Tag Archives: Spaghetti Westerns

The Big Gundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2014

The Big Gundown—Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes (1966; Dir: Sergio Sollima)

BigGundown2PosterBigGundownPoster

An early non-Leone spaghetti western featuring Lee Van Cleef in his new role as leading man, dressed in trademark black and smoking a pipe.  He’s Jonathan Corbett, a Texas lawman/bounty hunter with few challenges left.  He meets Broxton (Walter Barnes), a railroad baron who suggests Corbett run for the U.S. Senate.

Broxton then sets Corbett on the trail of Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian), a scapegrace Mexican very good with a knife who supposedly raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  After several scrapes with Mormons, an isolated female ranch owner and a Mexican whorehouse, Corbett finds Broxton (with his German bodyguard) in Mexico; he also discovers that Broxton’s son-in-law Chet committed the crimes of which Cuchillo is accused.

BigGundownVanCleef

In the manhunt, starting in a cane field and moving to rocky, mountainous terrain, Corbett sets up a showdown between Cuchillo with a knife and the Broxton son-in-law with a gun.  Then comes the big showdown between Corbett and everybody, including the German.  (Chennault’s Variation on a famous dictum of Chekhov:  “If a German gunman shows up in the first act, he will be firing before the end.”  See Vera Cruz and The Wild Bunch, for example.)  And Corbett and Cuchillo ride off into the sunset, one (Corbett) to the north and the other to the south.

Among aficionados of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Soliima enjoys a reputation as one of the three Sergios, behind only the great Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as a director.  The Big Gundown is often reckoned one of the top ten spaghetti westerns.  Of course, it still has the limitations of its subgenre, and it’s not as good as Leone’s best work.  Cuchillo reappears, again played by Tomas Milian, in Sollima’s Run, Man, Run in 1968; it’s probably better, although this isn’t bad, as spaghetti westerns go.  The score by Ennio Morricone features kind of a shrieking theme song as well as “Chorus of the Mormons.”  This was released the year after Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and the same year as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  The version usually seen in the U.S. is a poorly-cut 84-minutes long.  Supposedly a 114-minute version exists.

BigGundownWide

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Take a Hard Ride

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 18, 2014

Take a Hard Ride—Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Harry Carey, Jr., Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews (1975; Dir:  Antonio Margheriti)

TakeHardRideWide

It may have had aspirations, but it’s not really in the league of the great westerns, despite the claims on the posters.

This features another of Jim Brown’s forays into Mexico (see, for example, 100 Rifles and Rio Conchos), this time in a merger of two genres from the early 1970s:  blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns.  Jim Brown plays Pike, trail boss for cattleman Morgan (Dana Andrews) in this late spaghetti western.  Pike is also a reformed wanted man in improbable red pants (they must have been a 1970s thing–see Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd).  He’s trying to take $86,000 into Mexico in fulfillment of a promise to Morgan, who dies early on. 

His unwilling accomplice in this task is Tyree (Fred Williamson), a black gambler and gunfighter, along with a tongueless black Indian named Kashtok (Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon; he keeps being referred to as an Indian, although he looks completely black) with mysterious martial arts moves, and, for a while, Catherine Spaak as Catherine, a former New Orleans prostitute whose husband is killed by nasty outlaws before she is rescued by Pike and Tyree.  (Unaccountable accents in westerns are frequently attributed to New Orleans origins–see, for example, The Magnificent Seven [Yul Brynner] and North to Alaska [Capucine].)  There seems to be some sort of connection between Catherine and Kashtok, but we don’t know how or why. 

TakeHardRideBrown Jim Brown as Pike.

TakeHardRideWmsnFred Williamson as Tyree.

Pike, Tyree et al. are pursued by a legion of bounty hunters and robbers led (more or less) by harmonica-playing Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef).  They include Barry Sullivan as Vane, a former lawman, and Dumper (Harry Carey, Jr.), a corrupt Bible-thumper and his assistant with a gatling gun, a bunch of venal and untrustworthy robbers and a troop of conscienceless Mexican bandits. 

In the end, everything is blown up, Kiefer is shot in the back by Dumper before Dumper dies, and things don’t seem all that resolved.  It does appear that Kiefer is only wounded, and the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with him at the end.  After spending the entire movie setting up some kind of confrontation between Pike and Kiefer, it doesn’t happen.  But plot is not the movie’s strong point; this film is more interested in action than in making sense.  Characters seem to be dropped in and out fairly arbitrarily.  The movie is watchable but not remarkable.  Filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Jerry Goldsmith does the music.  Director Antonio Margheriti is listed as Anthony M. Dawson in the credits.

