"40 years ago as a graduate student I wrote a book about Spaghetti Westerns, called 10,000 Ways to Die. It’s an embarrassing tome when I look at it now: full of half-assed semiotics and other attenuated academic nonsense. In the intervening period I have had the interesting experience of being a film director. So now, when I watch these films, I’m looking at them from a different perspective. A professional perspective, maybe . . . I’m thinking about what the filmmakers intended, how they did that shot, how the director felt when his film was recut by the studio, and he was creatively and financially screwed. 10,000 Ways to Die is an entirely new book about an under-studied subject, the Spaghetti Western, from a director’s POV. Not only have these films stood the test of time; some of them are very high art." —Alex Cox
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About the Author
Maverick director Alex Cox has directed such acclaimed films as Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Straight to Hell, Death and the Compass, Walker, and Searchers 2.0. He’s also the author of X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, and has written on film for publications including Film Comment, Guardian, Independent, and Sight and Sound.
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10,000 Ways to Die
A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western
By Alex Cox
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2009 Alex Cox
All rights reserved.
Brando, Kurosawa & the Continental Op
'I hate writing. I suffer the tortures of the damned. I can't sleep and it feels like I'm going to die any minute. Eventually I lock myself away somewhere, out of reach of a gun, and get in on in one big push.'
– Sam Peckinpah
Like all drama, the Italian Westerns were influenced and formed by what had gone before: the American Western, a genre virtually invented by John Ford, who directed 56 of them during his long career. The events which happen in Italian Westerns, their dramatic conflicts, their plot structures, were usually recycled from American films made years before. Each film contains various examples: the crushing of the hero's hands in Django – so shocking that the film was banned – has one antecedent in an American Western, The Man from Laramie (1955, Anthony Mann), another in an early European Western Savage Guns (1961, Michael Carreras). In Mann's Noir Western, the villain, played by Alex Nichol, callously shoots James Stewart in his gun hand. In Carreras' British-Italian-Spanish coproduction, the hero's hands are crushed by wagon wheels. And the entire plot of Once Upon a Time in the West boils down to the thin premise of many an American two-reeler: the villains' plan to seize, by murder if necessary, land which the railroad must cross.
But some films influenced the Italian Western more than others did. And one of them wasn't a Western at all. So, before embarking on our chronological trip, I'd like to consider two features which had a major impact on the new form: Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks.
Yojimbo was directed by Akira Kurosawa in l961, the year Marlon Brando's Western One-Eyed Jacks opened in the United States. As far as I can tell, Kurosawa didn't see Brando's film before making Yojimbo. But, as a keen observer of the Western cinema, he would quite likely have known of One-Eyed Jacks, and of its fate. Both films have one thing in common: an inexplicable and implausible tardiness on the part of the hero, who – confronted with a very dangerous situation of his own making – sits around doing nothing, and ends up suffering, as a result.
One-Eyed Jacks was based on a book by Charles Neider, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, which Brando had optioned. The actor/producer's first choice of a creative team was two strokes of genius. To direct, he hired Stanley Kubrick, who had made two striking, stylish independent thrillers; and for the screenplay, he chose a TV writer, one Sam Peckinpah. Brando quickly fell out with both men. His firing of Peckinpah seems to have been both acrimonious and memorable, as the film's theme of betrayal – by an old outlaw who has betrayed the outlaw code – became the central theme of all Peckinpah's work as a director. As a director, I can report that it is galling to work for a vainglorious, powerful 'star'. Actors are instinctive, essential creatures, but when they gain too much power they can be both stupid and amoral. Loyalty is a rare trait in most thespians, whereas it's something a managerial post – such as a film director – depends on. This is why 'stars' usually make such a bad job of directing: intrinsically shallow, isolated and self-pitying, they have a hard time managing any enterprise, or earning respect from their team.
