Movies At Mother's - Spaghetti Western Wednesdays

Since 2006 I have been fortunate to be given the opportunity to host a monthly film series at Mother's Velvet Lounge in Portland, Oregon. Originally I was approached by my dear friend Lisa Schroeder, the owner and head chef of Mother's Bistro, to curate the screening of an Italian western of my choosing to be accompanied by a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. She would promote the evening as Spaghetti Western Night, and the evening would begin with a live performance by the Morricone-inspired musical ensemble, Federale.
On March 15th, 2006 I introduced  Sergio Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) to Mother's patrons and the evening proved something of a success. I followed that up a week later with Leone's For A Few Dollars More (1965), and once it appeared as though we could count on some kind of audience for these screenings, we decided to make it a monthly thing. That series continued for through March of 2007.
Lisa Schroeder serving up spaghetti and meatballs at one of our first screenings at Mother's Velvet Lounge. This photo was taken by  Craig Mitchell Dyer  for  The Oregonian's A&E  section.

Lisa Schroeder serving up spaghetti and meatballs at one of our first screenings at Mother's Velvet Lounge. This photo was taken by Craig Mitchell Dyer for The Oregonian's A&E section.

One aspect of the series that was the most fun for me was the creation of posters for the screenings to display at the restaurant. In time Lisa and I were sending out email announcements that included the posters, and eventually those were followed by a Facebook group. By and large I have tried to create original posters for each of the screenings, though quite often time would not permit anything more than a reproduction of the film's original release poster with a small amount of informational text included.
For the Spaghetti Western Wednesdays posters I created a basic template and simply plugged in images and text specific to the film. What follows are the posters for that first series.
A Fistful Of Dollars  (1964) Sergio Leone

A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) Sergio Leone

The following are the notes I presented to the audience of the first film screening at Mother's:

Sergio Leone and the Italian Western Tradition

Before we watch A Fistful Of Dollars, I’d like to go back a half a century and look at the circumstances that resulted in what would first seem to have been a very unlikely phenomenon.  

In the years following WWII, Italy, while financially devastated, possessed a wealth of artistic and technical talent which proved very attractive to Hollywood producers looking to satisfy the international appetite for grand historical epics.  The Roman studio, Cinecitta really came of age as a result of this interest.  Though constructed in the 30’s under the shadow of fascism, it truly came to life in the 50’s when films like Quo Vadis, Ben Hur and War and Peace were shot there.  Many a talented Italian director cut his teeth on these films, most notably Mario Bava and Sergio Leone, both of whom worked in multiple capacities including assistant directing.  

During the downtime between these epics, low budget domestic productions kept the pot boiling.  Using the sets and costumes left over from Hollywood biblical epics, resourceful producers offered up a genre known as Peplum, better known here in the US as the Italian Muscle Epic. This became, for a time, a furiously popular genre, and made a former Mr. Universe named Steve Reeves a household name. One of these films, The Last Days Of Pompeii was ultimately helmed by Assistant director Sergio Leone, when the original director, Mario Bonnard fell ill.  Leone also is credited as one of the screenwriters along with Sergio Corbucci, the other great Italian Western director.  

But as the popularity of  Peplum died down in the early 60’s, Italian producers were looking for something to keep the industry afloat, and noticed that Germany was enjoying some success from the production of westerns based on the popular novels of of Karl May.  Many of these films starred Lex Barker, the American actor who played Tarzan in the 50’s, and it was this decision to cast a slightly familiar American face in these films that made them marketable in the US.

Though they had produced a couple of minor westerns, Italy entered the Western game in earnest with two productions in 1964.  The first was Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci and staring  Franco Nero, and A Fistful Of Dollars directed of course by Leone and staring a minor American TV actor named Clint Eastwood, who was familiar to audiences as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide.  Both films were wildly popular, though while Django was actually completed before A Fistful of Dollars, it ran afoul of censors for excessive violence, and didn’t make it to the US until 1966.  