TakeHardRideWmsnBrown

The previous year (1974) Brown, Williamson and Kelly had appeared together in Three the Hard Way, a modern-era blaxploitation action thriller.  This movie was apparently conceived as a genre-jumping follow-up project.  In the western genre, Brown and Van Cleef would reunite in 1977 for Kid Vengeance, which was also released as Take Another Hard Ride.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Great Directors: Sergio Leone

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 15, 2014

Sergio Leone

LeoneCamera

From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Tuco (Eli Wallach) is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room.
One Armed Man:  “I’ve been looking for you for eight months.  Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you.  Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me.  I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.”
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam.]
Tuco:  “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”

“When I was young, I believed in three things:  Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite.  Now I just believe in dynamite.”—Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 into a cinematic family.  His parents were the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran).  During his school days, one of his friends was Ennio Morricone, his future musical collaborator on films.  Leone’s parents did not sympathize with the Fascists in power in Italy before and during World War II, and they were effectively exiled to Naples until the war was over.

LeoneMorricone Leone and Morricone.

Working in cinematography, Leone began as an assistant to director Vittorio di Sica on the classic The Bicycle Thief in 1948.  During the 1950s he started writing on screenplays for the historical “sword and sandal” epics popular at the time, including work on some large-scale films at the famous Cinecittá studios in Rome, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).  His big break came in 1959, when director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, with Steve Reeves, and Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

When historical epics fell out of favor with the public, Leone turned his attention to inexpensive westerns, with largely Italian casts, filmed mostly in Spain—the so-called spaghetti westerns.  He first brought them to international prominence in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars, starring American television actor Clint Eastwood and based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo.  It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but it was far and away the most successful to date.  With progressively larger budgets, it was followed by For a Few Dollars More, with Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in 1965, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Eastwood, Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in 1966, completing what came to be referred to as his “Man With No Name” trilogy.  There is no continuity of story or character between the three, and sometimes the Eastwood character actually does have a name.

LeoneEastwood Directing the Man With No Name.

By the conclusion of the trilogy, Leone had started a revolution.  He had developed an international market for inexpensively-made Italian westerns and had introduced a vogue for them that lasted a decade.  He had made Clint Eastwood a major star, and created another in Lee Van Cleef.  He had introduced a different kind of moral universe in westerns, one less aligned with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys but with even more violence.  There are those who would say he introduced sweat and dust to westerns, but those had long been there (see Hondo, for example)—just not so prominently and consistently, nor so lovingly captured on film.  He prolonged the careers of such actors as Jack Palance and Henry Fonda, who found prominent roles in spaghetti westerns when such roles became scarcer for them in Hollywood.  And he was godfather to an entire generation of Italian filmmakers, often while simultaneously fighting with them:  Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Tonino Valerii, Sergio Corbucci and many others.

In terms of cinematic style, Leone was revolutionary as well.  The music for his films, composed by his friend Morricone, brought a new way of thinking about music in films, and not just in westerns, much different from more traditional studio composers like Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.  Morricone said that Leone asked him to compose a film’s music before the start of principal photography, contrary to the normal practice.  He would then play the music to the actors during takes to enhance their performances.  His film-making style was noted for juxtaposing extreme close-ups (often focusing on the eyes, especially if they were blue), with extreme long shots.  He was always willing to sacrifice story for effect or mood.  His work has been much imitated since.

LeoneOnceTimeCast

Once Upon a Time ,,, Leone with stars Fonda, Cardinale, Bronson and Robards.

Leone’s success with the Man With No Name films enabled him to make what many consider his masterpiece:  Once Upon a Time in the West (C’Era una Volta il West), released in 1968.  The film, starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale, was shot mostly in Almería, Spain, and Cinecittá in Rome, with some shooting in Monument Valley, Utah.  A bigger budget gave Leone the scope for a long meditation on the mythology of the American west, with many references to previous iconic westerns and with Leone giving his cinematic impulses free rein.  The resulting three-hour epic was ruthlessly edited by Paramount and was not a box office success in the U.S., though the full movie was a huge hit in Europe, especially in France.  

During the 1970s, Leone went on to direct Duck, You Sucker!, set in the Mexican revolution, although he had intended only to produce it, and he produced the spaghetti western comedy, My Name is Nobody.  He turned down an opportunity to direct The Godfather to focus on his own gangster pet project, a four-hour gangster movie titled Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro (1984).  Warner Bros. recut it drastically to two hours for the American market, where it was a flop.  It was his last significant work.  When the four-hour film was restored and made available, some hailed it as a masterpiece as well.  Leone died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60.

