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Quick on the draw

What can we learn from a film poster? Mel Bagshaw unravels a spaghetti western

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964) was not the first "spaghetti western", but it was certainly the most successful and influential. Poster artist Sandro Symeoni paints the action in the classic style of the American western, with vigorous brushwork animating the movement of the scene. The poster features one of the many action sequences from the film where the lone gunman succeeds in despatching his adversaries despite the overwhelming odds against him. However, the central character is rendered without any obvious likeness to the then-unknown actor Clint Eastwood, whose fame at this time was confined to the small screen in the TV series Rawhide (1958-65).

Things would change in the sequels that followed: Eastwood's presence looms large on subsequent posters. He is depicted in almost photographic likeness by various unknown painters as well as regular spaghetti-western painter Rodolpho Gaspari, whose powerful representations can be seen in various versions of posters for the next two parts of the trilogy. The poster reveals the director Sergio Leone using the American-sounding pseudonym Bob Robertson to make the film more marketable in the United States.

Symeoni was born in 1928 in Ferrara where he attended l'Accademia di belle Arti. He moved to Rome at the beginning of the 1950s where he worked at the Studio Favalli. His first film work was for Rossellini's Francesco giullare di Dio (1950). He has produced more than 2,800 posters, including those for Antonioni's L'avventura (1960) and Pasolini's Accattone (1961).

Poster artists worked to tight deadlines and had to be on near-absolute availability for work that was not economically remunerative. As their work became replaced with photography and digital manipulation, many poster artists retired or worked on private commissions or murals for public buildings.

The spaghetti western was a hugely successful style of film-making. Between 1964 and 1972, 300 spaghetti westerns were made in Italy, with 66 being released in 1967 alone. It had begun by chance. In 1963, Italian producers received an attractive offer to use a film village in Spain that had been built as a location for German westerns. Italy was not the only country to take advantage of easy conditions, and by 1964 some 24 German, Italian and Spanish westerns had been made there. Generally, the quality of these westerns was poor and, stylistically, the films fared no better than the sword-and-sandal adventures they replaced.

However, everything was to change when an obscure director named Sergio Leone was given a budget and leftover film stock to make a western. With a script based on Akira Kurosawa's samurai epic Yojimbo (1961), music composer Ennio Morricone, and cameraman Massimo Dallamano, Leone made what was essentially supposed to be a throw-away film: Per un pugno di dollari.

Former TV-cowboy Clint Eastwood starred as the Man With No Name - the budget would not stretch to Leone's first choices of either Henry Fonda or Charles Bronson.

Leone's unique style, artistic camera angles, extension of time, and raw, explosive violence made his film different from any western that had come before. The two sequels, Per qualche dollaro in piu (For a Few Dollars More, 1965) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966) were shot on much higher budgets, cementing Leone's reputation as a western director and making international stars of Eastwood and composer Morricone. The three films became known as the "dollars trilogy" and are the most commercially successful and famous of the spaghetti westerns.

By 1966, the genre was full-blown and major directors and trends emerged.

By the mid-1970s, with martial arts movies and other genres grabbing the hearts and minds of action fans, the spaghetti western faded away. Posters have always enjoyed a prominent position in film publicity campaigns.

However, the late 1950s and 1960s represent a golden age. In a pre-digital age, most posters were hand-painted, with each film being subjected to the style and interpretation of a particular artist. These posters have an immediacy, spontaneity and freshness absent from many of their modern counterparts. Drawn and painted by numerous artists, they were printed in their thousands. However, few survive, since they were designed to be displayed for only a brief period before being destroyed or sent back to the distributor at the end of a film's run. Marketing and image were not so tightly controlled by film companies at that time, and many early posters were produced in a number of versions by different artists. Symeoni painted two versions of Per un pugno di dollari.

Nowadays, film posters are highly collectable historical documents, often seen as an art form. They are catalogued and documented in film and museum archives and studied to establish the extent to which they reflect the trends and themes of movie-making from different eras. Cinema posters are often our first visual contact with a film, a synthesis between art and market, capable of establishing anticipation, highlighting the star quality of the leads and establishing the film's genre. They provide us with a single, one-frame reminder of moments of film magic.

This poster can be seen in the exhibition Cinema Italia: Classic Italian Film Posters at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.

The exhibition features posters from silent classics to the early 1970s including several by Sandro Symeoni. The exhibition runs until January 25.Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN. Tel: 020 7704 Mel Bagshaw is a designer and curator Lesson ideas

Media studies

KS45: Look at film posters in different world markets. Take one famous film title from the 1960s and examine how different national and cultural interpretations and local censorship laws change the look of the film poster for different audiences.

KS5:The poster is no longer the dominant form of advertising a film - now all kinds of media are used. List new ways the industry is using to promote films and discuss their effectiveness.


KS12: Look at current film posters on billboards, magazines and newspapers. Look at the composition and the way type is used. Design your own poster, perhaps for a film you have seen, using your own interpretation and style.

KS34: Stars have always been important in posters publicising films, but current design trends rely very heavily on the dominant image of the star at the sacrifice of good design and imaginative ideas. Make a new design for a current film, without any of the film's stars on the poster. Research posters of the 1950s and 1960s, including the work by designer Saul Bass for film directors Hitchcock and Preminger.

Further reading

Cinema Italia: Classic Italian Film Posters by Mel Bagshaw (available at the exhibition) Film Posters of the Fifties by Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh, Aurum Press

Film Posters of the Sixties by Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh, Aurum Press

Film Posters of the Seventies by Tony Nourmand and Graham Marsh, Aurum Press

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