During an era when moviegoers thought the Western belonged to America, Italian film director Sergio Leone (1929–1989) stepped in and overhauled the genre. During the 1960s, Leone's “Man with No Name” trilogy utilized violence, character close-ups, slow panoramas, and operatic music to tell his tales with gritty, theatrical style. The films in this trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)—launched Leone's career, shot actor Clint Eastwood to fame, and influenced filmmaking for decades to come.
Sergio Leone is credited with turning the spotlight on the “Spaghetti Western,” a term used to describe movies set in the American Wild West and produced by Italian studios. For Leone, the Wild West setting was a useful vehicle in which he could examine universal truths. As he explained to ASX interviewer Marlaine Glicksman in 1987, “I've always believed that true cinema is cinema of the imagination. Cinema through spectacle, through the entertainment of spectacle, tells the story of many actual problems in life. Because who ever doesn't want to read between the lines can just enjoy the entertainment and the show and can go home happy. On the other hand, whoever would like to look and see what someone is saying behind all the show, glitter, scenery, whatever it may be, and see what ideas are being expressed beyond and below and above that, can do that, as well.”
Leone was born on January 3, 1929, in Rome, Italy, to Vincenzo Leone and wife Edvige Valcarenghi, both of whom worked in Italian cinema. Working under the pseudonym Roberto Roberti, Vincenzo Leone directed more than 100 films. Edvige, an actress, appeared in several silent films from 1913–17 using the stage name Bice Valerian. In the 1910s, the elder Leone worked for Aquila Films in Turin, Italy, but the studio closed in 1917 due to World War I. Vincenzo Leone would later speak out publicly against National Fascist Party Leader and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, forcing him and his family into exile during Leone's teen years.
During his college years, Leone studied law briefly, but the lure of Italy's infamous Cinecittà Studios was too much. In 1948, he made a brief screen appearance as a German seminarian in Italian director Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette). Leone also worked as an unpaid assistant on the film, which would later be hailed as a classic of Italian neorealist cinema.
During the early 1950s, Leone assisted on dozens of films produced by Cinecittà Studios, many of which were crime dramas. In 1952, he appeared on screen as a U.S. soldier in The Mad Marechiaro (Il Folle di Marechiaro), the final motion picture directed by his father. Vincenzo Leone had shot part of the film in 1944, but he was unable to complete it until the 1950s.
Due to these financial incentives, filmmaking boomed in Italy. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood studios turned out a string of epic “sword and sandal” dramas. Featuring mythic figures like Hercules and Goliath, these action-packed fantasies were shot quickly on meager budgets and employed rudimentary special effects. Leone served as an assistant on Robert Wise's Helen of Troy (1956), which was based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. He also worked on Aphrodite, Goddess of Love (1958); Sheba and the Gladiator (1959); and William Wyler's blockbuster Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston. He also served as second unit director for the 1962 biblical spectacular Sodom and Gomorrah.
Leone's first effort as director came in 1959, on the set of The Last Days of Pompeii. When director Mario Bonnard became ill early in the filming, Leone stepped behind the camera, but Bonnard got the director's credit. Although The Last Days of Pompeii lacks many of the visual trademarks of Leone's later style, it does capture the violence occurring in Pompeii in an extended opening sequence. Later in his career, critics would deride Leone for the violence in his films.
In 1961, Leone earned his first official director credit with the sword-and-sandal epic The Colossus of Rhodes. When later asked about the film, he explained that he only directed it to pay for his honeymoon. In 1960, Leone had married Carla Ranalli, an Italian actress with whom he had three children: Francesca, Raffaella, and Andrea. During an interview with British pop-culture historian Christopher Frayling (quoted on the Fistful-of-Leone website), the director revealed that, despite the animosity and violence portrayed in his films, he was a family man at heart. “It's very interesting that his household is full of females, very powerful and beautiful personalities,” Frayling added. “He always lived in a houseful of females and yet this man made very masculine movies. In fact, his wife Carla once said to me that maybe the reason why he doesn't have many women in his films is because he got too much of them at home.”
In the early 1960s, Leone turned his attention to the Western, writing the screenplay and directing A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari). He thought the Western had become too cheerful, stale, and polished, and this 1964 release was his effort to recapture the magic of the genre. A Fistful of Dollars was actually an unauthorized adaptation of the 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Leone identified Western parallels in Yojimbo and adapted the storyline to fit. Both A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo involve unattached wanderers arriving in strange towns where rival gangs are vying for control. Incidentally, Leone was sued over the infringement. Nonetheless, A Fistful of Dollars delivered Leone into the spotlight, even though he initially released it under the pseudonym Bob Robertson.
A Fistful of Dollars featured popular television actor Clint Eastwood in the lead role: a character known only as the “Stranger” or the “Man with No Name.” A Fistful of Dollars struck a chord with moviegoers living in the chaotic 1960s, as many universal truths were coming under question. The “Man with No Name” was a new kind of anti-hero, cynical and gritty. With this single film, Leone turned the Western upside down and the 1960s counterculture loved it.
