A solitary stranger appears out of the barren desert dragging a coffin behind him. Within minutes a dozen bodies lie piled up at his feet.
If you think this is one of Sergio Leone’s celebrated “Man With No Name” Westerns, think again: It’s the opening of Sergio Corbucci’s eerie, mournful “Django” (1966), one of 31 classic and rare Italian Westerns from the mid-1960s through early 1970s being presented by the Venice Film Festival.
The fourth installment of the festival’s “Secret History of Italian Cinema” retrospective series includes such gloriously titled gems as Carlo Lizzani’s “The Hills Run Red” and Romolo Guerrieri’s “Ten Thousand Dollars for a Massacre” — movies that more than lived up to their promise of freewheeling carnage. The official “godfather” of the series is Quentin Tarantino, who’s scheduled to appear in person to host several of the Venice screenings.
Italian popular cinema in the 1960s was pulp filmmaking at its finest, churning out literally hundreds of gothic horror movies, Maciste/Hercules muscle-man epics, James Bond rip-offs and more — but the spaghetti Western was its strangest and most wondrous creation, a phantasmagorical landscape lifted from the novels of Louis L’Amour and the German writer Karl May (who’d never seen the American West, ironically) and inspired by the films of John Ford, Anthony Mann and others.
Leone’s epochal “Fistful of Dollars” (1964), screening at Venice, wasn’t technically the first Italian Western, but it’s the one that kickstarted the worldwide craze for the films and made a star out of Clint Eastwood. With its plot taken wholesale from Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” “Fistful” also started the tradition of spaghettis borrowing from everything in sight. The great director Budd Boetticher — whose lean Randolph Scott-starring Westerns, such as “7 Men From Now,” were an obvious template for the spaghetti Western — once recalled meeting Leone and the Italian maestro cried out: “Budd Boetticher! I stole everything from you!!”
The Venice fest is also focusing on lesser-known filmmakers of the genre such as Cesare Canevari with the wonderfully overheated “Matalo!” and Sergio Sollima’s weirdly perverse “The Big Gundown,” starring Lee Van Cleef.
Corbucci, in particular, is a fascinating filmmaker whose work is only starting to be fully appreciated with the DVD release of a number of his movies. Sometimes known as “the other Sergio,” Corbucci and actor Franco Nero created one of the most durable of spaghetti Western icons with the tight-lipped title character of Django. Ironically, the atmosphere on set was anything but grim.
“Sergio Corbucci was a man of great charisma and great humor, always full of jokes,” Nero recalls. “He would always say to the cinematographer, ‘Be sure to light Franco’s blue lakes (my eyes, of course), which will allow me to make a lot of money!'”
The two developed an almost comical shorthand for their approach to Django.
“Do you want this expression like John Wayne or like Henry Fonda?” Nero once asked Corbucci, who replied, “I want this one like Gary Cooper and the next one like Burt Lancaster, but your walk has to be like Henry Fonda.”
It’s that odd, wild, mix-and-match spirit of Italian Westerns that anticipates the movies of later directors, like John Woo and Tarantino himself, and which continues to make spaghettis a treasure-trove of discoveries for hardcore film buffs.
Research assistance by Chris D. of the American Cinematheque