Director

Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone is most famous for directing the 'Dollars trilogy' of westerns that made Clint Eastwood a star in the 1960s: Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was just as he was completing the third film that another director drew his attention to a crime novel called 'The Hoods.' Leone was immediately attracted to the idea of using it for a film, seeing the potential to create an homage to gangster films of the 1930s.

Born in Rome in 1929, Sergio was from the start part of the world of cinema, his father being an actor-director and his mother a film actress. Young Sergio and his friends absorbed American movies and comic books, especially when there was an influx of them following the collapse of the censorious fascist regime toward the end of the second world war. Despite his father's wishes that he pursue a career as a lawyer, Sergio soon joined the Italian film industry, which was in a precarious state following the war. Leone spent the next dozen years assisting on an assortment of films including Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) and several opera films. Rome was also the location for some Hollywood films, and Leone gained valuable experience on Quo Vadis?, The Nun's Story, and Ben Hur. His first film as credited director was The Colossus of Rhodes, although he had in fact directed most of The Last Days of Pompeii when the original director fell ill.

The Colossus of Rhodes was typical of the ancient-times action films that were popular in Italy at the time, and it wasn't until his next film that Leone started to emerge as a unique director. Fistful of Dollars was a Western, made by Italians and filmed in Spain. While it wasn't the first European Western it soon became by far the most successful, spawning hundreds of others. It was also unlike any previous western. Gone were the traditional values of the Hollywood western, epitomised in the films of John Ford starring John Wayne. Instead, the 'hero', played by Clint Eastwood, was a bounty hunter whose only motivation was money and who ruthlessly played off one gang of outlaws against another, all to his own advantage. The plot was lifted without permission from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and there were legal ramifications for several years. Fistful displayed Leone's strong sense of visual story-telling; dialogue is minimal, with story and characters developing mainly through action and movement. Images were, however, complemented by the musical soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, consisting of an off-beat and often evocative score with trumpets and electric guitars. Close-up shots of characters' faces were often accompanied by music to heighten emotion.

Leone in his 20s.

The success of Fistful resulted in a sequel, For a Few Dollars More. A longer film (130 minutes compared to Fistful's 95), allowing Leone to develop his style, the story saw Eastwood's character at first competing with, and then teaming up with, a rival bounty hunter in pursuit of outlaw El Indio and his gang. The rival, Colonel Mortimer, was played by Lee Van Cleef, a screen veteran who had played minor roles in many Hollywood westerns. Leone's strong visual style remained, accompanied by more character development, especially the development of a grudging friendship between the bounty hunters. Also interesting was Leone's use of flashback. Throughout the film we briefly see glimpses of a scene taking place many years before, and we see more each time. The scene shows a couple making love, interrupted by El Indio who kills the man and then rapes the woman. She then commits suicide. Each time, the scene is accompanied by a melody from El Indio's musical pocket-watch and is presented as part of his memory, but in the film's final scene, it is also part of Mortimer's memory. Only at the film's climax, when Mortimer kills El Indio in one of Leone's celebrated gunfights, do we learn the meaning of it all: the woman killed was Mortimer's sister. This theme, the slow revealing of memories of a pivotal moment, would be further utilized in later Leone films.

The Dollars sequel was as successful as the first, and plans were quickly put in motion for a third. The budget and scale of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was even bigger, with a story to match. Three men, all bounty hunters, learn of a hidden hoard of gold but each has only incomplete information as to its whereabouts. As the Civil War is waged around them, they hunt the treasure, remaining aloof from any moral or political matters, sometimes working together, more often betraying each other. Eastwood and Van Cleef return, as The Good and The Bad, respectively, but it is Eli Wallach as Tuco - The Ugly - who almost steals the film with his flamboyant portrayal of an opportunist who is sometimes ruthless but sometimes sympathetically emotional. His character also has more depth than characters in any previous Leone film, particularly revealed in the scene discussing his family background with his brother.

The Civil War scenes examine war in general, with the futile and stalemated battle over the bridge evoking the trench warfare of the First World War, and the Yankee prison camp resembling Second World War concentration camps, complete with musical orchestra ordered to play to disguise the noise of prisoners being tortured. One of the film's most remarkable scenes occurs when Tuco arrives at the graveyard where the gold is hidden, and is confronted by an endless sea of graves of dead soldiers. As he races around looking for the right name, the camera swirls, sometimes past him, sometimes seeing from his point of view, all accompanied by Morricone's stirring score. This fantastic sequence is followed by another equally remarkable - the final gunfight between the three men. Morricone's score reaches new heights as the three gunmen size each other up, not wanting to draw first on one, thereby leaving themselves open to the third.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was another success in Italy. After its completion, the trilogy was released in the U.S., and also achieved huge commercial (though not critical) success there. By this time Leone was tiring of the western genre and wished to make Once Upon A Time In America. American studios offered to let him, but only on the condition that he do one more western. The result was a film that many people think of as Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon A Time In The West. The story revolves around a plot of land owned by Jill McBain but wanted by businessman Morton and his hired hand Frank. They try to force the land away from her but she is aided by a bandit named Cheyenne and a mysterious harmonica man. Harmonica also seeks revenge against Frank, for reasons not revealed until the film's climax.