A Fistful of Dollars was a runaway smash hit, and made Clint Eastwood an international star.  There had been a pervasive concern that Americans would give an Italian western a pretty cool reception if they were aware of the country of origin, so the original credits for A Fistful of Dollars is full of pseudonyms, with Leone being credited as Bob Robertson, Gian Maria Volonte as Johnny Wels, and Ennio Morricone  was credited as Dan Savio.

The script for A Fistful Of Dollars was faithfully drawn from Yojimbo, as the Akira Kurosawa samurai films had already proven fertile ground for adaptation into the Western idiom. John SturgesThe Magnificent Seven, based on The Seven Samurai had been a gigantic success, and Martin Ritt’s The Outrage attempted to transplant the plot of Rashomon to the wild west with somewhat less success. The producers of A Fistful Of Dollars neither paid for nor gave credit to Kurosawa for the story, and were subsequently sued by the Japanese studio for copyright infringement.  Eventually, the settlement resulted in Kurosawa’s producers receiving 15% of the box-office take for Leone’s film. Kurosawa later admitted being rather fond of Leone’s film. What has always struck me a odd about this little anecdote is that both films are clearly adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s gangland era novel, Red Harvest. And to the best of my knowledge neither the Japanese nor the Italian productions acknowledge their literary source material.

Finally, I feel the need to share a few words about Ennio Morricone, who stands as one of cinema’s greatest composers. His work in Leone’s films alone makes him deserving of that mantle, but when combined with his scores for over 200 films over the past 45 years (most of which are equally tasty), his contribution to the art seems super-human.  Interestingly enough, Leone did not want to work with Morricone initially, as he had heard a score he had done for an earlier (rather insignificant) western and found it to be pedestrian.  Morricone won him over by agreeing that the score had been sub-par, and instead suggested that A Fistful of Dollar’s score should be much more experimental, invoking more John Cage than Aaron Copeland. The result; a dynamic score that blurs the lines between music and sound-scape, becomes the inception of a dramatically new musical idiom which Morricone would continue to develop with every subsequent film he did for Leone.

With that, we present to you, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars,  following previews from our coming attractions…             

For A Few Dollars More  (1965) Sergio Leone

For A Few Dollars More (1965) Sergio Leone

One may note the conspicuous absence of an announcement for The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966), and while it was most certainly screened at Mother's sadly I cannot find the file for the artwork. It did represent the first instance wherein I emailed notes on the film to everyone on the mailing list. My thoughts on the film were as follow;

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Following the unprecedented success of the first two "Dollars" films, Sergio Leone was in a position to write his own ticket with the third film in the series, not to mention that he was now a salable name in the US and would not have to hide behind the pseudonym, Bob Robertson.  

His choice was to make a Western Epic, the running time of the directors cut coming in at just under 3 hours.  This was not too unusual a precedent, as Hollywood westerns in the late 50's and early 60's had begun to embrace the epic sweep of the west with what have been called "Big Sky Films"; long, Technicolor, wide screen event films like The Big Country, and How The West Was Won, which were efforts to counteract the popularity of television by providing an experience that was, until recently, impossible to achieve at home.

Leone's films always showed an appreciation for this scope, and regardless of who was lensing his films, the Leone style was always quite evident, particularly with regard to his exquisitely composed frame, and use of dramatic foreground and background relationships.  The first shot in The Good The Bad and The Ugly is one of the classic examples of the kind of composition that Leone owns.

This is to take nothing away from the brilliant work of  Tonino Delli Colli, the film's cinematographer. Massimo Dallamano, who has been the DP on the previous two films had graduated to directing films himself , so Leone turned to Delli Colli who had worked extensively with Pier Paolo Passolini  would go on to shoot Leone's magnum opus, Once Upon A Time In The West and One Upon A Time In America as well as Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties and films by Fellini and Polanski.
Ennio Morricone's score for The Good The Bad and The Ugly has become on of the most popular soundtrack albums of all time, and main title theme easily ranks with The James Bond Theme and Star Wars as one of the most recognizable single pieces of film music ever written, and like the Bond theme actually defines the genre.

