Budd Boetticher’s amazingly intense flick Ride Lonesome (1959) makes this list for its taut story, wonderful actors, and tremendous emotional weight. Randolph Scott is Ben Brigade, a stoic and honorable bounty hunter with a score to settle. After finding a young, hot-tempered gunslinger who is wanted for murder, he embarks on a dangerous journey back to Santa Cruz to collect a bounty and, more importantly, to see that justice is done. The set up isn’t terribly original, but soon the mystery of Brigade begins to unravel and the audience grows attached to almost every single complex character, including the opportunistic bandits Boone and Whit (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn). This epic journey leads to an inevitable, yet unforeseeable, and powerful ending that proves to be one of the genres best. Lee Van Cleef, Karen Steele, and James Best also star.
My next pick is not a Western (uh . . . hehe), but in it can be found the seeds that eventually sprouted becoming the sub-genre known as "The Spaghetti Western." Yojimbo (1961) was directed by Akira Kurosawa and starred Toshiro Mifune. (The IMDB star meter is down 2% at the time of writing this.) The movie is set in nineteenth-century Japan and follows a cheerful, but deadly, wandering samurai who happens into a village devastated by the violence and terror of two warring gangs. Working for both gangs and neither simultaneously, this wily swordsman, Sanjuro, uses charm, skill, and paranoia to play the rival gangs off one another in order to fill his own pocket. Kurosawa blends feudal Japan, classic American westerns, and film noir to form an entirely original cinematic gem. Toshiro Mifune, as a nameless ronin, creates an early, original, and defining characterization of an anti-hero on film, and you will find few other actors as compelling as this gentleman. This beautiful film is one of the greatest action comedies ever made and inspired many films after it.
The widely popular film, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), sparked the craze that would span almost 20 years and produce some of the greatest films ever produced. Made almost exclusively by Italian directors and producers, "Spaghetti Westerns" often starred international actors and were shot in the Tabernas desert (the only desert in Europe) in Andalusia, Spain. Fistful is a faithful re-imagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and rocketed both director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood to instant and stratospheric fame. This film is exciting for many of the same reasons that Yojimbo is, but it boasts an exceptional score from another genre-defining artist, Ennio Morricone, universally known for his work on another Leone/Eastwood flick The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This movie is fast paced, action packed, and an incredibly fun ride that is not to be missed.
Death Rides a Horse (1968), directed by Giulio Petroni, is actually one of my favorite movies, though not often lauded or found on lists of classic "Spaghetti Westerns." It's probably because I am a simpleton who enjoys a nice, clean story with plenty of action and thinks that Lee Van Cleef is one of the finest actors ever. This tale of revenge and redemption follows the young and somewhat naive Bill (John Phillip Law) on his journey for vengeance, fifteen years after his family was senselessly murdered by bandits. He teems up with Ryan, a mysterious stranger, who is hunting the same group of outlaws, but with a much more practical motive, money, and a much more mysterious past. The action packed and often hilarious narrative leads up to a poignant and touching conclusion.
There are clearly many other great westerns and several directors that I completely ignored for one reason or another - Mann, Ford... hell, I didn’t even put one John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart flick on this list. I don’t mean to imply that this list encompasses all good westerns or even the best, but it is a great place to start, and I’ll promise you one thing: you’ll have a whole lot of fun.