Sergio Leone – Spaghetti Western Master

The name of Sergio Leone is practically synonymous with the term “spaghetti western.”

Few would deny that, while there were many practitioners of the form in the 60s and 70s, Sergio Leone was probably the closest thing to an artist that the genre has ever seen.

After an ignoble and unheralded beginning (as the director of cheap sand-and-sandal epics) Leone’s career took off with the release of his 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars starring the soon-to-be-legendary Clint Eastwood. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo it tells the story of a laconic gunfighter who stops in a small, lawless town and runs afoul of competing gangs of outlaws.

Something about the movie struck a definite chord with foreign audiencesâÂ?¦ and the same thing happened again a few years later when Leone’s films were exported to North America. So successful were these films that spawned a whole new genre. Dubbed “spaghetti westerns” these films were mainly done in Italy and Spain and were a lot tougher and bloodier than the ones filmed in the US. The stars were not necessarily the good guys and the bad guys didn’t always get punished in the end.

The success of A Fistful of Dollars spurred Leone on to make a sequel of sorts: For A Few Dollars More. Eastwood played the same sort of character as in the first film, a wry, cigar smoking, poncho wearing bounty hunter. This time there was an original screenplay and Leone was able to flesh out the film more with extended scenes of characterization and visual stylization.

The music of Ennio Morricone (also heard in “Fistful” and in all of Leone’s subsequent films) added greatly to the movie’s ambiance. Some would say that the style of the spaghetti western genre was as much due to Morricone’s jangly guitar music as Leone’s directorial flourishes.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was the third collaboration between Leone, Morricone and Eastwood and the film is perhaps their greatest achievement. Few are unfamiliar with the unmistakable whistling sound that appeared throughout the film and was heard in the opening title track.

The tune even became something of a radio staple in the late ’60s. Eastwood’s status as a movie star was solidified as his three Leone-directed films hit US theaters and gave him nearly carte blanche to choose his next US-based projects. Leone’s directing skills were sharpened and honed to perfection during the making of this epic: a sprawling, three hour saga taking place during the American civil war.

With the raging war as the backdrop, three desperate men (Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) compete in a race to find a fortune in hidden army gold.

Leone next took the western world by storm with his magnificent “Once Upon a Time in the West”. An even larger cast of world-renowned actors (among them: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson) teamed up for a saga even longer and more complex than “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. A mysterious gunfighter on a personal mission of vengeance teams up with a roguish bandit to help keep a pretty young widow from losing her land to greedy railroad tycoons. Henry Fonda played against his usual good-guy role with perhaps the most heinous villain that the western genre had seen to that date, indiscriminately killing a young boy in the furtherance of his greed.

Next up was a movie entitled Duck You Sucker, which took place south of the US border during the Mexican Revolution. James Coburn played an Irish terrorist and explosives expert on the run in Mexico. He crosses paths with a Mexican bandito played by Rod Steiger and the two men form an allianceâÂ?¦first for the sake of monetary gain and later, for something more political and personal. The movie was not very successful though it is quite highly regarded by Leone fans. A severely edited version of the film was later released as “A Fistful of Dynamite” (to cash in on Leone’s earlier success) and, sadly, it is this version that is most widely seen today.

Following this was a film that was not directed by Leone but is often looked upon as the capper to his spaghetti western career. My Name is Nobody”was directed by Tonino Vallerii though legend has it that Leone took over the shooting of some sequences himself. Certainly the film is very much in Leone’s style at times but mostly it serves as a kind of bridge between the old style of spaghetti westerns and the new breed of comedy western typified by Terence Hill’s They Call Me Trinity. Based on an idea of Leone’s this film stars Hill as a youthful gunslinger who encounters his childhood hero (Henry Fonda) and sets him up for a violent showdown that will ensure his place his history.

The film is much more than a silly comedyâÂ?¦ even though it is perhaps the best comedic work ever done by Hill. Fonda’s performance is one of the best of his career and the majestic overhead tracking shot that sweeps across the screen during his big climatic gunfight with The Wild Bunch is one of the single, greatest images in western movie history. (The same could be said of the finale of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”.)

Leone was absent from films for a while after thisâÂ?¦ but he came back strong with the historical gangster film Once Upon a Time in America in 1984. Again, Leone’s work was butchered for its US release and it was only years later that the true Leone vision could be seen. Robert DeNiro stars as Noodles, a young man whose initiation into the world of crime has a disastrous effect on his soul.

The movie is both beautiful and monstrous� echoing the Jekyll-Hyde personality of its central character. In fact, in its most powerful scene, a romantic reunion between Noodles and a childhood flame turns ugly and tragic with little warning. This film may not be as well-known but deserves to be in the same company with such modern gangster classics as The Godfather and Goodfellas.

Tragically, this was to be Leone’s last film though he had plans to do one based on the siege of Leningrad. He died in 1989.

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