6. A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (1968) – Franco Giraldi
A spaghetti western with American actors – Alex Cord, Arthur Kennedy, and Robert Ryan at the helm – makes this Italian film all the more nuts. Cord plays McCord as he simply tries to seek amnesty for his crimes and settle down once and for all. As one can expect, things don’t go according to plan.
From a setup that basically screams “spaghetti western,” we get so many shootouts that we lose track of whose shooting at whom. The film jumps around locations and it’s only when Robert Ryan’s governor shows up that we get a sense that McCord might stand a chance. He’s the only one who can grant him amnesty as a wanted criminal. The audience is soon thrown back into the zany shootouts in canyons and towns, but it certainly makes it fun.
Giraldi uses imagery that can really only be in this subgenre, such as when McCord hangs from a post, expecting the end of his life. In Hollywood or in more typical westerns, this simply wouldn’t fly. Nor would the amount of blood spilled in this lost spaghetti western.
7. The Revengers (1972) – Daniel Mann
Almost a slight riff on “The Wild Bunch” as it explorers older men trying to make their way in the ever-changing west. We see William Holden gather his old buddies to take revenge on his murdered family, after he settled away from the aftermath of the Civil War.
From Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode, and Susan Hayward, we get a sense of actors rallying up for one last ride. However, instead of an action-packed western, it’s paced with the age of the characters, particularly Holden’s John Benedict.
For example, when he retreats to his old house after several failed attempts at revenge, the film goes with him. It doesn’t substitute for meaningless action sequences or beautiful photography; we go with this aging, hurt man back into the mountains. Even toward the end of the film, we get unexpected results from Benedict’s choices, proving a man’s choice is still valid and worthwhile in a brutal world.
Unfortunately, this was a turn-off for audiences and critics back in 1972, but under a careful examination, you can see these actors in the last stages of their lives still have meaning, much like the characters they inhabit in this western.
8. The Long Riders (1980) – Walter Hill
A director who claims that every film he made was a western, regardless of the times. Well, here he got to combine his action sequences with the historical events of the Old West. What makes this film so unique is that all of the brothers on screen are actual brothers in real life. The Carradines are the Youngers; the Keaches are the James brothers; the Quaids are the Millers; and the Guests are Fords; which adds such authenticity and chemistry that can’t be faked.
The film goes through many of the western action devices such as train and bank robberies, holdups, saloons, prostitutes, and fights amongst the gangs. It’s quickly paced with odes to Peckinpah’s slow-motion death sequences and re-enactments, such as the killing of Jesse James. But Hill doesn’t let us relax for a second – there’s just too much going on with these riders.
It’s a film that can be gladly enjoyed over and over again for Hill’s action scenes and particularly the chemistry amongst all four brother groups and their interactions, for good or bad. It was made when the western was in steady decline; western TV shows transited to sitcoms and cop shows, but Hill still made a great fun western in his style.
9. The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017) – Jared Moshe
A film that greatly respects the western genre and all it entails from outlaws, landscapes, and shootouts. Jared Moshe concentrates his film on Bill Pullman’s revenge for the death of his partner, the newly-elected Senator, played by frequent westerner Peter Fonda. But what follows, hence the title, is a soft western plagued by the brutality of its times.
As the film unfolds in the Montana setting, there is no shortage of beautiful landscape shots that transition the narrative or allow the characters to inhabit, and when it’s shot in 35mm it continues to romanticize the frames. The film jumps around from shootouts, violent deaths, drunks in bars, young kids dreaming about the outlaws, and of course, the broken man trying to do justice in the gray morality of the ever-changing west.
Regarding the title, “Ballad,” Moshe almost tells us it’s going to be short stories of Lefty Brown on his path in the Old West, but once the film is overdue, we feel the melancholic and poetic side of this film, making it truly a beautiful homage to a bygone era and filmmaking time.
10. The Sister Brothers (2018) – Jacques Audiard
So how could a Frenchman make his English-language debut in a darkly comedic western of two brothers chasing two gold-seeking men? Well, somehow it works, and when you have four great actors – Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the brothers and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed as the gold searchers – go face to face, you know you’re going to get something delicious.
The film shifts around the beautiful western landscapes once again, but it’s the chemistry of all of the actors that makes this stand out. You never know what to expect, ranging from duels to shootouts to humorous talk around a campfire at night.
Take when Reilly gets bitten by a spider and swells up like a balloon; you are not sure whether to laugh or gasp, or why not both? Jacques Audiard manages to make his western fresh and relevant in times by making the characters as human as possible in real situations filled with greed, anger, frustration, and ultimately desperation.
As the film unfolds, it gets more serious, particularly in the violent brothers’ urge to settle down and live peacefully after their murderous years of killing and robbing. Despite having great actors with a big attraction, the film sadly went unnoticed last year, but can be greatly appreciated in the western canon for future western lovers.