Judge Daniel MacDonald is a'spicy meat-a-ball.
A celebration of the classic Italian westerns of the 1960s.
Directors such as Kill Bill's Quentin Tarantino (who called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly his favorite film) and Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) have brought much attention to how great spaghetti westerns are, citing the sub-genre as a major influence in their work. (To see how much of an influence, watch Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West back to back.) But spaghetti westerns, inexpensive Italian-made films initially trying to pass as made-in-the-USA westerns, had a broad influence on American and Asian cinema beyond even these current directors. The Spaghetti West delves into the 1960s and early 1970s when the spaghetti western was born, flourished, and ultimately killed off.
Narrated by the low-key Robert Forrester (Jackie Brown), The Spaghetti West begins with a brief survey of the state of cinema up to the 1960s, claiming that some 40% of all American movies had been westerns. Directors and writers from Southern Italy wanted a piece of this action, including Sergio Leone, who had an idea that Kurosawa's Yojimbo could be adapted as a western, hired an inexpensive but recognizable American actor (one Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven), and made A Fistful of Dollars. When the picture was an unmitigated hit, the local industry went into overdrive, churning out as many as 150 westerns per year (out of 300 annual pictures).
The Spaghetti West doesn't purport to be an all-encompassing survey of the sub-genre, and clearly, there are only so many movies that can be mentioned in 56 minutes. But it does a good job of touching on the major works, describing how the spaghetti western changed from serious genre film to political allegory to semi-comic parody over its life cycle. A broad range of interview subjects, including Eastwood, composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), director Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy), Leone-biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, and Leone himself, offer varied viewpoints as to the rationale and impact of the spaghetti western and debate the merit of the moniker itself.
Film buffs may already know some of the trivia offered, such as the fact that spaghetti westerns were nearly always shot silently, since voices would be overdubbed anyway for different markets. But I, for one, was surprised to hear that Kurosawa sued Leone for copyright infringement over A Fistful of Dollars, won, and made more royalties on that picture than on any of his own works. Other amusing anecdotes include descriptions of how the title from a successful picture would be co-opted by legions of other, unrelated movies to increase box office, and so the star of the successful Django had to live with "Django" being added to the title of every picture he starred in for the next ten years.
Each of the pictures singled out in this documentary represents a turning point for the spaghetti western. A Fistful of Dollars is credited with launching the sub-genre (although it may not have been the first Italian western released), while Django upped the level of cynical, gratuitous violence, capitalizing on the blurred morality running through these films, later taken even further in A Bullet for the General with an infamous ear-removal scene (sound familiar?). Django Kill made explicit the implicit homo-eroticism of the western with obviously gay cowboys, while Terence Hill (an Americanized name for Italian actor Mario Girotti) has the distinction of effectively spoiling the run by overusing slapstick in the Trinity series.
Picture quality is generally good, given the age of some of the footage, but can sometimes be scratched and grainy. This is a full frame transfer, letterboxed to either 16:9 or whatever original aspect ratio in which the film being discussed was presented, and it's unfortunate an anamorphic disc wasn't struck to increase the resolution. Audio is a straightforward 2-channel stereo, clean and mostly free from distortion except where unavoidable, again because of the aged source materials. No special features are included, nor are there any language options or subtitles (except during non-English interviews).
Overall, this is an informative, appealing, and entertaining look at a vital part of film history. Those who like the spaghetti western tend to like it a lot, and should be satisfied with this effort; more casual fans will learn a lot and come to appreciate that the spaghetti western is more than just a trilogy of Clint Eastwood movies. While hardly comprehensive, it's still worthwhile viewing for anyone who enjoys learning about film history.
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