Saturday, October 18, 2008


‘Spaghetti western’ is a synonym for over 800 movies that appeared from the early 1960s to the late 1970s as a sub-genre within the American western film genre. The nickname is derogatory since it became an easy way to distinguish these oaters from the American variety. In truth, Spaghetti westerns were Continental westerns because more than just Italians made them. Usually, ‘Spaghetti westerns’ were cowboy movies produced by Italians, Spanish, and Germans. Occasionally, westerns from the Soviet bloc countries appeared, and “Lemonade Joe” from the Czech Republic came out in 1964. This western was basically a parody of the singing cowboy cycle of westerns produced before and during World War II in the United States. The Andalusia region of Spain, specifically the Tabernas Desert of Almería, served as the primary setting for these dusty sagebrushers, usually with fading American stars in the lead roles and Europeans fleshing out the other roles. Interestingly enough, the first film shot in Spain as a western that wasn’t Italian. Instead, the British production company Hammer Films—known best for their “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” movies—co-produced “The Savage Gun” (1960) with the Spanish and it is considered the first ‘Spaghetti western.’ Michael Carreras directed this shoot’em up with American stars Richard Basehart and Alex Nicol in the starring roles.

Afterward, the Spanish made several “Zorro” westerns and the Germans—adapting the novels of the Teutonic western novelist Karl May's Winnetou series—released several oaters with either British star Stewart Granger or America actor Lex Barker of “Tarzan” fame as the leads. The Winnetou westerns resembled pre-World War II westerns because they dealt with the relationships between whites and Native Americans on the frontier. Again, incredible as it may seem, the Europeans had been making westerns since the silent film days, and the Germans made westerns in the 1930s that looked like the American westerns with Gene Autry, except the plots were more adult and the dialogue was blue with profanity. A number of westerns that were chiefly imitations of American westerns were made between 1962 and 1963. Peplum director Sergio Leone changed everything with his low-budget western “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964 starring an obscure American TV actor named Clint Eastwood and most westerns after “A Fistful of Dollars” were about the least sentimental character in the western genre—the bounty hunter—who roamed the west killing criminals with a price on their head. The Europeans were crazy about these westerns. Leone followed up his success with “For a Few Dollars More” (1966) with veteran Hollywood villain Lee Van Cleef joining Clint Eastwood in a duel of the bounty hunters plot. Lee Van Cleef’s popularity soon surpassed Clint Eastwood in Europe and Van Cleef made a string of successful westerns about a mysterious gambler/gunman named “Sabata.” Eventually, by the 1970s, the Italians stopped making serious shoot’em ups and turned to parodies, such as director Enzo Barboni’s “They Call Me Trinity” and “Trinity Is Still My Name.” Ironically, Enzo Barboni prompted Sergio Leone to watch the Japanese film “Yojimbo” about a wandering samurai warrior that inspired Leone to remake “Yojimbo” as “Fistful of Dollars.” Not to be outdone by the success of the “Trinity” movies that made obscure Venetian actor Mario Girotti into a superstar in Europe and especially in the southern United States, Leone produced “My Name is Nobody” with Mario Girotti who took the stage name of Terence Hill.

Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West," a.k.a. "C'era una volta il West" (**** out of ****) qualifies as one of the all-time great westerns. Indeed, hands down, it ranks as the greatest Spaghetti western. This tale about railroad expansion in the old West holds its own against the best domestic westerns of prestigious American directors John Ford, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, and Henry Hathaway. Essentially, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is about the death of the west because of the coming of the railroad. The cast is first-rate with iconic western star Henry Fonda playing-against-type as a cold-blooded killer while gimlet-eyed heavy Charles Bronson wears the boots of the hero for a change. In between, Jason Robards is splendid as a bearded gunslinger named Cheyenne who has his own gang of killers, and Claudia Cardinale as the up-rooted New Orleans prostitute who comes west as a mail-order mail bride for Frank Wolff, usually a villain in Italian westerns. Although it clocks in at a mammoth 165 minutes, "C'era una volta il West" never wastes a minute in telling its vast story, complete with flashbacks. Sergio Leone surpasses anything that he did in any of his Clint Eastwood westerns. The complex screenplay by horror director Dario "Suspira" Argento, Bernard "Last Tango in Paris" Bertolucci, Sergio "The Big Gundown" Donati, and Sergio Leone contains several epic set-pieces that will never be equaled by anybody. Moreover, it features a sprawling plot. Ennio Morricone's orchestral score, which was finished before the first foot of film was shot, is a legendary in its own right with some unforgettable melodies.

The day that Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale of "The Professionals") comes west from New Orleans to join Brett McBain (Frank Wolff of "God Forgives, But I Don't") at his house in the middle of nowhere, she arrives to find tragedy awaiting her. Ironically, the McBain house is located on a site called “Sweetwater,” but the water is anything but sweet when Jill shows up for a spectacle of horror. Brett, his two sons, and his only daughter are laid out on the very tables that Jill was to share a picnic welcoming her to their home. As it turns out, Frank (Henry Fonda of "Fort Apache") and his duster-clad henchmen show up ahead of Jill and massacre the entire McBain family. One of Frank's henchmen accidentally calls Frank by his name just as McBain's youngest son comes running out of the house. "Now that you've called me by name," Frank observes, pulls out his six-shooter, revolver and does something that never happens in westerns. He guns down the kid! Nobody but Sergio Leone would have had the balls to pull this off with one of America's greatest heroes masquerading as the epitome of evil. Moreover, the death of the child provides a transition to the arrival of the train with the whistle serving as the edit point.

