Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Spaghetti Western is a criminally overlooked film genre. Many wrongly pass it off as silly, trash cinema, a cheap imitation of “real” American westerns. But for a few publications, namely director Alex Cox’s college dissertation which has recently been given a new name and a proper release, and several works by Christopher Frayling, the genre is given the shaft in “serious” film discussions.

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Franco Nero as the hero in "Django"
I’ll grant that a lot of Italian Westerns are glorious pieces of crap. I’ve seen enough of them to know. One thing they definitely are not is boring. The Italian Western takes the traditional American western to the extreme, particularly in its depiction of violence and characterization. The plots are rather simple tales of revenge, but whereas the American Western tends to define characters in a simple black and white, good and bad, the Italians are, without a doubt, character-driven pieces. The good, the hero, is almost never good in the traditional sense. He tends to be an outlaw with an unknown but presumably dark past. Someone either killed his brother of father, or massacred his whole family when he was a child. He has likely had to engage in theft and murder as the ends justify his means, which is ultimately to exact revenge. But he’s much more complex than his American counterpart. There are many more ethical questions, and questions of motive, that we have about him.

Villain Klaus Kinski in Sergio Corbucci's
"The Great Silence"
Spaghetti villains can be exceedingly immoral. They're often nihilists who rape and kill women and torture their victims out of pleasure. There's usually no real reason except that they are just evil incarnations. Hell on Earth brandishing a Colt. Though we’re not usually meant to sympathize with the villain, along the hero’s journey, we’ll be given plenty of reasons to question his morality or motive, and when we arrive at the point of reckoning, we may not be left with the question of which is the good guy and which is the bad, but rather which one is worse.

Spaghettis are highly stylized and the characters are given a savoir faire that traditional western leads never had. Yes, Shane was cool in a way, as was John Wayne, particularly in later films like Rio Bravo, but they were more iconic figures to an audience who still saw the cinema as something grand and fantastic, heroes as heroes of the old west to model our lives on. No one would cite the ethics of a Spaghetti hero. The Italians molded their heroes and villains as much on non-western genre cinema characters, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, or Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The baddies weren’t just a bunch of rowdies who would steal your cattle and off a few people who stood as obstacles in their way of treasure or a land-grab like in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine or Red River. They were much more likely to be bloodthirsty sociopaths, schizoids who’d keep their dead mother in the basement like Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in Psycho. Perhaps part of the reason for this was that the Italian Western genre rose with the counter-culture. Its style and bold attitude is similar to what was happening in other burgeoning pop arts of the 1960s. A film like The Good, the Bad & the Ugly has as much in common in spirit and irreverence with Easy Rider or The Rolling Stones as it does with The Searchers.
Claudio Camoso plays Manuel, one of Spaghetti's best ever villain roles in "$10,000 Blood Money"
The brashness of the Spaghetti Western was in need of equally daring scores. Though Ennio Morricone is rightly the first name that comes to mind, there are a number of other prolific composers like Nora Orlandi, Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, Riz Ortolani, Piero Umiliani and Nico Fidenco, who did a whole lot more than just score Italian Westerns.  These composers, led by Morricone, referenced all kinds of musical genres. Obviously the American Western would have been the foundation on which all of this was built. The use of the Fender Stratocaster and the stretching and bending of traditional orchestral arrangements gave the soundtracks and hipper, rawer sound--Dick Dale-like surf guitar riffs, an arsenal of whips, clicks, whistles, gallops and bass drums are brought to the fore and are often featured parts that build scenes into incredible climaxes. The Mariachi element that existed in westerns previously is accented and occasionally given a clownish personality. And, naturally, the composers came wired with their Italian influences, the grandiosity of Italian opera, the hymns of Catholic masses.
Gian Maria Volonte and Lou Castel in the Damiano
Damiani masterpiece, "A Bullet for the General"

The influence of Spaghetti Western film scores, particularly Ennio Morricone’s work, run deep. Besides modern alternative bands like Calexico, who pay direct homage to the music, the number of musicians influenced by Morricone is incalculable, in songs from Muse to Metallica to Jay-Z and The Orb--a sufficient list is impossible to compile. Quentin Tarantino has done much to introduce Morricone to a new generation as he has a most visible obsession with the Italian Westerns. There are also a few fine cover bands like Death Valley from Melbourne, who give a healthy boost in sound and production to the older, often out of print and obscure scores.

This mix is heavy on Morricone, as it should be. Sit back and imagine the deserts of Spanish Almeria or the Sardinian village of San Salvatore di Cabras…


The translations of the Italian film titles into English is half the fun of Spaghetti Westerns. For the unintiated, curious, or argumentative, here are my personal Top 20 Italian Westerns:

1. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) 1968
2.   For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone) 1965
3.      The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Sergio Leone) 1966
4.      The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci) 1968
5.   10,000 Dollars Blood Money (Romolo Guerrieri) 1967
6.    Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone) 1964
7.      A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani) 1966
8.      The Hellbenders (Sergio Corbucci) 1966
9.      Django Kill…If You Live Shoot! (Giulio Questi) 1967
10.   For 10,000 Dollars, Vengeance Is Mine! (Giovanni Fago) 1968
11.   Django (Sergio Corbucci) 1966
12.   The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci) 1968
13.   Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni) 1967
14.   The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima) 1966
15.   Requiescant (Carlo Lizzani) 1967
16.   Cemetery Without Crosses (Robert Hossein) 1968
17.   The Hills Run Red (Carlo Lizzani) [1966]
18.   Bandidos (Massimo Dallamano) 1967
19.   A Coffin for the Sheriff (Mario Cajano) 1965
20.   Kill Them All…And Come Back Alone (Enzo G. Castellari) 1967