You might say the ’good guys and bad guys’ motif went to Hollywood hell in the late 1960s. Up-close cathode coverage of horrors like Vietnam had suddenly sent the ‘A’ picture scene spiraling into a movement that preached realism.
As the Hays Code began its slow dissolve in 1967, the censors had no choice but to loosen their grip on Hollywood films. Simultaneously, due to a plague of financial slumps at many major studios, producers began green-lighting projects for inexperienced directors who agreed to work quick and on the cheap. This spawned films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976), hailing society’s lowlife underdogs and trigger-happy antiheroes. Soon, surges of brutal onscreen violence and morally ambiguous protagonists became trademarks of this bold and tumultuous era.
But before Travis Bickle was giving NYC his cosmically cathartic clean-up, another kind of antihero had been emerging from a dark movement of genre films in Europe for more than a decade. The spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s were penetrating the American market with galloping conviction in the form of bullets, blood and revenge.
It all started with the imagination of Michael Carreras, a horror heavyweight for Hammer Films who was first to birth the idea of a Euro-Western. In 1961, Carreras directed the English-produced but American-funded Tierra Brutal, (a.k.a. The Savage Guns). With its mean-mugging bandits, low angle shots and archetypical drifter who unwittingly gets caught up between two quarreling parties, Tierra Brutal is a seminal genre entry despite its lack of Italian studio involvement like the “spaghetti” moniker might suggest.
Three years later, Italian director Sergio Leone directed a remake of Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo starring Rawhide‘s Clint Eastwood in his first starring role in a motion picture. The film was titled A Fistful of Dollars and its worldwide success in American movie houses triggered a trend of rough, tough and nihilistic Westerns produced in Italy for the next several years.
Leone’s masterpiece was followed by an equally ass-kicking sequel For a Few Dollars More in 1965, featuring the slick and sneering Lee Van Cleef (Kansas City Confidential, Escape from New York) in his western movie debut as a gruff hero type. After garnering global success with his violent follow-up, Leone shot the third and most epic installment titled The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in 1966 which would go on to become, arguably, the most recognizable western title of all time. Van Cleef was cast this time as a cold-blooded killer instead, an abstract but stiff reminder to audiences that a man is never who he seems.
Italy’s Euro-Westerns respectfully fall somewhere between the bleak, paranoid lurch of a classic film noir and the mammoth wide-angle scope of a Samurai picture. Like many of the best noirs, spaghetti Westerns have a reputation for their shady-souled main characters who are haphazardly catapulted from their lusty, greed-driven lifestyles into a doomy and disorienting plane of primal law. Coupled with Ennio Morricone‘s bombastic surf guitar-tinged scores, Leone’s obvious Kurosawa influence helped elevate his hard-assed outlaw tales to legendary heights with operatic execution.
These filmmakers helped erase the American notion that adventure films should end sweetly or with heroic closure. After all, it’s a dark world out there, and we all know what happens to good guys in the end. The smart ones are chicken, and the brave ones end up worm meat.