Here’s an article about Spaghetti Westerns I’ve just translated from an old issue of La Stampa, back in December 1966. [Translating this was a sod, so don't take it as gospel, it's far from 100% accurate!]
Bad news for lovers of the Spaghetti Western, which has proved unable to replace the Amercian western and, after a moment of great and unexpected success, has suffered a scary decline. In 1964, one of the the two films to take more than two billion was Per un pugno di dollari, the film that started the genre, by Sergio Leone. In the following year, the only film to make that figure was Per qualche dollaro in piu), which took a billion in less than sixty days.
Among the four to reach one billion were Un dollaro bucato and Il ritorno di Ringo. The few dollars of investment were transformed into large figures at the box office, they had deep and rapid success. But here, summing up, il Giornale dello Spettacolo announces: “The rapid decline of the western.” The selection on the part of the the public, it continues, has begun earlier than expected, leaving big questions for producers of commercial films. If the western ends, it’s narrows their ark of success. So the short western season was euphoric and is ending unexpectedly. And certainly it’s true that directors who had been involved – such as Tinto Brass, Lizzani, Vancini have all moved on, while Duccio Tessari, who along with Leone initiated the succesful formula, has tried his hand at satire with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and is even starting work on an Italian musical.
There are many reasons for this decline which neither Lizzani nor Vancini can halt, even if the former tries to make use of actors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lou Castel, the intelligent actor from Pugni in tasca, and intends that his Recquiescant is about “something of a modern Don Quixote, a knight of ideals but at the same time determined and aggressive.” The basic reason is the confounding need for innovation – understood in its true meaning – and fashion, which corresponds to the particular predisposition of the public at any time, whether it be good or bad taste. To be fashionable often accompanies the passing of a former fashion (and this is true of cinema, things pass, then come back into vogue from time to time with modifications).
It seems that the people behind the boom, when questioned by a weekly in Milan, aren’t able to give satisfactory answers or to have critically examined the reasons for the success of “a product that had been exclusive to Hollywood but instead was miraculously revived in Italy”. Duccio Tessari, the most thoughtful of the filmmakers, says; “in short, we play a bit with the western formula and people have more fun.” Tessari acknowledges that the violence is often overdone, and notes that while writing the screenplay of Per un pugno di dollari he and Leone would joke about “killing another five, no, three were enough!” In the first Ringo there are seventy eight deaths, in the second it’s in the nineties.
The writer Luciano Vincenzoi talks about meeting Leone. When asked what he liked most about the good westerns, he said: “the final duels. So the director suggested that I put together a film that highlighted such scenes, twenty points of maximum tension coming from the very first shots. The model isn’t so much the old westerns, where such scenes were infrequent and generally towards the climax, but Bond. In Bond, out of sixty scenes at least fifty involve some kind of suspense. The original westerns were too watered down.”
So in this violence and suspense, do we also find sadism? Sergio Corbucci recognizes that these are truly stories of perversion, they contain everything: savage cruelty, necrophilia, drugs. “We even kill children!” Tessari replies: “Violence is what you want, not sadism, as this would be far too serious, we wink at the audience. It’s the same game played by matadors, who sometimes resort to farce. And I think even the most bloody scenes are funny.”
Like Tessari, Vincenzoni insists there is violence, but it’s also satire of violence. But what is this satire, is it real or imagined? And does not the violence have the upper hand? If it is true, as is pointed out by Leone, that the old westerns lacked historical perspective, and that the spaghetti westerns have critical depth at their heart, that the films are also produced with serious intent?
To such questions, the best response is as one of those viewers who responding to a debate between directors of westerns all’Italiana hosted by a periodical, wrote that the westerns, and in particular Per un pugno di dollari, will not go down in history. Since then, there have been many westerns all’italiana, and their success has given wings of courage to those involved to expand their decalarations. Their boasts of their differences to Hollywood westerns, continues this writer, is merely a claculation of numbers of killings, a spririt of violence. Is it fashion?
As Corbucci himself says: “Now I can’t think of any more ways to kill people I just hope it all ends soon, at first I enjoyed them, but after having made four of these films my initial curiosity has passed, I don’t enjoy it any more.” And it’s no more fun for the public who watch them. And yet an answer to the decline of western autarkic Be ‘is right in the debate alluded to. Now – is Corbucci speaking – we no longer know how to kill people, forced to seek the applause: there remains to be invented? “I just hope it ends soon: at first the thing I enjoyed, but after having made four films in this genre, the initial curiosity has passed, I enjoy it more. ” The public is not more fun to see them.
I guess the interesting thing is that even in 1966 people were saying the genre was coming to an end, whereas in fact it would continue in reasonable health for another three years, stutter, and then revive in the early 70s.