Since the film industry was born, Italy has always been one of the top competitors on the world stage. As early as the Italian futurism movement to the Neorealism movement, Italy has made tons of incredibly delicate films. In the 1960s and the 1970s they showed us they could make not only really refined films, but heavily extravagant works as well. From Peplum films, to Spaghetti Westerns, Giallos to Poliziotteschis, the 60’s and 70’s were the golden age for stylized cinema.
With Spaghetti Westerns we’ll just discuss one of these stylized genres this time around, since each of them deserve their own lists. Excuse us for not including Sergio Leone on this list, but we assume most of you are well familiar with his work, so instead we’ll discuss some lesser known ones. Also apologies for not including something from the legendary Bud Spencer & Terence Hill, but even they felt a little too much on the popular side. With that out of the way, the 10 films that are included in this list are still among the greatest Spaghetti Westerns, or even just Westerns, they’re all due to get some more recognition.
1. Face to Face (1967)
In Face to Face, Gian Maria Volontè, whom we’ll see once more in this list, portrays history professor Brad fletcher, who is moving to the warm west after his retirement. When he arrives, he’s taken hostage by the infamous bandit Solomon Bennet (Tomás Milián). During his short period of captivity, Fletcher befriends Bennet and at a later moment he joins the gang and as his character gradually takes a different shape, he even becomes the leader.
In this list we’re bound to end up talking about Sergio Leone’s films at least once, so let’s get it out of the way with it now. Face to Face is a Zapata western (Spaghetti Western set in Mexico) directed by another talented Sergio; Sergio Sollima, often named together with Leone and Sergio Corbucci as ‘the Sergios,’ the three best Spaghetti Western directors that were. Now bear with me here, the film is co-written by yet another Sergio; Sergio Donati, co-writer of a number of Leone’s films as well as Sollima’s more well-known western The Big Gundown. With this talent, a stacked cast, and the brilliant Ennio Morricone score (like he did with plenty more films in this list), it’s a miracle Face to Face isn’t more well-known.
2. The Grand Duel (1972)
One of the Spaghetti Western’s biggest stars was without a doubt Lee Van Cleef. Especially when it comes to American actors, he’s on top as he’s often named in one breath with both Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Van Cleef rose to stardom after playing in… we have to name drop him again… Sergio Leone’s ‘For a Few Dollars More.’ Whilst earlier just being type cast as villain, this marked a change in his career resulting in many starring roles in Spaghetti Westerns. He’s especially memorable in The Big Gundown and Death Rides a Horse, both not included in this list, but his role in the Grand Duel and his role in Day of Anger (also on this list) are ones to remember just as well.
Van Cleef plays an ex-sheriff, Clayton, who is set on a mission to help clear a man’s name. Philipp Wermeer is framed for the murder of a figure known as ‘The Patriarch’ and know he’s the target of bounty hunters sent by The Patriarch’s three sons. With bounty-hunters on their heels, Wermeer and Clayton travel to the town where the brothers are located to confront them and prove Vermeer his innocence.
Besides The Grand Duel being Van Cleef’s time to shine, it’s worth noting the other talent behind the film. Although it was Giancarlo Santi’s directorial debut, he was already a highly regarded filmmaker as he was among other things the second unit director on some of Leone’s films. Most noteworthy though, is Ernest Gastaldi who wrote the stellar script. Gastaldi has got to be one of the greatest screenwriters of his time and place, the extravagant era of Italian cinema.
3. Cut-Throats Nine (1972)
A wagon transporting a group of convicts is being escorted by a cavalry troop through the mountains to prison. When a gang of bandits attacks the caravan. Only a sergeant, his daughter, and seven brutal, murderous prisoners survive. With the bandits still in pursuit and with no wagon or horses, the sergeant must escort the prisoners to prison by himself, while also protecting his daughter. If that isn’t brutal enough, he also is trying to find out which of the prisoners sadistically murdered his wife.
“Possibly the most violent Euro western ever made.” A tagline that sure isn’t far off from the truth. Cut-Throats Nine has moments of brutal violence, so much that’s sometimes considered to be a horror film. It’s a genre-blending film that might not turn the stomach of avid horror-fans, but any regular western fan will come out surprised. Other than being brutal, the film has a contrast of beauty, through the endless shots of beautiful mountain-scenery. The Spanish Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent directed several Spaghetti Westerns, but this one is in its own league.
4. Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
This crazy western follows the swindler Stubby, drunkard Clem, a prostitute known as Bunny, and the mentally disturbed ‘Bud’ as they escape prison and embark on adventure in Utah. Their time as free people isn’t much better as imprisonment, as they are haunted by a psychopathic Mexican bandit named Chaco. As they wander through the badlands they’re just out to survive, but the world has other plans for them.
Lucio Fulci is probably most known for his Giallo films, but as many Italian directors from the era, he started out with Spaghetti Westerns. Before he made any Giallos, he came onto the scene with his western called Massacre Time. After directing two Giallos, including arguably his best ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling,’ he took a break from them and went back to make his most promising western ‘Four of the Apocalypse.’ In true Fulci fashion, it is gritty, nasty, and quite brutal. There’s not much of the wide scope landscape shots that we’re used to from westerns, but instead he follows these four unlikely protagonist in something that almost feels more like a character study than anything else. It’s a very refreshing perspective for the genre and yet another great entry in Fulci’s filmography.
5. Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967)
Like Cut-Throats Nine, this film is as well described as the most brutally violent spaghetti western. Which one is the true winner is hard to say, but again we understand the sentiment. Besides being described as violent, it also has the honor of being called an Acid Western after that term was coined in a review of the later western El Topo. It’s a western with a journey towards death instead of the usual journey towards liberation. With it comes of course the almost surreal-esque editing and violence that could be described as an acid trip.
Django Kill’s protagonist is not Django, but instead is called ‘the stranger’ since Django Kill has nothing to do with the 1966 film Django. The international title for the movie has Django in it solely to profit from the Franco Nero film. So not Django, but the stranger (played by Tomás Milián who we already saw in two earlier entries of this list) is our unlucky star here, crawling out of death in the first scene. The stranger and his Mexican companions are left for dead by the American part of their gang after a gold heist. Now, the stranger wants the gold back and more, so he’s out for vengeance.