Master, pupil, maestro

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Dallamano versus Leone

This article is a supplement to the Review of Massimo Dallamano’s Bandidos. Dallamano had been Sergio Leone’s cinematographer for A Fistful of Dollars and For a few Dollars more, but he was replaced by Tonino Delli Colli for the third and final part of the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Alex Cox thinks Dallamano felt duped by Leone, and made Bandidos out of frustration.

In this vision, Bandidos is an anti-Leone movie. Dallamano must have had the idea that Leone owed a lot to his work as a cinematographer, and therefore felt betrayed, dumped. Film making is a collective work, but it’s usually one man who receives all the praise, in most cases the director. But if Leone owed a lot to Dallamano, Dallamano also owed a lot to Leone. Being an anti-Leone movie, Bandidos nevertheless feels very Leonesque in several scenes.

The Dolly Shot

The best remembered scene of the entire movie. It may have inspired Leone to a similar sequence in Once upon a Time in the West.

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It’s a beautiful sequence, with the theme song (lyrics sung in English on the international versions, sung in Italian in the Italian version) played over it. But it’s also a bit of a claptrap sequence, using some cheap tricks to impress viewers, such as the sentimental lyrics and the zoom on the hands, which ends the sequence. In the corresponding scene in Once upon a Time in the West, the camera is closer to the victims, and also follows Frank (Henry Fonda) into the train, where he kicks over a dead man, frozen in a bizarre position, head to the ground, bum in the air. It’s an example of Leone’s wry humour, making the inevitable look absurd. The sequence culminates in a protracted shot of a moribund Morton, crawling to a puddle of mud and water. Only at this point, the music starts playing, until then, the scene had been mute, except for the puffing noises of the steam train, in itself a symbol of impotence. Morton’s obsession to reach the ocean is reduced, in his dying moments, to a desire to quench his thirst.


The Angles

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The first screenshot shows a low angle often used by Dallamano. Readers will have no problem to dig up similar low angle shots from the first two Dollar movies. In post-modernist cinema, odd angles are often used to create an alienating effect, underlining the idea that a movie is an artifact, creating its own reality (so not referring to any external reality) (1). I don't think that's what Dallamano was after. They can also be used to clarify the nature of relations between characters, both on a physical and psychological level. Camera angles can make people look bigger, smaller, more dominant or subdued. Dallamano and Leone used this technique to maximum effect in For a Few Dollars more, in the scene with Eastwood and Van Cleef shooting at each others hats. Like I have said in my review of that movie, the scene is semi-autobiographical. It refers to the macho-driven games of braggadocio between young men Sergio used to watch as a child from a secretive place (like the boys in the movie), when he grew up in the Roman city quarter of Trastevere (2). The low angles reflect how the young Sergio used to ‘look up’ to these street boys. In Bandidos the technique is used in a similar way when Richard Martin and Billy Kane meet for the last time: Billy is looking down on the ‘impotent’ Richard, while Richard is looking up, in despair, to the man who’s about to kill him. It’s hard to say who was originally at the base of the technique, both directors use these angles, but Dallamano uses them more frequently, and he also uses them more frequently without any particular reason, simply because he seems to like them.

The final scene with Richard and Billy, is set in a deserted saloon, early in the morning, beams of sunlight cutting up the shady room (screenshot 2). Dallamano’s compositions often contrast light exteriors with dark interiors. Again it’s difficult to make out who originally was at the base of these compositions, Leone or Dallamano. Leone was highly inspired by painters he admired; he often told cinematographers that he wanted a clair-obscur in the spirit of Rembrandt, or incoming light from one side, like on Vermeer’s paintings, but in Bandidos the contrasts are often higher, occasionally leading to blinding effects. Dallamano also has a preference for shooting through ditches or holes, moving the camera into the first-person position (screenshot 3); these characteristics are closer to the visual style of Castellari than that of Leone.


  • (1) Derrida's famous statement "Il n'y a pas de hors-text" (usually translated as There is nothing outside the text) expresses the same idea, albeit in another, more philosophical context
  • (2) For a Few Dollars More Review - See : # The autobiographical aspect

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Screenshots 4, 5 and 6 are taken from the movies’ best sequence. Like the final scene with Richard and Billy, it’s set in a saloon, but in this case a crowded saloon. Overall Dallamano's town scenes are better than the scenes shot on location. He makes an excellent use of the western towns of Elios and De Laurentiis, and of those town scenes, the saloon scenes are the most intriguing. This one is a prolonged sequence, almost ritual in its build-up, combining low angle shots and close-ups (otherwise not often used by Dallamano) culminating in a sudden outburst of violence. That’s all very Leonesque, but the first-person camera of the hole-in-the-hat scene, is more characteristic for Dallamano.

The Narrative structure

Bandidos is a rather verbose film. Even when characters are taken in close-up, they’re usually talking. Knowing that Dallamano started as a cinematographer, it comes as a surprise that as a director, he prefers to explain things rather than illustrate them. It’s probably for this reason, that the Leonesque flashback structure is absent. Leone created a visual (cinematographic) equivalent of a literary technique that goes back to the works of Proust and Freud (1); it’s an associative style, going hence and forth in time, with objects launching memories, taking people back to an emotionally highly charged past. In the case of Proust, a Madeleine cookie brought back an adult narrator to his childhood days, when he used to dip Madeleine cookies in his tea; in the case of Leone it’s an object like a pocket watch or a harmonica, that is used as a sort of Freudian fetish: it evokes a traumatic experience. Many directors (not only of spaghetti westerns) have imitated this highly sophisticated, literate style, but none of them ever reached Leone’s perfection; in the case of Dallamano the associative style is absent: there’s an object, a medal, that links Richard and Billy, and links both men to a mutual, traumatic experience (Billy deserting Richard and becoming a bandido), but it’s only shown in their final scene: Billy throws it at Richard’s feet, and it’s meaning is explained (to Ricky Shot) by a third person.


# Conclusion

Massimo Dallamano has made an excellent spaghetti western, violent, exciting, beautifully looking, one of the best of the genre. But compared to Leone, both his visual and narrative style is less sophisticated and refined. Often his visuals are straining after effect rather than deepening the meaning or emphasizing certain elements of the narrative. He might have been the master, and Leone his pupil, but it was the pupil who became a maestro.

Related texts:

--By Scherpschutter

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