"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The community of the Western

Kindred spirits

It's great, isn't it, when you realize that you are not alone in the universe. That there are others out there, life-forms that breathe and think. You are at a party or a conference or a business meeting and you suddenly discover that someone else likes Westerns too.

You only discover this by chance because of course you don't actually come out and admit upfront that you are weird. You might just drop a reference to a movie and it's picked up and returned. And before you know it you are discussing the merits of Bruce Surtees as a photographer of Western films or what a fine Western actor Glenn Ford was. You talk admiringly about The Searchers, obviously, but might also admit to a sneaking delight in a commercial vehicle like The Magnificent Seven. Or the Italian Western.

It happened to me last year. I was at a conference in Cambridge, England and met a charming Italian lady, Marina, and in the time it takes to draw a sixgun, i.e. lightnin' fast, we were communing, man.

Earlier this week I had to go to Bologna, Italy for work reasons and whoa, pardner, there waiting for me was a package. A present of two DVDs, "classics of the Western all'italiana," as Marina said in her kind accompanying card. Che gioia!

Marina's gift got me thinking about the Italian Western again. Many of us buffs use the term spaghetti western quite pejoratively. Some of us (and I have to admit I do share this view somewhat) think of late 60s and early 70s Westerns made in Italy (or more usually in Spain but by Italian or Italo-German companies) as not really Westerns at all. They are to the Western what Twenty/20 is to a Test Match, more commercial interpretations of the genre but, well, "not quite cricket".

Movies directed by Leone or Corbucci or a hundred other (even) lesser mortals were about Westerns rather than being Westerns. They were full of references. Leone adored the classic American Westerns of the 50s and it shows. His movies are full of affectionate quotations which a Western buff loves to spot. They might even have been post-modern deconstructions, athough I wouldn't know because I have never really understood what they are. And when the glory days of 50s Westerns were over, Westerns were in full decline in the US and studios were hesitating to make them at all (TV series like Gunsmoke and Maverick taking over), the "spaghetti westerns" gave the genre a new lease of life. Suddenly people were in the movie theaters again watching gunmen in Main Street showdowns. No small achievement, pards. Italian westerns were full of life (and death, of course), vigorous, fun, and they didn't take themselves too seriously. And they filled the theater seats.

But to be perfectly honest, in many ways a lot of these movies were pretty trashy. End-of-career American stars or minor character actors fronted a cast of Cinecittà stalwarts. It was OK usually because their parts only required them to grunt.

And even that was dubbed on afterwards.

Cinecittà was directly under the flight path to Fiumicino so live sound recording was out. Actors could speak their own languages and the soundtrack would be dubbed on later in whatever language was required. This gave them some freedom. They weren't tied down by boom mikes or sound stages. And Italians are technically extremely proficient at dubbing, the best in the world, probably - if they have the budget for it, which in the case of the 'westerns', they didn't.

But you know, the sound is always false. It was always overdone. Leone believed in "sound design" and he is partly to blame for the absurd situation now when every sound effect has to be mega-amplified through ultra-high spec sound systems in modern cinemas. Nowadays, an actor can't put a cup down or pull out his wallet without 150 decibel FX. Foley men have become 'artists'. And if the actor actually draws and fires a gun, well, you need earplugs. It's spaghetti westerns' fault.

And that ghastly music! It was either amplified whistling or choirs shouting "ho, ho". Many people most unaccountably think of Ennio Morricone as a great artist. Nonsense. His scores are cheap, jangly and jarring.

No, sorry, but all those rip-off flicks churned out weekly like one-reelers in the 1910s, most with Django or the word dollari in the title, in which superheroes pulled firearms out of the most unlikely places (usually coffins or musical instruments, for some reason) and mowed down fifty men while chewing on a cheroot, they don't do it for me. And the trouble is that they weren't affectionate hommages or even amused parodies but exploitative junk.

The very best of them were better than the worst of the Hollywood versions. A Western like A Bullet for the General is actually quite a good film (and better than any of the Dollars trilogy, by the way). And there was a school of Italian western with a left-wing political agenda that is worth thinking about. But then they ran out of steam and became just too repetitive and people tired of them; spaghetti westerns had said what they had to say and could depart unlamented.

They left a mark on the mainstream Western, though, for good or for ill. 70s American Westerns definitely showed the signs and it was fascinating to watch this 'reverse engineering' going on.

Spaghetti westerns (I give them a small w) were, however, only a small part of Italy's love affair with the Western (W maiusculo), as Marina will know. Westerns (I mean proper Westerns) were adored by Italian cinema audiences. Leone wasn't the only fan to grow up with them.

In Marina's package was Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (interesting change of order from the American version - The Good, The Ugly and The Bad) as a classic example of the period I have just been discussing, and usually considered a great work. You can still see it in a grainy print in Paris art cinemas. Personally I always thought the second part of Leone's trilogy the best. Clint had got confidence to actually act, but hadn't become jaded, which he was in Il Buono. Il Buono was a bit too big-budget, too long, a bit too Hollywood. But Marina was right to choose it. Many would say that it is the spaghetti western.

But she also included Soldati a Cavallo, a shrewd move. The Horse Soldiers was far from being Ford's greatest work (although personally I do think William Holden one of the greatest of all Western actors). This was not an Italian western, of course, but is a good example of how Italians saw Westerns. I said their dubbing is outstanding and when I lived in Italy and watched Westerns in Italian, I was really impressed by the sheer quality and appropriateness of the voices. Glauco Onorato did a superb John Wayne. Actually, I think he was better than John Wayne. I loved watching Ford movies in Italian. The language just seems to suit them somehow. (Whereas I can't seem to accept Wayne speaking French. Too effete. Clint is OK grunting in German.) I have an ancient VHS of Red River recorded from Italian TV and still occasionally watch it, just for fun. It's nostalgia really. (Although you know what they say about nostalgia: it's not what it was). The appalling Italian adverts every 15 minutes (it was recorded from a Berlusconi crap channel) have ceased to be an irritation and have become hilarious.

Thanks to Marina I will now watch not The Horse Soldiers but Soldati a Cavallo. It will give new spice to the movie and it will make me think more and see it from a different angle. It will be un'intensa pellicola di John Ford. (It must be, it says so on the cover).

By the way, you are reading a person who knows the script of The Magnificent Seven by heart in three languages. I have watched it so many times in the US and in the European countries I have lived in. So trust me, I know what I'm talking about. I'm thinking of buying the DVD in Spanish.

And by the way again, DVDs are a disappointment in this regard. They were supposed to offer the movie in a choice of languages but if you buy one in France you usually only get the choice of VO or Frog. Why can't I see it in Czech? To do that, I have to go and buy it in Prague. What's the Czech for Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo? (Hodný, Zlý a Ošklivý, apparently).

Anyway, thank you, Marina. Era un gesto molto gentile e ti ringrazio veramente. La prossima volta che tu sei a Parigi, vieni a trovarmi e si va a vedere Il Buono... a un cinema nel quartiere latino. La qualità della pellicola sara pessima ma chi se ne frega. On sortira après et on parlera des Westerns, on échangera des opinions and we'll commune, man.


  1. fa schifo ogni film di leone

  2. E un po' duro, questo!
    Certo, è un tipo particolare de Western, quello di Leone, ed è anche vero che non sono sempre gentile io quando parlo degli "spaghetti western" ma i film hanno certe qualità, forse?