One of the aspects of this film which would prove to become  central to Italian Westerns to come is the character of Tuco, the Ugly in the title, as played by Eli Wallach.  What we have here is the classic, cliched  Mexican Bandito, drawn from hundreds of westerns, classically portrayed by Wallach himself in The Magnificent Seven and of course Alfonso Bedoya  in The Treasure Of Sierra Madre ("Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!").

But in Leone's film, this stereotype is turned on his ear and proves the story's most sympathetic character, or at least the one I find myself rooting for.  Yet the character is never compromised, and to the end is a whoring, murdering double-crossing scoundrel.  Here the credit must go in large part to Wallach himself, who along with Jason Robards in Once Upon A Time In The West is the most accomplished actor to appear in any of Leone's westerns.  Tuco remains to this day one of  the roles for which Wallach is best known.  He keeps the cliche alive the whole time while at the same time providing remarkable depth, energy and perhaps most important of all, humor to Tuco.

The Mestizo scoundrel becomes one of the enduring figures in the Italian Western, and would go on to become the central figure in many of the most popular films, most notably Tomas Milian as Cuchillo in Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown and it's sequel, Run Man Run, and El Vasco in Sergio Corbucci's Companeros.  In Damiano Damiani's A Bullet For The General, Gian Maria Volonte, who played the principal villain in both A Fistful Of Dollars and For A few Dollars More, plays a character named El Chucho, with a C-H rather than a T.  In all of these films, he is a vehicle of revolution, and the Mexican revolution is a central event in many Italian Westerns.  It's important to remember that quite unlike most of the American directors who made westerns in Hollywood, the Italian directors were big lefties, with both Sergio Sollima and Sergio Corbucci claiming to be Marxists.

Leone's politics are far less evident in his earlier films, but gain greater visibility as he progresses, and indeed his final Western, Duck You Sucker is a story of the Mexican revolution.   

Django  (1966)

Django (1966)

Companeros  (1970)

Companeros (1970)

By this time I had established an email list for the screenings and offered up notes along with the announcement poster. The following are my brief notes for Sergio Corbucci's Companeros (1970)

Continuing our monthly Spaghetti Western Nights at Mother’s Velvet Lounge, on July 5th we present Sergio Corbucci’s rousing tale of the Mexican revolution, Companeros (1970), starring Franco Nero, Tomas Milian and Jack Palance.  
This is probably Corbucci’s most entertaining western in the “proletarian fable” tradition and the dynamic of contempt and camaraderie between Nero and Milian is hugely memorable.  Jack Palance’s appearance as a one handed, refer-smoking psychotic will leave you begging for more.  And Ennio Morricone’s score… Ah what can I say?  You wont’ be able to get “Il Pinguino”, Franco Nero’s lighthearted theme out of your head (oh yes, there’s a whistled version) let alone the title theme, “Vamos a Matar, Compañeros”, a cross between a revolutionary anthem and a Gregorian chant.
It promises to be a really fun evening, starting with the best Spaghetti and Meatball dinner in Portland at 7:30 and the movie at 8:00.  
I’m looking forward to seeing you there.

One might ask what took so long to show Once Upon A Time In The West, particularly when one knows that it's hands down my favorite western, and likely somewhere in my list of 10 all time favorite films (a list I refuse to draw up for reasons too numerous to count). . After screening The Good The Bad And The Ugly, I was a little reticent to show a film of a nearly 3 hour length again which proved less than ideal for screenings in a bar. 
I followed Once Upon A Time In The West up with a lesser known but no less compelling offering from Sergio Solima, Face To Face. At the time it was hard to find a version of this film with a decent English language soundtrack, so I showed the film in Italian with subtitles. It was then that I realized that the sight lines in The Velvet Lounge were not ideal for registering text at the bottom of the frame. That and the fact that it is difficult to read subtitles while you are eating your dinner. As a result I have generally made it a policy to avoid screening films with subtitles. This of course means that a significant number of wonderful films are out of the running for potential screenings in my series. While I'm generally adverse to the idea of films dubbed in a language other than that of their origin, the Euro-Westerns are a different matter, as they were always designed with dubbing in mind, and usually had international casts, most of whom performed in their own language.

Spaghetti Western Wednesday returns to Mother’s Velvet Lounge on February 7th with Sergio Sollima’s powerful psycho-political thriller from 1967, Face To Face starring Tomas Milian (The Big Gundown, Companeros) and Gian Maria Volonte (A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More).
Like much of Sollima’s work, Faccia a Faccia is concerned with the duality of human nature, and the permeability of our identities. Milian plays Beauregard Bennet, the kind of ruthless but oddly sympathetic rogue for which he was best known in the 60’s, while Volonte, plays very much against type as a sickly and erudite professor of philosophy from New England. Circumstances throw these two polar opposites together, and soon two entirely different personalities arise.  
The story here is very different from traditional westerns, European or otherwise, in that there is no revenge back-story or cache of gold coming in to town, but the action is swift and the drama intense. Ennio Morricone’s score provides his usual exciting orchestrations, but also employs a melancholic strain to conjure the inner struggle that the two characters face.
For the first time, we will be presenting our feature with the original Italian soundtrack and English subtitles.  We will begin the fun at 7:00 when you will enjoy the best spaghetti and meatball dinner in town (alternate selections are available for those who shun meat or wheat), followed by the screening at 7:30.  Hope to see you there!
Mother’s is located at 212 SW Stark.

March 7th, 2007 was the final presentation of Spaghetti Western Wednesday. I showed the films that were particularly near and dear to me, and felt it was time to move on to another idiom. My choice for the final film seemed appropriate, as this Sergio Corbucci offering is easily the most nihilistic western to come out of the era, and might truly be crowned with the mantle "The Last Western". 

Our Final Spaghetti Western Night!
Spaghetti Western Wednesday returns one last time to Mother’s Velvet Lounge on March 7th with Sergio Corbucci’s iconoclastic 1968 drama, The Great Silence, starring Jean Louis Trintignant (A Man and A Woman, Z) and Klaus Kinski (For A Few Dollars More, Fitzcaraldo)
This is, in many ways, one of the most unusual films of the Euro-Western idiom and certainly one of the most controversial; not least for its setting.  While we are familiar with the iconic desert landscape of Almeria, Spain as the backdrop for nearly all Italian Westerns, this film takes place in a snowbound mountain range, and might have served as a tonal inspiration for Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).
Trintignant plays Silence, a mute gunman who is so fast that he can always wait for his opponent to draw first, thereby having always avoided the long arm of John Law.  Klaus Kinski, in one of his most powerful roles outside his work with Werner Herzog, is Loco, leader of a passel of ruthless bounty hunters who has been hired by the government to go after a congregation of Mormons who look to Silence as their only hope of survival.  Add to the mix a sympathetic sheriff played by Frank Wolff (Once Upon A Time In The West) and Vonetta McGee (Blacula, Shaft in Africa) as a beautiful widow seeking revenge, and you have one of the most powerful and uncompromising films of the Western idiom.  
Note; Please don’t read about this film on the IMDB.  Really, a lot of its power will be diminished by knowing too much.  It definitely packs more than a few surprises.
This will be the final installment of our Spaghetti Western Wednesdays, but not the end of film screenings at Mother’s Velvet Lounge.  We will continue our tradition, shifting gears to the deep well of cinema known as Film Noir.
We will begin the fun at 7:30 when you will enjoy the best spaghetti and meatball dinner in town (alternate selections are available for those who shun meat or wheat), followed by the screening at 8:00.  Hope to see you there!