The Van Cleef-less highlights of Film Forum’s series include ambitious Zapata Western A Bullet for the General (1966), starring the great Gian Maria Volonte as a crude criminal who turns Mexican revolutionary when he sees the unfairness behind Lou Castel’s corrupt three-piece-suit entitledness. It’s one of the more visceral spaghettis, all dusty hair matted to sweaty faces and shrieking bullets racking up huge body counts, and the ending is zestily anti-American. Klaus Kinski, who appeared (often briefly) in numerous European westerns for the sole reason that they paid so well, but nevertheless added an always-welcome unhinged danger, is the noble revolutionary in Bullet. In Sergio Corbucci’s snowy masterpiece The Great Silence (1968), which contains one of Morricone’s loveliest scores, Kinski is hatefulness incarnate as unscrupulous bounty killer Loco, for whom mute Jean-Louis Trintigant is sadly no match. Nihilism wins in The Great Silence, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily endorsed.
Corbucci is after more myth assassination in Hellbenders (1967), which mocks Southern chivalry in the form of Joseph Cotten’s unctuous Confederate colonel. The “war hero” he and his sons are escorting home is actually just a coffin full of loot with which they hope to revive The Cause, and there’s comedy gold whenever Cotten is obliged to mug frowning and layer on the false sincerity. The outrageous Django Kill can barely be called a Western—though it initially lays out a revenge plot typical to the genre, it turns into a gothic horror nightmare once Tomas Milian’s titular cowboy enters a blighted Nowheretown. Inhabitants include a hilariously dubbed alcoholic parrot and an attic-imprisoned wife out of Jane Eyre whose sex scenes with Milian director Giulio Questi shoots with abstract close-ups, like a Leone standoff.
Every spaghetti Western is in a give-and-take dialogue with its Hollywood (and East European) predecessors. Leone was the biggest Western fan around, but he also wanted to parody their duller pomposities, and excise them from his own “only the good stuff” tries. Of course, the dialogue was already in play—revisionist Westerns pre-dated spaghettis in films like Anthony Mann’s neurotic James Stewart collaborations and Marlon Brando’s eccentric One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Once the Italian Westerns entered the conversation, their influence was felt in the Westerns of Monte Hellman and especially Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Hellman is represented in this series with the languid, erotic China 9, Liberty 37, in which a female character’s psychology actually matters (it’s a fact that spaghettis have little interest in women’s issues). With the imminent release of superfan Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—the thirty-somethingth unofficial spin-off of Corbucci’s seminal spaghetti Django (1966)— the dialogue continues.