In order: greatest first.
The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
An unusual Western in just about every way, with its wintry landscapes, mute protagonist, fey bounty hunter, and brutal conclusion, this is also a disconcertingly beautiful film. Every piece is perfectly in place: Morricone’s score is terse and savage for the kill scenes but the theme is a sweeping career highlight; the cinematography is epic, inventive, and subtly Avant-garde; the casting immaculate, with Klaus Kinski pulling out one of his most flamboyant performances. Corbucci is the only Italian Western director to consistently create interesting female characters, and this film has a distinct feminine streak running through it that complements the harsh logic of an otherwise lawless landscape. A film with some subtleties, and thick with atmosphere, you must watch this in Italian and avoid the crude English dub. A genre masterpiece and masterclass.
Duck, you Sucker! (Sergio Leone, 1971)
Leone’s greatest film. A genuinely affecting and multi-layered epic; a picture-essay on revolutionary ethics, human bonds, war and savagery that is deeper and more effective than the cartoon nihilism of the Dollars films or the operatic bombast of Once Upon a Time in the West. Features immaculate cinematography, piercing Morricone score and the biggest controlled explosion ever used in a film (if the stories are to be believed, it was only just controlled). Leone movies can drag; this one doesn’t. In fact, find the longest cut you can, because it will be the best.
The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1967)
Sollima’s ‘Cuchillo trilogy’ is a treat from beginning to end, and the films that follow Gundown (Face to Face and Run, Man, Run!) are in many ways its equal. But the chemistry between Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian is particularly special here and the changing dynamics in their relationship gracefully handled by Sollima. This film packs a punch – visually, musically (Morricone’s brassy score for this is an infamous favourite) but most of all emotionally.
Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
The first Gothic masterpiece of the Italian Western cycle, this is full of strong images – the scarlet-caped killer Klansmen; the apparition-like Maria (tied up and flogged in the opening scenes); Django’s machine gun, contained in a coffin; rivers of mud. This could be too much, but the film itself is a tight, muscular unit; it’s over before you know it, and you’re left feeling a little bruised. A singular achievement – no wonder Leone was worried.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
Leone’s rather self-conscious masterpiece, this has more in common with the likes of Senso and The Leopard than A Fistful of Dollars. However, with a little help from his old school friend Morricone and a brilliantly miscast Henry Fonda, Leone delivers on that promise. If anything, though, I think this film belongs to Claudia Cardinale: Jill McBain is the most powerful and complex female character in any of the Italian Westerns, which (you might say) generally lacks them.
The Return of Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965)
This is a fantastically tasty revenge flick featuring Giuliano Gemma in his iconic role of Ringo and a spicy, Iberian-tinged Nieves Navarro who treats us to a few examples of her Flamenco chops. The unfolding of Ringo’s Odysseus-like return is developed and handled with some pathos and grace; the conclusion is an unusually satisfying one, given a stirring kick by Morricone’s unforgettable theme song. This Ringo sequel is one of the most outrageously entertaining and visually ravishing of all the Italian Westerns.
Day of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967)
When it comes to Italian Westerns, Lee Van Cleef is The Man – more so than Eastwood or Milian or Franco Nero. Not only did these films come to define him, but his unique persona distilled something of their essence. It’s hard to think of them having quite the same impact without his slightly odd, brooding, brutal presence. Day of Anger is a film structured around rules, as Van Cleef tutors a young Giuliano Gemma in the life of a murdering outlaw. This tight two-hander is a perfect showcase for Van Cleef’s ability to bounce off other characters without ever undermining the austere integrity of his own (see also his skilled handling of a hopelessly wooden John Philip Law in Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse).
Django, Kill! (Giulio Questi, 1967)
A famously deranged entry and somewhat atypical – this is an arty take on Leone, made acceptable, even essential, by the extravagant gore, the thick, creepy atmosphere, Tomas Milian’s sometimes mesmerising performance and a whole range of strange stunts (a gay cowboy gang, bat attacks). It is hard to recommend this film to Spaghetti novices but in its own way this is an Italian touchstone.
Companeros (Sergio Corbucci, 1970)
Basically a comedy Zapata – but don’t let that put you off! This is almost interchangeable with Corbucci’s 1968 flick The Mercenary, but for me Companeros just has the edge due to Milian and Nero’s sensational on-screen partnership, the delicacy of Lola and El Vasco’s emerging relationship, a quite alarmingly mad and booze-stained performance by Jack Palance, and the film’s unforgettable, stirring final reel. It’s a classic buddy movie that actually does feel like a full journey. Again – outstanding cinematography and another classic Morricone theme.
Massacre Time (Lucio Fulci, 1966)
So, for tenth spot I toyed with Robert Hossein’s Cemetery Without Crosses, Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa and Antonio Margheriti’s And God Said to Cain, but eventually caved into the (for me) undeniable brute majesty of this early Fulci entry. It’s a handsome beast of a film that has Franco Nero and George Hilton teaming up to take on a spectacularly sadistic landowner who always wears a white suit and wields a terrifying white whip. The final shoot-out is a true epic that apparently supplied John Woo with some stylistic inspiration. This film does not get enough attention, in my opinion, and destroys his more famous 1975 attempt Four of the Apocalypse.