Monday 23 October 2017

Sergio to Tarantino's Django – how the spaghetti western was served piping hot

In his new film Django Unchained, which opened here yesterday, Quentin Tarantino plays bloody tribute to the great spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. Although the film stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave out for revenge, and includes some very serious themes, it's clearly inspired by the work of spaghetti directors like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone.

Tarantino was born in 1963, and like many of his generation, grew up on films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, that combined style, violence and irony in a revolutionary way, and briefly revitalised a dying genre.

By the early 1960s, the arrival of rock 'n' roll and beat culture had made the western seem suddenly irrelevant, and even established stars like John Wayne were forced to diversify into war films and cop thrillers. But in Europe, a group of talented directors began making a new kind of western that took a much less sentimental approach to the legends of the American frontier.

They were led by Sergio Leone, and while it's been argued that Raoul Walsh's 1958 The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw was the first example of the new genre, for me the spaghetti western began with Leone's 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars.

Born in Rome into a dynasty of filmmakers and actors, Leone fell in love with the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks as a boy, but by the time he began making films in the 1950s, the genre he loved was in a parlous state. Feeling that most Hollywood westerns had become stale and preachy vehicles that traded in stereotypes of good and evil, Leone decided to make his own westerns, that would incorporate Italian filmmaking techniques into grim stories of blood and vengeance.

Instead of pitting whiter-than- white heroes against stage villains, Leone muddied the waters by making every character a selfish agent out for money or revenge. And certainly A Fistful of Dollars' man with no name was no angel.

Everyone from Charles Bronson to Henry Fonda was offered the part and turned it down, mainly because they thought the script stank. Clint Eastwood was recommended as someone who'd come cheap and look convincing as a cowboy – he was then a star in the TV show Rawhide.

It was a slice of luck for Eastwood, but also for Leone, because Eastwood was perfect as the taciturn, mean-eyed bounty killer who tries to play two rival smalltown criminal families off against one another.

Like all Italian films of the time, the sound was added after shooting, leading to exaggerated gun sounds and spur jangles that created a heightened, almost theatrical mood.

Sergio Leone famously said of his star that "I like Clint Eastwood because he has only two expressions – one with the hat, and one without it". If that sounded like an insult, it wasn't, because Eastwood had a rangy, monolithic quality that made him the John Wayne of the spaghetti westerns, and he and Leone made two further films together – For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The latter was a brilliant, sprawling journey through the horrors of the American Civil War in the company of a trio of particularly venal bounty killers, and is one of the finest westerns ever made. And some would argue that Leone's sombre and brutal 1968 epic Once Upon a Time in the West, is even better.

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