The first of Sergio Leone’s masterful Spaghetti Westerns is by definition a landmark — it invented a whole damn sub-genre, set Clint Eastwood upon the road to superstardom, and managed something impossible: it rejuvenated the ailing Western. In short, it was like the arrival of punk rock.
By 1964, the genre was creaking in its bones, Wayne and Ford were growing older, and along came this whacky Italian who had earned his stripes helping make quota-quickie B-movies for the European market. With no concept of tradition he flooded the screen with personality: fierce close-ups picking out every pot and pimple of faces as craggy as the Spanish landscape he transformed into an untamed America; a nihilistic disregard for morality; and music thrumming through the film like a dramatic pulse. Ennio Moriconne’s indelible score added a wild swagger to this oddball tale of a lone guman conniving plan to set two gangs of killers against one another.
The story was actually borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a director who had already drawn from the Western tradition of John Ford. But Leone, who’s English was spare at best, isn’t too concerned with the burdens of script when he can lavish his world with such style. These sweaty seething desperadoes — about the only thing that differentiates Eastwood’s anonymous shooter is his marginally cleaner aspect — partake in a grungy, discordant kind of violence, an ugly strain of killing that has no room for heroics. But the action is still shot with marvellous invention. Leone makes the borders of the frame feel limitless, his camera moves striking out unpredictably as if he could barely tame his vision.
Stubbled, chewing on a cheroot cigar, and wearing that threadbare poncho, Eastwood comes short on talk (the script hadn’t given him many words anyway) but presents this antihero with an aloof sense of parody. He looks like a man who has to stir himself to action, as if he’d much rather be dozing off the whiskeys, but his mind was ticking away always looking for the angles. Gone was the strident folklore of John Wayne, for a shocking, genius, caustic, fusion of homage and ridicule. Leone never looked back.