OK, here we go!
This is a favorite category for Frank, so we may disagree on a couple of these selections. (Turns out we don’t.)
In no particular order: 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West, 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966’s Django, 1966’s Death Rides a Horse, 1968’s The Great Silence, 1968’s The Mercenary (aka A Professional Gun), 1966’s The Big Gundown, and — you pick the 10th.
We’ll get our choice for No. 10 in a bit, but first, did you notice that our picks so far date from a four-year period in the 1960’s, the decade in which the the spaghetti western blazed at the international box office before fading almost as quickly in the ensuing decades?
By the way, the genre — so-called because productions were often generated in Rome, with exteriors shot in southern Spain — was not confined to Italy; other European countries chipped in with their locally-made oaters.
In any case, the spaghetti’s produced one indisputably great filmmaker, Sergio Leone, who died at 60 in Rome of heart failure in 1989. After years of toiling in various production jobs at the Cinecitta studios (built, incidentally, by Benito Mussolini in 1937) outside Rome in the Fifties, he got his first directoral shot at a sword-and-sandal epic, The Colossus of Rhodes starring, of all people, Rory Calhoun.
The picture was the box office hit needed boost to Calhoun’s career and providing Leone the chance to direct his first western, A Fistful of Dollars, inspired by the work of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and starring a then unknown (in Europe) American tv star by the name of Clint Eastwood as a laconic “Man with No Name,” sporting a brimmed hat and a poncho to conceal a mangled hand (see photo above).
At the time (1964), Eastwood was taking a break from his costarring role in the American tv series Rawhide. He was hardly the major star he later became. Eastwood noticed that the movie he was making was far from the conventional script he read back in Hollywood. A Fistful of Dollars was not shaping up to be just another foreign ripoff of a Hollywood genre.
By the time the movie came out in Italy, Eastwood had long since flown back to Hollywood, and had largely forgotten his overseas fling. But then over the next three years, word filtered back — as it invariably does in such cases — that A Fistful of Dollars was doing land office business in Rome and other Italian cities, and going gangbusters in other foreign markets. Finally, in 1967, United Artists stepped up to import the movie to the U.S.
No surprise that a sequel was arranged, and Eastwood was re-imported as “The Man with No Name” augmented by the presence of over-the-hill American actor Lee Van Cleef. The sequel, A Fistful of Dollars, as well as a second sequel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Van Cleef and Eli Wallach were snapped up by United Artists, and became worldwide hits.
To get some idea of how quickly some of the seminal spaghetti’s were turned out, consider this: “I have written movies that won prizes at Cannes and Venice,” recalled the late screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni. “These were screenplays for which we suffered on paper for months. Do you know how long it took me to write For A Few Dollars More? “Nine Days.”
In any case, Frank believes that they also established Leone once and for all in the pantheon of great directors of westerns — with the exception of John Ford, perhaps the best one ever. The Italian went on to expand in his audience with the larger budget Once Upon A Time in the West with an A-list cast including Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.
Nearly half of our top-10 list was directed by Leone.
Another Sergio best remembered for his spaghetti’s is Sergio Corbucci, whose Django starred Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging, vengeance-seeking gunslinger violently mediating a nasty dispute between KKK members and Mexican bandits. It was Corbucci who directed our No. 10 pick, 1966’s Navajo Joe starring Burt Reynolds as an Indian warrior avenging tribal attacks of sadistic outlaws.
The picture, produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, is a highly entertaining outing benefiting in large part from Reynolds’ astonishing onscreen athleticism. There also a musical score by Ennio Morricone, who worked so closely with Leone and other directors to help elevate many spaghetti’s from mere box office fodder to cinematic art.