It is hard to underestimate the massive influence Sergio Leone’s post-modern Spaghetti Westerns have had on world cinema during the last fifty years. His grotesque, yet oddly poetic, take-downs on the myths of the American West helped pave the way for the violent cinema of Peckinpah, Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino, not to mention the countless action directors from the Far East who have flourished in his wake.
Leone’s westerns are dusty and bloody grim fairy tales. Unsuspecting viewers are accosted by hideous close-ups of hairy, unshaven men contemplating foul deeds or revenge. Tense, prolonged showdowns are extracted way past the breaking point. This comic book deconstruction helped turned a classical objective genre into a very subjective one. Leone was aided immeasurably by his great collaborator Ennio Morricone whose lush scores added irony and emotion to the cruel and senseless activity up on the screen. Leone’s new way of looking at the Old West became wildly popular with audiences making Hollywood’s take on history seem old hat.
Yet, even with his penchant for violence, Leone was not a primitive. A grace and Old World elegance runs from Leone’s beginnings as a director of toga epics all the way to his elegiac swan song of the Lower East Side. Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s the Spaghetti Western would become an execrable genre, succumbing to mindless nihilism and declining box office. Leone’s stellar reputation declined and he received few offers to direct his brand of epic film. He went into near seclusion for over a decade before finally emerging with a masterpiece which cemented his reputation as one of the last of the old masters.
Leone was born into the cinema. This son of a leftist, pioneer film director (Vincenzo Leone) and a silent movie actress (Bice Walerian) grew-up shunning the rigidly programmed Italian cinema of the fascist era, in favor of the zestier Hollywood movies being shown in Roman theatres. Young Sergio also was fascinated by American comic strips and while he never truly mastered the English language, it is clear his taste for bigger than life imagery was forged early on.
It was a major disappointment for the teenage Leone when the conquering American soldiers of WWII turned out to be so commonplace and opportunistic. Still, Sergio was bit by the movie bug and after a series of behind the scenes jobs he finally got creative work directing second units and assisting such American filmmaking icons as Raoul Walsh and Fred Zinnemann. Again, Leone was deflated by the cynicism of his mentors. It was becoming clear the American film industry he so adored simply didn’t exist anymore.
After pitching in to help director Mario Bonnard shoot the historical epic Last Days of Pompeii and an Alberto Sordi comedy Gastone, Leone was finally given a chance to direct a feature of his own, The Colossus of Rhodes, a sword and sandal epic of ancient Greece.
Greek army captain Darios (Rory Calhoun) leaves the battlefield to visit to his uncle on the island of Rhodes. King Serse of Rhodes (Roberto Carmadiel) has just finished erecting the Colossus, an enormous statue in the harbor which guards against the kingdom’s enemies by spewing molten lead. When Darios realizes Serse is plotting to overthrow Greek rule, he joins a band of rebels headed by Peliocles (Georges Marchal) who look to knock the treacherous king off his throne. The rebellion is quelled and the men seem destined for a grisly fate when a massive earthquake crumbles the kingdom and knocks the great Colossus into the sea.
The Colossus of Rhodes was a relative latecomer to this popular but short-lived genre and while it shows little evidence of the Leone touch, the film remains passably entertaining. The casting of the laconic Calhoun, a familiar face in dozens of American westerns, set a tone for a director who would make a career of pitting quiet straight men (Eastwood, Bronson, Coburn & DeNiro) against more colorful villains (Van Cleef, Wallach, Steiger & Woods).
The Colossus of Rhodes did little to advance Leone’s career but rather than accept more menial hack jobs he waited until he was given complete autonomy before he made another film. In the meantime Leone took second unit work, which included a stint on Robert Aldrich’s infamous Sodom And Gomorrah. Even though Leone greatly admired the director of Kiss Me Deadly and Attack, the men clashed and Leone was fired after his boss thought he was being too lenient on the extras. It was probably just as well as Aldrich’s toga epic was lackluster, exhibiting little of the excitement found in his best work.
Leone wanted to make westerns. No fan of the then-current trend of psychological westerns (The Left-Handed Gun, 3:10 to Yuma, etc.) which lent ambiguity to the genre’s form of storytelling, Leone wanted to bring back the mythic west of John Ford. Of course, Leone’s artistic temperament was too colored by his own pessimism and black humor to simply do a spin on the regal Ford. Still, Leone’s westerns borrowed liberally from Hollywood and his critics and enthusiasts took great pleasure in identifying scenes which may or may not have lifted from the classic oaters of Ford, Walsh, Zinnemann and Mann.