Most of the film was shot, like the dollars trilogy, in Spain and Italy, but this time Leone got to film several key sequences in Monument Valley, Utah, the location used by director John Ford for many of his westerns. Leone also cast one of Ford's favourite actors, Henry Fonda, in the role of a ruthless killer. Once Upon A Time In The West is an amazing and incredibly rich film. It is the ultimate western, combining many of the major themes and characters of the genre: a revenge story, a land struggle, a 'dance-hall girl' from the east seeking a new life in the west, and the coming of civilisation to the west in the form of the railway. The writers - Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento - also put in deliberate recreations, homages, and citations of several classic Hollywood westerns such as High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane. The film has a slow, languid pace. The opening credits alone last almost quarter of an hour, as three men wait at a train station (the High Noon reference) and pass time swatting flies and sipping water collected in the brim of a hat. Characters are in no hurry to reveal their motives and their actions often seem confusing, but Leone's expert direction means that by the film's end, all becomes clear.

Leone sometimes acted out scenes for his actors. Here he does so with Scott Tiler (Noodles) in Once Upon A Time In America.

It is the most beautiful of Leone's films. Flowing camera movements are accompanied by an operatic score, such as in the scene where Jill arrives at Sweetwater train station and the camera cranes up to reveal the entire town before her. Morricone's score is stunning. Each of the main characters have their own signature themes, which serve as commentaries on the proceedings. But most affecting of all is the languid, fatalistic atmosphere that pervades the film. It is a time and a place of destiny. Each character accepts what comes without much surprise and with an air of resignation. It is as if they each say 'this is the way the world is, and I must play my part even though I know it is futile.' The climax of the film uses a pivotal flashback similar to that in For A Few Dollars More. Frank and Harmonica fight a gun duel. We - and Frank too at the moment of his death - finally learn the source of Harmonica's grievance with Frank. Meanwhile, in the background the railroad, symbolising the coming of civilisation, is being built behind them, relentlessly moving forward to the west. With ineffable sadness, the surviving characters carry on.

Unlike the Dollars trilogy, Once Upon A Time In The West was not a commercial success. In the US, the production company was nervous at its length and some of the more ponderous scenes and ordered it to be trimmed. It did better in Europe, especially in France.

The success of Leone's earlier films had led to a boom in Italian-made westerns, with hundreds being produced in the late sixties and early seventies. Some had political themes, using the west to explore contemporary causes and ideals. Leone was not enthusiastic about making such a film but agreed to help oversee the production of a western set during the Mexican Revolution. After finding a director proved difficult, Leone reluctantly agreed to take on the task. Duck, You Sucker is about a peasant bandit, Juan, and his family who team up with an ex-IRA explosives expert, Sean, to rob a bank. Sean instead manipulates Juan into helping the revolutionary cause. Juan's family are massacred by government forces and eventually Sean is killed in a battle between the government and revolutionaries, but not before both men have learnt something of the other's point of view. Rod Steiger gives a flamboyant performance as Juan while James Coburn is comparatively restrained as Sean.

The film's politics are pessimistic, with emphasis on the naivety of idealistic revolutionaries and how their actions lead to the deaths of innocent people. But at the same time it is clear that Leone's sympathies lie with the revolutionaries, for the government forces are portrayed as ruthless in their counter-revolutionary actions. The characterisations in Duck You Sucker are richer than in any previous Leone film, with both main characters growing and developing in the course of the story. Juan learns (from Sean) something of the importance of political action while Sean learns (from Juan) who it is that bears the brunt of the consequences of revolutionary action. The theme of friendship is strong. Despite their differences, Juan and Sean develop a mutual respect - like Mortimer and the bounty hunter in Dollars More, and Cheyenne and the Man in Once Upon A Time In The West - but unlike the earlier films, this is accompanied by genuine affection and rapport, prefiguring the friendship between Noodles and Max in Once Upon A Time In America. Leone's favoured motif of the pivotal flashback (as used in Dollars More and Once Upon A Time In The West) is again present. Throughout the film Sean recalls earlier times in Ireland, which again reiterate the theme of friendship: having fun with his best friend, witnessing his friend betraying the cause, and finally taking revenge on that friend. Again, these are accompanied by a Morricone melody and his score for the film is amongst his most evocative and beautiful.

