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10 Essential Spaghetti Westerns

In case the title didn’t give it away, Giulio Questi’s 1967 spaghetti western Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! is one of the most eccentric entries in the Italian subgenre that populated the cinematic landscape during the 1960s and ’70s. The surreal cult film — about a Mexican outlaw who rises from the grave to exact vengeance on a band of thieves that cheated him out of his loot — is now available on Blu-ray.

Multicultural productions, unforgettable scores, brutal gunplay, and cynical, vengeful antiheroes punctuated the Italo-westerns, creating a unique visual style with darker themes that made the Hollywood epics look like G-rated movies. The Italians drew inspiration from a culturally diverse palette of sources, including classical literature and Catholicism, resulting in unique operatic reimaginings — several of which we’ve highlighted below. Dig into a few essential spaghetti westerns that helped shape the subgenre — extra heavy on the red sauce. Leave your favorites in the comments below.

A Fistful of Dollars

Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking 1964 film helped define the subgenre — a story that was intended to be a low-budget take on the American western classics that filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks made famous. The former sword and sandal screenwriter based his tale on Akira Kuroswawa’s Yojimbo, setting a meticulous and boldly artistic tone for the rest of his “Dollars Trilogy.” Leone’s extreme close-ups, Renaissance-style cinematography, and Ennio Morricone’s superb score are impressive standouts. The grimace of then unknown TV actor Clint Eastwood, who became the iconic “Man with No Name,” established the subgenre’s use of questionable heroes — unconventional and unpredictable characters that lived by their own moral codes.

For a Few Dollars More

After an impressive debut in the subgenre, it was hard to believe that the stylish Sergio Leone could do better, but his follow-up film in 1965 proved he was capable of just that. The movie essentially copied the first film’s structure, depicting a gritty realism that featured Leone’s “Man with No Name” (who actually does have a name in each film, in this case, Manco) and the awesomely villainous Lee Van Cleef. The two actors — who portray hunters after the same man for different reasons — play off one another, and it’s exciting to watch. The addition of wild-eyed Klaus Kinski adds another layer of colorful characterization. Leone’s second film in the “Dollars Trilogy” makes today’s sequels look like total trash.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Leon capped off his “Dollars Trilogy” with a baroque tale of violence centering on three gunslingers who race to uncover a buried fortune. The atmospheric brutality and offbeat drama of the director’s third installment builds a palpable tension that is absorbing and beautifully realized. Morricone’s powerful score and Leone’s impeccable direction make the 1966 movie a crowning achievement of the Italo subgenre and cinema itself. The showdown during the finale is poetic, haunting, and stunningly crafted.

Django

Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 pulp western looks like a page torn from a comic book — its bloody intensity and dark humor over the top and unrelenting. The titular Django — played by the quietly charismatic Franco Nero — rolls into a dusty town where violence has ravaged the population. He makes his grand entrance clad in all black, dragging a coffin behind him, and his dazzling gunplay and steely gaze are deadly. Low budget Euro cinema often piggybacked on the success of bigger budget pictures. While Django references Leone’s films and inspirations, the movie was popular enough to spawn its own imitators who created over 30 unofficial sequels for a quick cash-in. Nero will be making a cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s take on the spaghetti western — Django Unchained — this December.

Death Rides a Horse

Giulio Petroni’s 1967 movie is adored by Quentin Tarantino for several good reasons: the title, the action — horrifically portrayed in the movie’s opening — and the story. It’s an engaging revenge tale about a child who witnesses his family’s murder (shown in haunting flashbacks) — the trauma fueling his rage as an adult (played by John Phillip Law). He forms an uneasy relationship with one of the men (Lee Van Cleef) who was double-crossed during the crime and now wants payback. Their steady quest for justice creates a sense of dread throughout, once again capped off by a wonderful Morricone score.

The Great Silence

Spaghetti heroes are normally pretty tight-lipped, but Sergio Corbucci makes his gunslinger mute in this 1968 favorite. French art house actor Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the silent star of Corbucci’s moody western, with the villainous Klaus Kinski adding to the grim setting. The American western’s extremely black and white characterizations are torn asunder here — the line between the good and bad guys completely blurry. Corbucci’s complex, symbolic, and politically dense story is brooding — just like the film’s bleak set pieces.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda as a villain? Charles Bronson wailing on a harmonica? Jason Robards as a fugitive? More Morricone? A story written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento? Why haven’t you turned on Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece yet? Leone created his opus after retiring from the subgenre, but access to talent like Fonda and a tempting budget brought him back into the ring. It’s magnificent and flawless through and through, despite the negative reviews received during its release. Of course, it didn’t help that Paramount reedited the film for its US debut. Although the “Dollars Trilogy” has a fierce cult following, Once Upon a Time in the West is usually thought of as Leone’s grandest accomplishment.

Keoma

Possibly the greatest of the late spaghetti pictures — sadly with a humdrum soundtrack — Castellari’s 1976 film arrived during a lull in the subgenre. Keoma managed to reinvigorate things with a violent, mystical allegory starring the iconic Franco Nero as a bewhiskered Civil War vet who finds his town overrun by cruel thugs. The Sam Peckinpah-esque slow mo and impressionist scheme (influenced by the titular school of painters) helped make the movie one of Castellari’s personal favorites.

The Mercenary

The overtly political Zapata slant on Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 movie is interesting, but you should really see the film to watch tough guy icon Jack Palance as a menacing — and suggestively gay — gunslinger. Also, there is a badass female rebel with a big gun.

The Big Gundown

Sergio Sollima’s 1966 film with Leone superstar Lee Van Cleef playing a bounty hunter is loaded with political overtones and social commentary. However, the film doesn’t skimp on classically over the top spaghetti characters — including a Nazi-esque killer, complete with evil monocle —fine acting, and another outstanding score from Italian maestro Ennio Morricone.

Bonus Pick: Sabata

Best use of a banjo, ever!

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