Tag Archives: spaghetti western

Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

How iconic has the image become of Clint Eastwood, poncho adorned, rolled cigarette locked firmly in that drawn snarl, peering out from a wide brim, dust caked hat atop a horse? The Man With No Name is such a household name these days that he’s shown up everywhere from Stephen King lore to an animated Johnny Depp movie, but it all began with Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti western trilogy, the best of which is the fireball classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

The trilogy itself not only launched an entire sub-genre in the early sixties but created a mood, a feel that no one besides Leone has ever been able to so specifically distill. Extreme closeups on eyes deep set in furrowing brows. Languid establishing shots of frontier town streets, expansive railroads and acres of dry brush-lands. The actors aren’t necessarily blocked from scene to scene with any kind of briskness but rather wade languidly through an ambient space seemingly at their own leisure and never with haste. Spaghetti westerns are never about the plot, but about the moment, the setup, the apprehension in the saloon, grotto, civil war torn graveyard or desert that these hard bitten folks find themselves in.

Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger meanders across a bitter, busted up American west that is, of course, actually Italy, engaging in war games and an obsessive treasure hunt with two other pieces of work, the sociopathic monster Angel Eyes (Lee Can Cleef) and the lecherous, untrustworthy rodent Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three are after a legendary gold stash somewhere out there in the desolation and are prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way, bonus points for each other. Eastwood is cold, calm and opaque, Cleef is cheerfully, sadistically ruthless, Wallach oozes weaselly survival instinct and together they make a captivating trio.

Three scenes in particular stand out in my mind; the first is the epic showdown between them all, stood a few hundred paces apart in a triangle, locked in a tense pre shootout stare-down as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous and threatening score booms around the landscape and plays with expectations wonderfully. It’s a kicker of a scene and probably the showcase Western showdown in cinema. The second (and I’m assuming at this point that anyone who’s read this far has seen the film) is the final sequence where Eastwood taunts Wallach by literally leaving him hanging and riding away as Morricone yet again gives our eardrums symphonic bliss. It’s a wicked little epilogue that illustrates the character’s dry, subtle sense of humour nicely and I remember my dad (this was a favourite for him) rewinding it just to catch the beats a second or third time. The third is a moment where Eastwood comes across a soldier who is dying in the dust. He offers the man a drag off his cigarette, and the simple action suggests a beating heart and flickers of compassion in a mostly hard, stoic fellow. Nice touch.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO

There is an inherent perversion that comes with Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece, DJANGO, that is incredibly alluring. The coffin dragging masochistic antihero saves a women in distress, only to bring her to a town in deep dilapidation that is the battleground between Mexican federales and a group of red hooded Christian zealots. The film has an innate ability to transcend the norms of cinematic violence, sexual liberation, and religious faux pas to create a truly unique film that not only acts as a genre setter, but a template for the “hero” to come up victorious yet still accrue the vengeance of his previous transgressions.

Franco Nero’s performance as the mysterious stranger is a revelation. He’s part Paul Newman with his steely blue eyes and movie star looks and part Clint Eastwood with his ominous presence that is a visual embodiment of the shadow of an axe that looms. He gives a command performance that is filled with a confidence that can dwarf mostly any performance it is stacked up against. Nero’s economy of movement is mesmerizing as he fills the frame with his stoically soft and strategic physicality.

The film intentionally leaves little to the imagination. The violence is projected right on screen, forcing the audience to be culprits in the tale of bloody revenge and sacrifice. The shock value of the film, while tame by current standards remain a stark reality of what pushing cinematic boundaries used to be. The film is not self righteous or heavy handed in its messaging. It is solely an entertaining film that operates in extreme shades of grey that tiers off its villains, uniting its world to overcome the overarching villain of oppression coddled by greed.

Luis Bacalov’s score and title theme, which has populated many Tarantino films and used as the title theme for DJANGO UNCHAINED, is as big a star of the picture as Nero and Corbucci’s visceral brutality towards its characters. The main theme is triumphant and empowering, yet the trials Django has to endure are a combination of wrong place at the wrong time and acting as swift and appropriate justice to those who are on the opposite side of his post Civil War machine gun.

The narrative capsizes in the final act by stripping Django of his ability and forces not only the hero, but the audience as well, into a tense and ultimately rewarding showdown in a graveyard. The film’s ultraviolence and commentary is not for everyone, but one of the purposes of its existence is to invert and pervert the heroes journey. While the viewer is unaware of Django’s previous encounters and misgivings; what is certain is that he’s a force to be reckon with and one of the most dangerous and satisfying lone wolves to be on screen.

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

There isn’t much I can say about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that the mythical, larger than life masterpiece couldn’t say for itself, especially on its magnificent, crystal clear Blu Ray transfer that blows the dust out of the cracks and showcases it’s sunny cinematography in full remixed glory. From the coming of the railroad to a fledgling empire, the corrupt businessmen employing hard bitten thugs to do their nefarious bidding (a prophetic motif if there ever was one), the searing forbidden romance between the archetypal ex-working girl and the silent, lethally dangerous drifter, the dusters adorning gunfighter that sway in a lilting prairie breeze, the trod of hooves, the thunder of impending gunfire preceded by the eerie calm of the showdown before, this is the western to end all westerns, the textbook example, the crown jewel of the genre and the one wheat-stalk saga that I just can’t get enough of. Leone basically patented an entire sub-genre between this and the Man With No Name trilogy, it’s a now timeless flavour that rippled down throughout the generations and changed the face of the western forever. The film itself is perfectly balanced symphonic storytelling, in every aspect of the medium. Charles Bronson’s mysterious loner Harmonica blusters into town, opaque and uttering few words save for the melancholic strains of his instrument brought to wailing life by composer Ennio Morricone. Henry Fonda’s elegant, magnetic and unbelievably evil mercenary Frank hovers over everything like a black cloud of portent. Claudia Cardinele’s drop dead gorgeous Jill violently carves out her own path of survival, lust and grief amidst the unforgiving frontier. Jason Robard’s half injun outlaw Cheyanne tries hard not to wear an obvious heart of gold on his sleeve while seeking retribution for a diabolical frame-job. These mythical, monolithic individuals invite shades of grey into what we’ve become accustomed to in Western archetypes too, which is another hallmark of Leone. Gone are the stalwart sheriffs, stoic heroic leading men and obvious moustache twirling of clearly delineated villains. Bronson is rough, callous and never straight up chivalrous, Fonda is reptilian but oh so charming, the kind blue eyes barely suggesting what evil leers beneath, and Robards for his part turns an outright scoundrel into something of a teddy bear during his arc. It’s in the little, drawn out interactions and moments that we learn what we need to know about these characters, and Leone lets their performances, Morricone’s iconic score and the lingering space between action tell the story, so that by the time the monumental showdown rolls in, we know what we need to know about these wild, complex personalities and can get swept up in the revelatory spectacle of it. One for the ages.

-Nate Hill