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A Tribute To: Sergio Leone

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 11:30 AM

A Tribute to Sergio Leone

For the life of me, I can't remember the first time I saw a Sergio Leone film or even which film it was. There's countless other directors I can remember: I saw Tarantino's Pulp Fiction on a rented VHS when it first came out, I saw Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket on HBO (or one of those pay channels) when I was in junior high and it was one of those "free to view" promotional weekends, Spielberg's ET when I was probably five or six, Scorsese's Goodfellas in high school when I took it home for weekend viewing from the video store I worked at (along with Casino), Wilder's Sunset Boulevard in film class, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one afternoon on television when I was in college.

But Leone? I'll be damned if I can't remember a thing. Yet, it's one of those "things" that has always been and always around. That's probably memory-bias, though. You know: one of those things you remember and are familiar with and are absolutely certain existed and happened...but later find out none of it actually happened. It just happened in your head and over time the false became the true.

Leone has always been true to me, yet I can't remember how or why or when it actually happened. I think about seeing A Fistful of Dollars on AMC in the 1990s, and maybe that actually occurred, but I can't be for certain it even did much less whether or not that was the origin of my fondness for his work. I do know we studied his technique a little in film class, but I also know I didn't get into the western genre and Spaghetti Westerns specifically until later when I bought the "Man With No Name" or "Dollars" trilogy on early, bad-transferred non-anamorphic DVDs. I know that's true because I still have those DVDs.

And the second releases of those films.

And most recently the blu-ray editions.

Not to mention all his other films in between, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America.

Well, scratch that last one, let's stay focused. Because Leone is synonymous with one thing and one thing only: Spaghetti Westerns. And no filmmaker has wow'd me more for something so very specific as much as Leone did. Often imitated, never duplicated, the man single-handedly crafted a style and made one particular sub-genre of Westerns beloved by many.


Well Not Quite

There were Italian produced westerns before Leone came into the fold.  Quite a lot, actually. Enough to make Leone take notice as a young, upstart second unit director at the very least. He loved westerns and loved films, coming from a filmmaking family. But after seeing Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, feeling the western genre was at a bit of standstill by the 1960s (Italian and American alike) and getting a bit tired of the other genres he was working in, he decided to to make a little movie called A Fistful of Dollars based on that fun little Kurosawa film he was such a fan of.

He took it, adapted it, and looked to redefine it with a unique style and approach. Yes, there were plenty of Italian westerns before, but when Leone got his Italian mits on it, he turned it into something distinct and identifiable. To the point where "Spaghetti Western" was a term that had to be coined for this new style of a genre he just invented.

Spaghetti Westerns were distinct, and all those directors that followed in Sergio Leone's wake and impact were copying Leone's original style and take on the western, therefore creating a whole new genre on its own. There were plenty of European-directed and produced westerns before. Plenty of Italian westerns too. But when Leone took it on, he implemented a distinctiveness that made people take notice. It's a genre more than just a label, it's a cinematic style.

For example, a "Blaxploitation" movie from the 1970s is pretty much just an action drama with an African American lead. But go and watch one, and you'll see a distinct way it approaches the material - lead male is rough, rugged, tough and fighting for a cause for an entire race while at the same time enjoying its own brand of stereotypes and humor. A "British comedy" is just a comedy...but the cinematic language of it makes it a "British" comedy. This is where the Spaghetti Western comes in. It's not just a "western," it's a unique cinematic style and language of film that defines it, not who directs it or where it was produced. It's all about how it's done. Like a fine Italian dish, it needs the right ingredients.



What Makes a Spaghetti Western Taste Like Spaghetti?


  • One Cup Style:

The style is the tomato marinara of a Spaghetti Western. It's one of those "I know it when I see it" attributes that define the complete visual style of the genre - and the visual style is the most important aspect of it. It starts with color: lots of browns, lots of grays, lots of washed-out oranges and yellows. The Spaghetti Western isn't a colorful romp through the old west, it's not "sweeping" in the sense of a John Ford film with gorgeous vistas. It's barren. Desolate.


The camera concentrates on the people, not necessarily the location. Close-ups of eyes, fast-zooms into faces, syncopation editing done to the beat. Lots of still shots. Lots of sharp angles.  Lots of quiet.  Lots of build up and contemplation. To express this, though, I have to supply a sample. It'll speak for itself. There's no better example of this than the opening of the Sergio Leone classic: Once Upon a Time in the West.


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You can just feel the sensation of being there. The heat. The beat. The Spaghetti Western is all about getting you into a "moment" and using just about every plane and portion of the frame. Characters are set up to bring out this style (notice how, once Harmonica, our hero, is revealed how the characters get into position for a very stylized "showdown" shot - a defining trait of the the genre).


This style is very prominent today. Just go and watch some Japanese animation: there's a lot of similarities.


  • Two Parts Myth:

"Myth" as in the classic Greek sense of the word. Large-than-life heroes, situations and tales that, when it boils right down to it, has a moral fable quality.


Let's face it, these men aren't your normal men. They're superheroes in a way - faster than a speeding bullet is taken literally. Everything is set just outside reality. I would cite an example here, but let's face it, you can just pick up any flick and see it for yourself. It's all about exaggeration, and thanks to the style of it all visually, the exaggeration of everyone's abilities is completely in-line with the world that is set.


  • 1/2 Cup of Moral Ambiguity:

There's good and there's bad men out there, but many times even the good men aren't entirely good. They're usually quiet, often in it for themselves, and are often just as bad as the bad guys. The difference, though, is motivation. Many of the good guys start out as selfish and uncaring, but eventually pick up arms to do what's right - though it's more for their own interest than anything. In the Corbucci classic Django, our hero doesn't even bother saving a woman he see being abused. He was content just moving on. None of his business. No reason to get involved. But he eventually falls in to saving her. In A Fistful Full of Dollars, our Man With No Name is in the same boat. It's just a town. He wants to stop by, break for a bit, then move on. But dammit…some asshole just insulted his mule.


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This isn't the John Wayne/John Ford hero. And that darkness to the likes of a Franco Nero or Clint Eastwood character is why I really enjoy these violent romps through the old west.


  • A Dash of Morricone:

Notice something in that clip above? That's right, the music. Ennio Morricone is as important to this genre as anything, mainly because he made his entire living scoring countless Spagetti Westerns. And you know what? He still is. The man is in his 80 and still working. He's done over 500 films and television shows and a good chunk of that came in the 1960s with the genre he helped define (he also did a ton of Giallo/horror films, but I'm getting off track).


The thing is, though, that distinct sound was being emulated if Morricone wasn't going to compose for a film. If he passed or was busy (most likely he was going by his credits) they'd fine a composer that could, at least, try to emulate that sound.


  • A Pinch of Humor:

These Italian westerns can be serious at times, but usually they're more intent on just being "fun" and having a good time. Even the super-serious Leone incorporated a wry sense of humor throughout his productions. Some went all-out with the comedy, most were restrained yet still had that tongue-in-cheek aspect that seeped from it. It was all organic, thanks to the style of the directing and the fantasy-myth aspect. As mentioned, we're just "right outside reality" with these film, and humor feels completely natural even in the darkest of them.



  • Dubbing Leftovers:

Once all that is cooked up, there's one more thing that defines these movies. True, it's not always a great thing, but it's distinct to them. I find it all a bit charming, actually: bad dubbing. Most of these actors can't speak English, much less mouth proper English, so when English-speaking voices are put in to dub-over Italian-speaking actors, it just seems a little off…again just a little off of reality. Most of the leads are fine (your Eastwoods, your van Cleefs,  your Hills, your Fondas) because the actors themselves went and did the ADR back. But the gaggle of villagers, or the henchmen, or the shady saloon card players are a different story. Personally, I love it all. I think it's fun and goofy, but I can see how some might consider it a distraction.


Either way, though, it's a defining trait. Like it or not.


Distinctive Farewells

One of the things that Leone nailed in all his movies was how to end them. Far better than me writing a blog about a great director and not quite sure how to end it, the last 10 minutes of a Leone film were something special. Every single one of his films had that "moment" at the end that made it all come together, and made you feel as though you just spent your time watching something fantastic. None better than what I consider the greatest shootout scene ever in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, where tension and the fact there's little shooting at all makes it such a great scene to begin with. You feel the weight in that scene, the drama, the satisfaction of it all.

Another great one is Once Upon a Time in the West. Man...the final confrontation between our incredibly nasty Frank and Harmonica, our protagonist, plays out like a Wagner opera. Or how about the ending to his first western, A Fistful of Dollars? The set up, the intro, the music, the choice of shot, the way the camera moves from faces to guns, the editing. It's arguably a perfect scene...and it's his first one. He was on this level in just his first one. That amazes me, and by the third film with The Good the Bad and the Ugly, he perfected it.

Sergio Leone was a poster-child for the auteur theory. He was a notorious and overly-tedious perfectionist, likely stemming from his admiration of Akira Kurosawa who was known for the same at the time both were making movies. He had some falling outs, star Clint Eastwood most notoriously but made amends later on in life, but in the end the films spoke for themselves. His films, unlike a lot of Spaghetti Western films, were noticeably more refined, polished and had a sense of dedication that other Italian western directors, despite their desire to emulate him, never quite grasped.

Leone himself wasn't a prolific director. He was a dedicated one that toiled, often spending years on just one project. He directed only five films in a ten year period on his own (his final Spaghetti Westerns a co-directing effort where he did a few scenes) and he never really considered himself a western filmmaker. He did his first trilogy with The Man With No Name, then had every intention of moving on. But then he fell right back in to it, as this interview excerpt from the mid 1980s shows:

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Above all that, was his influence on Italian filmmakers. The Spaghetti Western was now a legitimate genre and outlet for Italian directors. It was distinct in style and tone and even though it's a western in the sense of the "United States Old West," the genre now created was entire Italian. Quick camera-zooms, long and drawn out moments of suspense, a quiet silence and sense of menace, sweeping vistas, moral ambiguities, tongue-in-cheek comedy (often very, very Italian in sensibilities. I always considered the fantasy version of a western. Unique to its own devices and never quite duplicated. It's filmmaking from a place and time that can be emulated, sure, but never quite as authentic.

We owe that to pretty much this one obsessive filmmaker. Well, the best filmmakers are usually obsessive, but Leone more than most, probably. He spent ten years to make a four-hour gangster epic, after all, when he passed on directing The Godfather. Over the years, the Spaghetti Western has gained more credibility. I remember reading an article by Roger Ebert, actually I believe it was in his wonderful "Great Movies" series you can read over at his website, and he noted how his view of the genre changed drastically as the years went by, noting he used to be down on it, but now can't deny the masterpieces that are found within it. Notably the masterpieces by Sergio Leone who was a level above every other Spaghetti Western director (even the ones he helped in production) and well above a lot of filmmakers of his generation. When he passed away in 1989 at the still-very-young age of 60, that void was never quite filled.

To jump into the genre, it all starts and ends with Leone. Haven't seen a Spaghetti Western? He's the man to start with, even if he sets the bar pretty damn high and is rarely met (even personal favorites of mine, such as the films of Sergio Corbucci, still feel just a notch below Leone). From there you'll know if you want to continue on that journey of the weird and fantastical, absurd and strange, cool and crazy genre that is the Spaghetti Western. That's the only memory I distinctly have, even if I can't recall the exact film it was. At the end of the day, the exact film that introduced me to Sergio Leone and Spaghetti Westerns as a whole doesn't matter, but it was Leone and that much is for certain and that's where all the credit deservedly needs to go.

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4:33 AM on December 20, 2017