Monday 12 August 2019

The Spaghetti Western

Especially sharp-eyed (or snaked-eyed) regulars might remember me posting, from time-to-time, semi-gratuitous YouTube videos of Spaghetti Western scores by Ennio Morricone - the man behind the coyote calls, the whipcracks, the grunts, the whistles and the unforgettable tunes of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), plus the haunting harmonicas and gritty guitars of Leone's mighty Once Upon a Time in the West - and, oh, so much more besides.

I love those films, though I believe it's the music that mainly makes them so special for me. 

I probably ought to watch more films. But they're mostly too long and, besides, I've got Mark Mardell and Mark Easton to attend to. 

Once at work a temp guy who loved his films began asking me if I'd seen such and such a film. I said 'no'. He went on. I went on replying the same. It went on for ages. Hours even. He even tried again the next day. He couldn't believe his ears. 

My taste in films isn't overly sophisticated. I like Star Trek movies, Japanese Godzilla films of the 1950s to the 1970s, Carry On films, Hitchcock, the odd James Stewart or Cary Grant film, The African Queen, Some Like It Hot, a few Glen Ford westerns and - of course - my beloved Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns (plus the Don Spiegel-directed Morricone-scored Two Mules for Sister Sarah), and The Naked Gun and Airplane.

Most of my experience of cinema-going was a girlfriend-pleasing thing. She liked kiddies' films and horror films and took me to see plenty of both, bless her.

(I seriously loathe horror films, or any films with violence against women. It verges on a phobia with me). 

I particularly remember being taken to watch The Lion King in Lancaster's now-defunct central cinema.

The film was ear-splittingly loud (as is the way of modern cinemas) but even that was no match for the hordes of young kids leaping up and down throughout and shouting and screaming at an intensity that would surely have shamed Douglas Adams's (Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd-inspired) megagroup Disaster Area - "the loudest band in the galaxy".

So many little mouths, so many decibels.

The little ones managed to pretty much drown out Elton John entirely (something some people might think to be no bad thing at all. But how can anyone really hate the singer of Your Song?).

Ah, Douglas Adams and Disaster Area. Time for a long quote:
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy notes that Disaster Area, a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones, are generally held to be not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert-goers judge that the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves play their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stays in orbit around the planet – or more frequently around a completely different planet. 
Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath a silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason. 
Many worlds have now banned their act altogether, sometimes for artistic reasons, but most commonly because the band’s public address system contravenes local strategic arms limitation treaties. 
This has not, however, stopped their earnings from pushing back the boundaries of pure hypermathematics, and their chief research accountant has recently been appointed Professor of Neomathematics at the University of Maximegalon, in recognition of both his General and Special Theories of Disaster Area Tax Returns, in which he proves that the whole fabric of the space-time continuum is not merely curved, it is in fact totally bent.”
Where was I and what's the point of this post? 

Well, time for a bouquet: I do like classic, classical film scores and I really like Radio 3's Sound of Cinema, hosted by famous feminist Naomi Wolf's arch-nemesis Matthew Sweet

This week's episode focused on Spaghetti Westerns. And it wasn't all Ennio Morricone and Lee Van Cleef. It also looked at the lesser lights who slung their guns and smoked their smouldering cheroots in Ennio's mountain-like shadow.

And it was all fascinating stuff, though no one got anywhere near approaching Maestro Morricone in terms of being The Maestro of 'this kind of thing'.

But what anecdotes Matthew told us along the way!

For example:
'Spaghetti Western' is the name we give to films set in the Wild West but shot in Europe. 
But this is something that British film-makers had been doing years before A Fistful of Dollars. 
The Singer Not The Song was shot in Spain by The Rank Organisation in 1960 and, instead of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, it has Dirk Bogarde as a bandit called Anacleto - which was also the name of a Pizza Express dessert, now sadly discontinued. 
Its director, Roy Ward Baker, always described it as "that dreadful film that put paid to my career", but I think he underestimated it.  
What Roy did, quite in spite of himself, was to make a picture that John Waters would have been proud to put his name on - a gay Western starring Bogarde as a Mexican bandit and John Mills as the Irish priest for whom he develops a strange attraction. 
Dirk took the role because he thought he was going to be smouldering opposite Peter Finch or Richard Burton and because he'd get to wear a pair of incredibly tight leather pants. When he found that Mills had been cast he was so angry that he vowed to make life hell for everyone concerned. Which he did. But, as Samantha Fox once sang, the pants stayed on.
This wasn't, however, the first British Western shot on the European mainland. In 1958 the Hollywood veteran Raoul Walsh signed with Rank to direct The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw - an action comedy starring Kenneth More as a British gunsmith who finds himself the arbiter of law and order in a one-horse Western town. Jayne Mansfield was his co-star who, whilst she was in England, also found time to cut the ribbon on a crucial section of the Chiswick flyover. Her character sings in the picture but Mansfield doesn't. The voice emanating from her high escarpments is that of Connie Francis.
I like yarns like that.

Meanwhile, the 'classic score of the week' this week was from Ennio Morricone. And I'm going to feature its climax in context - the final duel from Once Upon a Time in the West:

Now, please, if you've never seen it and still want to see it, close your eyes. This is the glorious climatic scene of the film, that reveals everything and brings the bad guy in black (Henry Fonda) to realise, as he death-rattles his last (with a harmonica stuffed in his gob), just who exactly the good guy in white (Charles Bronson) actually is.

So if you don't want to see it, as you've not yet seen it, just listen instead.

But the music and the direction and the acting work together in ways that made cinema history. The actors were responding to Ennio's music, played live while they acted out their quasi-operatic scene of life and death and revenge, measuring their motions to the intense but leisurely measures of his music.

What beats this, all you cinema fans?


  1. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly theme tune has got to be in the top 5 all time original pieces of movie music along with Unchained Melody.

    On that subject, I was amazed to learn a few years back that the Bond theme was originally written for a musical setting of "A House for Mr Biswas" by the overly-serious-but-unfairly-diminished-by-the-BBC- because-he-was-a-Tory VS Naipaul. The musical was abandoned but the theme survived in its new incarnation. Once you hear that Indian lilt to the Bond theme, you will always know it's there!

    "He who does not love Airplane does not love life!" as someone (Monkey Brains) once said.

    Again, I was amazed (maybe I have a low amazeability threshold) to learn that it was actually closely based on a 1950s serious air-based drama (the Airplane people actually bought up the rights to the original film!)...once you see the original, you can't unforget that!

    I would definitely agree that cinema is the art form that most transforms you out of your own body and you become an ethereal part of what is being presented to you as some kind of simulacrum of life. Not sure that makes it the highest art form but it is definitely the one that reaches parts others can't reach, at least not simultaneously.

    1. What a great film ,although I would have liked to see the opening scene with Woody Strode et al waiting for Charles Bronson's train and the lines-
      "Looks like we're shy of one horse."
      "No you brought two too many."

  2. I know that I am a quite late to this party, Craig, but Keoma is quite possibly the best spaghetti western out there. I could praise the old camera angles but the soundtrack needs to be heard to be believed.....and somehow it just works!


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