A Professional Gun

Last Tuesday evening, on the occasion of Film Forum’s ongoing 27-film spaghetti westerns series, the Italian Cultural Institute hosted a lively roundtable discussion of the genre. Panelists included Bill Lustig (Maniac director, producer, and CEO of cult DVD company Blue Underground), critics J. Hoberman (whose recent essay on spaghetti westerns is in the latest FILM COMMENT) and Dave Kehr, programmer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan (who co-curated the current Film Forum series), and—from out of the genre itself—actor Tony Musante.

After some opening remarks, D’Agnolo Vallan showed clips from Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun (68), starring Musante as Mexican revolutionary Paco Roman. Tousling his henna-red hair, the 75-year-old big-screen gunslinger energetically recounted his shock at discovering “that Italian westerns were shot in Spain even though the stories are about Mexico.” In fact, all of the panelists seemed to have parsed the genre's incongruities in their own fashion.

Hoberman said that when he first saw Sergio Leone's films, they “seemed to be set on Mars . . . a wasteland.” Their alien nature was a good thing: “I noticed the complete disrespect which [films like] The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly showed for . . . sacred events in American history . . . I love these movies because they're so un-American.” Hoberman identified a specific political correlate for the genre: “We were in a war [in Vietnam] at the time, but there were no movies being made about [it], and here come these cynical war movies.”

Dissenting, Kehr said that as a kid in Oklahoma, he “did not see a radical break between spaghetti westerns and American westerns . . . It wasn't until A Few Dollars More that you saw this was something different.” Stirring the pot, he continued: “In a way, the first Italian western is a 1954 film by Robert Aldrich called Vera Cruz . . . Spaghetti westerns were different from regular westerns in their sense of humor, in the violence they showed.”

A Fistful of Dollars

Shaking his head, self-described spaghetti western “fanboy” Lustig argued that “lighting, composition and music were what set [them] apart. Ennio Morricone would write the music before the movie was shot. So, when [Sergio] Leone was shooting, he had that music in his head. I know Robert Aldrich wasn't doing that.” 

Kehr elaborated on the genre’s place in film history: “I see spaghetti westerns in [the context of] blaxploitation or kung fu movies, all serving this urban audience that was not being catered to by mainstream Hollywood. I never had the sense that it was un-American. To me, the western was always a vehicle for self-criticism.”

For his part, Musante joked that he and Corbucci never talked politics, but stuck to more practical matters. According to the Connecticut-born actor, the director had a simple reason for casting Musante as Paco Roman in A Professional Gun: “Sergio told me he was looking for an inexpensive Eli Wallach.”

Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

As the laughter subsided, D’Agnolo Vallan informed the audience that perhaps 500 spaghetti westerns were made in all, though many were lost. She reminded the panel of western director Burt Kennedy's description of the genre to John Ford: “No story, no scenes, just killing.” And yet, she noted, in Italy “directors, including intellectuals, set out to disprove this notion.”

But Lustig pointed out that even some of those involved in the films' production held them in low esteem: “They thought of these movies as pornos: they did it for the money.” As Lustig told it, when he expressed his love for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to actor Eli Wallach, Wallach replied: “I hated it and Sergio Leone owes me money.”

Indeed, the genre seemed to inspire powerful emotions in fans and detractors alike. Musante recalled his confusion at being violently accused of mocking Mexicans in his portrayal of Paco Roman. Hoberman offered that on the contrary, the genre was extremely popular there: “I came across a bunch of itinerant film exhibitors in the Yucatan. They drove around in a flatbed truck showing their only film . . . The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

These tensions seem to be part of the lifeblood of the films. As D’Agnolo Vallan explained, “young Italians in the late Sixties” seized on “the ideological versatility of spaghetti westerns . . . combin[ing] the deep love they had for westerns with these films’ anti-imperialist message.”

“That is what made them so powerful.”