LeoneRobardsGunsLeoneHorse

Experimenting with the tools of the trade:  Playing guns with Jason Robards, and using the basic form of transportation.

“Ever since I was a small boy I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood Westerns where, if you cut the woman’s role out of the film in a version which is going on in your own head, the film becomes far better.”–Sergio Leone.  That explains a lot about the Man With No Name trilogy.

“The [John] Ford film I like most of all…is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about.  In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West… because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West…  He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it.”—Sergio Leone, in a very European view.

“I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes.  It fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”—Sergio Leone

LeoneOnceTime

The opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West:  Waiting for the stranger.

Leone Essentials:  A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West

Second-Rank Leone:  Duck, You Sucker!

Leone Non-Western Essentials:  Once Upon a Time in America

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Best Spaghetti Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 13, 2013

The Best Spaghetti Westerns

Director Sergio Corbucci claims that the idea for spaghetti westerns came when he was working as a second-unit director for his friend director Sergio Leone, filming in Spain on The Last Days of Pompeii (1959).  Seeing the landscape of Spain with its wild horses, extraordinary canyons, and semi-desert landscapes which looked a lot like Mexico or Texas, Corbucci suggested making an American Wild West-themed film in Spain.  Corbucci then directed his first western in Spain just before Sergio Leone completed the ground-breaking A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  The Wikipedia entry on “Spaghetti Western” lists the first such as The Sheriff in 1959.

SpaghettiFistfulWide

David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film says more than 400 of what are generically referred to as spaghetti westerns were produced from 1963 to 1973.  As a general matter, the best of them are the four directed by Sergio Leone, which show a remarkable progression in film-making ability.  Two western stars in particular reached a higher status through their appearances in spaghetti westerns:  Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, who both appeared in Leone films in the mid-1960s.  And such other stars as Henry Fonda and Jack Palance had their careers prolonged by appearing in spaghetti westerns.  Spaghetti westerns usually exhibit most of the following characteristics:

  • There are often lingering close-ups and a fascination with blue eyes.  They often feature long shots, with fewer middle-range shots (compared to, say, the westerns of Budd Boetticher, who used mid-range shots a lot).
  • They were most often filmed in Spain and frequently their stories were said to be set in Mexico; perhaps due to the setting or simply to a fondness for grittiness, there was often lots of dust.
  •  They featured extended, and not very realistic, violence and brutality.
  •  The music was sometimes excellent in a new sort of way (especially that provided by Ennio Morricone for Leone and other films), but it was often disproportionately loud.
  • They were made by Italian directors with largely Italian casts, with a light sprinkling of American stars (either up and coming, like Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds, or getting to be long in the tooth, like Henry Fonda, Lee Van Cleef or Jack Palance).
  • They were shot without recording the sound, depending on putting the sound in later during post-production.  That resulted in a lot of dubbed voices, sometimes by the actual actor on film (Eastwood or Van Cleef), but often not; see, for example, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West.  It could often mean that music or sound effects supposedly provided by someone on the film had the wrong accoustics.
  • There was often a fondness for the freakish, surreal or bizarre–dwarves, hunchbacks, inexplicably maniacal laughter, etc.

OnceTimePoster5

Our consultant for Italian and horror films, Adam Sorensen at Lionsgate Films, has provided one list of the best of the spaghetti westerns.  As he says, the list is dominated by the two Sergios:  Leone and Corbucci.

  1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
  3. For a Few Dollars More (Leone)
  4. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
  5. A Fistful of Dollars (Leone)
  6. Django (Corbucci)
  7. Companeros (Corbucci)
  8. The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima)
  9. My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
  10. Keoma (Enzo Castellari)

From Adam:  “The two Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) pretty much dominate the genre.  However, there is a third Sergio (Sollima) who also has a very good reputation.  In addition to this top ten, these are the most notable honorable mentions, in order of general acclaim:

*Day of Anger (Valerii)

*Run, Man, Run (Sollima)

*The Mercenary (Corbucci)

*Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni)

*A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani)

*Mannaja (Sergio Martino)

*Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (Giulio Questi)

*Four of the Apocalypse (Lucio Fulci)

*The Grand Duel (Giancarlo Santi)

*Navajo Joe (Corbucci)

*Texas, Adios (Ferdinando Baldi)

*A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (Valerii)

*Face to Face (Sollima)

*Cemetery Without Crosses (Robert Hossein)

*Sabata (Gianfranco Parolini)

*My Name is Trinity (Enzo Barboni)

  • “Some of these get pretty bizarre, surreal, and brutal, but that seems to be part of the appeal.”