Charles Bronson plays an enigmatic gunslinger called ‘Harmonica’ who keeps his six-gun tucked snugly in his waistband near the base of spine. He plays a harmonica like you have never heard a harmonica played. Whenever Harmonica (Bronson of "Red Sun") utters a word, it sounds like a classic line. In fact, there isn't a bad line of dialogue in the entire movie. Harmonica meets Cheyenne at the same time that Jill encounters him at a remote stagecoach station in the middle of John Ford's Monument Valley. Jill is on her way to meet the McBain's when the driver pulls up for a drink. Inside, Jill asks about a bath and the proprietor (Lionel Stander of "Beyond the Law") tells her that only three people have used it today. Altogether, she inquires contemptuously, or one at a time. About that time, Cheyenne (Jason Robards of "Hour of the Gun") makes the grandest entrance of everybody. A fusillade of gunplay sounds before he stumbles into the way station, gulps at a jug, and then has a man shoot off his shackles while he holds a gun on him. It seems that Cheyenne was being escorted to Yuma Prison but he got the drop on his captors and shot his way out. Harmonica takes a special interest in Cheyenne’s men and observes that he was met recently at the Cattle Corners railway depot by three men in dusters. Dusters were long leather coats that westerners wore that usually draped to their ankles. He adds that inside the men wearing the dusters were bullets. Cheyenne refuses to believe Harmonica because nobody has the ‘guts’ to wear dusters because everybody knows that only Cheyenne’s men wear them. Eventually, it comes out that Frank has tried to pin the death of Harmonica on Cheyenne.

Sergio Leone pours more style and substance in these 165 minutes than you can stand. There isn't a single thread of the plot that is left dangling (unless you watch a cut version of it on AMC) and everything fits together like a puzzle. "C'era una volta il West" was the first Spaghetti western to be filmed partially on location in the United States. The film is an indictment of big business, meaning the railroads, and railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") serves as a visual metaphor for the corruption in the railroads with his bone cancer that forces him to walk with crutches or an overhead grid of poles that he can lower to enable him to walk around his railroad coach. Morton dreams of reaching the West coast with his railway. Frank acts as Morton's right-hand man and both men understand each other all too well. Without one the other could not exist.

Repeatedly, Leone serves up a flashback that has a younger but just as villainous Frank munching on an apple and sauntering through the desert with a sadistic grin on his face. Frank's idea of a good time is to hang the brother of one man by forcing him to stand on his little brother's shoulders. The older brother hangs only after the younger one has collapsed from the exhaustion of holding brother up. Before Frank leaves Harmonica with his older brother standing on his shoulders to his fate, the blue-eyed gunslinger tells Harmonica, “Keep your loving brother happy.” At that point, Frank wedges a harmonica between Harmonica’s teeth. It is only a matter of time before Harmonica can no longer hold up his brother and as Harmonica collapses under the weight of his brother, he blows a sour note through the harmonica that becomes a recurrent musical motif throughout the film. Harmonica grows up and embarks on revenge to kill Frank. One of the common characteristics that most ‘Spaghetti westerns’ share is the theme of revenge.

"C'era una volta il West" contains some of the coolest shoot-outs ever staged on-screen. “Spaghetti westerns’ made a ritual out of duels. The opening shoot-out at the isolated water stop—Cattle Corners--along a railroad in the desert is classic with three gunslingers waiting for the train to arrive. Jack Elam catches a fly in his gun barrel and listens to it buzz as a way to soothe his soul. Woody Strode stands under a water tower and lets water drip off it and collect in the rim on his Stetson. Al Mulock as 'Knuckles' cracks his knuckles in ways you could never imagine. This scene goes on and on and then Harmonica arrives and the showdown commences. There is another interesting shoot-out aboard a train as Cheyenne systemically kills the gunslingers in the train. At one point, he sneaks up on one gunman. Actually, the gunman thinks that he has the drop on Cheyenne because he sees Cheyenne’s boot descending in front of the window. It appears that Cheyenne is trying to climb from the roof of the moving train and enter the coach through a window without anybody knowing it. The gunman waits as the boot slides down the window and then the toe of the boot turns towards the gunman. An explosion erupts from the toe of the boot, and we watch in surprise as Cheyenne pulls his pistol out of the boot and scrambles back atop the moving train. The gunman turns to the camera with a bullet between the eyes and falls dead. In terms of scale, “Once Upon a Time in the West” looks immense. The scene when Jill gets off the train at Flagstone and waits for her husband to pick her up is simply incredible as the camera follows Jill and then ascends to show the entire town on the far side of the train depot. Leone loves to poke fun at some characters. There is a character named Wobbles (Marco Zuanelli) who is ridiculed because he wears a belt and a set of suspenders to hold them up. Just before Frank guns him down in cool blood, he observes that he cannot trust a man who doesn’t trust his own pants. Each of the main characters—Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne—interact with Jill. Frank wants to kill her. Cheyenne wants to love her. Every time that Cheyenne meets Jill at the Sweetwater home of Brett McBain, he asks her has she made coffee. Anybody who likes Spaghetti westerns must see "C'era una volta il West." The lip synchronization is 100per cent on the money with no discrepancies. The photography is flawless and costume design is marvelous. Interestingly, the closest that most Hollywood westerns can to the long, dark, duster coats that Leone's gunslinger sport were the rain slickers. "C'era una volta il West" was a smashing success overseas but a resounding flop in the United States. Since its’ debut in 1968, “Once Upon a Time in the West” has attained cult status and many famous directors call it an inspiration.

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