The Western all’italiana

05/31/2012 4:00 AM |

Spaghetti Westerns
June 1-21 at Film Forum

Any substantial spaghetti Western rep series doubles as a tribute to composer Ennio Morricone, who was often “supervising” scores if he wasn’t writing them, under his own name or presumably more international market-friendly aliases like Leo Nichols or Dan Savio. Awesome and instantly personalized as they are on their own, his radical, grunt-heavy concoctions achieve ineffable levels of coolness and beauty when paired with imagery of European character actors firing their way across the Apennine Mountains or a recycled dummy town in southeastern Spain.

But a series like Film Forum‘s also offers a chance for renewed appreciation for treasures like the actor Lee Van Cleef, the gravitas-blessed, elven-eared New Jersey native who starred in more spaghettis than any of his fellow American tourists. Sergio Leone’s casting of Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More did for the actor’s career what the international popularity of spaghetti films temporarily did for the Western—gave it new life.

The Western was not completely dead at the American box office in the early 60s, but people were getting their fix from TV shows (Gunsmoke, Rawhide). To account for the drying up of American imports and sate a market keen on the primal delights and odd versatility of the genre, Spain began throwing money at Euro-shot Westerns like Raoul Walsh’s The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1959), while the Germans continued to produce movies based on the frontier adventure writings of Karl May. Soon, profit-hungry Italians got their act together and shifted to the Western from sword-and-sandal “peplum” fare.

After some thirty or so mixed attempts, the first spaghetti Western to turn heavy profit and beget endless imitations was Leone’s 1964 Yojimbo remake A Fistful of Dollars. For the second film of what would be the trilogy capped by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Leone cast the eagle-beaked Van Cleef as ace bounty hunter Colonel Mortimer, who teams with Clint Eastwood’s outclassed and outgunned Man. Leone had been a fan of the actor’s villainous turns in movies like Gunfight at OK Corral and The Big Combo, but Van Cleef had mostly been slumming on the small screen since a 1959 car crash that took his left kneecap. With his success as the unflappable Colonel with the “gunsight eyes,” and then as the sociopathic Bad (aka Angel Eyes), Van Cleef took a liking to Europe. He hung around so long that he squandered any chance of enjoying Clint-level fame back home, but his 60s pasta dominance remains remarkable.

Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966) was the first major Zapata Western, the subgenre that went beyond simple revenge/bag-of-gold action to deal with stories set during the Mexican Revolution, allowing for anti-fascist, anti-imperialist commentary. Van Cleef proves he can carry a picture sans Eastwood by playing a bounty hunter who learns to respect his accused target (spaghetti and polizieschi regular Tomas Milian). In the following year’s Death Rides a Horse, John Phillip Law fills in as the pretty blond whose family is murdered in the first scene, a rainy mini-masterpiece that is repeatedly (and unnecessarily) flashed back to throughout the film (no other director could match Leone’s flashback artistry in For a Few Dollars More). It might be obvious why Van Cleef’s gunfighter is so interested in the kid’s fate, but Lee is at his cockiest and funniest laughing at his self-assumed charge, buried up to his neck in sand.

Van Cleef closed out the 60s swaggering through Sabata, director Gianfranco Parolini’s virtual redo of his Sartana (1968, also playing here). Though terrific entertainment, Sabata is full of the kind of ridiculousness that would lead to the spaghetti Western’s suicide by self-parody in the early 70s. Hippiefied William Berger shoots foes with a rifle-rigged banjo, while lordly dandy Franco Ressel has a dart gun in his cane (and you know he’s an elitist because he is shown relishing and quoting Thomas Dew’s Inequality is the Basis of Society). Van Cleef’s snub-nosed pistol has a few more barrels in the handle, and his acrobatic Indian sidekick leaps from rooftops.