DjangoPoster

Some of the more successful of the spaghetti westerns gave rise to sequels, even multiple sequels, sometimes by parties other than the original director.  Among the series, the best known is Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name or Dollar Trilogy, which features no continuity of character or story but each film simply has Clint Eastwood as a different character with identical costuming.  Such spaghetti westerns series include:

The Man with No Name or Dollar Trilogy (Leone)

Django

Sabata

Ringo

Nobody/Trinity

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Django Unchained

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2013

Django Unchained—Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson and many others (2012; Dir:  Quentin Tarantino)

djangoPoster2djangoPosterButkus2

Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious homage to spaghetti westerns was nominated as part of the large field for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013; it won for Best Original Screenplay and Christoph Waltz won (again) as Best Supporting Actor.  It’s a long (at 164 minutes) and sometimes dizzying exercise in filmmaking.  Tarantino is overt about finding inspiration in 1966’s Django made by Sergio Corbucci—the theme from that movie plays over this one’s opening credits, and original Django star Franco Nero (among many others) has a cameo.  But the production values are much higher, and the traditional forms of Tarantino self-indulgence are on display.  He self-consciously dances the lines between cliché and homage and between political correctness and outrageous non-correctness in ways no one else does.  He plays with anachronism in language, attitudes and other elements in a very calculated way, and that’s part of the game here.

Set in 1858, the film starts in Texas, where Django (Jamie Foxx) is chained with other slaves purchased at the Greenville, Mississippi, slave markets.  The group is approached by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dapper and articulate dentist of German origin.  When the slavers refuse to sell Django and threaten him, Schultz shoots them both and reveals that he is also a bounty hunter with anti-slavery feelings.  He proceeds to treat Django well and even trains him in the skills of bounty hunting while he uses Django’s knowledge of three particular miscreants to hunt them down in Mississippi.  [There is a very funny sequence with a pre-KKK group in hoods.]  Django shows immediate aptitude for the profession and joins Dr. Schultz as a partner, with the understanding that they will attempt to find and recover Django’s wife from wherever she has been sold.

Django Unchained movie still Schultz and Django

[Spoilers] After a winter spent hunting in the mountains (around Jackson Hole, to judge from the scenery), they head for Mississippi, where they discover that Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington, in an apparent reference to 1970s blaxploitation films like Shaft) has been sold to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio).  They come up with an elaborate plan to pose as buyers of Mandingo fighting slaves and purchase Broomhilda on the side.  They are discovered and exposed by Candie’s virulent head of house slaves, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  As matters fall apart and give way to an extensive shoot-out, ultimately Candie and Dr. Schultz (and many others) are killed, and Django is taken prisoner and sold to a mining operator strangely run by Australians. 

DjangoDiCaprioJackson Candie and Stephen

He makes both his escape and a vengeful return to Candieland (Candyland?), armed conventionally and with dynamite from the miners.  He wins and rides away with Broomhilda.

Although the language, clothes and weapons are often anachronistic, the screenplay’s use of language is also mostly engaging, especially when spoken by Dr. Schultz and occasionally by villain DiCaprio.  The best performance is by Vienna-born Waltz, and the part was written with him in mind.  Reportedly Waltz only agreed to take the part on the understanding that the character of Dr. Schultz would have no negative characteristics—other than, say, his profession of killing people.  DiCaprio is excellent as a snaky slave owner and the primary villain, with very strong support from Samuel L. Jackson as head of the Candie house negroes with a strong stake in preserving the status quo.

DjangoNero Nero in one of the many cameos.

The film is absolutely stuffed with name actors in small parts:  Bruce Dern (recalling perhaps his role as the psychotic killer of John Wayne 40 years earlier in The Cowboys), Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Russ Tamblyn and his daughter Amber, Franco Nero (the original 1966 Django), Michael Parks, Dennis Christopher, James Remar (in two roles), Walton Goggins (particularly effective), James Russo (in a briefer and nastier version of his role in Broken Trail), Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Robert Carradine, makeup and effects wizard Tom Savini, and, of course, director Tarantino himself.  And the list of actors invited to participate who couldn’t (Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, to name just two former Wyatt Earps) is even more astounding.  King’s and Django’s horses are named Fritz and Tony—the names of the horses of silent western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

The name “Django” is said to be a Romany (Gypsy) term meaning “I awake.”  It is well-known among musicians and jazz enthusiasts for having been adopted by Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt (1910-1953), the famous Romany-Belgian-French jazz guitarist known professionally as Django Reinhardt.  It was also extensively used in a string of spaghetti westerns, the first (and best) of which starred Franco Nero.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Tarantino and the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone (who got his initial fame from his work on Sergio Leone’s 1960s westerns) have worked together on three previous movies, but with this one Morricone was finding Tarantino’s approach to film music more difficult.  After working on this film, Morricone reportedly said he would probably never again collaborate with Tarantino, since he didn’t like the way the writer/director “places music in his films without coherence,” “never giving enough time.”  Even Jim Croce shows up on the sound track, and it has perhaps the most tense version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on film.

