Once upon a time in Italy
Signora Saira Baig dons her brand new Mexican sombrero and takes a straight shot at silent and violent Spaghetti Westerns that withered as swift as the winds of the old West.
To cinema critics, the only Spaghetti Western − that made a fistful of directors and producers in the West love filmmaking, the film that showed them how a director does what he does, how a director can control a film through his camera − is Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Tennessee-born actor and producer Quentin Tarantino, who has fallen for Italian director Sergio Leone ever since, is one of those who believes Signor Leone’s western was almost ‘like a film school in a film’. ‘It really illustrated how to make an impact as a filmmaker; how to give your work a signature. I found myself completely fascinated, thinking: ‘That’s how you do it. It ended up creating an aesthetic in my mind,’ he says.
According to Spanish actor Aldo Sambrell, the phrase ‘Spaghetti Western’ was fired by Italian journalist Alfonso Sancha. In the beginning the term was used in a derogatory sense, but over time it has become accepted as descriptive. The typical Spaghetti Western team was made up of an Italian director, Italo-Spanish technical staff, and a cast of Italian, Spanish, German and American actors, sometimes a fading Hollywood star and sometimes a rising one like the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, in three of Signor Leone’s films.
There have only been a handful of filmmakers who have gone into an old genre and shot up a new wild world out of it. Many, such as Mr. Tarantino himself, do really like the idea of creating something new out of an old genre. To some degree, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville did it with his gangster films.
But those Italian amigos — Signor Leone, Sergio Corbucci (Django, 1966), Duccio Tessari (A Pistol for Ringo, 1965) and Franco Giraldi (Seven Guns for the MacGregors, 1966) — did it best. They mostly started off as critics and shot their way up to screenwriters. And then they became the second unit guys, the guys that deliver the action. You have to go to the French art movement in the 1950s and 1960s, New Wave, to find a group of men who loved cinema as much as they did — except Signor Leone and the others had a thriving film industry they could work their way into.
Signor Leone’s westerns weren’t just influenced by style. There was also realism to them: those shabby Mexican towns, the little shacks — a bit bigger to accommodate the camera — all the cheroots they chewed up between the lips and the plates they put the beans on, the big wooden spoons. The films were so realistic, which had always seemed to be missing in the westerns of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the brutality and the different shades of grey and black.
Signor Leone found an even darker black and off-white. There is realism in his presentation of the Civil War in the epic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) that was missing from all the Civil War films that happened before him.
Wild and grandiose as it was, there was never a sentimental streak. Every once in a while he would do a sentimental thing like when the Man with No Name (a mystery title Mr. Eastwood carried with himself in Signor Leone’s films) would hand a smoke to a dying Confederate soldier in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but that’s just about as close to sentimentality as he got.
In the late 1960s, American westerns let the Italians fire their guns at will because Italian films weren’t tired. They seemed like a response to the westerns that we’d been seeing forever. The combination of the surreality and the violence: they don’t seem that violent now, but they seemed very violent then, because they didn’t take it that seriously: Italians laugh at violence, that special type of gallows humour. And there was the youth and energy. And, by the way, in the Spaghetti Westerns, they weren’t old and bloated stars. A fistful of the heroes were young guys from earlier American western television series. But they dressed cooler, they acted cooler. They were the perfect ammunition for the 1960s revolution that was firing up at the time.
Designer Carlo Simi is one of the unsung geniuses — Signor Leone’s secret weapon, as much as his canny composer, Ennio Morricone. There was nothing special about the sets and costumes in the American westerns of the late 1960s: the costumes were always from the costume department of whatever studio they were shooting at. Signor Simi, on the other hand, was creating outfits that have comic-book panache, sometimes literally — like one of the three Sergios actually saw a comic book: ‘Hey, give them a cape like this.’ These crazy costumes can do half the work for the characters, whether that be − the bad guys or the good guys or the ugly guys.
Signor Leone once said they were like suits of armour. They have this pop-cultural zeitgeist to them. The dusters in Once Upon a Time in the West, like the trench-coats in Melville’s films, are timeless. With Signor Leone’s westerns, you are literally talking about the best production design, the best costume design, and the films with the best props of all time. There’s no match for it.
People sometimes think that Signor Leone was the first Italian to make Spaghetti Westerns. But of course he wasn’t. Signor Corbucci was doing a Spaghetti Western in 1964, the same time Signor Leone was doing A Fistful of Dollars. But he wasn’t trying to do something different with a nifty bit of sleight of hand at that time — he was actually trying to be more like the American westerns, and this is reflected in the music, which isn’t operatic at all.
It was Signor Leone who put the music to task and turned it to opera. Before him it just happened by accident where somebody thought it would be cool for a little sequence, but didn’t think they should do it for the rest of the film. But the way we cut to music now: you pick some rock song and you cut your scene to that song. That all started with Signor Leone and Signor Morricone, and particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
In the realism, the set pieces
the operatic music,
Sergio Leone was pointing
the way towards modern filmmaking
There was very little place for Signor Leone to go after Once Upon a Time in the West, which is why he did this kind of weird disappearing act. But when it comes to Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s both the end of something and the beginning of something. It is the end of the Spaghetti Western as we know it. It’s the end of this magnificent genre which wasn’t given any respect in its time for the most part, even in America and especially Italy. Yet this fantastic genre hired all these technicians and all these actors, made over 300 westerns in just four or five years, and Once Upon a Time in the West ended it all.
When it comes to the filmmakers of the 1960s that mean the most to filmmakers of the 1990s and 2000s, many believe Signor Leone was pointing the way towards modern filmmaking. There is the excitement and the action scenes that you would see developed later in films like The Terminator (1984). There is a sizzle to the action scenes. When Elvis Mitchell, the critic, scholar and broadcaster, shows a film to his young students — this film from the 1950s, this film from the 1960s, this film from the 1940s — it’s only when he shows them a Signor Leone, if they haven’t seen it before, that they pick up.
That’s when they start recognising the elements. That’s when they’re not just ‘I’m looking at an older film now.’ It’s the use of music, the use of the set piece, the ironic sense of humour. They appreciate the surrealism, the craziness, and they appreciate the cutting to music. So it is the true beginning of what filmmaking had evolved to by the 1990s. You don’t go past Signor Leone, you start with Signor Leone.
For my money I, as a member of the Spaghetti audience, still think he was the greatest of all Italy’s filmmakers. I would go even as far as to say that he was the greatest combination of a complete film stylist, where he created his own world, and storyteller. Those two are almost never married. To be as great a stylist as he was and created this operatic world, and to do this inside a genre, and to pay attention to the rules of the genre, while breaking the rules all the time — he was delivering you a wonderful western.
Saira Baig is a freelance writer focusing on politics (in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America), feminism, cinema and fashion