25 years ago today, cinema lost 1 of its all-time greatest movie directors. An unassuming little man from Rome, Italy, who in a period of 5 years, completely transcended the quality of a whole movie genre. His movies weren’t many, but brilliant they were. I’m talking of course about Sergio Leone.
My earliest memory of a Leone film, was when I was a small child, walking into the dark living room that was lit by the TV. My parents were watching a film that featured a tall man with a cowboy hat, pancho, cigar and a face that evidently had seen better days. Almost instantly I was told to leave. Possibly to go back to bed, I don’t remember. But the next day I came across the VHS box. Some movie called “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”. Years later, I find out my parents liked some real quality films.
In my opinion, and without a shadow of a doubt – as good as the Western was in America, it was made better by an Italian (I now feel like I’m being watched by the John Wayne Fan Club). The Spaghetti Western wasn’t anything new when Leone came onto the scene with his 2nd movie, A Fistful Of Dollars (A western remake of an amazing Akira Kurosawa film called Yojimbo). The cast was made up of actors from all over Europe and starred an American, who previously played Rowdy Yates in a hit America TV Show called Rawhide. That American was Clint Eastwood, starring in his first lead role at the age of 34.
Was ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’ any good? Absolutely! It was at least on par with Yojimbo in quality, and at the time, Leone had officially created the best Spaghetti Western. I say ‘at the time’, because it only got better afterwards. Leone then decided to do more movies with Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character, including ‘A Few Dollars More’ in 1965. The film paired Eastwood up with another American, Lee Van Cleef, an excellent dutch-american actor who was partly chosen for his face. Leone thought he loosely resembled the painter Vincent Van Gogh. In fact, most actors that Leone selected were because of their faces. He chose interesting looking people, and it provided a great deal of character to his films that probably wouldn’t have been seen in most American Westerns. With few words, their faces said many, and painted the setting better than simply telling us.
After ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’ and the even better ‘A Few Dollars More’, Leone created The Good, The Bad, The Ugly in 1966, 1 of the best movies of all time, let alone the best Spaghetti Western. For this 1, Leone had 3 Americans in lead roles. I keep mentioning they’re Americans, because they were the only 1s who spoke english and didn’t understand all of the other languages on the set. Leone was not known for being fluent in English. But he had a unique way of directing those he didn’t understand completely. Leone knew what he wanted, but in order to get it, he had to “show, not tell”. So in 3 words, he got what he was looking for from each actor. He would have said “Clint, watch me!” “Lee, watch me!” “Eli, Watch me!” and he would act out the role for the actor before filming. To say the least, his technique worked. The 3rd leading role went to Eli Wallach, a 50 year old polish Jew from New York, who played the fast-talking and comical Mexican bandit Tuco (The Ugly). As good as Eastwood and Van Cleef were in their return for the 3rd and final movie, Wallach stole the show.
Afterwards, Leone directed 4 more spaghetti westerns, 2 of them all my himself, and 2 while collaborating with another director. I never saw 1971’s ‘A Fistful Of Dynamite’, but I did see the 1 before it. A film that was on par with the Dollars Trilogy, and starred 2 actors that Leone originally tried to get for Dollars’, but couldn’t (no pun intended). After the success of Dollars’, Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda were finally convinced into having lead roles in Leone’s new movie at the time, Once Upon A Time In The West. A movie that became notorious, because Fonda, who spent his whole career playing the hero, was all of a sudden a cold-blooded killer named Frank, and for the first time, the bad guy. It was also the first and only Leone film to have a female lead, Claudio Cardinale.
Leone’s last film was Once Upon A Time In America, and it was the only movie he completely directed that wasn’t a Spaghetti Western (before that he co-directed a few sword-and-sandal movies in Italy). It starred Robert De Niro in 1 of his finest roles and at its most complete was about 4 and a half hours long. The film unfortunately was a flop in cinema. But at the same time understandable because it was perfect for VHS/DVD (the ability to pause and have a break).
Sergio died of a heart attack at the age of 60, 2 days before he signed the dotted line for a new movie he was preparing, called Leningrad: The 900 Days.
Nearly everything Leone did was not only of quality, but of trademark. He was a star in his own right, but his direction and his ability to bring everything together created stars out of his own crew as well as the actors; including music composer Ennio Morricone, and cinematographers Massimo Dallamano and Tonino Delli Colli. There will never be another Sergio Leone. But I would like to believe that he is an inspiration, along with the usual suspects within his crew. He became a standard bearer, along with Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Disney, and more recently Christopher Nolan.
In conclusion, he was 1 of the best, and he continues to be missed.