The gunfights are of the sort often seen in spaghetti westerns, in which Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef could take on any number of armed opponents, kill them all and emerge unscathed.  That is, they are not very realistic.  But this is far from the worst violence Tarantino has shown in his films to date.

djangoJackson Jackson does malevolence well.

The film is set almost all in the south, but it is obviously a western.  Rated R for graphic violence (people are shot to pieces, with plumes of blood erupting from their bodies; slaves are whipped, branded, tortured and torn to pieces by dogs), brief nudity and liberal use of the n-word, the last of which is presumably historically accurate.  Otherwise, he doesn’t worry much about historical accuracy.  The names are colorful and occasionally outrageous (Calvin Candie, Billy Crash, Leonide Moguy [apparently an homage to 1930s-40s French director Leonide Moguy], Mr. Stonecipher, Butch Pooch, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Broomhilda von Schaft, and so on). 

Director Tarantino is clearly dazzled by genre film-making and its history.  This results in an unnecessary proliferation of characters, many references to other movies and movie-makers, multiple distractions from telling the movie’s story and ultimately a long movie.  It’s fun, though, and quite watchable.  In fact, you’re unlikely to catch all that’s going on here with just one viewing.

Written by director Tarantino, this was the first western to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, nearly 45 years earlier, and the first to win an Oscar for acting since Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, twenty years earlier. This film, along with the Coen brothers’ True Grit, repeated the pattern from the early 1990s where two westerns (Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven) were nominated for Best Picture within two years of each other.  In the early 1990s they both won, but not so in the 2010s.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Once Upon a Time in the West

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 24, 2013

Once Upon A Time In The West—Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Keenan Wynn (1968; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

OnceTimePoster2OnceTimePoster3

Leone takes his leisurely time getting into the movie.  The lengthy introductory sequence and credits aren’t done until almost half an hour into the film.  It’s interesting to watch as an exercise in filmmaking, and it’s very atmospheric, with little dialogue.

Some think that this spaghetti western may be Leone’s masterpiece and one of the ten greatest westerns ever.  Leone had a bigger budget to work with than with any of his Clint Eastwood trilogy.  Visually, it’s probably his best.  There’s a shot where Harmonica (Charles Bronson as an Eastwood-esque mysterious stranger) looks out a doorway at people building the new town of Sweetwater, and the scene is beautifully composed.  It has a very good cast, with the exception of Cardinale, whose voice is dubbed to get rid of her accent.  Frank (Henry Fonda, in a rare bad-guy role) is a killer-for-hire, now working for a ruthless crippled railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti).  He disposes of Brett McBain, owner of a ranch with water that could delay the railroad, not realizing that McBain’s new wife Jill (Cardinale), a New Orleans prostitute, is about to arrive and will have to be dealt with as well.  Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) are more or less good guys—Harmonica of mysterious origins and Cheyenne as a local bandit chieftain falsely blamed for the McBain killings.  Obviously all this will get sorted out, but it will take its time.

OnceTimeFonda

Henry Fonda as Frank the killer, in dark makeup to emphasize blue eyes.

Even if it’s very well done, this movie still has many of the weaknesses of its subgenre:  Less emphasis on storytelling, more on insistent reaching for emotional reactions through visual images and close-ups; over-the-top violence, although not nearly as bad as in The Wild Bunch, which was in production at the same time; lingering close-ups on faces (frequently from below) and eyes.  It’s a self-conscious epic, slow-moving and seemingly in love with the process of conceiving and making the movie rather than with the story it’s telling.  That deprives it of narrative thrust, but may make it more attractive to auteurs.  The dialogue is extremely sparse, even though the movie is 164 minutes long.  Henry Fonda’s eyes seem abnormally blue, because he’s wearing lots of dark facial makeup; so is Charles Bronson.  The gorgeous cinematography makes some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford.  Some of the movie was filmed in Spain.  A buggy ride taken by Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa starts in Spain and ends up in Monument Valley in the U.S.  The music is by Ennio Morricone, including some nice symphonic stretches but notable mostly for effective use of the harmonica, identified with Bronson’s character.  Bernardo Bertolucci (director of Last Tango in Paris in the early 1970s) was one of the writers, along with Dario Argento, who became a one-man Italian horror film industry. 

