Saturday, April 23, 2011

Top ten Spaghetti Westerns.

I've been meaning to do this post for a long time.
So, you've seen Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy (Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) maybe you've even managed to sit through Leone's epic, Once Upon a Time in the West. Now you're wondering, WHAT'S NEXT? This list is for you.
This is my list, take it with a huge grain (baseball sized) of salt. I don't think any spaghetti western fan will agree with my choices and that's fine.
At the last minute I added a film. NOW it is......

Ammazzali tutti e torna solo (Italy, Spain 1968 / Director: Enzo G. Castellari)
I think of this as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of the old west. It's one of the rare "team" spaghetti westerns. Chuck Conors leads a group of specialists. An acrobat, a demolitions expert, a strongman, knife expert, etc. They are hired by a confederate general to sneak into a union held mine and steal a million dollars in coins that is hidden there. There are double crosses (just look at the title) and more double crosses. Some claustrophobic-ally wonderful underwater scenes. Light torture. High adventure. A fun film. And it has Frank Wolff which is always a plus in my book.
Here's the German trailer

All'ombra di una colt (Italy, Spain 1965 / Director: Giovanni Grimaldi)
An early SW. Plays like a traditional American western but with the kick assery of a SW. Duke and Steve are two gun fighters. Steve wants to marry Duke's daughter but Duke will MURDER Steve if he does. I know it's crazy but it plays out really well. If you've got an old curmudgeon who hates SW's, play this and don't tell them it's from Italy, hee hee. Alex Cox recommended this film to me and I'm recommending it to you. Stop screwing around and find it.
Here's the Italian trailer

Black Jack (Italy 1968 / Director: Gianfranco Baldanello)
Another Alex Cox recommendation. Black Jack is brutal and, at parts, insane. Black Jack is a respected community member who lives a double life as the leader of a bank robbing gang. When the gang wants a higher percentage of the loot, Black Jack takes it all and retreats to an abandoned town hideout he shares with his sister and brother-in-law. The gang catches up with him when his Native American "friend" rats on him. The gang rapes and scalps his sister and they cripple Black Jack.
This film is BLEAK and the organ music doesn't help liven the mood. The film does move along though, it is not a slow picture.
So, Black Jack enacts his revenge in horrible-like fashion on his old partners. In the end Black Jack is worse than anyone he has murdered and he knows it.
Such a great film. Robert Woods plays Black Jack and I think it is his best role by far.
I can't find a trailer and this film can be pretty tough to find.

8. JOHNNY HAMLET (AKA That Dirty Story of the West)
Quella sporca storia nel west (Italy 1968 / Director: Enzo G. Castellari)
YES, this film is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Johnny returns from the Civil War to find that his father is dead and his mother has married his uncle. You know the story.
Andrea Giordana is fine as Johnny Hamilton, manic, suspicious, fake tanned, on the edge.
He has one friend left, Horace. Gilbert Roland, the only actual Mexican actor in SW's, is fantastic in the role. He's one of my favorites. Old yet cool, suave yet ready for a fist fight at any time.
The story is tense like a horror film. We know the character shouldn't go skinny dipping alone at midnight in the lake where a gaggle of other teens have been butchered. We know the story here. When will Johnny figure it out?
Don't watch the 80-minute version. You will be confused, cold, and lost. The film is 95-minutes, find this version or bust.
This Italian trailer starts off pretty bad, but kicks in after a bit.

 Faccia a faccia (Italy, Spain 1967 / Director: Sergio Sollima)
Dont' you just want to hang out with Gian Maria Volonte and maybe just conduct some cuddling with him? He's so cool. He's a professor heading out to the west for his health. He meets some bandit revolutionaries and soon finds himself as the leader of the gang. Tomas Milian starts as the leader of the gang and soon softens to the plight of his people as Volonte ascends up the ranks. Great story, great concept. Sounds a bit far fetched with the characters essentially trading places, but it works.
Camerawork is beautiful. The best of the socio-politcal SW's. This is one of the SW standards. I don't feel that I need to defend it so much.
This trailer must have been edited by the same person who made the Johnny Hamlet trailer. It's a horrible representation of the film.

Da uomo a uomo (Italy 1967 / Director: Giulio Petroni)
Spaghetti western god, Lee Van Cleef, is double crossed by his band of outlaws and he is forced to spend 15 years in prison. The same night he is double crossed, his gang murders a young boy's family. In the fifteen years, the boy trains relentlessly to be a gunfighter.
Van Cleef gets out of prison and meets the boy (now a man) and they form a delicate partnership based on revenge.
Death Rides a Horse is a tense film. The plot gets a bit confusing, but hold on. Morricone's score will tumble you along to a satisfying ending that would be copied again and again in motion pictures. The film has a lot in common with another SW great, Day of Anger, but I much prefer Death Rides a Horse.
This is a western for your dad (well, for my dad.) No politics, no comedy, just a straight cowboy movie.
One more note, there are a lot of crappy versions of this film. Don't go and buy a $2.99 version and expect to be happy.
"When you've waited fifteen years to find a man. It's a shame you can only kill him once." Great trailer below.

 Une corde, un colt (France, Italy 1969 / Director: Robert Hossein)
French actor, Robert Hossein directed this film. With a screenplay co-written by Dario Argento and help with directing from Sergio Leone (who actually directed the dinner scene; you can't miss it.) this film is hard to beat.
Maria's husband is killed by the Rogers family. She rides out to an abandoned town to find Manuel, an old gunfighter friend (played by director, Hossein) and ask him to revenge her husband's death. He does so.
The film is quiet and beautiful. Manuel hardly says a word and is goofy looking. Seriously, it took me a while to get used to this goofy looking guy trying to act tough, but I managed to escape into the story and imagine the character as goofy looking and REALLY tough.
Maria is so jaw droppingly beautiful, it hurts. "They killed Ben."
It's a lonely film. Everyone, even the Rogers family members, are alone. It can be a bit slow, but that is perfect. When Manuel puts on his glove, look out, someone will die.
Italian trailer below.

Django (Italy, Spain 1966 / Director: Sergio Corbucci)
One of the true classics of the genre. Franco Nero is Django, the ex-union soldier, dragging a coffin behind him, forever alone.
Django comes to a town in the midst of a messy race war. Django murders his way to clarity. There is a vague personal vendetta he harbors. He takes care of that business as well, through acts of murder. It's a simple western. It's a textbook perfect western. Django spawned over thirty "unofficial" sequels.
Franco Nero is cocky but able to back it up. I feel like the more I say, the more I tarnish this film. Just go see it.
It's also one of the few SW's released on blu-ray. I watched it with Matt and you could see Franco Nero's pores and the sheer beauty that is Ringo (one of my favorite SW regulars, José Terrón, plays Ringo)
Great Django trailer below.

Il grande silenzio (Italy, France 1968 / Director: Sergio Corbucci)
One of the SW heavies. Bleak, cruel and full of depressing irony. Leone had his dry, dusty towns. Django had it's mud soaked city. The Great Silence is buried in blankets of white snow. This isn't a light fluffy snow either, it's ten wool blankets on a three year old, heavy and suffocating. It traps the characters.
A group of bounty hunters, led by Klaus Kinski, kill a man. The man's wife asks Silence, a mute (his throat was slit as a child by bounty hunters after his Pa) gunfighter with a sweet Mauser pistol, to avenge her husband's death by killing the bounty hunters. He goes for it!
There is a wonderful sub-plot with a group of Mormons. They were kicked out of the town, and have taken to hijacking travelers in the forest, just to get something to eat.
Frank Wolff plays a useless sheriff, sick of all the killing.
The Great Silence has one of the best endings in cinema history.
A clean print of this film is available on DVD and if you haven't heard about it, don't read up on it. Just watch it! It's available at Netflix, put it in your quueueueueu right now.
English trailer below.

 E Dio disse a Caino... (Italy, West Germany 1969 / Director: Antonio Margheriti)
I know, I know, you SW purists are shaking your heads at this one. It's a guilty pleasure for me. I will admit that it is not a classic SW but I could watch this film over and over.
The story has Gary Hamilton (Klaus Kinski) get out of prison for a crime he was framed for. The man who framed him, Acombar, is now living in his house, with his ex. Hamilton rides into town just as a storm is brewing. He kills Acombar's army and eventually gets to the villain himself. It's a simple story.
Some call this a "gothic spaghetti western." I do not disagree. The entire film takes place over one day and one night. The day scenes are bright and sweaty. The night scenes are stark and noirish. The camera is constantly dollying, giving the film a frenetic feeling. Hamilton is also constantly on the move. He grew up in the town and seems to be the only one (except for one Native American that Hamilton kills) that knows about the old Indian tunnels beneath the town. This gives him boogeyman or Batman like control over Acombar's army. He's free to kill a few mercenaries and disappear into the darkness. Very cool.
Klaus Kinski is at his most subdued and controlled in the role. The energy in the film comes from his actions and not from Kinski himself, which is rare. This is Kinski's genius. He knows when the character needs to be cool. Gary Hamilton also looks like a sort of superhero in that the entire story takes place in about 24 hours so he is only wearing one outfit. A red, long sleeved shirt with a peacoat and wide brimmed hat. He also primarily uses a rifle instead of a pistol. Hamilton is not a gunfighter. He is a man out for revenge.
Now, the real issue is which version of the film should you view? The French release is high quality and has the correct aspect ratio. Unfortunately, there is no English audio track.
Franco Cleef (the premiere spaghetti western reconstructionist, cleaning up unreleased SW's and releasing them on DVD) has an English version which has the sides of the film cut off. However, the Franco Cleef version has an additional 1.5 minutes that the French version does not. This is not throw away footage either. The scene is the full explanation for Hamilton's revenge plot. Important stuff. The Franco Cleef version also looks warmer and less contrasty than the French version.
Now, a company called CultCine has taken the Franco Cleef English track and married it to the French version. They cut out the minute and a half.
I have all three and am such a nerd, I made my own ultimate version combining the best of all three. But, if I were you, I would track down the Franco Cleef version.
One other funny note is that the same script had actually been used for a film called A Stranger in Paso Bravo. That version sucks.
Here's the German trailer.

