Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone [lee-oh-nee] (1929 – 1989) was an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter most associated with the ‘Spaghetti Western’ genre. Leone’s film-making style includes juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots. His movies include ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ ‘The Colossus of Rhodes,’ the Dollars Trilogy (‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ ‘For a Few Dollars More,’ and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’), Once ‘Upon a Time in the West,’ ‘Duck, You Sucker!’, and ‘Once Upon a Time in America.’

Born in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran). During his schooldays, Leone was a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone for a time. After watching his father work on film sets, Leone began his own career in the film industry at the age of 18 after dropping out of law studies at the university.

Working in Italian cinematography, he began as an assistant to Vittorio de Sica during the movie ‘Bicycle Thieves’ in 1948. Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the ‘sword and sandal’ (a.k.a. ‘peplum’) historical epics, popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably ‘Quo Vadis’ (1951) and ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), financially backed by the American studios.

When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (‘Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei’), starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when the time came to make his solo directorial debut with ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ (‘Il Colosso di Rodi,’ 1961), Leone was well-equipped to produce low-budget films which looked like larger budget Hollywood movies.

In the early 1960s, historical epics fell out of favor with audiences, but Leone had shifted his attention to a sub-genre which came to be known as the ‘Spaghetti Western,’ owing its origin to the American Western. His film ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (‘Per un Pugno di Dollari,’ 1964) was based upon Akira Kurosawa’s Edo-era samurai adventure ‘Yojimbo’ (1961). Leone’s film elicited a legal challenge from the Japanese director, though Kurosawa’s film was in turn probably based on the Dashiell Hammett novel ‘Red Harvest’ (1929). ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is also notable for establishing Clint Eastwood as a star. Until that time Eastwood had been an American television actor with few credited film roles.

The look of the film was established by its Spanish locations, which presented a violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. The film paid tribute to traditional American western movies, but significantly departed from them in storyline, plot, characterization and mood. Leone gains credit for one great breakthrough in the western genre still followed today: in traditional western films, many heroes and villains alike looked as if they had just stepped out of a fashion magazine, with clearly drawn moral opposites, even down to the hero wearing a white hat and the villain wearing a black hat. Leone’s characters were, in contrast, more ‘realistic’ and complex: usually ‘lone wolves’ in their behavior; they rarely shaved, looked dirty and sweated profusely, and there was a strong suggestion of criminal behaviour. The characters were also morally ambiguous by appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation demanded. Some critics have noted the irony of an Italian director who could not speak English, and had never even visited the United States, let alone the American Old West, almost single-handedly redefining the typical vision of the American cowboy. According to Christopher Frayling’s book ‘Something to do with Death,’ Leone knew a great deal about the American Old West. It fascinated him as a child, which carried into his adulthood and his films.

Each film in the Dollars Trilogy was more financially successful and technically accomplished than its predecessor. The films featured innovative music scores by Ennio Morricone, who worked closely with Leone in devising the themes. Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone’s music ongoing. Based on their success, Leone was invited to the United States in 1967 to direct ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (‘C’Era una Volta il West’) for Paramount Pictures. The film was shot mostly in Almería, Spain and Cinecittà in Rome. It was also briefly shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The film starred Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. The film emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American Old West, with many stylistic references to iconic western films. The film’s script was written by Leone and his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, it was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its low box-office results in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe, and has become regarded as Leone’s best film.

Leone next directed ‘Duck, You Sucker!’ (‘Giù la Testa,’ 1971). Leone was intending merely to produce the film, but due to artistic differences from then-director Peter Bogdanovich, Leone was asked to direct the film instead. The film is a Mexican Revolution action drama, starring James Coburn, as an Irish revolutionary, and Rod Steiger, as a Mexican bandit who is conned into becoming a revolutionary. Leone continued to produce, and on occasion, step in to reshoot scenes in other films. One of these films was ‘My Name is Nobody’ (1973) by Tonino Valerii (though true participation of Leone in shooting is disputed), a comedy western film that poked fun at the spaghetti western genre. It starred Henry Fonda as an old gunslinger who watched ‘his’ old West fade away before his very eyes as he played his guitar. Terence Hill also starred in the film as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying West with style.

Leone turned down the opportunity to direct ‘The Godfather,’ in favor of working on another gangster story he had conceived earlier. He devoted ten years to this project, based on the novel ‘The Hoods’ by former mobster Harry Grey, which focused on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. The four-hour finished film, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984), featured Robert De Niro and James Woods. It looked at another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy coexistence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship. Feeling the final cut was too long, Warner Bros. recut it drastically for the American market, abandoning its flashback structure for a linear narrative. Lasting over just two hours, the recut version shown in North America received much criticism and flopped. The original version, released in the rest of the world, achieved somewhat better box office returns and a mixed critical response. According to biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Leone was deeply hurt by the studio-imposed editing and poor commercial reception of ‘Once Upon a Time in America.’ It would be his last film.

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