Having fired Kubrick, Brando decided to direct One-Eyed Jacks himself. Paramount Pictures, smiling like a crocodile, agreed. Lacking discipline and a completed script, Brando couldn't keep a lid on things. The shoot began in December 1958. It was supposed to last two months. Instead, it stretched to six. Famously, when Brando and his co-star, Karl Malden, had to play drunk, the two Method actors became drunk: a short scene of inebriation then took days to film. The studio's two-million-dollar budget (not bad for a cowboy movie of the period) became six million. Why did Paramount permit it? Brando's biographer suggests a dark but familiar motive: 'chasten his arrogance, teach him a lesson. How much can it cost? He whom Hollywood would humble, it first indulges. It is, perhaps, the most basic law of the business ...'
Brando's first cut of One-Eyed Jacks was six hours long. The auteur had become confused and bored in the editing room. Unable to finish his picture, he wanted to be fired, so he could shift his burden of guilt onto the studio, and pretend his masterwork had been abused. Beaten up by the negative studio and critical response, he never directed again. Yet One-Eyed Jacks is a more-than-decent film. Brando's only real directorial failing is in the transitions (scenes are inevitably linked by dissolves, as in the very worst American Westerns). But the complexity of the plot and character, the visual aspect of the film, and the performances, are all excellent. His own performance is very good – but he gives plenty of screen time to Karl Malden, to Ben Johnson and his gang, and to additional odd characters such as Timothy Carey's. Brando is generous to the other actors, both as an actor and as a director.
Several elements from One-Eyed Jacks reappear in the Spaghetti Western. The film's stylish costumes are almost as specific and over-the-top as those of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. The Rio Kid dresses in the Mexican vaquero style, and sometimes wears a serape: points not lost on Carlo Simi when he prepared his costume designs for Corbucci and Leone. The plot device of the revenge-seeking hero who escapes/is released from jail would be re-used many times. The teeth-grinding intensity with which Rio pursues his revenge became the stock-in-trade of many actors, American and Italian, who starred in these films. But the most 'Italianate' aspect of the film, for me, is Rio's mysterious tardiness.
When Rio tracks Dad down, he ought to kill him right away. Dad anticipates a gunfight. Rio's gang expects one, too. Instead, Rio sets about seducing Dad's adopted daughter, and then – even after that ignoble goal has been achieved – delays killing Dad. After killing Howard (Timothy Carey) in a barroom brawl, Rio knows his time is short, his options are limited. Yet he continues to hang around the bar, drinking.
Squandering his advantage, the hero is ambushed, whipped, and (as in The Man from Laramie) his gun-hand is smashed by Longworth, who now has a revenge motive of his own. Rio escapes, and slowly, painfully recuperates, once again plotting his long-delayed revenge.
Exactly the same thing occurs in Yojimbo.
Kurosawa's cynical samurai drama began production at Toho Studios in January 1961. As a director, the 51-year-old Kurosawa was the opposite of the 37-year-old Brando: disciplined, hard-working, and – at this stage of his career – famously fast. It seems impossible to believe, but Yojimbo opened on 25 April of the same year: shot, cut and in the cinemas in less than four months. Kurosawa had seen many, many Westerns: John Ford was his favourite director, and he'd mentioned, on the set of Seven Samurai, that he wanted to make a chambara (samurai action picture) in the Western style.
In Yojimbo, Toshiro Mifune plays Sanjuro Kuwabatake, a dirty, itchy, masterless samurai with a taste for drink. Happening upon a wretched town run by two rival gangs, Sanjuro quickly observes to the bartender, 'I get paid for killing. Better if all these men were dead. Think about it.' To establish his credentials, he kills some local tough guys, then offers his services as a bodyguard to both sides.
Sanjuro's main adversary is a young gangster with a pistol, Onosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai). His mistake is to feel pity for a poor family wrecked by Onosuke, who has forced a farmer's wife to become his mistress. Sanjuro kills the woman's guards and reunites the family. Time is now short for him, his options limited. But instead of leaving town, he continues hanging around the bar, drinking. Onosuke figures out his treachery and gets the drop on him; Sanjuro is subjected to a prolonged torture beating. Escaping in a coffin, Sanjuro hides, recuperates from his wounds, and plots the violent showdown which he has, mysteriously, postponed.
