I’m a bit of a Western aficionado. Or, more precisely, a 1960s Spaghetti Western-specific aficionado. Say that five times. I get pretty hopped up on Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), respectively. Why? Oh, let me count the ways…
NOTE: I am desperately grasping at ways to link this in with a recipe. So let’s go with blondies! Blondies for Blondie: Maintain your svelte, Clint-like physique with healthy, sugar-free squares of sustenance. Perfect vigilante viands for a varied diet on those long bounty hunting trails, when chewin’ tabacca and knockin’ back rye ain’t gonna fuel ya through them barroom brawls… (Scroll down for the recipe...)
Truth be told, I’m not a massive fan of the old-style American Western genre — the formulaic plots, the Gary Cooper and John Wayne good-guy heroes; true American patriots with full sets of morals and haircuts that you could set your watch to. It’s all a little too clean-cut, tedious and predictable to me. I need some grit, some badness. Enter the Italian Sergio Leone, daring to reinvent that darling, quintessentially American genre — introducing a radically new style, and weaving his own legendary myth into modern American culture with his cult Spaghetti Westerns.
When we think Italian, we often think about the overt appeal to the senses, and a certain lavish style. To his Westerns, Leone brings sensory appeal and style in bucketloads — the incredible sets against a backdrop of death-filled, frightening landscapes, the beauty and tension of the camerawork, the body language and weather-beaten faces of a host of unforgettable characters — all this and more makes watching any of the Dollar films an almost tactile experience. You feel drawn into the pursuit, pulled along by this new energy that has been injected into the genre. It’s captivating in a way it never was before.
Though it may appear standard now, Leone’s cinematography was quite revolutionary at the time; the unusual angles and framing of space, the wide shots and extreme close-ups, coupled with the changing back and forth of pace — it was quite something back then. The camerawork seems both subtle and ostentatious, elegant and brutal. It infuses the Western with a new energy and aesthetic, one that has arguably transcended the original American Western formula and endured in our minds today. The unique atmosphere and energy is Leone, redefining, or rather defying, the conventions of the genre.
Leone’s Westerns have a unique sense of built-up tension that makes for an exhilarating watch. The climaxes and showdowns are like no others. The extreme close-ups of the aforementioned remarkable faces, to the twitchy pistol fingers, and back to the face — these are almost still scenes that are somehow more thrilling than the action. These tense shots are wildly intensified by the now-legendary score by Ennio Morricone.
Which brings me to the score — wowza. This is a soundtrack that has pervaded our culture more than any other, maybe. I think that most would agree that the Morricone-Leone hook-up was one of those perfect, symbiotic partnerships that rarely happens: this was a groundbreaking collaboration that paints a unique musical backdrop that is evocative, timeless, and quite epic. It sweeps you away. I have heard that much of the score was composed before the movie, and Leone used it on set to choreograph the actors — maybe this is why it is sewn so tightly into the features; becoming an integral structural component of the overall work. This added musical depth of weird wordless vocals, eccentric rhythms, and odd instrumentation, flows with the film perfectly, and creates something to be set apart. Leone and Morricone working in tandem was a beautiful, flawless thing — a musical and visual match like no other. In fact, they should equally share the credit in the creation of a masterpiece, if you ask me.
Another aspect of these films that I find particularly intriguing is the lack of a definable ‘good guy’. Leone has a clear disregard for convention in the genre, and I dig it. All the characters here are of questionable morals. Rather than a hero, here we have something of an ‘anti-hero’ in the form of Clint Eastwood’s iconic character; the Man with No Name, sometimes referred to as Blondie. Our protagonist is an enigma; driven not by a sense of moral justice, but by self-interest, maybe (but we don’t really know what he’s thinking). He appears; unshaven, cynical and solitary, with a cigarillo in the corner of his mouth. This laconic loner is decidedly not our usual cowboy hero. While he does maintain certain characteristics typical of our Western hero à la John Wayne, (unparalleled gunslinging ability, strength, independence) he differs utterly in that he is morally ambiguous, mysterious, and nonchalant.
Leone is blurring the lines between good and evil — creating a savage land beyond good and evil, where values are pushed aside, and fending for oneself takes precedence. Blondie’s sense of justice is unpredictable, and entirely his own; not governed by principles, love of others nor country. He is a primarily self-motivated outsider.
Speaking of an Outsider, Blondie is like Camus’ Meursault in that he shuns conventional notions of morality. He is also fearless in the face of death, and does not seem to hold the common idea that a human life is ‘sacred’ in any way. Operating on his own moral code, he is a moral outlaw, skirting the ethical lines that society drew up. Goodness is clichéed anyway. This approach to creating characters was quite in the spirit of the 1960s existentialism of the day, if you think about it. The Man with No Name is our chain-smoking, existentialist outlaw with the good looks of Camus, but with a bit more get-up-and-go, and stronger death-dodging abilities.
