|Clint Eastwood should have thanked Italy's film industry when accepting his second Best Director Oscar for this year's critically acclaimed Million Dollar Baby, because without the advent of the Italian-born Spaghetti Western in the 1960s, Eastwood wouldn't have a career.
Italians didn't invent the Western, but they took an American staple and made it their own. By 1960, US film production companies had exhausted the good-guy-fighting-for-justice storyline, and film sales dwindled. Italian filmmakers capitalized on the lucrative American market by tweaking the conventional plot, adding a few crucial stylistic elements (including memorable musical scores) and selling them back to the Americans.
It was the golden age of Italian Cinema (1956-1971) and between the years 1963 and 1973, over 400 Italian-style Westerns (dubbed "Spaghetti Westerns" by American audiences) were made.
Italian Western director Sergio Leone got the tumbleweed rolling. He was the first to make a huge impact in the United States, with the quintessential Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, making a star out of a young, relatively unknown (but incredibly handsome) American TV actor named Clint Eastwood.
The graphic violence attributed to the series of films that Leone would complete may have had something to do with the Vietnam War, which took place during this phenomenon.
Leone's first film, 1964's breakthrough hit A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) was based on Akira Kurosawa's samurai epic Yojimbo. Leone was a postmodern mannerist, exaggerating artistic elements of a film to make a profound impact on the viewer, like close-up shots that would fill up the entire screen and exceedingly slow movements.
In contrast to the Spaghetti Western genre, American Westerns abided by an unwritten ethical code called the Hays Code, which prevented the shooter and the victim from being in the same frame together (so if the frame was focused on the victim, the shot would come from off-screen for example). But with an eye for arresting violence, Leone had a different view on censorship. The Roman director once said: "My representation of death is moral as well as intellectual."
Take the psychedelic opening sequence for A Fistful of Dollars: It begins with a hazy white spot on a blood-red screen, accompanied by the sound of gunshots combined with Ennio Morricone's unique music. Morricone became instantly famous for his one of a kind musical scores - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme is the most familiar of these.
Morricone's hoof beats, whistling and use of the human voice as an instrument became the standard musical style of the Spaghetti Western. Simple but eerie, the nearly tangible presence of the music was extraordinary and absolutely original.
Leone made instant celebrities out of not just his music composer but Eastwood - who would star in his trilogy of Westerns: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
In a scene in A Fistful of Dollars, one of the characters gets shot and a close-up of his face reveals thick, red blood gushing out of his mouth. By today's standards it would have no impact on the average viewer, but 40 years ago it was monumental. From then on filmmakers began to allot a large part of their film budget to what was called a "blood budget".
Critics attacked these films for their gratuitous violence, but audiences loved them. And Leone's revamped Western formula was imitated for years to follow.
Then "The Other Sergio," Sergio Corbucci, showed up in 1966 with Django. Critics had a field day with this film, and it was banned in several markets. Its nauseating brutality (I shut my eyes and covered my ears!) became part of the formula. The most brutal of the Spaghettis is one of the 30 unofficial Django sequels (yes, 30), aptly named Django Kill! (1967) Aside from being the most sadistic, with elements like torture, vampire bats, a crucifixion and an army of homosexual outlaws, it's also by far the strangest.
Leone only made a total of five Spaghetti Westerns, releasing his final film in 1972 and retiring from his self-made genre when he noticed that audiences were mocking the film titles and contrived storylines.
Naturally, filmmakers began to spoof the films, and a plethora of Western comedies followed. But by the mid-'70s, the Spaghetti Western genre faded away.
I haven't always been a fan of this genre, it just happened by fluke. These films defy description. The whole magic is in the rattling of the spurs and the cutaways to Eastwood's squinting glare. Next time you're at Blockbuster move away from the New Releases wall (they all suck, anyway) and pick up a copy of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. You'll be hooked, and I ain't just whistlin' Dixie.
About the Author
Student writer, professional daydreamer. Go to www.pumpkin-face.com for a complete list of articles.