 La Resa dei conti (Italy, Spain 1966 / Director: Sergio Sollima)
Mix a dash of politcs, a tiny tiny smidgen of ironic comedy (very tiny), a teaspoon of race relation issues, a pinch of religious issues, a gallon of straight cowboy and you get the utter brilliance of The Big Gundown. This film rivals the best of Leone. It is the masterpiece all SW fans know about and few other students of film have heard of. There is no official release.
Lee van Cleef is Corbett, a kick ass bounty hunter. He is sent after Cuchillo, a Mexican peasant, for the rape and murder of a young girl. The chase takes them through Texas and into Mexico. That's it. The story is seemingly that simple.
Corbett is a pretty straight ahead character. With eyes like a vulture, he sees everything. He is a tough guy, but is also clever, suspicious and thoughtful.
Tomas Milian plays Cuchillo. I believe this is Milian at his very best. He is placating, simple-minded, wimpy as a mouse, basically, a poor common Mexican peasant, on the outside. He plays to the racist expectations of him. But inside and within his comfort zone, he is dashing, sly, clever, and resourceful. My wife is from Mexico and she says that she misses this type of personality. Crooks and slimeballs are like this in the U.S., but in Mexico, the clever fox is the hero. Cuchillo is the clever fox.
Corbett gets involved with a railroad baron who promises him a great political career. This sub-plot unfolds slowly and before you know it, has taken over as the main storyline of the film.
Ennio Morricone hits another one out of the park with an excellent score. If you are feeling down, just listen to the opening theme:
"Run to the end of the world 'til you find a place
where they never never never
No never no they'll never lock you in.
Never, no never, no never let them win."
I don't like to write spoilers, but I have to here. It's the first scene so don't worry too much.
A group of outlaws arrive at a campsite. They are there to meet a man they've never met.
They have just outrun Corbett, the well known bounty hunter, and are fairly proud of that.
They approach the stranger tending to the camp fire.
As he reveals that he is not the man they are supposed to meet, the body of a corpse, strung up to a tree is seen in the background. Who is the man at the fire, then?
He is Corbett
and they are FUCKED.
Director, Sergio Sollima fills the movie with clever little catches like this that will have you nodding in excitement. There is a fabulous scene where Cuchillo, the child rapist, has befriended a group of traveling Mormons. When Corbett arrives, the old Mormon gentleman says, why yes, he knows Cuchillo, he is down at the river with a little girl. This scene alone is a roller coaster ride of "oh shit!" moments.
Sollima also directed a follow up to The Big Gundown called, Run Man Run. Milian is back as Cuchillo but Lee van Cleef is out. The story is a bit more political, but Run Man Run is also an excellent SW.
Franco Cleef made his reputation, reconstructing this film. My understanding is that he used six different sources. His version is superb. Look on eBay for it. I have read posts and rumors that there are other, cleaner versions, but I haven't seen them. I'm happy with the Franco Cleef version. One thing to note, is that small parts of the film were never dubbed in English, so those parts have subtitles.
Make this a life goal for you. Track down this film.
Here's the trailer.

I swiped the pics for this post from the most excellent, amazing, and downright wonderful Spaghetti Western Database. If you watch these films and find that, yes, you are indeed a spaghetti western fan, here are the films that almost made my list: A Bullet for the General, The Ruthless Four, Sabata, The Mercenary, and Companeros. These are all fine films as well.
Also, a shout out to Alex Cox. If you want to learn more about spaghetti western films, pick up Alex's most excellent book, 10,000 Ways to Die. It may change your life.

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