I love Spaghetti Westerns. The best ones are what I would call “gothic westerns” since they combine some of the best aspects of Italian gothic horror films and literature with classic American westerns and western novels. They are filled with high drama but laced with subtlety. They offer romantic views of the west but they’re often very dark and at times even frightening. Suspense, death, blood, dirt, graveyards, coffins and religious iconography are reoccurring aspects of Italian westerns. Silence and sound were equally valued by directors and atmosphere was as important as story. Good and evil are often irrelevant and humanism – with a misanthropic streak – is king.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the politics at play in many Italian westerns. Many of the directors, composers and actors who made these films were card carrying Communists. Capitalism and Imperialism were often the real bad guys and many of the best Italian westerns managed to present their Marxist ideals in an incredibly entertaining way.
Recently Keith Brown over at Giallo Fever asked his blog readers what their “Top 10 Spaghetti Westerns” were. I had a hard time putting my list together because I like a lot of Spaghetti Westerns, but I thought I’d share my current Top 10 List here.
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (a.k.a. Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966, Sergio Leone)
This is my favorite Leone film for many reasons. It’s a thoughtful, funny and entertaining movie with an amazing Morricone score. I really love the writing and I think the script is just brilliant, plus Leone films it all beautifully. Eli Wallach gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and in my opinion he steals the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The scene between Wallach and his brother (the priest – Luigi Pistilli) is one of my favorite scenes from any film ever made. Wallach is not just reviving his character Calvera from The Magnificent Seven here, he’s giving him depth and making him one of the most enduring characters in the history of cinema. It’s a movie I’ve watched countless times and I never get tired of it.
2. The Great Silence (a.k.a. Il Grande silenzio, 1968, Sergio Corbucci)
I’ve already written a bit about why I love The Great Silence but the movie deserves a few more words. I think it’s Corbucci’s best film and definitely one of the most violent westerns ever put on film. There is deep humanity and brutal realism at play in The Great Silence and I think the movie has a kind of surreal quality that’s hard to put into words. Klaus Kinski gets to play one of the most ruthless characters ever created and that’s reason enough why this movie is one of my personal favorites but I also love Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as the tragic and doomed Silence.
3. A Bullet for the General (1966, Damiano Damiani)
I wrote about this terrific film last month and explained why it’s one of my favorite westerns so I won’t bother with the details again. Please check out my previous review.
4. Once Upon a Time in the West (a.k.a. C’era una volta il West, 1968, Sergio Leone)
This is another great Leone film with a terrific Morricone score that I love. I think Henry Fonda is wonderful as the cruel killer Frank and the infamous scene where he murders the boy and his family is one of the most brutal scenes ever captured on film but the rest of the cast (Bronson, Cardinale and Robards) also offer worthwhile performances here. In the end though Once Upon a Time in the West is really an epic about the birth of the civilized west and the landscape that gives it life. The story and the directing are the real stars. It’s a beautiful love letter from Leone to all Spaghetti Western fans.
5. For a Few Dollars More (a.k.a. Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965, Sergio Leone)
This is my second favorite Leone/Eastwood film. The story is wonderfully told and the film’s really entertaining but I especially love the interplay between Klaus Kinski’s hunchback character Wild and Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer. Both actors are my favorite western bad boys and their scenes together in For a Few Dollars More are truly priceless. Kinski’s performance is full of his typical twitches and outbursts, and Lee Van Cleef gets in his usual cold hearted stares. Eastwood is really good here and he looks truly fantastic in his poncho and hat but in the end this is really Lee van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè’s movie. Both actors are terrific in their starring roles alongside Eastwood and once again Morricone delivers a fantastic score that really compliments the action and drama.
6. Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)
I love the Django series and I had a hard time choosing between three Django films to list here. Django Kill – If You Live, Shoot! (1967) and Strangers Gundown (1969) are also worthy of being added to my Top 10 list, even if they’re inclusion in the Django cannon is debatable. In the first film the handsome actor Franco Nero stars as the enigmatic Django and his performance as the coffin carrying gunslinger is equal to Clint Eastwood’s best performances as “the man with no name.” The story of Django is well told and beautifully directed by Corbucci. The film also boasts a great score by composer Luis Enríquez Bacalov which is comparable to some of Morricone’s best work. All three of the Django films I mentioned are well worth a look if you like your spaghetti westerns dished up bloody and a bit surreal.
Watch: The final 6 min. of Django
7. Death Rides A Horse (a.k.a. Da uomo a uomo, 1967, Giulio Petroni)
The story treads familiar ground but it’s still one of the most entertaining revenge westerns ever shot. Lee Van Cleef and the very cute John Phillip Law give two of their best performances here as Ryan and Bill, and I think they have a surprisingly good chemistry together. The movie boasts some creative camera-work and it features one of Morricone’s most unnerving scores. One of my favorite scenes involves a poker game between Bill (John Phillip Law) and bad guy Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson), but Lee van Cleef gets a lot of great scenes in Death Rides A Horse as well.
8. Massacre Time (a.k.a. The Brute and the Beast/Tempo di massacro, 1966, Lucio Fulci)
I wrote about Fulci’s Massacre Time back in March so I won’t bother going over it again but I will add that besides Fulci’s stylish directing, Massacre Time includes one of George Hilton’s best performances and it has a great score by composer Coriolano Gori (a.k.a. Lallo Gori).
9. My Name Is Nobody (a.k.a. Il Mio nome è Nessuno, 1973, Tonino Valerii & Sergio Leone)
I really enjoy the humorous westerns that feature Terence Hill and this one is my favorite of the bunch. It’s probably Sergio Leone’s most lighthearted effort but he works well here with Tonino Valerii who directed some great Italian thrillers. Henry Fonda delivers a terrrific performance as an old gunslinger and he has some wonderful scenes with Terrence Hill. Morricone’s score is really playful at times which works well with the movie’s comedy. My Name Is Nobody is a fun film but it’s also a touching farewell to the old west and it confirms that Leone offered Fonda some of his best and most interesting roles late in his career.
10. Dragon Strikes Back (a.k.a. Shanghai Joe/Il Mio nome è Shangai Joe, 1972, Mario Caiano)
When I was a kid Kung Fu was one of my favorite TV shows. The impact that the show had on me is hard to explain but the philosophy it championed definitely made an impression on me. Dragon Strikes Back is basically a drawn out movie version of Kung Fu with Chen Lee (a poor man’s Bruce Lee) playing David Carradine’s role. It’s plain silly at times and the story is thin but it also has some great moments such as the fantastic bullfight and the duel between Chen Lee and Klaus Kinski (once again playing a nasty bad guy here). The combination of Spaghetti Western and Kung Fu action flick is a strange mix that really works. The movie also has a great Bruno Nicoli score (with borrowed bits from Have a Good Funeral, My Friend) and overall the movie is just a really entertaining treat.
I’ve only seen about 25 or 30 Spaghetti Westerns and there are hundreds so my list is subject to change in the future.