OnceTimeCardinale

The voices are a bit of a problem, too, for a big-budget film.  The Italian mode of filmmaking involved shooting film without recording any sound, leaving all sound and dialogue to be dubbed in later.  That means there’s usually some form of disconnect with the film, especially when, as with Claudia Cardinale, the sound you hear when she speaks isn’t her own voice.  In the lengthy opening sequence, with the creaking sound of the windmill and Jack Elam’s killer trying fitfully to get a fly off his face without using his hands, Elam has only a few words of dialogue, but it’s jarring that they’re not in his voice.  (His mismatched eyes and rough features have never been so lovingly captured on film, though.)  Bronson, Robards and Fonda, at least, are recognizable by their voices, but sometimes the modulation and ambient sound seem wrong.  That’s true with the harmonica theme, too, when Bronson’s supposed to be playing it and the acoustics are wrong. 

OnceTimeGettingDrop

Harmonica (Charles Bronson) gets the drop on Frank (Henry Fonda).

Leone and his collaborators reportedly immersed themselves in watching the great westerns before making this, and there are lots of references from these films.  Both Clint Eastwood and James Coburn are said to have turned down the role of Harmonica.  Robert Ryan was to have played the sheriff (actually played by Keenan Wynn), but had to back out when his role in The Wild Bunch got larger.  John Landis is a stunt double.  This was Leone’s last western, unless you count Duck, You Sucker, a story set during the Mexican revolution for which Leone served as producer and perhaps director.

Debate as you may whether this is one of the ten best, or even one of the 55 greatest westerns.  What cannot be debated is that to have any kind of informed opinion you have to see this and Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy.  They represent the very best of spaghetti westerns and a new approach that has influenced western movies ever since.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 23, 2013

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Sambrell (1966; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

good-bad-ugly-poster

There are different versions of this floating around.  The one I saw most recently said it was the “extended English language version,” about three hours long.  That leaves Sergio Leone to take half an hour introducing the three principal characters, which he does in reverse order:  the ugly (Wallach’s Tuco), the bad (Van Cleef’s Sentenza-Angel Eyes) and then the good (Eastwood’s Blondie).  In particular, the sequence introducing Tuco is very reminiscent of the early part of Once Upon a Time in the West, with anonymous gunmen waiting without dialogue on a dusty and wind-swept western street and the camera frequently cutting to 2/3-face closeups.  The production values are higher than the first two in Leone’s “Dollar” or “Man With No Name” trilogy, and he clearly has a larger budget and more time to spend with his directorial tropes and mannerisms.  As in other Leone films, the dubbing is sometimes a distraction to American viewers.  Aside from the three leads, the cast was almost entirely composed of non-English speakers.

After the introductions, it is clear that Tuco and Blondie are running a scam by which Blondie turns in Tuco for the reward on his head (either $2000 or $3000).  As Tuco is being hung on horseback, Blondie springs him by severing the rope with a well-placed bullet and making the authorities duck for cover.  They move on to another town and repeat the scam.  (There’s no suggestion about what would happen if the hanging were from a gallows, rather than from horseback.)  Tuco wants a larger share than half, and he and Blondie take turns betraying each other. 

goodbadWallachEast

Meanwhile, Angel Eyes is in pursuit of $200,000 in gold.  Tuco and Blondie get wind of the same pot of gold from a dying Confederate soldier who tells Tuco the general location and Blondie the specific spot, so they then need each other to find the gold.  Disguised as Confederates, Tuco and Blondie are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a prison camp, where the sadistic sergeant turns out to be Angel Eyes.  Ultimately the three end up at a cemetery where the loot is buried and have a three-way shootout, in which Angel Eyes is killed by Blondie and Tuco finds out he has no ammunition in his gun.

Good-Bad-Ugly-VanCleef

Not much time was spent trying to come up with a story that would hang together well; it’s all about atmosphere, mood and composition.  Theoretically it takes place in the west during the Civil War.  There are references to Glorieta, and that presumably means New Mexico, where the only Civil War battle in the west took place at Glorieta Pass.  It wasn’t as big a clash as depicted in this movie.  There are also troops using trains, and there were no trains in New Mexico until about a decade after the war.  Some say this is Leone’s masterpiece; others would claim that honor for Once Upon a Time in the West.  Still others would say that For a Few Dollars More is a better movie than either.  This is brilliantly directed and beautifully filmed but short on story and cohesiveness considering its length.

