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Frame-filling, dirt-seamed showdown squints accompanied by a soundtrack that's a menagerie of caws, grunting hombres, twanging spokes and livid trumpets. A division of cavalry in Union blue kicking up a wake of red dust across Spain's Desert of Tabernas, standing in for Monument Valley. Sneering banditti with stiff, blond dye jobs swaggering into saloons that look like they might welcome Caravaggio and his 17th-century bravos. You simply cannot mistake a spaghetti Western for anything else.
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The dissolution of the studio system and the rise of runaway production had already turned low-overhead Rome into Hollywood on the Tiber, when the era of the spaghetti Western kicked off in earnest with 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, with a score by Ennio Morricone, the genre's progenitors and certifiable geniuses. The cycle of Italo-Spanish–made horse operas played itself out largely over the next decade, whence come the overwhelming majority of the films in the American Cinematheque's 21-movie crash course in the genre, with 35 mm prints lovingly assembled by Bruce Goldstein at New York City's Film Forum.
Dollars' Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood, then a Rawhide regular with an undistinguished film career, became the first star of the spaghetti Westerns, which usually peppered their multinational casts with Americans: Gone-to-seed late-career slummers like Joseph Cotten, humorously saddle-sore cranky in Sergio Corbucci's 1966 The Hellbenders; bilingual Italo-Americans like marble-faced Henry Silva and the volcanic Tony Musante; or the particular case of bat-faced, New Jersey–born spaghetti specialist Lee Van Cleef, who in middle age became a most unlikely international action star.
Europe had appropriated the most quintessentially American genre before (and Hollywood, it should be noted, has never shied away from appropriating other nations' legends). Turn-of-the-last-century Italian readers thrilled to Emilio Salgari's frequently Western-set adventure stories, while Salgari contemporary Karl May's tales of a frontier that he had never seen were still being adapted as immensely popular films in the 1960s.
The real progenitor of the spaghetti Western, however, might be May's fellow German, B. Traven, whose 1927 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (filmed by John Huston in 1948) set the cutthroat, materialist ethos of the genre: money over everything.
The spaghetti's dog-eat-dog worldview, which saw the taming of the West essentially as a free-for-all for capitalist rapacity, was ameliorated by a ray of hope with the leftist sympathies of its so-called Zapata Westerns, a subgenre whose most prominent author was scriptwriter Franco Solinas, elsewhere a collaborator of avowedly Marxist filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) and Constantin Costa-Gavras (State of Siege).
Solinas is represented at the American Cinematheque by his quartet of spaghettis: The Big Gundown (1966), A Bullet for the General (1966), The Mercenary (1968) and Tepepa (1969). Each is set during the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, and each retells the story of the dialectical odd-coupling of a Euro-American venture-capitalist buccaneer and a peasant peon-turned-revolutionist (the best is Lou Castel, sporting ice cream–man whites, opposite an itchy Gian Maria Volonte in General.)
Leone's own most Zapatista effort and least seen film, Duck, You Sucker (1970), proves him the master of a voluptuary dream-cinema style light-years beyond second-tier efforts like Tonino Valerii's 1969 The Price of Power, which runs roughshod over facts to conflate the 1881 assassination of James Garfield with the conspiracist's version of events in Dallas, 1963, succeeding only in drawing a facile syllogism.
It was typical typecasting that blond Northern Italian Franco Nero and dark Cuban Tomás Milián took Euro-Yankee and Mexican parts, respectively, and native audiences understood that the U.S.-Mexico dynamic in these films was meant to reflect the imbalance between industrial northern and impoverished southern Italy. As often as not, the politicized spaghetti Western said more about the frustrated leftist experience in 1960s Italy — a country that brings us the adjective "Machiavellian" — under the lockdown postwar reign of Christian Democracy than it did about America at the cusp of the Gilded Age. (In Italy, the spaghetti Western was superseded in popularity in the '70s by poliziotteschi crime films, which turned their outrage toward the modern Italian city.)
If the spaghetti Western set out to redact the "Print the legend" idealism of its American model, it often did so speciously. (They were best when set in the carnivalesque climes of revolutionary Mexico.) It was, however, the weakness of the spaghetti Westerns — their disconnect from the land and the history that they were alleged to be portraying — that conversely gave them their greatest strength and bit of territory in film history.
Like The Beatles selling rock & roll back to America, rejuvenated and made new in Anglo accents, the spaghettis were a catalyst with far-reaching effects. Kidnapping the Western from the land of its birth, the Italians liberated it from any pretense of realism, taking off into the realm of pure invention.
Like most Italian films of their period, the spaghettis were shot silent, without the cumbrance of on-set synch sound. This process not only allowed later-to-be-dubbed multinational casts to pass as Americans but a greater mobility in camera work, frequently a license for cinematographic flamboyance. Moral self-seriousness gave way to the comic formula of set-up and punch line, as in the famous machine gun-in-a-coffin "gag" in Sergio Corbucci's 1966 Django. With the difficulty of real on-set dialogue, increased burden was placed on the scores — a golden opportunity for Luis Bacalov, Morricone and his conductor/collaborator, Bruno Nicolai, all vital in creating the genre's symphonic style.
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