Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Mad About the Movies | Italians added their special flair to Western titles, too

 The News-Gazette

By Richard J. Leskosky

August 28, 2023

When you think about film advertisements, you likely think of posters, trailers, websites, behind-the-scenes videos online, and, if you’re old enough, display ads in newspapers. What probably does not come to mind in this regard is the film’s title.

In music, you can get away with calling something by Beethoven “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor” or even just “Opus 27, No. 2.” But would a studio risk calling a Steven Spielberg movie, say, “Opus 6” rather than “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? No, for a film title in particular, you want something that’s attention-grabbing and at least minimally informative or suggestive of the tone or genre.

But there are different ways of approaching those goals. While writing my previous column about Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” I examined a lot of titles of Westerns and found some curious differences between those from Hollywood Westerns and spaghetti Westerns.

American classic Western titles tend to be laconic — like their traditional heroes. And they also tend to answer those basic journalism questions of who, what, when, where.

They will often give you simply the protagonist’s name: “Shane,” “Hondo,” “Destry,” “Major Dundee,” “Joe Kidd,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Or they might just give you his profession: “Wagon Master,” “The Gunfighter,” “The Shootist.” Or maybe they will describe a group, as with “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Profressionals” or “The Wild Bunch.”

The “what” question gets answered in titles such as “Winchester 73,” “Stagecoach,” “The Tin Star,” “True Grit,” “Forty Guns,” “Duel in the Sun.”

Where? Well, in “Fort Apache,” “The Alamo,” “Rio Lobo,” “Rio Bravo,” “Rio Grande,” “El Dorado,” “Tombstone” or “The Far Country.”

And when? How about “High Noon” or “3:10 to Yuma” (which also encompasses a what and a where)?

Sure, there are notable exceptions such as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” — a whole sentence that doesn’t really give away the fact that it’s a cavalry film — “Valdez Is Coming” and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” But on average, Hollywood opts for terse Western titles.

Strikingly not so with spaghetti Western titles, though! The best known Italian Westerns in this country are Sergio Leone’s, but even his “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is reserved compared with those of his peers (not that he has any in terms of artistry).

Spaghetti Westerns (with the notable exception of Sergio Corbucci’s classic “Django” starring Franco Nero) like to go for titles that tell their own story (and not necessarily that of the film itself). Full sentences are frequent (I’m giving English translations here, which might differ a bit from the American release titles).

“Kill Them All and Come Back Alone” and “Django, Prepare a Coffin” demonstrate the Italian fondness for imperative titles. Most of the films with the gunman Sartana as the main character employ imperative sentences, some even with conditional clauses: “Sartana’s Here ... Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin,” “If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Your Death,” “Light the Fuse ... Sartana Is Coming,” “Have a Good Funeral, My Friend. Sartana Will Pay.”

Another gunslinger, Sabata, apparently tends to close things (Businesses? Lives?), as in “Hey Friend ... It’s Sabata. You’ve Closed!” and “Sabata is Back ... You Closed Another Time!”

Things get even weirder with “A Man Warned is Half Killed ... Word of the Holy Spirit” where “Spiritu Santo” is a gunman’s name. “Long Live Death ... Yours!” recalls a motto of the Falangists during the Spanish Civil War, though that has nothing to do with the film itself. My own favorite in terms of metaphysical/ethical Italian western titles, though, is “God Forgives ... I Don’t!”

You might also have noticed that the Italian titles employ exclamation points and ellipses to an amazing degree. Virtually any of the preceding groups of titles includes more of the latter than all American Western films combined!

Even when the title just announces the protagonist’s name, (again, with the exception of “Django”), it takes a while, as with “My Name is Nobody,” “They Call Him Trinity” and “They Still Call Him Trinity.”

I’m not sure what all that means. Serious Italian titles, the sort that are studied in cinema-studies courses, tend to be short — “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Amarcord,” “81/2.” Without looking too deeply into it, I think that even the Italian genre of sword-and-sandal films that were popular before the Westerns tended toward less linguistically dramatic titles, often just giving the hero’s name (“Hercules,” “Maciste”) and that of his opponent(s).

Oh well, somebody somewhere is probably doing a dissertation on that — I just hope its title has an ellipsis and an exclamation point or two!

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