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October 2, 2018

Serving Up Spaghetti Westerns

The Western film may be a Hollywood invention but as it began to fade in popularity in the 1960s, it was the Italians who reinvented the genre and made it distinctly their own.

Spaghetti Westerns refer to Western genre films churned out cheaply by the Italian film industry and often dubbed into English. They were born in the 1960s as the Italian film industry was looking for something new to strike a chord with filmgoers. Internationally, filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Pier Paolo Pasolini were wowing audiences with Italian art house delights, but back in Rome, Cinecittà studios needed to produce more popular fare for the masses.

Just as Italians were burning out on sword-and-sandal films, Sergio Leone had an idea. He had seen Akira Kurosawa’s samurai actioner “Yojimbo” that was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and thought, why not import it back? Leone loved Westerns but was disillusioned with where Hollywood was taking the genre. He decided to reimagine “Yojimbo” as a Western with a young American lead. That role went to Clint Eastwood, who became an overnight sensation as the Man with No Name in Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars.”

The film came out in 1964 and was a huge hit. Eastwood’s character signaled a transformation of the traditional Western hero into an anti-hero. He was a more ambiguous and morally flexible character that could reflect the political and social unrest in Italy and elsewhere in the world. Other filmmakers soon tried to cash in on what Leone had created. Some films were cheap imitations but others approached and even equaled the caliber of Leone’s films.

Leone employed legendary graphic designer Iginio Lardani and innovative composer Ennio Morricone. Lardani’s poster art, trailers, and opening title designs came to define the Spaghetti Western. He experimented with animation, typography, and optical effects to create an iconic visual look.

If Lardani’s titles gave Spaghetti Westerns a visual branding, composer Morricone defined the sound with scores that managed to be epic, melancholic, and just a touch self-deprecating.  It was the perfect tone to reflect how the tired American Western was being revitalized in Italy.

The Spaghetti Western definitely imitates its American counterpart, but filters it through Italian style and a more modern lens. Spaghetti Westerns bring in elements of Catholicism (priests, angels, churches, protagonists being crucified); politics reflecting turbulent times and unsettling ambiguity; over-the-top violence unbridled by the lingering restraints of Hollywood’s fading censorship code; and younger, attractive stars who suggested that heroes didn’t necessarily have to be good—just hip and cool.

Leone’s films, from the early “A Fistful of Dollars” to the epic “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to the elegiac summation of the genre in “Once Upon A Time in the West,” represent the absolute best Spaghetti Westerns had to offer. Savor this opportunity to see one on the big screen, where all Spaghetti Westerns belong, because anything smaller can’t possibly fit the bold visuals and operatic flair of these brilliant Italian filmmakers.