I’ll always remember nearly firing tea out of my ears, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger presenting Clint Eastwood with an award back in the early 90s. After a touching heartfelt tribute from Arnie, Clint took to the podium and paused a moment, cocked his head sideways at the now-departing Mr. Schwarzenegger and quipped “Was I in Austria 45 years ago?”.
Weren’t these spaghetti westerns just a perfect storm of film-making though. Leone combined ultimate anti-hero journeys with razor-cool characters and bitter-sweet laconic dialogue that was like nothing else back then. Not to mention actors screaming charisma and intensity, the sublime scoring of Ennio Morricone, and the inspired choice of substituting the Spanish and Italian countryside for the old west. The result is mesmerising.
Back in the days of windfall TV, I used to live for these movies to happen my way unexpectedly. If I had kids that age I’d like to think I wouldn’t let them watch films like that; which would paradoxically be a crime of naive parenting, because these films should be required viewing for any child over the age of five.
Now I own the DVDs I never watch the damn things. Go figure. All DVDs have done for me is curse me with the misplaced magical thinking that I need to be in exactly the right mood to watch exactly the right film. I sometimes make myself ill choosing what to watch before reluctantly settling on something I’m ambivalent about. A patently ridiculous situation. I go without watching films I love for years now. It makes no sense. Windfall TV worked better for people with jazz minds.
Clint was and will always be the linchpin of those films for me, but the supporting actors were so well plucked.
I don’t know who I was more terrified of in For A Few Dollars More – Lee Van cleef or Gian Maria Volontè. This scene always scared the bejesus out of me though:
My sense of terror was shattered a few years later in the 80s when Lee Van Cleef starred as a geriatric ninja in a series called The Master; and again when Evelyn went bunny-boiler terminator on Clint in Play Misty for Me. Cowboy Clint would never have put up with that nonsense.
I never saw Gian Maria Volontè in anything else though so he still scares the shit out of me. As such, I’m writing this entire post ensconced behind the sofa with the big teddy bear standing guard in his cowboy hat. How I suffer for my art.
The more I learn about Klaus Kinski, the more I love these two scenes:
This brings to mind an incident Werner Herzog recounted about filming Fitzcarraldo downriver from Iquitos in Peru in the early 80s. Herzog had enlisted hundreds of local Shipibo indians, either as extras or for the meta task of hauling the film’s paddle steamer over dry land. After witnessing some of Kinski’s more colourful tantrums, a contingent of Shipibo men approached Herzog, offering to murder Kinski because he was possessed by demons. Herzog was so sick of Kinski’s diva bullshit by this stage that he briefly contemplated accepting the offer.
Don’t even get me started about Eli Wallach in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. I was fairly convinced they had just filmed a genuine bandit until I saw him again in The Misfits and Godfather 3. Then I realised he was just an incredibly talented actor.
Helped along by this amazing cast, punchy writing and savage score, Sergio Leone found a way to alchemise the oh-so-tired western genre into rock-n-roll celluloid gold. These will always be some of my favourite films.
This has to be my favourite scene out of all of them:
Now maybe I’m ready to watch them again.