Leone during shooting of Once Upon A Time In America.

During the 1970s Leone concentrated on producing rather than directing films. This was partly because he was unable to find finance for the film he wanted to make, Once Upon A Time In America. But another explanation, as shown by his biographer Christopher Frayling, was his fear of failure. This anxiety lasted his entire life, contributing to his extended apprenticeship as assistant director already noted and was the source of some of the tensions he had with production studios and writers. In the 70s, through his own production company Rafran, Leone helped produce a number of Italian films, including Il gatto, Il giocattolo, and several featuring Italian comedian Carlo Verdone, such as Un sacco bello and Bianco rosso e verdone. During this time Leone also directed many television commercials. One of his credits as producer was the western My Name Is Nobody. Directed by Tonino Valerii, it is (like Once Upon A Time In The West) an elegy to the western but this time a lighter hearted one. Picking up another convention of the genre, the story concerns a legendary but aging gunfighter's relationship with a young man who wishes to replace him. While Leone had input into the story and directed a few scenes, it is weaker than his own films.

By the early 80s, Leone was finally in a position to make Once Upon A Time In America, thanks to producer Arnon Milchan who had agreed to help finance the film. Leone was also helped by the fact that Robert DeNiro had agreed to play the role of Noodles. DeNiro's participation - he was an Oscar-winner four years previously - meant that America would be a prestigious film. Filming began in 1982 and locations included Montreal, New York, and Florida, while interiors were shot in Rome. While ostensibly an epic gangster story, it is a film about friendship, love, betrayal, history, class, memory, and time. The narrative structure is non-linear, starting in the 1930s, moving forward to the 1960s, back to the 1920s and shifting several more times between the three periods. The story revolves around gang members Noodles, Max, Cockeye, and Patsy, first as children committing petty crime and then as adults during the Prohibition era. Noodles and Max are best friends but the friendship is strained by Noodles's love for Deborah. When Max instigates a risky robbery, Noodles betrays the gang in order to save their lives but in a shoot-out with police Max, Patsy, and Cockeye are killed. Noodles flees on the first bus out. Upon his return decades later, he learns that the past was not as he thought. The story is the most complex of Leone's films with an ambiguous ending that allows several interpretations.

Just as Once Upon A Time In The West is Leone's tribute to the western, Once Upon A Time In America is his homage to gangster films. There are numerous references to Hollywood crime films of the 1930s and 1940s (see Allusions page). Many of the themes of Leone's other films - friendship, memory - are also present, but more fully developed. Memories in the form of flashbacks again play a pivotal role. Again their meaning is only slowly revealed, but this time their full meaning remains unclear and in this film the flashbacks are much more lengthy, allowing a richer tale to be told. The characterisations are detailed, focusing on the friendship between Noodles and Max. While their friendship is a close one, there are tensions between them from two sources: Noodles's love for Deborah and Max's ambitions for power and wealth. Much of the film is devoted to exploring these tensions. Another major theme of the film is that of an individual's ability to make an impact on the world. Noodles, Max, and Deborah all long to do this and Noodle's lack of success in doing so haunts him into his old age. This concern also seemed present throughout Leone's own life, perhaps explaining his early diffidence and also his desire to make increasingly bigger, more epic films.

In the U.S., Once Upon A Time In America was released against Leone's wishes in a highly edited form, running at just over two hours and re-edited into chronological order. But the film performed poorly at the box office. The full-length version fared better in Europe and the rest of the world.

Production had taken its toll on Leone's health. Heart problems meant that his work activities had to be curtailed. He planned on making an epic film about the siege of Leningrad in the second world war. But in April 1989, he died of heart failure at the age of 59. He was survived by his wife Carla, two daughters Francesca and Rafaella, and a son Andrea. Never considered an important director during his lifetime, his films -- particularly the two Once Upon A Times... -- are now receiving increasing critical attention.

 

Links:

'Sergio Leone' by Daniel Edwards: A brief biography of Leone from the Senses of Cinema site.

Profile from Filmreference.com written by Stuart Kaminsky. Contains extensive list of books and articles on Leone.

'Fistful of Leone' A site dedicated to Sergio Leone.

 

Email: secretary'at'onceuponatimeinamerica.net