represented the physical death of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Leone was keen to move on, and actually had little interest in making the film at all initially.
The film deals with socio-politically allegorical elements more than any other Leone Western. The allegory mostly surrounds the building of the Transatlantic railroad, which in itself ended the mythical Wild West in real life. The archetypal characters are all turned on their heads; the debonair desert flower enters town a widow and ends up dirtying her hands in more ways than one, the anti-heroic outlaw is lonely and tired, the man with no name has a melancholy past that when avenged brings about no satisfaction, and the villain is played by one of America's most beloved good-guy actors, Henry Fonda. Most important of these plays on the norm is the fact that Claudia Cardinale is one of the only women in Spaghetti Western history to be a true lead, with dimensions and purpose.
Once Upon a Time in the West is larger than life in its scope, and was far and away the most expensive Euro-Western of its time. The easy pacing is essential to the story telling, and though (again) the story could've been told in half the running time, it is Leone's attention to beautifully mundane details that make the film one of the most cinematic of all time.
This time around Leone had all the cogs working in unison. Early on he hired two up and coming film critics named Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento to watch dozens of American Westerns and hammer out an early draft of the script, basing it on everything they'd been force fed on screen. The film is an early recognized entree into the post-modern film archives, later added to by George Lucas and Quentin Tarentino (though this is not abnormal for the genre, this film represents the art at its apex). Leone then hired Morricone to write the score based on the script, allowing him to play it on set, a technique later practiced by Argento. Each of the four leads has a specific theme that follows them throughout the film making the music as important to the character as the performance.
Long unavailable on DVD, in 2003 Paramount finally delivered a beautiful restoration, complete with an entire second disc of special features. Though I suppose more could be said about the film, this special edition set is going to be hard to top. My personal favourite is the recollections of now big-name directors including John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox in both documentary and commentary form. Besides the picture simply looking better than films made two years ago, this was the first time the film was available in widescreen for the general public's consumption. The essential nature of the widescreen transfer can be seen instantly to anyone unfortunate enough to catch the film on TV. The 5.1 surround remix is effective, but the original mono is still available to all purists. The Italian release includes a music CD and wooden case, for readers with money to burn.
Cut-Throats Nine (aka: Condenados a vivir, 1972)
The only official Paella Western on my list (meaning it was made by Spaniards instead of Italians), I initially sought Cut-Throats Nine because of its infamous reputation. Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent's (those Spanish names are a mouthful) film is notoriously violent, and I admit that that fact alone was enough to make me curious. Is it violent? Yes it is, but the most violent Euro-Western of all time? No, probably not, but this is not what makes the film worth watching in the end.
The story concerns a lawman forced to escort a group of seven convicts and his daughter across the mountainous landscape when a group of bandits attack his wagon and kill his assistants. Why he'd risk his life and his daughters rather than leaving the prisoners behind unravels as the film progresses. Though not exactly the most well made film on my list (to the contrary it often looks exceedingly amateurish), the claustrophobic plot is enough to keep one interested. The atmosphere is desperately Spanish, creating the same hallucinatory look of simular era exploitation and horror films from the area. When you watch enough of these foreign exploitation flicks you begin to get a feel for each country, and from my experience the best Spanish flicks are all about making the viewer feel dirty.
The criminals are almost all abhorrently realistic, as is the lead, meaning that the audience doesn't have anyone sympathetic to latch onto except the innocent daughter, whose not given many lines. The entire film is an exercise in unpleasantness, and will not appeal to the broad majority of viewers, but there is an undeniable presence to the film, which feels every bit as nihilistic and raunchy as some of the most celebrated grindhouse classics.
The one and only DVD release of this rugged film leaved a bit to be desired and utilizes a dirty, non-anamorphic transfer, along with a scratchy mono soundtrack. The disc also features no special features, and is out of print from most sources. This is not to say it's unwatchable, and it does benefit from the medium, as past, non-widescreen VHS versions were apparently incomprehensible at points. Though not great, this is the best way to see this elusive flick.
El Topo (1970)
Here's the part of my article where I really cheat. Alejandro Jodorowsky's masterpiece (and second feature length film after the uber-contriversial Fando y Lis) is not 100% Western, nor was it made in Europe. What it is is the most overtly artistic and enigmatic film on my list. The reason I feel compelled to include it is because along with Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, El Topo is ultimately the final word on the experimental Western genre. Without the existence of Europe's Western output of the '60 the film could not exist in its current form.
The story begins as many, with a gunman traveling the barren countryside in search of a fight. Behind him, aboard his horse is his son, completely nude except for a wide brimmed hat. Though comparable to Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub series initially, El Topo is actually looking for trouble rather than steering his son away from it. El Topo wants to defeat all the worlds’ best gunfighters, and travels with the lone intent of killing to make a name for himself. Being a Jodorowsky film (if you've never seen any of the director's work, this is the best and most accessible place to start), the plot is almost immaterial, and by the second act El Topo has learned his lesson, become reborn in a Christ like fashion, and reduced to a street beggar confronting his now adult son.
Needless to say that any film by Jodorowsky is going to be challenging, especially to viewers not accustom to the directors penchant for absurd and melodramatic metaphors, and his frothing obsession with Catholic Dogma and imagery (another factor that led me to consider the film in my list). El Topo is bizarre, violent, and sexually charged, titillating yet grotesque, and it takes a special kind of patients to sit through it.
To this day there still is not a decent U.S. or U.K. release of this quintessential film, though recent rumblings seem to point to one on the horizon. For now adventurous viewers will have to rely on the Italian release, which is presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Some sources have stated that Jodorowsky prefers the film widescreen, but I've personally witnessed no written evidence to prove this (prove me wrong readers, prove me wrong). The disc is OK, though wrought with dirt and artefacts, and is available alone or in a special two-pack with Jodorowsky's follow up, The Holy Mountain, a film which includes a reenactment of the Conquistadores attack on the Mayans played by frogs and lizards.
I still haven't found a Spaghetti Western I didn't enjoy. Though some are much better than others, as a whole I find the genre very entertaining, and often overlooked. I hope that this list will entice some readers to seek out some of these titles and others. Most titles could stand some better treatment, but unless demand increases I doubt we'll see too many special editions on the horizon.
Readers can purchase these and other Spaghetti Western titles from my friends at Xploitedcinema.com.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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