It's this inexplicable delay on the part of the hero, followed by his escape and recuperation, which Yojimbo and One-Eyed Jacks have in common. The explanation isn't clear: the most obvious precedent for such a damaging delay is William Shakespeare's revenge-action-drama, Hamlet. Hamlet is right in thinking that his uncle Claudius is his father's murderer. But he's a fool to let Claudius know he knows, and then do nothing about it. Obviously Brando knew the story of Hamlet; and so did Kurosawa – his mafia drama, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), is full of references to the play. Kurosawa and Brando were nothing if not ambitious. Did both decide, spontaneously, to borrow the key dilemma from the greatest work of English theatre? After all, if you're going to steal, steal from the best.
Yojimbo became the narrative template for Sergio Leone's first Western, and One-Eyed Jacks became a visual and character reference for several of Corbucci's films. Here, in these two influential, entertaining, grandiose pictures, lie the Italian Western's most visible roots. But Kurosawa wasn't only influenced by Shakespeare and by Western films. I believe he and his screenwriter, Ryuzo Kikushima, had in mind a specific American source for their story of two warring gangs in a doomed, out-of-the-way town: Dashiell Hammett.
Hammett is best known as the author of The Maltese Falcon, adapted by John Huston into a classic film. That book was the story of a sort-of-honourable detective, Sam Spade, and his struggle to hang on to his own version of integrity; Hammett also invented a husband-and-wife detective team, Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), and a memorable nameless agency detective, the Continental Op.
The Continental Op is the hero of several stories of gang warfare in rotten, out-of-the-way towns: Corkscrew and Red Harvest are two of the best. In both tales the hero is accused of pitting the gangs against each other, in order to destroy them. 'A hombre might guess,' says the sidekick in Corkscrew, 'that you was playing the Circle HAR against Bardell's crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other ...' Encouraging each side to eat up the other. It's a fair description of what Mifune does. But the point of Corkscrew and Red Harvest – like Yojimbo – is that the hero doesn't have to do very much to set these gangs to eat each other. They're permanently at war; their truces are fakes; they're ready for a showdown. Just by being there, and by choice acts of manipulation, the indolent Sanjuro, or the lazy Op, can bring it on.
Corkscrew was translated into Japanese in the late 1940s. According to Katsumi Ishikuma, the writer Hideo Oguni showed Kurosawa the story. Ishikuma also recalls an interview with Kurosawa in the Japanese magazine Cut, in which Kurosawa said, 'I was reading many mystery novels those days. When I finished Yojimbo, and watched it, I found that I took many elements from Hammett's novels. I thought, it's natural, because I like Hammett very much.' Perhaps his most overt debt is to Red Harvest, originally titled Poisonville. Poisonville is another bad town, populated by rival gangs of gangsters. The Continental Op sets them against each other, and in due course they're destroyed. One scene seems to have inspired Yojimbo specifically: the violent showdown where Reno Starkey and his gang lob petrol bombs into Pete the Finn's headquarters, in Whiskeytown.
"We're done," a heavy voice shouted. "We're coming out. Don't shoot."
Reno called him a lousy fish-eater and shot him four times in the face and body.
Pete went down. A man behind me laughed.
This grisly and exciting scene, illuminated by the flames of the gangsters' blazing hideout, is paralleled in Yojimbo, when Tazaemon's premises are burned and he and his family are shot by Onosuke. It is, of course, restaged in Fistful of Dollars, when Ramon Rojo and his brothers burn down the Baxters' home and gun them down as they emerge.
Another clue to Hammett's influence isn't to be found in his writing, but in another American film based on one of his books – The Glass Key. Pessimistic even by Hammett's standards, the novel is a small epic of loyalty, love and futility set in the corrupt political environment of Albany, New York. Its anti-hero is one Ned Beaumont (called Ed Beaumont in the film), a sleazy but determined gambler whose only friend is Paul Mavdig, bootlegger-turned-pol. Ned Beaumont is a callous pathfinder; Natty Bumpo on the mean streets of upstate New York. His discovery that Mavdig is a fool, and his inevitable betrayal of his friend, give the book a tragic dimension unique in Hammett's work.