That said, it is a tad ironic Leone’s first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, would be loosely based on the samurai epic Yojimbo by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. But then, Kurosawa was also a Ford aficionado and based many of his brilliant samurai films on American westerns. Kurosawa’s protagonist in these films was a near-mythic loner (Toshiro Mifune) who lived by his own set of rules. Leone would find a similar muse in the person of Clint Eastwood.
Set in a Mexican border town, Leone’s film opens with Eastwood arriving on a mule much to the amusement of the hired hands of the Baxters, a rich family of gunrunners. This Man with No Name guns down the men to the delight of the Rojos, a rival family of Mexican bootleggers. Looking to neutralize the gunslinger, the Rojos hire him hardly suspecting he will take exception to their business indiscretions.
The Machiavellian tendencies of Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte) rub the stranger the wrong way and he moves out of their hacienda. When he further insults the Rojos by helping a poor family escape their clutches, Ramon determines this two-faced man is now under the employ of the Baxters. The Rojos exact a ruthless revenge against the Baxters, but the stranger escapes and forces an unlikely showdown with the Winchester-toting Ramon.
Made on a shoestring budget A Fistful of Dollars turned out to be a surprise hit in Europe. After Leone made a settlement with Kurosawa the film was released in the United States two years later to poor reviews and great box office.
In hindsight, one can understand the critics’ hesitation in embracing A Fistful of Dollars for it resembled no other western. The amateurish dubbing, the shocking close-ups, grotesque characterizations, bizarre soundtrack, and the lack of a moral code made the film look like an exercise in the worst sort of cynicism. But, by applying this new, Expressionist style upon tried and true themes Leone achieved grandiosity in a genre that was in danger of losing its relevance.
Taking inspiration from Ford’s masterpiece of disillusionment The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Leone presented the American west as a corrupt and dirty place where only the strong and wily survive. While Leone appreciated the upright morality of most westerns his research led him to believe the frontier was settled by callous and opportunistic men who straddled the line between good and evil.
Leone’s second film of the Eastwood trilogy For a Few Dollars More saw the laconic loner team up with fellow bounty hunter Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) to track down the ruthless bandit El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), who is planning to rob the impregnable El Paso bank with his gang. At first adversaries, Manco (Eastwood) and Mortimer form an uneasy bond. Mortimer suggests the younger man join up with the gang to offer greater access to the suspicious Indio.
The robbery is semi-successful and the gang makes off with the safe from the bank. Mortimer lends his services to burn the safe open, but when he and Manco try to hide the booty they are caught and tortured by the gang. Driven by curiosity and recklessness, El Indio arranges a final confrontation with his two adversaries, unaware the Colonel has a very personal score to settle with the depraved gang leader.
For a Few Dollars More saw Leone stray further away from a traditional plot freeing him to flesh out characterizations, especially the complex villain El Indio, for whom Morricone composed an eerie theme that suggests his time on earth will soon run out. Eastwood’s persona as the cool, mysterious stranger comes into its own and Van Cleef’s dormant career got a big boost by playing baddies in two Leone films leading to starring roles in countless Spaghetti Westerns well into the 1970s.
Leone was conscious of the impact his collaborator’s weird and wonderful scores had on his work. For his new film, Leone let scenes and showdowns run to durations far beyond the norm, building towards an operatic climax where the three protagonists call each others’ bluff before the final bell tolls. In Leone’s very small oeuvre For a Few Dollars More can be seen as his transitional film anticipating the dark humor and grand ambitions of his first true epic.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is set in Texas in the early days of the Civil War. Eastwood plays a bounty hunter nicknamed “Blondie” by his partner in crime, the Mexican outlaw Tuco (Eli Wallach). Wanted by authorities all across the southwest Tuco allows himself to be brought to justice by Blondie, who collects the reward money then saves the condemned man’s hide at the hanging tree. When Blondie tires of Tuco’s arrogance he leaves the bad man bound and alone in the desert to fend for himself.