The Eastwood and Van Cleef characters look just the same as they did in For a Few Dollars More, but there’s really no continuity with them from movie to movie.  Each film stands alone.  At the end of the movie, Eastwood is wearing the same sheepskin vest and serape that he wore in the other two movies.  In terms of time, this should be the last, but it’s probably the earliest, taking place during the Civil War.  In particular, Van Cleef turned out to be a sort of a good guy in For a Few Dollars More; here, he’s the Bad, and he has little of the gentlemanly quality from the prior movie.  The two movies made him a star of sorts, though, and he had a lucrative career in spaghetti westerns at this late stage.

goodbadShootout

Three-Way Shootout.

The music by Ennio Morricone is brilliant, but during the movie it’s kind of intrusive and loud.  The theme is perhaps the most familiar of any of the music from the Leone-Morricone collaboration over the years.  The direction by Sergio Leone was influential, particularly for Eastwood.  Although it’s better done (and has better production values) than most spaghetti westerns, it still has the subgenre’s weaknesses:  the interminable tight close-ups where nothing seems to be happening except sweating, the long shots of desolate landscape and a very small rider or person, the taste for the over-the-top violent and the surreal, the wildly improbable marksmanship.  Eastwood’s character is seldom without a slender cigar in his teeth, but those teeth are very white for a constant smoker.  Between playing Tuco Ramirez in this movie and Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach made himself the quintessential cinematic Mexican bandit chieftain, but there’s a fair amount of the stereotype in his portrayal, too, emphasized by the frequent lingering close-ups and lots of braying laughter. 

There are lots of shots of drawn-out slow movement around almost abstract landscapes.  There is also a brilliantly edited shot where Tuco is about to shoot Eastwood. who has a noose around his neck; cut to cannon shooting, cut back to destroyed building where Tuco has fallen through a floor or two and the now empty noose where Eastwood was.  Filmed in Spain.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

For a Few Dollars More

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 22, 2013

For a Few Dollars More—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski (1965; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

fewdollarsPosterfewdollarsItalian2

The opening scene is characteristic Leone, although others have used variations (Budd Boetticher at medium distance in Ride Lonesome, for example).  A distant horseman rides toward the camera, while there are sounds indicating that the camera stands in for the eyes of a second person.  After the credits (innovative for 1965), the still-distant rider is blasted out of the saddle, and it is clear that he was shot by the person through whose eyes we watched him approach.

fewdollarsEastwood

The Man With No Name might not survive the early part of the movie.

This is the second in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, not really a trilogy except in a general way.  There’s no continuity of story or character from movie to movie.  Clint Eastwood looks the same as he did in the first, complete with the same serape (which was rumored never to have been washed through the filming of the three movies).  This is the movie that made a spaghetti western star of Lee Van Cleef, who’d been playing western bad guys at least since High Noon in 1952.  He looks meaningfully dangerous as Col. Douglas Mortimer in the steely-eyed closeups of which the Italian directors were so fond.  Although the Eastwood character is referred to generally by fans as the Man With No Name, he is called Monco (Manco?) once early in this film.  Gian Maria Volonte also re-appears in this second film, although his character was killed in the first.  He is again the villain, this time called El Indio, leader of a gang of outlaws.

fewdollarsVanCleefKinski

Col. Mortimer, unintimidated by hunchbacked gunfighters.

Monco and Col. Douglas Mortimer are bounty hunters, here called “bounty killers.”  We see the prowess of each separately at the start, and then they both start hunting El Indio—Monco for the reward and Mortimer ostensibly for the same reason.  Actually, Mortimer has a more personal motive for hunting El Indio.  When they first meet, they have an impromptu hat-shooting contest, although neither hat thereafter shows the effects of having been shot multiple times.  The two join forces, but we’re never quite sure if they’re really working with or against each other.  Monco gets the gang to accept him so he can see their plans and perhaps influence them.  Eventually the two bounty hunters are found out and are badly beaten.  El Indio is pulling a double-cross on his own men, with the two outsiders in the middle of it.  They both survive the lengthy concluding shootout, and it is revealed that El Indio once killed Mortimer’s young sister and her husband.  Mortimer leaves the entire reward for Monco, and they part ways amicably.

fewdollarsVolonte Volonte as El Indio

Leone grows visibly as a filmmaker from one movie to the next, or maybe he just has progressively larger budgets to work with in each of his four westerns.  In any event, the production values get better with each movie he makes.  As always, Leone is more interested in mood and myth than in storytelling.  There’s an absurdly high body count in this film, and it moves slowly, with lots of time for closeups on eyes, moody sizing-up of each other by various participants, and low camera angles.  It’s long for a mid-1960s western at about two hours and fifteen minutes, and much of it feels slowly-paced.  Sometimes it seems as though Leone deliberately withholds details of the story so he can surprise the viewer later.  It’s not entirely honest. 

