Spaghetti Westerns 102: What To Do When The Leone Runs Out

You've seen the Man With No Name trilogy and even DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So what's next in the world of spaghetti westerns? Let Lars lead the way.

The other day I was in a busy, bustling local video store renting spaghetti westerns and out of curiosity I inquired which spaghetti westerns are rented most frequently. Not surprisingly, Sergio Leone’s films top the list. Once Upon A Time In The West is the champ and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is number two. The remaining Leone westerns cut up most of the rest of the pie, leaving only a few crumbs for the rest of the field. While I would never dispute the excellence or primacy of Leone’s films, even if I think Once Upon A Time In The West is slightly overrated, I do think that there are many other fine spaghettis that go unseen by the people who would enjoy them most. By all means, watch The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Once Upon A Time In The West and For A Few Dollars More first, but don’t neglect these.

Here’s a primer, in no particular order, for those who’ve seen and liked Leone’s ouevre and would like to explore further.

DJANGO (1966, D. Sergio Corbucci)

Sergio Corbucci is the other great master of spaghetti westerns. His westerns are not built in the same exaggerated dimensions as Leone’s, but they are odd, cruel, mythic and highly cinematic. If Leone is Kurosawa, Corbucci is Seijun Suzuki. If your first introduction to the genre has been through Leone, you may be struck first by the difference in scale and tempo in Corbucci’s films. Leone distends time and space. Corbucci is willing to dial it way down. Leone’s camera movements are always exquisitely planned and choreographed, Corbucci lets some air in. There is spontaneity in Corbucci’s frame.

Django was not Corbucci’s first western, but it is certainly his most influential. Scores of Django movies exist, purporting to be sequels. Many more films borrow elements from Django but the original has an iconic power that the others lack. The titular “hero” (Franco Nero), who drags a coffin behind him wherever he goes, saves a prostitute from a para-fascist band of hooded outlaws. He shepherds her into a miserable, mud-spattered town, but the town is controlled by the same masked men. When they re-enter the town, Django stands firm, with the help of his coffin. There are more plot complications than are strictly necessary, but the final showdown, in a desolate graveyard, is memorable.

Django feels etched in acid. The “good guy” is filthy and ill-mannered. Most of the characters are immoral scum. There are scenes of cruelty so severe it’s hard to watch them today. Apparently Corbucci believed the sequence in which a priest’s ear is sliced off and fed to him was the height of humor, but even today’s viewers will find it hugely excessive. Django is like nothing made before it, and is unsurpassed by its many imitators.

Further study: Sergio Corbucci has made more great westerns than anyone. The Great Silence is every bit as good as Django, with phenomenal performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski. The Mercenary and Companeros, equally great,  are a matched pair of Franco Nero starring vehicles taking place in revolutionary Mexico. Both feature Jack Palance as the highly idiosyncratic villain. Navajo Joe is a great-looking but formulaic movie starring Burt Reynolds as a vengeance-minded Indian scout. It’s worthwhile but not among Corbucci’s very best. Also, it’s not a Corbucci, but don’t overlook Giulio Questi’s insane Django Kill, an avant garde spaghetti that really makes an impact.

THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966 D. Sergio Sollima)

Spaghetti Western enthusiasts often refer to the “three Sergios”, meaning Leone, Corbucci and Sollima. That classification would seem to elevate Sollima, who made only three westerns, though all are very good. The Big Gundown is Sollima’s best and most accessible western.

Lee Van Cleef (captioned Mr. Ugly in the english language publicity materials) plays a famous invincible bounty hunter, invited by a wealthy capitalist to accept a nomination for U.S. Senator representing the rich man’s interests. At the party welcoming Van Cleef to the team, a group approaches, bringing the news of a rape and murder. Van Cleef does what is expected of him, he mounts his horse and rides off in search of the presumed guilty party, a Mexican bandit named Cuchillo, played by the volcanically talented Tomas Milian. The manhunt, expected to be the matter of a few hours, extends into weeks and months, with Cuchillo finding new and varied ways to escape even as he plants the seed of doubt about his guilt in Van Cleef’s mind. By the time the rich man, now leading an army of gunmen, catches up with Van Cleef in Mexico, the bounty hunter has a whole new set of ideas about the crime and he sets out to bring the real culprit to justice, even if it means that everyone dies.

The Big Gundown has much of the pictorial grandeur of Leone’s films as well as a first class pair of co-leads in Van Cleef and Milian. It also has one of Ennio Morricone’s greatest scores, a gigantic asset to any film, particularly a spaghetti western. The script is from an original story by Franco Solinas, a specialist in political scenarios who also wrote The Battle Of Algiers and Burn! The Big Gundown is one of the most rousing, exciting and intelligent spaghettis and belongs on any short list of its shining glories.

Further study: Director Sollima’s Run Man Run gives us the further adventures of Tomas Milian’s Cuchillo character. It’s very good but it wants Van Cleef’s gravity. His Face To Face is even more political in nature, its mirrored story of a history professor who devolves into an outlaw and an outlaw who becomes more socially conscious might be overly schematic if not for the brilliant acting of Milian and Gian-Maria Volante, Morricone’s music and Sollima’s driving direction. As it is, it deserves to be considered one of the genre’s best and most intelligent offerings.

DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967, D. Giulio Petroni)

Again, Lee Van Cleef contributes so much, not just by his iconic presence but by his acting. It’s often been opined that tough guys like Van Cleef aren’t exactly actors. That opinion has always been wrong. Certain people think that unless a performer has a big emotional showcase scene, they just can’t act. The great tough guys are masters of their emotions, they aren’t ever likely to cry their eyes out, so we just have to judge them by what they do. Here Van Cleef, recently released from a wrongful imprisonment, finds himself crossing paths with a callow orphaned youth, John Philip Law, who is seeking revenge for the death of his family against the same men who double-crossed Van Cleef. Those men, formerly desperate outlaws, have bought their way into respectable society. As Law and Van Cleef circle their quarry a new understanding develops between them and a whole bunch of bad guys get killed.

I’ve often wished that the young revenge-seeker in Death Rides A Horse could have been portrayed by a better actor than John Philip Law but Van Cleef more than picks up the slack. His aging, reflective, but hard as nails gunman is one of his greatest characterizations. Death Rides A Horse also benefits from a tricky, flashback based narrative style that has influenced many other films, particularly revenge movies. It’s certainly indebted to Leone’s For A Few Dollars More but if has a vitality that makes it more than just another ripoff. The Morricone score helps too.

Further study: Petroni’s political Tepepa, starring Tomas Milian and Orson Welles is often mentioned in best-of lists. I like it too, but don’t exactly recommend it. On the other hand, his A Sky Full Of Stars For A Roof is rarely mentioned, but I think it’s among the very best spaghettis, full of classically Italian elements and bizarre transpositions. Also, though it’s not a Petroni film, Tonino Valerii’s Day Of Anger stars Lee Van Cleef and Giuliano Gemma in a variant on Death Rides A Horse’s story. It’s nearly as good.