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The Corrupting Sea, Technology and Devalued Life in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns


In much that is written about Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” – that genre of Italian cinema characterized by hyper-violence or cartoon-like formal properties or both – most critics invoke an Italian cultural rubric for deciding the films’ ultimate meaning. From the earliest critical readings of the “spaghetti western” that focused on Leone’s films as derived, cut-out copies of the mythic American westerns of Ford, Hawks, and Anthony Mann to the more recent attempts to locate Leone’s cinema within a more encompassing framework of native Italian visual tropes, Italian culture remains the final arbiter of acceptable interpretations. In the following essay, I take issue with that view by arguing for another perspective on Leone’s cinema, especially with regard to his first two westerns, Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. I do so by associating the conflict and violent acquisition of power depicted in the films with a semantic chain that needs to be thought through a notion of the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean functions as a kind of unconscious in Leone’s cinema, one that operates both visually and diegetically. The visual impact is made most clear in the barren mise-en-scene of these films, shot in southern Spain, which offers a dramatic counterpoint to the monumentality of the American Western. Diegetically, the Mediterranean figures in the ultimate dénouement of these films: the destruction of towns and the lives that inhabit them. This destruction is linked to the centrality of technology in Leone’s oeuvre, which, when inserted into a depoliticized setting such as the Mediterranean, leads to a radical discounting of life. Thus the Mediterranean appears in my reading of Leone not simply as hybridity or as “common inheritance” of all mankind as some would have it, but rather as fundamentally destabilizing for all political order.

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