The Western genre is undeniably a deeply rooted pastime of Americana, but it isn’t without its faults. They became terribly redundant—thus the phrase, “going the way of the Western”. Not unlike slashers of the 80’s, they were significantly cheap productions, resulting in smothering abundance. And they didn’t do much for progressive ideas, either. Italian Westerns found an entirely new formula, punctuated by an operatic emphasis on style. They predominantly focused on revenge and anti-heroes, rooted in the brilliant works of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. They offered an incredible cinematic verve, unique enough to pardon the Kurosawa influences. Alternately simple and thematically rich, here’s the best Italian Westerns—a visually novel, violent, invariably entertaining twist from abroad.
10 Day Of Anger
With the director carrying such a heavy hand in these films, it always helps when actors can ground the story. Thanks to his collaboration with Leone, Lee Van Cleef joined a number of Italian Westerns, with various success. But he can definitely carry a film, which is handy for such a simple plot. Essentially, Cleef takes a mistreated young man under his wing, and ends up at odds with him. Cleef’s instruction is fun, offering various lessons about tactics and the like. This allows decently shot action, and keeps a brisk pace. Further, the music is fantastic, and yes—it showed up in Kill Bill, Vol 1. Still, the transformation of the young man is convincing and interesting enough to garner its reputation as a classic.
9 Face To Face
This film methodically details the corruption of a history professor, not unlike Walter White of Breaking Bad. Exposed to the elements after developing tuberculosis, he meets a criminal and gets a taste for violence. Even though it merely began as a desperate attempt to survive. It’s always interesting to see the protagonist warped, and in this genre, most characters are criminals anyhow. It generally gets away with glorifying gunslingers by making the antagonists even worse. But this time, that isn’t the case. The performances are outstanding, as is the catchy music of the invaluable Ennio Morricone. Even with redundant instances, it’s still affecting by sheer originality.
This name should be unmistakable now, after Tarantino’s controversial hit, Django Unchained. The original Django himself showed up in the film, and for good reason. Franco Nero basically offers a riff on the Clint Eastwood archetype, but absolutely delivers. He has plenty of attitude, and sells the mystery of his character, embellished even by the theme song. The mythology of the character is fascinating, despite the story’s resemblance to A Fistful of Dollars. Django drags a coffin around with him everywhere, and the big reveal of its contents is one of the best payoffs anywhere. The music and enthusiastic camerawork are infectious, creating a definitive addition to the genre.
7 The Big Gundown
This surprisingly lengthy film essentially boils down to one long chase scene. The criminal in question is accused of raping and murdering a young girl, only twelve years old. It’s a deeply repulsive premise, even with Lee Van Cleef in pursuit of the man. Featuring a number of close shaves, Cleef’s bounty hunter relentlessly follows the suspect, even into Mexico. It’s always a testament to the artistry of these films, when they can transcend obvious dubbing. Despite such a simple premise, it’s a thematically cynical film, exploring politics, racism, and violence. Further, the glorious music was absolutely featured in Inglourious Basterds.
6 A Fistful Of Dollars
Directed by Sergio Leone, this film is attributable for defining the entire Italian Western genre. It establishes every signature characteristic in subsequent films. It also probably inspired The Magnificent Seven to borrow from Kurosawa, to equal success. From here, it’s clear that Clint Eastwood will become a household name. Ennio Morricone’s score is incomparable, aside from his own ensuing work. The story involves a wanderer who comes between two warring factions in a small town. It’s practically a fantasy, with effective melodrama, and impossible gunfights. The film is full of beautiful excess, rich with personality, and unforgettable imagery.
5 For A Few Dollars More
It’s strange to have Lee Van Cleef here, given he plays an entirely different role in Leone’s subsequent entry. Still, the director doubles down on his first film, with equally memorable ideas and an original story. The sense of haphazard order is both disconcerting and compelling, as events unfold. The villain is especially ruthless, even for an Italian Western. Klaus Kinski is a powerful actor, who has even played Count Dracula—the man can be really unnerving. The pocket watch is a brilliant instrument of suspense, here as well. Leone takes everything that worked the first time around, and runs with it, adding significant originality and thematic maturity.
4 Django Unchained
This is something of a greatest hits album, like any Tarantino film. But it wields such a unique, sensitive setting, the film taps into deeply affecting and unique themes. The conversation at hand is something largely ignored, because Americana can prefer selective history. Especially now, few can even discuss anything without being disregarded as agenda-peddling. It may be uncomfortable reading it on this very list for some people. But Tarantino uses the hyper-stylized humor and exaggeration of the Italian Western to get away with exploring times of slavery. Well-paced, brilliantly acted, and throwing various incredible music into a pot, this is the perfect gateway film for Italian Westerns.
3 The Great Silence
By the setting alone, this outing stands apart. The camera offers an immersive quality, blanketing the audience in every inch of snow, and that icy breeze. Klaus Kinski plays a mute hero, who survived a knife to his throat. Undoubtedly, this film influenced every ounce of The Hateful Eight. Like all Italian Westerns, it shatters the conventional Western legends by removing black-and-white morality. Instead, it bathes in depravity and violence with unmitigated honesty. The setting directly affects the film, drawing a uniquely moody pace, claustrophobia, and a stark atmosphere throughout. The movie is nothing short of genius, and one of the more accessible of the entire genre.
2 The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Simply put, there is nothing like it. No other Italian Western, even amongst Leone’s own filmography, wields as much style as this. This is clearly the work of an auteur, to the point that Leone’s hand is its own character. The camerawork is consistently inventive throughout, for an epic story. Three men end up at odds with each other, and ultimately race to buried gold. A very simple premise, to be sure. But the journey is monumental, contemplating war and greed with exciting action and indelible humor. Running three hours, it is at once the least accessible, and most definitive Italian Western on film. It’s influenced every Western since, filmmakers outside the genre, and even Western video games.
1 Once Upon A Time in the West
And then, Leone finds the perfect blend of style and character drama. While the classic Dollars trilogy may have culminated in the most iconic film, this is the most complex. The pacing is far more deliberate, and the relationships far more involved. It is not an epic adventure. It’s an intimate film, centered on the troubled widow whose entire family is murdered, and the subsequent men in her life. Charles Bronson may sometimes be criticized, but his presence as an everyman tough guy is undeniable. And Henry Fonda is one of the most reprehensible villains anywhere, let alone in Westerns. With incredible performances all around, poignant character development, great humor, and satisfying duels, this is one of the best films ever made.