The Glass Key was first filmed in 1935, and again in 1942. The later film was directed by Stuart Heisler, whose credits are unremarkable. Heisler began his career as an editor of silent films. He ended it directing episodes of Gunsmoke in the sixties. He shows no affinity for the material until Beaumont (played by Alan Ladd) is kidnapped by gangsters and tortured to make him betray Mavdig (Brian Donlevy). At this point the film switches gear.
What saves The Glass Key – what makes it worth seeking out today – is the performance of William Bendix. 1942 was Bendix's first year as a film actor: he is stunningly good. Bendix plays Jeff, a thug who beats and waterboards Beaumont to make him talk. As soon as Jeff appears, we are in Glass Key-land as Hammett meant it. The relationship between Beaumont and the torturer-hoodlum overwhelms the latter part of the novel, as the thug, feeling increasingly sorry for himself and uncertain of his status, starts treating Beaumont as a confidant, and friend. It's all inspiringly sadistic, homoerotic, super-tense; the colourless Ladd improves immensely in the presence of a master thespian.
The torture of Beaumont isn't shown; instead there's a cut from his apprehension to a shot of his torturers, gambling. Yojimbo is structured the same way. But the next scene, in which Jeff and partner abandon their unconscious victim, and Beaumont escapes, is repeated in Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars. In all three films, the badly beaten hero, eyes swollen shut, drags himself painfully around his jail. In The Glass Key he starts a fire; in Yojimbo he hides in a box; in Fistful he starts a fire. In the ensuing confusion, he escapes.
It's hard to read these pages in the novel, or to watch the filmed sequence, without thinking of Yojimbo. Did Kurosawa see The Glass Key? It was made during the Second World War, but Japan was flooded with American films during the Occupation – just as Italy was. A high-gloss, star-driven studio picture like The Glass Key would be first in line to take advantage of such newly acquired foreign markets. And both Kurosawa and Leone were fans of American movies and American thrillers.
None of this detracts from Kurosawa's vision, or his extraordinary achievement with Yojimbo: a cynical action film of great brilliance, which would exercise enormous influence on other filmmakers, and indeed national cinemas, as we shall shortly see.CHAPTER 2
'Let us, then, propose this paradox: that its very fragility proves that the Western – while it lived the humblest, most familiar and therefore the most easily dismissed movie genre – may actually have been the medium's highest form.'
– Richard Schickel, Intro, BFI Companion to the Western, Atheneum, NY, 1988
Westerns were shot in Italy as early as the silent period. During the Second World War, Giorgio Ferroni directed a comic Western, Il Fanciullo Del West (1943). Other Western parodies followed, including Il Bandolero Stanco (1952, Fernando Serchio). In the early sixties, the Italians co-produced Westerns outside Madrid, in Almería, in Yugoslavia, and in Rome. Some were Zorro movies. Others were the 'American' Westerns which bored us so: slow-moving oaters featuring waning Hollywood stars, insecurely masquerading as American films.
But it's worth a glance at some of those early co-productions, whose directors would go on making Westerns, and get better at them, and where certain cast and story elements first appeared. Two were directed in 1963 by Joaquin L Romero Marchent: The Magnificent Three (also know as Tres hombres buenos and I tre implacabli), and Gunfight at High Noon (aka El sabor de la venganza). The Magnificent Three provides the ur-plot for a number of later revenge Westerns, in which the hero's family is murdered by men who leave behind clues to their identity; transformed into an implacable revenger, he follows the clues, and dispatches the killers.
Excerpted from 10,000 Ways to Die by Alex Cox. Copyright © 2009 Alex Cox. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Background: Brando, Kurosawa & the Continental Op,
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