Following in the footsteps of Cinebeats, Giallo Fever and Moon in the Gutter, I've decided to post a list of my ten favorite Italian westerns. Two things I need to make clear though. First, I still have a lot of spaghetti westerns yet to see, several of which I have here at home waiting to be watched. Second, this list, like most that I make, is extremely malleable, and if you asked me next week to make this list, it would likely be different.
That said, here's my Top Ten list:
1. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY—The Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone pictures are the only Italian westerns I’ve seen on the big screen, which is the best way to experience this epic set during the Civil War. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE were warm-ups for this amazing film, in which not only are the director and the star at the top of their games, but also composer Ennio Morricone, who contributed the most iconic score of his career. It’s probably my favorite western, and the final half-hour or so (everything after Eli Wallach’s “Ecstasy of Gold” rush) is nigh perfect.
2. DJANGO—Franco Nero became an international superstar as a result of this witty and very bloody spaghetti western. Banned in Britain for two decades and only shown cut in the U.S. until Anchor Bay’s first DVD release, DJANGO features quite a few exciting action sequences and shootouts, with some of the gorier moments--a man having his ear sliced off and fed to him, for example--being surprisingly graphic for the time. It's hard to judge Nero's performance, since he was dubbed by an English-speaking actor, but his steely eyes, tight lips and physical charm make him right for the part. Dressed from head to toe in black, Nero cuts an imposing figure in Corbucci's widescreen compositions. The enormous success of DJANGO led to a large number of Italian westerns featuring the word Django in the title; however, only 1987's DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN, in which Nero reprised the role, is recognized as an official sequel.
3. BLINDMAN--One of the stranger "spaghetti westerns" I've seen is a swipe of the long-running series of Japanese films about the blind swordsman Zatoichi. It’s an Italian-made, American-financed western filmed in Spain that stars U.S. actor Tony Anthony as a blind gunfighter and British rock star Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandito. As directed by Ferdinando Baldi, BLINDMAN features several doublecrosses, a ton of beatings and explosions, plenty of gunfire, and a heapin' helping of brutality and misogyny. Anthony, also a co-producer and co-writer, seems to be going for a comic vibe, but with the mass slaughter and gangraping, it's hard to see what's so funny. Even the hero gets into the act, stripping Domingo's sister naked and tying her to a stake in the desert. Most of the women appear naked, and a mass shower scene looks like something from a women-in-prison flick. That said, I liked the film. It certainly isn't dull, tackling the violence and masochism with a lot of energy.
4. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST--One of the western genre's all-time greats is as much art film as action entertainment. Clocking in at 165 minutes (with only fifteen pages of dialogue), Sergio Leone's vision lies in his panoramic vistas (filmed in Spain and Utah's Monument Valley), Ennio Morricone's classic score (which contains themes for all four main characters) and the iconic performances by the cast, which includes Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and, most memorably, Henry Fonda as the meanest villain you can imagine. WEST definitely moves at its own pace, but nearly every shot is lit and framed like a painting, ensuring that there's always something fascinating to look at, whether it's the natural phenomena of Leone's desert (painstakingly lensed by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli) or Bronson's craggy visage in close-up. Leone also uses sound as well as any western ever has, cutting Morricone's score, which was recorded before principal photography began, to the rhythm of each scene. Another western this good didn't come along until Eastwood's 1992 Oscar winner UNFORGIVEN, which was dedicated to Leone.
5. DEATH RIDES A HORSE--Contains just about every genre cliché you can imagine, from the young hothead (John Philip Law) teaming up with the experienced gunfighter (Lee Van Cleef)to the familiar theme of revenge to slight smattering of black humor and male camaraderie to the weird score by il maestro, Ennio Morricone. Law does most of his acting with his striking blue eyes--I don't think he even dubbed his own voice--but Van Cleef is very good indeed, stealing all of his scenes and often without much dialogue.
