Great European Lives: Sergio Leone

PUBLISHED: 16:08 30 April 2020 | UPDATED: 16:08 30 April 2020

Director Sergio Leone and cast members on the set of the movie

Director Sergio Leone and cast members on the set of the movie "Once Upon a Time in America". (Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

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Charlie Connelly explores the life of Italian film director, producer and screenwriter, Sergio Leone.

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Few directors can claim to have redefined a single genre more than Sergio Leone. Between 1964 and 1971 he made five westerns, films that rendered everything that had gone before immediately obsolete and maintain a tangible influence on everything made since.

None of his sand-blasted, sweltering works, with the exception of a few scenes in the last, Once Upon a Time in the West, were filmed in the US and the director himself spoke little English, communicating with his Anglophone actors through an interpreter. Yet they revolutionised the way we think about the old west and, by extension, the notion of America itself.

Leone’s films were riddled with the incongruous. They combined an oppressive stillness with operatic levels of melodrama. There was the wide open space of the landscape paired with tight, unforgiving facial close-ups. Dialogue was usually sparse and terse, all the eloquence buried in movement. There were long build-ups, silent but for the mournful sound of the wind, a hand moving slowly to a holster, the twitch of a cheroot, the squint of an eye, building an unbearable tension that would be released like a dam bursting in a wild flurry of bullets lasting no more than a few seconds.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his work was the way he blurred the divide between good and bad. Until Leone arrived with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars westerns had been broadly free of nuance; the good guys and bad guys clearly demarcated even by the colour of their hats. From the early silent days of William S. Hart through Gary Cooper to John Wayne, the old west had been romanticised to the point of total sanitisation.

From the moment Clint Eastwood first appeared on screen as the enigmatic Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, shooting first and not asking questions afterwards, those days were consigned to history. Bad guys would still lose but they’d lose because they’d been outwitted by a faster mind and a faster gun that didn’t necessarily belong to a fine, upstanding pillar of society. Winning the climactic gunfight didn’t make you automatically the good guy: if Leone’s films showed anything it was the absence of an inherent rule that in the febrile atmosphere of 19th century America the forces of good would always triumph. In his screenplays vengeance and justice made easy bedfellows.

“I’ve always been fascinated by evil because underneath you often find that bad is in some ways better than good,” said Leone. “The west was made by violent, uncomplicated men and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to capture in my movies.”

Leone’s America benefited from the eye of the outsider. He spent very little time there, living in Italy and making his westerns in Spain.

Born in Rome, he was steeped in cinema. His father Vincenzo was one of Italy’s first film stars and noted directors, appearing in more than 60 films under the name Roberto Roberti. His mother, Bice Valerian, had also taken leading roles in a number of early Italian films, many of them directed by her husband.

As a boy Leone divided his spare time between his father’s film sets and the cinema, watching Italian films and those imported from America dubbed into Italian. Gary Cooper was an early favourite, seducing the wide-eyed boy with an America boasting a strong moral compass and clear division between right and wrong when on the streets outside fascism was taking a firm hold on Italy. Then the war came and America stepped out of the cinema screen onto the streets of Rome.

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“During my childhood America was like a religion to me,” Leone said. “Then real-life Americans abruptly entered my life in jeeps and upset all my dreams. I found them invigorating but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the west they were just soldiers like any others, materialists, acquisitive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods.”

The grandsons of the cowboy heroes he’d seen on screen were not the clean-cut heroes he’d expected, they were whiskery and smelt bad, they got drunk and seduced women. In his films Leone’s America would be populated by these soldiers of liberation.

Although he’d planned to study law when he left school Leone went straight into the film business, working with great Italian directors such as Vittorio de Sica, with whom Leone worked as a production assistant on the Academy Award-winning 1948 Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves). In the following decade he worked his way up to second-unit director on a range of spear-and-sandals epics of the 1950s filmed in Italy: Quo Vadis, Helen of Troy and Ben Hur.

His directorial break came by accident in 1959 when Mario Bonnard was taken ill on the first day of shooting The Last Days of Pompeii and Leone was asked to take over. Bonnard was unable to return to the set and, although he wasn’t credited officially at the time, Leone did more than enough to earn his first full directing commission on the 1961 epic The Colossus of Rhodes.

In 1964 Leone finally realised his ambition of making a cowboy film. The first high-profile ‘spaghetti western’, A Fistful of Dollars brought Italian filmmaking sensibilities to what Leone regarded as a genre that still had appeal, especially in Europe, but one that had become too tired and repetitive.

With shooting taking place in Spain, Leone found it hard to source an American actor for the lead. James Coburn was too expensive. Lee Marvin said no. Charles Bronson turned it down saying it was the worst script he’d ever seen. It took a while but eventually, on the advice of Italy-based American actor Richard Harrison, who had also turned down the role, Leone alighted on a young television actor called Clint Eastwood. When Harrison showed Leone an episode of the television series Rawhide the director was struck instantly by Eastwood’s presence.

“His languidness, his laid-back quality, is what came over so clearly,” he recalled. “It was exactly what I was looking for.”

When Leone brought in composer and old schoolfriend Ennio Morricone to complete his team and provide a soundtrack that echoed the vastness of the landscape and intensity of the drama, the future of the western was reset.

Once Upon a Time in the West, released in 1968, was arguably his masterpiece. Its lengthy opening scene in which three hit men await Charles Bronson’s character Harmonica at a remote, near-derelict railway station is notable for the almost complete absence of action. One of the hoodlums traps a fly in the barrel of his gun and listens to the buzzing. Another stands beneath a leaky water tank in the ceiling, letting the water drip onto his hat. With shots of an empty railway track stretching to the horizon it’s as if time itself has come to a halt. This menacing stillness, oppressive heat and glacial passage of time is for Leone the essence of the old west, the antithesis of the milling of wagons and noisy posses that often comprised the attention-grabbing openings of traditional westerns. Then when the chief villain shoots a homesteading family dead, administering the coup de grâce to a small boy from close range, the camera pans up to reveal the face of all-American good guy Henry Fonda, another startling subversion of American mores.

Leone’s last film was his first non-western since The Colossus of Rhodes, the sprawling 20th century gangster epic Once Upon A Time in America starring Robert de Niro. Vast in scope with a narrative spanning 40 years, the film Leone made was four hours long. To the director’s horror Warner Brothers then cut an hour and a half for theatrical release – a process so clumsy it removed Morricone’s name from the opening credits – and the film flopped at the box office. The full version was subsequently released and widely hailed as a masterpiece, its influence tangible in subsequent gangster films from Goodfellas to The Irishman.

For a man who was a visitor to the nation at best Sergio Leone managed to hold a mirror up to America and reflect authentic sensibilities that bumped against the accepted national narrative. The spaghetti westerns in particular, with their nihilism and unprecedented level of graphic violence, chimed perfectly with the counterculture of the 1960s in the US and beyond.

“America doesn’t belong to the Americans,” said Leone. “They’re just borrowing the idea for a while.”

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