The long dusters. The dirty towns. Extreme close-ups. Lengthy stares. Dubbed dialogue. And, of course, the Ennio Morricone music. I love a good Spaghetti Western! Here are my top 10 films in this popular genre from the 1960s and ’70s.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) – I never cared for the slang term “horse opera,” but “operatic” definitely describes what I consider to be Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. This sprawling saga of a dying West boasts interlocking stories, some marvelous set pieces, a terrific Ennio Morricone score (with unique themes for each of the four leads), and memorable characters (which both support and defy Western film stereotypes). My favorite parts are the opening (it’s a long wait but I love the payoff) and the almost over-the-top showdown between Charles Bronson’s mysterious Harmonica and Henry Fonda’s vile villain Frank.
2. For a Few Dollars More (1965) - My favorite of the Leone/Clint Eastwood collaborations is almost a rehearsal for Once Upon a Time in the West. In the latter film, Charles Bronson wears a harmonica around his neck–and we learn why in the flashblack that explains his need for revenge against Henry Fonda’s character. In For a Few Dollars More, Lee Van Cleef carries a watch that serves the same purpose. Eastwood’s sarcastic humor and Van Cleef’s steely resolve make them a great pair.
3. Trinity Is Still My Name (1972) – The sequel to They Call Me Trinity is funnier than the original, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer back as the West’s most unlikely–and filthiest–brothers. Hill became a big European star, but his success never translated in the U.S. (though he tried in movies like March or Die with Gene Hackman). His oddball humor works very well in the Trinity Westerns, especially playing against the gruff, burly Spencer. Hill (real name Mario Girotti) and Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli) appeared as a team in numerous films, including other Spaghetti Westerns and contemporary action comedies.
4. The Five Man Army (1969) – I’ll admit upfront that I’m a sucker for movies where someone assembles a team to accomplish a mission (e.g. The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen). So, here we have Peter Graves–who knows something about impossible missions–assembling a team of specialists to rob a moving train. Horror film maestro Dario Argento co-wrote it (he and Bertolucci also worked on Once Upon a Time) and Morricone contributed yet another memorable score. Plus, where else can you find James Daly and Bud Spencer in the same film?
5. Red Sun (1971) – OK, it may not technically be a Spaghetti Western, since it was made in Spain with an international cast. Also, I confess there’s not much of a plot (a valuable Japanese sword is stolen and everyone goes after it). But Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune make a fine odd couple, Alain Delon does his patented good/bad guy, and Ursula Andress…well, she’s just there. Still, it’s surprisingly entertaining and holds up well.
6. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - Most Spaghetti Western buffs probably list this in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot. I might have, too, until I watched it recently. Certainly, the cast is excellent (especially Eli Wallach) and Morricone’s score is his most famous. Many critics highlight how the plot plays out against an elaborate backdrop of the Civil War. Actually, that’s the part I don’t like; it lengthens the film for me and detracts somewhat from the interplay between the three stars. Still, many of the battle scenes are impressive. And, yes, I know I’ll take some heat for placing a classic at number six…
7. Django (1966) - The plot recalls A Fistful of Dollars (see #10), with a mysterious stranger coming between two warring factions in a small town–but the similarities end there. Religious images abound, starting with the film’s protagonist dragging a coffin through the mud and ending with Django, both hands crushed, trying to balance his pistol on a cross as he awaits a graveyard showdown a band of bad guys. It’s an uneven, violent picture (banned in some countries), but the climax may be surpassed only by Once Upon a Time among Spaghetti Westerns.
8. My Name is Nobody (1974) - Another unlikely Leone teaming: this time between Fonda as a veteran gunslinger and Hill as an up-and-coming one. (Techincally, Leone did not make this film, but his influence is all over it and some sources claim he directed some scenes). More an essay on celebrity than a Western, it benefits from an offbeat sense of humor.
9. Sabata (1969) - Van Cleef made other Spaghetti Westerns (including Death Rides a Horse, which I haven’t seen), but this one probably confirmed him as Eastwood’s successor as a solo star. It also helped popularize the “trick weaponry” used in other Westerns (e.g., Sabata carries a pistol that fires from the handle).
10. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - Obviously, it’s my least favorite of the Leone/Eastwood films, even though it was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Still, it’s historically significant and the final shootout is a classic.
What’s your favorite Spaghetti Western? Let us know in the comments!
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café, on Facebook and Twitter . He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course.