6. THE GRAND SILENCE—Director Sergio Corbucci's downbeat film takes place in snowy Utah for an effectively bleak atmosphere. A small town is plagued by ruthless bounty hunters, who gun down petty criminals for the cash on their heads. The deadliest is Loco (Klaus Kinski), who kills so many people that he can't carry them all back to collect his reward, so he buries them in the snow until he can come back for them. One of his victims is the husband of Pauline (Vonetta McGee), who hires a mute gunslinger named Silence (French heartthrob Jean-Louis Trintignant) to enact her revenge, not knowing that Silence has his own reasons for wanting Loco dead. Hauntingly scored by the great Morricone and effectively acted, photographed and directed, THE GRAND SILENCE is one of the genre's landmarks, offering up an unusual setting and a dramatic climax likely to leave you shaken.
7. THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER--Originally released in Europe in 1974, it's an Italian/Hong Kong co-production, a rare combination of the western and martial arts genres. Probably influenced by the David Carradine TV series KUNG FU, THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER is an entertaining kung fu western that teams Lee Van Cleef and Chinese actor Lo Lieh as partners following a treasure map tattooed on the asses of four beautiful women scattered around the West. Director Antonio Margheriti demonstrates a sense of humor that allows the normally stern Van Cleef to show off a lighter touch than usual (Lee even sings in the picture). Lo Lieh pretty much steals the film anyway with several rousing kung fu scenes underscored by Carlo Savina's rock-oriented music that differs from the standard spaghetti western soundtrack.
8. SABATA—Lee Van Cleef stars in a frenetic comic adventure as an expert gunfighter who nabs the thieves who pulled off a nicely choreographed gold robbery in the town of Daugherty. This draws, not praise, but barely disguised scorn from the town leaders, since they were the ones who organized the heist. Sabata learns this and blackmails them, including Stengel (Franco Ressel), a fey sadist with a penchant for gimmickry who sends a succession of assassins to (unsuccessfully) silence Sabata. It sounds like a standard western plot so far, except that the characters would seem more at home in a James Bond film than a western. The well-armed Sabata’s arsenal includes a trick pistol that shoots from the handle, and he teams up with Banjo (William Berger), a musical conman with a rifle concealed in his instrument; Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez), a fat comic-relief sidekick; and Indio (Nick Jordan), a mute Indian acrobat who bounces off trampolines seemingly concealed all over the desert. Sabata is a crack shot, of course, but also has a talent for flipping coins with deadly accuracy, which comes in handy when he’s been disarmed. SABATA is good-natured, well-photographed fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously, an attribute that also applies to Van Cleef, who looks like he’s having a ball.
9. THE FIVE MAN ARMY--If you’ve ever wondered what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE would look like as an Italian western, here you go. Peter Graves’ casting as The Dutchman, who plans an elaborate, split-second scheme to rob a train using four specialists, couldn’t have been coincidental. During the Mexican Revolution, The Dutchman recruits explosives expert Augustus (James Daly, then starring on MEDICAL CENTER), burly Mesito (Bud Spencer), master swordsman Samurai (Tetsuro Tamba) and cocky young Luis (Nino Castelnuovo) to steal $500,000 in gold from a moving train guarded by Army soldiers and monitored at regular intervals along the track. Action fans will get their fill, and the major setpiece--the train robbery--is handled extremely well with plenty of suspense.
10. GO KILL AND COME BACK aka ANY GUN CAN PLAY--After a spoofy prologue in which obvious replicas of The Man With No Name, Angel Eyes and Django are gunned down in the street by a handsome Stranger (George Hilton), the bounty hunter sets his sights on infamous Mexican bandit Monetero (Gilbert Roland). Monetero masterminds the robbery of $300,000 in gold from a train also carrying bank manager Clayton (Edd Byrnes), who's in charge of making sure the gold reaches its destination safely. The search for the hidden stolen gold becomes a three-way one when one of Monetero's hirelings hijacks the money for himself and hides it before being killed. From there on in, the Stranger, Clayton and Monetero engage in several doublecrosses, triplecrosses, reluctant teamings and shootouts on the path to the hidden bounty. GO KILL AND COME BACK is a very entertaining western filled with good humor and director Enzo Castellari's trademark action scenes.