Tuco survives and gets sweet revenge on Blondie by forcing his former business partner to walk across the blazing desert without drinking water. Just as Blondie looks like a goner a ghostly caravan of shot-up Confederate soldiers appears. One of the barely alive men offers to tell Tuco about the location of a shipment of army gold in exchange for water. As the greedy Tuco retrieves the water, the soldier tells Blondie the name on the grave where the booty is buried just before he dies.
Tuco nurses Blondie back to health and the two men begin form an unlikely team in quest of the treasure. Tuco’s big mouth leads them to being imprisoned by a Union Army garrison led by the mercenary gunman Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). After torturing Tuco and sending him off to a military prison, Angel Eyes takes Blondie out with a posse of men in search of the rich graveyard.
Tuco escapes from the train and catches up with Blondie and the partners kill all of the men except Angel Eyes. Blondie and Tuco then enlist with the Union Army and bomb a bridge, so they can cross over to the yellow brick road. In the graveyard they meet up with Angel Eyes and, as in For a Few Dollars More, the men triangulate into a spectacular three-way shootout.
With the possible exception of Duck, You Sucker, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is Leone’s most quixotic film and it’s certainly his funniest thanks in a large part to Wallach’s scene-chewing performance. It’s not surprising Eastwood was ready to break off his working relationship with Leone for in the Man with No Name trilogy, he often shrinks next to the mustache-twirling villains (Volonte, Van Cleef, and Wallach).
This is also the first film where Morricone wrote most of his score prior to the shooting, letting the director truly choreograph the action to the jaunty, lyrical music. As much fun as TGTBTU is, the film’s sheer sprawl and tendency to ramble can make its grand crescendos ring hollow. Leone would bring it all together in his next film, a masterpiece that emulated and often transcended many of the American Westerns he adored in his youth.
Since Leone visualized Once Upon A Time In The West as his farewell to the Western he asked Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach to play the three gunmen who would meet their doom in the opening credits, but since Eastwood didn’t get the joke the clever idea was scuttled. Leone ended up hiring a pair of familiar, old west faces (Jack Elam and Woody Strode) to play two of the gunslingers sent to the desolate station by their ruthless boss, Frank (Henry Fonda) to kill a stranger arriving on the next train. Annoyed by Frank’s absence, the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) blasts the men away in a quick volley of shots.
Meanwhile, Frank has massacred the McBain family at the bidding of his boss, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) a crippled mogul who is building a railroad to the Pacific. The McBain ranch, Sweetwater, is the only piece of property in the vicinity that has the water necessary for Morton’s trains, but Frank and the mogul are disturbed to learn the heir to the ranch is a former prostitute who married McBain a month before in New Orleans.
Once established at the ranch Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is protected by Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw wrongly implicated in her husband’s murder. While Harmonica and Cheyenne scheme to kill Frank, Jill tries to seduce the bad man and then in a fit of despair, decides to sell the ranch. As part of a plan to stop Morton’s progress, Harmonica offers Cheyenne to the local law for a $5000 ransom with which he buys the ranch at an auction. Harmonica turns down Frank’s “offer” to buy the ranch and then he helps his nemesis shoot several gunmen sent by Morton to kill Frank.
Frank tracks down his boss, but he finds someone else (Cheyenne) has beaten him to the punch and the wounded mogul is left dying in the mud. Frank returns to the McBain ranch to confront Harmonica. The two men meet in a showdown but only after Harmonica shoots Frank down does the bad man learn his opponent was the brother of a man he murdered long ago.
Fleshed out from an original sketch by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and horror film master Dario Argento, Once Upon a Time in the West is a smorgasbord of western film iconology abound with loving homages to Shane (George Stevens), High Noon (Zinnemann), Warlock ( Edward Dmytryk), Pursued (Raoul Walsh), and especially Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
It is here where Leone finally treats us to a memorable and important female character. Yet, for all her obvious charms, Jill turns out to be more of a den mother than object of desire—a nod to John Ford’s Irish-American “matriarchy”. Indeed, such humanist flourishes helps Once Upon a Time in the West become a more universal achievement than any of the Man with No Name films.
Leone’s first masterpiece also benefits from a more disciplined approach with the shooting and in the editing room. The director’s patented expansiveness hit a new peak with the seemingly endless sequences of excruciatingly tense close-ups—from a new pool of A-list faces—accompanied by a magisterial Morricone score.