The Dollars Trilogy cemented Eastwood as a cult Western icon, and defined his enduring image of invincibility. This character appears again and again, and is no less fascinating each time — a stoic, detached protagonist; lean and tall, sparse with words, soft-spoken, quietly menacing, inherently cool. He walks with a tired, resigned air; he is somewhat world-weary, but virile and agile beyond comprehension. His strength seems both at odds with his lean physique, and wholly unsurprising. He displays by turns brutality and humanity, and his moral ambiguity keeps you guessing. He radiates an intrinsic power that is palpable, indisputable. We all know the guy.
This is all pure fantasy, but it manages to come across with a unique gritty realism. Leone’s savage vision produces a world of men where dialogue is sparse, and tense silences speak for themselves. This is a place where eyes and body language speak louder than any scripted kerfuffle.
Despite the scarcity of dialogue, the dynamic between the main characters in all three films is effective and endlessly entertaining. In The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) the dark, wry humour of Blondie is up against the relentless evil and sinister, striking features of Angel Eyes (the waxy-faced Lee Van Cleef) and juxtaposed with the brutish buffoonery of Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three characters are so multi-faceted in personality as to keep you interested, and the actors are extremely convincing. I have a particular fondness for the psychotic bandit El Indio from For a Few Dollars More (1965) — a manic, deranged, pot-smoking villain, played by the rather dishy Gian Maria Volontè. All the main characters in the trilogy appear to have complex personalities to some degree, and a backstory, whether it is revealed or not.
I read somewhere that a critic described Leone’s film as ‘odes to the human face’, which is on the mark. Leone’s portraits of men; hardened by the stark, brutal world they inhabit. We are given ample opportunity to observe and interpret them, close up, in all their hard-edged, roughened features. This stylistic showcasing of close-up, edgy faces adds an extra dimension to the Western genre which has now become legendary. Leone draws us into a world where the stare-off eclipses the showdown. Where are we? Some jagged, grim place — a barren valley in Spain or Italy; it’s not quite right. We’re ill at ease, out of place, and search these proffered faces for clues as to what is going on. Leone’s style is instinctive, raw, and powerful. The fully-loaded silences are a thrill; the primal energy of these brutal men is almost tangible to the viewer.
I love making people watch Leone’s Westerns with me. Last autumn, a friend and I organised a ‘Cider and Spaghetti Western’ night — a sibilant sewing together of two old favourites. The event took place in an old music hall in the charming little hamlet town of West Fulton, NY. On the menu was a cider workshop and tasting session with the highly knowledgeable cider-maker Michael Guidice, followed by For A Few Dollars More, and gallons of booze; the product of New York State’s many-hued and many-flavoured apple varieties. In case you are not aware, New York State makes some damn fine cider, rivalled only by Asturian and Breton stuff, in my opinion.
The audience dwindled as the movie played out, of course, but I’m going to blame the discomfort of the rickety chairs, and lure of alcohol and banter downstairs. I won’t try to compete with craic and good cider. By the end of the movie it was only the resolute die-hards - Greg and I - who were willing to see the thing through to the end (at this stage we had moved on to swigging bourbon neat from the bottle while kicking back on the aforementioned back-aching chairs, pulling a few together to prop up our feet). Greg, I salute you. People like us are few and far between. When are we watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? This year marks its 50th anniversary. Just sayin’.
And now, onto cynical cowboy snacks: Blondies! These vegan peanut butter blondies are a cinch, are very tasty, and protein-rich to boot.
Peanut Butter Blondies (makes 6 servings approx)
- 1 tin of white beans (I used organic Cannellini), drained and rinsed
- 70g erythritol + 250mg stevia extract OR sweetener of choice (sugar, maple syrup, etc. Around ½ a cup)
- 25g smooth peanut butter
- 25g coconut oil
- 30g coconut flour
- 20g peanut flour (or you could add more peanut butter)
- 15g protein powder (I used vanilla)
- 30g good quality dark chocolate, chopped into chunks (I used organic 85%)
- 1 TBSP vanilla extract/ bean paste
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 170C, and line and grease a baking tray.
2. Blend beans in food processor until completely smooth and creamy.
3. Add in the rest of the ingredients except chocolate, and blend.
4. Smooth onto the baking tray, and add in your chocolate chunks. Finish with an extra sprinkle of sea salt.
5. Bake for approx 8-10 minutes, but keep an eye on them because oven temperatures vary. Personally I like them a little underdone
6. Remove from oven, and allow to cool, before placing them in the freezer for at least 1 hour.
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