The Italian Spaghetti Western
In 1964 a seemingly unknown director named Bob Robertson released a low-budget Western in Europe. The story was very simple: a lone vigilante without a name appears in a town along the Mexican border. He takes on and eradicates a gang that has been terrorizing the area, then disappears just as he arrived – in silence. Against all expectations the movie, Per un pugno di dollari [A Fistful of Dollars], became an international cinematic sensation.
With all the attention surrounding the film, it wasn’t long before the real identity of its director was revealed. The American-sounding Bob Roberston was a pseudonym for a 100% Italian director: Sergio Leone. Leone had chosen the name to the give the impression that the movie was made in the United States, while at the same time paying homage to his father Roberto Leone Roberti.
When I was a little girl, my father used to watch the three movies of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy every time they were on TV. I remember that I just couldn’t find anything interesting in these movies. When the Man With No Name played by Clint Eastwood came on the screen I would wonder, “Who is this weird stranger wearing a weird hat and smiling in a weird way?” To make things worse, I wasn’t allowed to watch the whole movie because I had to go to bed, so the story made even less sense. However, I must admit that, as the years passed, I became more and more fascinated with these movies. Since there was no main character who made sense to me, I saw the films as mysterious puzzles that needed to be solved.
While I didn’t realize it then, the lack of a strong hero character, which made the films both interesting and frustrating for me, was a big innovation in the Western genre of cinema. In fact, it’s one of the reasons Sergio Leone is seen as the father of a sub-genre of low-budget cowboy films made in Italy, called Spaghetti Westerns.
Spaghetti Westerns are different from traditional American Westerns where the leading actor is a good guy, moved by patriotism, clear moral values and kindness. Instead, in these films the distinction between good and evil is blurred by the magnificent figure of the anti-hero, a protagonist motivated by personal interest, often money.
Sergio Leone was interested in returning some of the authentic grit and dust of the Old West to Western movies. That’s why we never see clean and good looking cowboys like John Wayne, but a group of shabby, dusty, cynic rogues. When you watch a Leone film you enter a world of ghostly cemeteries, funereal church bells, endless roads and, above all, violence. Indeed, the stories and the scenes are notoriously ferocious and bloody with room only for brawls and shootings.
When, at the age of 14, I finally got to see the entire Dollars saga – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – I became just as obsessed as my Dad with the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone.