Spaghetti Westerns

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Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti westerns were hyper-violent, low-budget genre films made in Europe by European (usually Italian) studios between 1961 and 1977. The more than five hundred of these films, many forgettable, used European crews, writers, directors, and, for the most part, actors. Location shooting often took place in Spain, parts of which resemble the geography of the American Southwest.

The spaghetti western shot its way into mainstream American culture in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone and starring a little-known American actor named Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name, an amoral bounty hunter with a lightning-fast draw. The film was immensely popular in the United States and around the world, and led to the production of two sequels: For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Two other Leone films were also successful in the United States: the lavish, sprawling 1969 epic Once upon a Time in the West, starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and a cast-against-type Henry Fonda playing a ruthless killer; and Duck, You Sucker, also known as A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), which paired James Coburn with Rod Steiger.

Spaghetti westerns had several stylistic elements in common. They were often very violent (for their time) and did not flinch from portraying brutal beatings, rape, and the murder of women and children. The films were usually made cheaply, and their production values showed it (exceptions were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once upon a Time in the West, both of which had large budgets for production). Further, since the supporting actors (and sometimes the stars) of spaghetti westerns were usually Italian, most of the speaking parts had to be dubbed for release outside Italy (in some cases, limited budgets made for sloppy dubbing and unintentionally hilarious results). Finally, the films often made use of tight close-up shots, which meant that the actors, even bit players, tended to have interesting (if not always handsome) faces. This photographic technique was especially common in scenes leading to a showdown: the camera would alternate between the two (or more) characters who were preparing to duel, with the close-ups growing increasingly tight until only the eyes could be seen. Then the tension would be broken as the gunmen drew and fired. This trademark motif was labeled by some critics the "squint and shoot" style of cinematography.

The musical scores for spaghetti westerns tended to be moody and atmospheric. The best-known composer to work in the genre was Ennio Morricone, who went on to write music for a variety of other films. Morricone's scores for Leone constitute some of the best-known movie music of the 1960s and early 1970s. In addition to traditional instruments, Morricone made use of bells, jangling spurs, whistling, and a Jew's-harp to create a distinctive, and much-imitated, sound.

An attempt was made to revive the genre in 1998, when Turner Network Television produced and broadcast a made-for-cable homage called A Dollar for the Dead, starring Emilio Estevez as yet another Man with No Name.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Frayling, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London and Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Weisser, Thomas. Spaghetti Westerns—The Good, The Bad and the Violent. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland Publishing, 1992.