Once Upon a Time in the West offers a rare ray of Leone sunshine when the community rallies together to help fulfill Brett McBain’s dream in building a modern frontier town linked to civilization by the railroad. This is surely his most perfectly choreographed film. Leone makes unprecedented use of negative space and natural sound in the spine-tingling opening sequence, employs a breathtaking boom shot to announce Jill’s arrival in bustling Flagstone, and edits a haunting flashback into the final shootout, revealing the hatred lying behind Harmonica’s stony exterior.
Clearly, this was a European hand turning an American art form on its ear. Since Once Upon a Time in the West succeeded so wildly in capturing Leone’s complex vision of the untamed frontier, his next singular take on the New World couldn’t help but be a bit of a let-down.
Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) is set in 1922 Mexico, just as the country is being fragmented by corrupt politics and Pancho Villa’s revolution. Wily Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) with his family of bandits makes a good living holding up coaches and robbing the aristocracy. When the curious-looking Sean Mallory (James Coburn) tries to evade Miranda, the outlaw shoots the tires of off the Irishman’s motorcycle. A veteran of the IRA, Sean wows the Mirandas with his arsenal and skill in the use of explosives.
Juan hoodwinks Sean into holding up a large bank in Mesa Verde, but the tables are turned on the Mexican when the bank actually turns out to be a holding cell for political prisoners. Juan frees the prisoners and becomes a revolutionary hero, much to the delight of Sean who is working in cahoots with Dr.Villega (Romolo Valli), an intellectual plotting to overthrow the government. But when Sean witnesses Villega’s betrayal of the cause, he has to re-examine his checkered past and motives for carrying on the fight.
Like The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, Leone’s final western is a wildly ambitious and overlong shaggy-dog story, yet a strong case can be made for Duck You Sucker being his most personal film to date. After being championed by intellectual critics and the children of 1968 for being the first postmodern filmmaker, Leone ultimately became disillusioned with what he felt were the insincere politics of the era.
His sour feelings are reflected in the bitter portrayals of Villega and the man who betrayed Sean; two ideologues collaborating with the police and military to save their own necks. The thorny relationship between Juan and Sean may also be the most complex yet fulfilling case of male bonding in the director’s oeuvre. The initial stalemate between the two nihilists flowers into an oddly poetic mission to free a long-suffering people from their oppressors.
Unfortunately, Duck You Sucker turned out to be Leone’s second box office disappointment in a row and convinced its thin-skinned creator to retreat behind the guise of producer.
During the rest of the 1970s, Leone oversaw several films made for his production company; the most interesting being Tomino Valerii’s zany spaghetti western, My Name Is Nobody, based on an idea from the maestro. Henry Fonda was recruited to play Jack Beauregard, an aging gunslinger looking to recover a bounty rather than avenge his murdered brother much to the disappointment to the mysterious stranger “Nobody” (Terence Hill) who idolizes Beauregard and implores him to join to make a stand against the notorious “Wild Bunch”.
While Leone’s imprint on My Name Is Nobody is clear from the opening shoot-out, the filmmaking style is much more satirical than anything else in his body of work—mostly due to the presence of the self-effacing Hill, the slapstick star of the wildly popular Trinity series of Spaghetti Westerns. While Hill’s scenes with the steely Fonda are almost painful to watch it is the rubber-faced comedian who ultimately dominates the film.
Nevertheless, the loopy and entertaining My Name Is Nobody turned out to be the most appropriate kiss-off to a genre which made Leone famous. For the rest of the 1970s Sergio would battle health issues and continue to help finance and oversee several Italian and French genre films while hustling for money to realize his colossal tone poem of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Based loosely on The Hoods, Harry Grey’s colorful novel about the Jewish mafia in New York City, Once Upon a Time in America spans the squalid life of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro), a young gangster who goes underground for thirty years to avoid the wrath of the mob he betrayed.
Noodles and his partner in crime Max Berkovicz (James Woods) start out as petty thieves, rise to power as bootleggers and reach their peak as the strong arms for corrupt union bosses and ambitious politicians. But, even as Noodles sets Max up to take a necessary fall, he becomes an unwitting dupe to his partner’s greed for glory. Happiness continually evades Noodles, as he never fully buys into Max’s grand vision of a crime empire and the love of his life, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), refuses to accept his hoodlum lifestyle.
In its original three hour and forty-seven minute cut the multi-layered mob epic weaved three eras of Noodles’ life together in such a dreamy, impressionistic manner it led impatient viewers astray. Unsuspecting preview audiences also found the shocking climax, prefaced with a scene where the aged Noodles meets the still apple-cheeked Deborah after thirty years, to be too much of a stretch in believability. In a desperate attempt to save their investment American distributors re-cut Once Upon a Time in America into a linear structure robbing the film of its art house essence and epic poetry.
Like Fassbinder’s flawed and ambitious masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Leone’s film tosses traditional narrative out the window and re-invents itself as a spectacle of the underworld. Of the three narrative threads (expertly realized by veteran Italian screenwriters Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Visconti collaborator Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli and Franco Ferrrini), the lyrical and brutal portrait of Noodles’ early life on the streets works best and a case could be made for it being the summit of Leone’s artistry.
Unlike his hardscrabble friends young Noodles (Scott Tiler) has the soul of a poet and an ache in his heart for Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), an angelic young neighbor. But, Deborah has aspirations that lie beyond the Lower East Side and they don’t include Noodles, unless he can clean up his act. The teenager is also seduced by the street smart Max (Rusty Jabobs) who convinces Noodles and his friends to form their own gang that will rival the local Irish mob that runs roughshod over the Jewish neighborhood. After a bloody comeuppance, the boys win over Italian bootleggers by cleverly showing them how to run rum into the city. When the leader of the rival gang kills one of the boys for infringing upon his turf, an enraged Noodles stabs him to death.
Noodles goes up the river for twelve years and in the meantime Max (Woods) has parlays the gang’s juvenile success into bootlegger’s gold, operating a popular speakeasy and bordello on the same site. Disciplined by his time behind bars, Noodles (De Niro) wants the gang to stick to the high percentage-low reward crimes that will provide a steady income.
Max thinks otherwise. Aware Prohibition is on the outs, he begins to make friends and offer support to establishment figures that need the sort of muscle he can provide. When Max floats a mad idea to rob an impregnable bank his moll (Tuesday Weld) conspires with Noodles to have the gang arrested and avoid certain death at the hands of the bank’s guards. Noodles puts the scheme into action, but when Max suspects treachery he sidelines his former friend and recklessly leads the gang into a hailstorm of bullets. Or does he?
Once Upon a Time in America marked the end of the era of big, sweeping stories told in a grandiose fashion. Ironically, it would take an Italian weaned on the films of the great Hollywood masters to tell such revealing story about a country he loved and reviled. The film also turned out to be the high water mark in the collaborative achievement between Leone and Morricone.
Composed years before the cameras even began to roll, Morricone’s gorgeous score was played on Leone’s soundstages to set the mood and inspire his players to greater heights. It’s difficult to imagine any Leone film without Morricone’s quirky themes and astonishingly beautiful melodies accompanying his anti-heroes on their dates with destiny. These musical pieces often took on a life of their own, providing welcome bridges over the occasional dull stretch or awkwardly realized scene. Although he would compose hundreds of memorable movie scores, and dozens of orchestral and chamber pieces, Ennio Morricone will, like Bernard Herrmann and Nina Rota, be forever linked to an incandescent filmmaker.
The critical and box office failures of Once Upon a Time in America disheartened Leone, but he remained busy at work on new projects until he was felled by a heart attack at the age of sixty. Had he lived longer, it is hard to conceive Leone being given carte-blanche to keep pursuing the sort of grandiose visions he was accustomed to, but one wants to feel this lover of cinema would have found a way.
Books on Leone:
Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death – Christopher Frayling ****1/2 This brilliant, warts and all, critical bio ultimately reveals its subject to be an insecure genius plagued by doubt and indecision. Regardless, as far as any definitive study of Leone goes, the buck stops here. Frayling’s provoking interviews with Leone’s many collaborators and his thoughtful insights on the director’s compact oeuvre make this tome a jewel of a book.
Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone – Christopher Frayling **** Despite its coffee-table book format this delightful overview and collection of interviews with the director and his collaborators remains an invaluable source to all things Leone.
Films by Leone:
1961 The Colossus of Rhodes ***
1964 A Fistful of Dollars ***1/2
1965 For a Few Dollars More ****
1966 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly ****
1968 Once Upon a Time in the West *****
1972 Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite ****
1974 My Name Is Nobody ***1/2 (d. Tomino Valerii—Leone is alleged to have directed three major sequences)
1984 Once Upon a Time in America *****