Leone followed A Fistful of Dollars with For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il buono, il bruto, il cattivo, 1966), also casting Eastwood as the enigmatic central character. As a trilogy, these films introduced moviemaking elements that later became associated with Leone, such as flagrant violence, dubbed dialogue, and a visual style that transitioned between panoramic long shots and macro close-ups. Mythic landscapes filled the screen, set off by dramatic camera movements and the orchestral scores of Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The soundtrack for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with its signature “WHAWHA-WHA,” became one of cinema's most widely recognized theme songs. At the box office, Leone's “Man with No Name” trilogy earned hefty profits. For instance, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly cost $1.2 million to make, but it brought in $25 million at the box office.
Leone's next project was Once upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West). He wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which starred Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards. Released in Europe in 1968, this epic, nearly three-hour-long Western deals with the slaying of a wealthy landowner by thugs who want his property because the railroad is set to run through it. Matters are complicated when the victim's new bride inherits the land and two outlaws vow to protect her from the killers.
From one perspective, Once upon a Time in the West chronicles how capitalism conquered the West, but on a deeper level it served as an ode to film Westerns of the past. It was more authentically Western than Leone's fantastical trilogy, and it offered filmgoers clever references to the classic Western films that preceded it. However, as Leone wove in echoes of memorable moments from some of Hollywood's best-known Westerns, he also subverted them, producing both a eulogy to the genre and the first postmodern Western. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic, “Leone's adoration of all the standard props and decor—the horses, the saloons, the guns, the clenched jaws, the histrionic taciturnities—has a childlike wonder about it. I almost felt that I was sitting next to little Sergio, aged 10, watching him gape wide-eyed at his own film.” According to Kauffmann, Once upon a Time in the West held viewers' interest because it had been “made with such fervor, such conviction of its importance.”
Although European audiences loved it, the U.S. version was 21 minutes shorter and not well received. As Robert C. Cumbow noted in The Films of Sergio Leone, even though Once upon a Time in the West “later became a Success d'estime and is today widely recognized as a masterpiece, it was not so at first. Most of the initial reviews found the film as ponderous and dull as they had found Leone's first three films raucous and offensively violent.” As the years passed, however, appreciation for Once upon a Time in the West increased, and the National Film Preservation Board considered it important enough to preserve in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.
In 1971 Leone directed Duck, You Sucker! (Giù la testa, 1971), and this drama about the Mexican Revolution was his last Western. His next production, 1984's Once upon a Time in America (C'era una volta in America), is considered by many to be his most accomplished film. A crime drama, the movie was based on Harry Grey's 1952 novel The Hoods, about Jewish gangsters during Prohibition. Leone spent more than a decade planning and making the film, scouring for locations and infusing the sets and costumes with meticulously accurate historical details. The film featured Robert De Niro as the racketeering protagonist “Noodles” and was told through interlacing flashbacks and flash-forwards set in 1924, 1933, and 1968.
Just like Once upon a Time in the West, Once upon a Time in America got off to a dubious start. With edits, Leone brought the film down to 420 minutes and hoped to release it as a two-part series. When the producer declined, Leone premiered a 229-minute version at the Cannes Film Festival. Although this version was received well in Europe, the producer sliced the running time to 139 minutes for U.S. distribution and also reconstructed the storyline by removing flashbacks and reordering scenes in a chronology. As Peter Bondanella wrote in Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, this “shamefully abbreviated version … weakened its aesthetic impact and distorted its meaning.” When Once upon a Time in America was restored closer to Leone's original version, it garnered critical acclaim, and some critics have hailed it as the best cinema portrayal of the Prohibition era to ever hit the big screen.
Leone was working on a war epic about the Siege of Leningrad when he died of a heart attack, on April 30, 1989, in Rome. While he undoubtedly made an enduring mark on the film industry, his legacy remained unsettled. Film buffs agree that Leone was a master at the craft of moviemaking, but some questioned the depth of his output. As John Fawell noted in The Art of Sergio Leone's “Once upon a Time in the West,” critics of the director derided him for being all “style” with no substance. According to Fawell, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci viewed Leone's movies as good entertainment, citing the director as “stronger as a pure talent of mise-en-scène—the relationship between the camera, the bodies of the people in front of it, and the landscape—than as philosopher.”
U.S. director Quentin Tarantino was greatly inspired by Leone, as can be seen in his 2012 Spaghetti Western-inspired Django Unchained. Through Tarantino's work, Leone's influence shines through. As Glicksman wrote in ASX, Tarantino's “explosively idiosyncratic revenge-genre films owe a most-obvious nod to the Maestro [Leone], from their graphic title sequences to their unabashedly blood-spewing plots to their groovy soundtracks.” Into the 21st century, Tarantino continued the work of deconstructing genres, much as Leone had 50 years before.
Bondanella, Peter, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Continuum Publishing, 1995.
Cumbow, Robert C., The Films of Sergio Leone,” Scarecrow Press, 2008.
Fawell, John, The Art of Sergio Leone's “Once upon a Time in the West,” McFarland & Co., 2005.
Film Comment, September–October 2000, Adrian Martin, “Man of the Cinema,” p. 80.
Guardian (London, England), May 1, 1989, Derek Malcolm and George Armstrong, “Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Italy.”
New Republic, June 21, 1969, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Once upon a Time in the West.
ASX, http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/12/interview-interview-with-sergio-leone-1987.html (December 4, 2017), Marlaine Glicksman, “An Interview with Sergio Leone (1987).”
Fistful-of-Leone, http://www.fistful-of-leone.com/articles/prof.html (November 15, 2017), “Christopher Frayling on Sergio Leone.”□