Spaghetti with a Dash of Dostoyevsky

by Lisa Lieberman

Wallach-in-bathtub-GoodBadUgly-300x162My favorite line from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), spoken by the late, great Eli Wallach, captures the essence of the Spaghetti Western. Here's Tuco, the Mexican bandit played by Wallach, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He's been thirsting for revenge ever since, he says, and in the time it's taken him to find Tuco, he's learned to shoot left-handed. Blam! Wallach's character blows him away. “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.”

Sergio Leone loved Westerns and the image of America they conveyed. You see this in his craftsmanship, the careful attention to detail, the gorgeous panoramas reminiscent of John Ford's best work. Even when Leone undercuts the conventions of the genre (as in the scene with Tuco and the one-armed bad guy), he pays them tribute, substituting his own, more nuanced myths for the old cowboy clichés. “Fairy tales for grown-ups,” he called them in an interview with Christopher Frayling.

ClintOf course, Europeans are the grown-ups: worldly, cynical, not prudish about sex, more concerned with surface style, it must be said, than with the moral underpinnings of their heroes. Who is “Blondie,” Clint Eastwood's character in the film? We never learn his real name, where he came from, who his daddy was. A man of few words, he's unconcerned with social niceties, having no interest in women, good or otherwise, no long-range plans, dreams, or ambitions. He dresses well, however.

Clothes Make the Man

The trademark hat with tooled leather hat band. The poncho. In his later masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone put all of his actors in dusters like the one Blondie wears when Tuco is forcing him across the desert, kicking off a fad for the long, fawn-colored coats among trendy Parisians. But those dusters are really dusty. Compare the nice, clean hero of an American Western to his sweaty counterpart in one of Leone's films. At the end of a hard day's ride in The Searchers (1956), John Wayne's horse is pretty sweaty, but apart from needing a shave, Wayne himself is fresh as a daisy.

Wayne and sweaty horseThe trailer for Once Upon a Time in the West tips you off that this is a gritty film—figuratively as well as literally. People get shot at close range. Henry Fonda shoots a kid, for heaven's sake! And what's the deal with Charles Bronson, the good guy, pushing Claudia Cardinale around and ripping her dress? John Wayne could have taught him a thing or two about how to treat a little lady.

Bronson's character doesn't have a name either. He goes by “Harmonica,” is even more taciturn than Eastwood (if that's possible), lets his mouth organ do most of the talking. We do learn his backstory eventually, which explains why he's bent on killing Fonda, but plot was never Leone's strong point. He went for the feel of the Old West, lovingly recreated through attention to period detail, the mood heightened by Ennio Morricone's unforgettable scores.

Leone's West is not our West. Virtue, honor, justice: the standard themes of the genre, are nowhere in evidence. The Spaghetti Western was “long on gore, short on lore,” Mandel Herbstman quipped in his review of Fistful of Dollars. The heroes win because they are better at killing than the villains, not because their cause is more righteous. Blondie's out to get rich. Harmonica's out for revenge. Both characters are loners in the time-honored frontier tradition, and yet we are not encouraged to admire them. All style, no substance, Leone's vision struck many critics in the 1960s as subversive, nihilistic. Thomas Hobbes's description of the life of man in the state of nature (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short) was invoked. Karl Marx also received his due. Stuart Kaminsky saw Leone's heroes' “obsession with money” as “a critique of an American brand of capitalism,” with its strong individualism and anti-communal attitudes.[1]

Secondhand Smoke

Actually, these comparisons are apt. Leone grew up under Fascism and came of age during World War II. His first job in the film industry was as an assistant to Vittorio de Sica on the neorealist classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948), even playing a small (uncredited) role in the film as a seminary student. Italian neorealism was very much a left-wing movement, although its leading figures were hardly doctrinaire. Communists had been at the forefront of resistance organizations throughout occupied Europe and were thus in a strong position, morally and politically, when the war ended. A concern with the lives of working people, their struggle against poverty and injustice, coincided with the social agendas of postwar governments. Leone absorbed all of this in an unsystematic way, picking up a patina of Marxism in the course of his apprenticeship.

The nihilism derived from a more exotic source. He seems to have acquired it from Russia, via Japan. Fistful of Dollars (1964) is a knock-off of Akira Kurosawa's samurai film, Yojimbo (1961), a stark depiction of societal breakdown in the aftermath of civil war. Yojimbo dog handThe shot of a dog carrying a severed human hand in its mouth establishes the tone of the film early on, what we might call its solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short atmosphere, although there are humorous touches throughout, along with a jaunty score. Kurosawa was a big fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it does serve to reveal his moral vision—a vision born of Japan's defeat in World War II. Leone absorbed this too, breathing it in like secondhand smoke. The bleakness of his vision in the Dollars Trilogy matched Kurosawa's, but by the time he made Once Upon a Time in the West, a redemptive element had crept in with Claudia Cardinale's character, Jill, a former prostitute, taking on the role of ministering angel to the men toiling on the railroad.
I don't know, it could be Leone's Catholicism coming into play with the Madonna business, but I'd like to imagine that at some point between finishing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and beginning this masterpiece, he sat down and read Crime and Punishment for himself.

1. Cited by William McClain, “Western, Go Home! Sergio Leone and the ‘Death of the Western’ in American Film Criticism,” Journal of Film and Video, Volume 62, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 2010, 61.