As Leone sets up the final shootout between Mortimer and El Indio within a wide circle, you can almost see that he’s dying to play with a three-way shootout in the same kind of setup; he actually does this in his next movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  As with the first (and third) in the trilogy, this film has an excellent score by Ennio Morricone.  Unlike the first and third in the trilogy, the music does not sound as disproportionately loud.  This is probably the least seen of the trilogy, but it’s still remarkably good—maybe Leone’s best western.  It’s not really a sequel to the first; all three movies are independent stories without repeating characters, although several actors play similar roles in identical garb.

forafewdollarsShootout Final shootout.

Look for Klaus Kinski as Wild, the hunchbacked gunfighter killed by Mortimer.  He made more than one spaghetti western at this stage of his career.  This was filmed in 1965 in Spain but not released in the U.S. until 1967. 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

A Fistful of Dollars

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 21, 2013

A Fistful of Dollars—Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte, Marianne Koch (1964; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

Fistful_of_Dollars_posterfistfulPoster

In the opening scene, an American drifter wearing a serape (Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, although he’s called Joe by the undertaker) rides a mule into the Mexican town of San Miguel, not far from the U.S. border with Mexico.  He witnesses an incident where a small boy is chased away from Marisol (Marianne Koch), his mother. 

The owner of the local saloon explains that the town is dominated by two gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos.  The American thinks he can make some money for himself by playing the two clans against each other, and he’s right initially.  The most formidable of any of them appears to be Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte), who uses a rifle exclusively and says, “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a Winchester, the man with the pistol is a dead man.”  Marisol is Ramon’s “hostage.”  The Rojos are running scams on every side, killing contingents of Mexican and American soldiers and making it appear that they killed each other. 

fistfulofdollars2

Clint Eastwood with Marisol (Marianne Koch).

As matters develop, the American helps Marisol escape with her son and husband, enraging Ramon.  The Rojos beat him to a pulp, and he escapes their compound although he can barely move.  As he lies low, he sees the Rojos gun down the Baxters, including the Baxter matriarch.  He recovers while he lies in a local mine, only to find that the Rojos have taken and are torturing his friend the saloon keeper Silvanito. 

fistful-of-dollars-1

Talking things over with the fatalistic bartender Silvanito.

The American puts on his gun and poncho, and appears before the Rojos out of the cloud of an explosion.  Ramon empties his rifle into the American, who keeps getting back up and coming ahead.  Finally, he reveals that he’s wearing a heavy metal plate under his poncho, deflecting all Ramon’s shots.  He takes out all the Rojo men except Ramon, and puts Ramon’s dictum to the test.  They both reload, and the American wins.

This was filmed in 1964 in Spain, but not released in the U.S. until 1967.  Although it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), it was made without Kurosawa’s permission, and Kurosawa sued Leone.  He later said he made more money from the lawsuit than he did from Yojimbo.  This was the film where American audiences were first exposed to (a) Clint Eastwood as a movie star, (b) a western with music by Ennio Morricone, and (c) spaghetti westerns in general and Sergio Leone in specific.  All those have worked out well.   Leone uses the full width of the panoramic screen, capturing Eastwood facing off against four and five gunmen all in one shot.  Leone and Morricone had known each other since the third grade, but this was the first time they worked together.  The music seems a little loud, perhaps because it’s usually just one whistle or flute at high-ish volume.  Note the four-note descending theme whenever the American makes an appearance or comes to a realization.  It was made with a low budget, and it features many of the hallmarks of Leone’s later work.  It became a cult classic, to be remade again by Walter Hill with Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing (1996).  Even though it was made with a characteristically low budget, it looks much better than most spaghetti westerns—evidence of Leone’s expertise from the start.

fistfulofdollars3

Ennio Morricone’s music here is unpleasantly jangly.  Leone wanted a Rio Bravo-type Deguello on the trumpet and Morricone came up with some Mexican-inflected trumpet music, along with his signature whistling, simple wooden flute and chanting.  The soundtracks of these three films were cheaply done and tended to avoid orchestral arrangements of original scores because of the cost that would be involved.

These three Leone films (the Dollar or Man With No Name Trilogy) made Clint Eastwood an international star.  Prior to his work in these films, he was known principally for his work as Rowdy Yates in the television western Rawhide.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone