Precious few foreign artists have so thoroughly reappropriated an American cultural idiom as to make it entirely their own – the feat brilliantly achieved by Italian director Sergio Leone (1929-89) who revolutionized the Western, and later the gangster film, into deeply personal statements about history, memory and cultural mythology. A Proto-Pop artist, Leone transformed the widescreen canvas into bold collages drawing with ironic sincerity from the cinema, popular culture, history and religion. Although he directed only seven features, Leone has exerted an immeasurable influence upon the American and world cinema, with his signature bravura style ceaselessly quoted by directors from around the world – from Tarantino and Scorsese to Kusturica, Miike and Woo.
Quite literally born into cinema, Leone’s family had deep roots in the Italian film industry, with his mother a former silent movie star and his father also a silent-era actor, and director. Leone would never lose the passion for the cinema as a fantasy mythology which he kindled as a child, nor for the comic books and genre films that would serve as important inspirations for his mature work. Although he apprenticed early for a number of neo-realist directors, including Vittorio de Sica who employed Leone as an assistant on The Bicycle Thieves, Leone’s first steps as a director really began during the Fifties “American invasion” of Rome, when he worked as an assistant for several Hollywood directors taking advantage of the new forged relationship between Cinecitta and the US studios – among them Leone’s personal heroes Robert Aldrich and Raoul Walsh. Often dismissed as a formulaic studio assignment, Leone’s directorial debut The Colossus of Rhodes is important for announcing Leone’s interest in the far distant past, the “once upon a time” land understood through myths and legends, through popular rather than personal memory. Although Leone’s exploration of the past would gradually become more personal- culminating in Once Upon a Time in America’s flashback-driven collage narrative – he maintained the historic past as a world of fantasy projections, conjured on screen as always an unreal, baroque world.
With A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone cemented the wildly popular trend of Spaghetti Westerns that would essentially save the faltering Cinecitta and provide a new lease on the careers of many aging Hollywood action stars. Typically derided by contemporary critics suspicious of their tremendous popularity and artistic excesses, Leone’s Westerns are recognized today as the postwar Italian cinema’s most original contribution after neorealism. Partnering with the great composer Ennio Morricone, Leone defined a thrilling mode of anti-classicism that exploded stylistic, narrative and genre conventions, channeling the baroque tendencies of late studio directors such as Aldrich, Boetticher and Fuller. Crippled by a quaking fear of failure, Leone moved with increasing trepidation into his next project, a pattern which imperiled many of his projects and almost destroyed his final and perhaps least understood work, Once Upon a Time in America.
Endlessly studied and discussed, Leone’s work is actually quite difficult to see. For the full dimensions of Leone’s operatic vision of the past is best – and arguably only – understandable on the widescreen and with the type of excellent archival prints gathered for this exclusive HFA retrospective. – Haden Guest
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch,
Gian Maria Volontè
Italy/Spain 1964, 35mm, color, 96 min. In English
The phenomenal critical and box office success of A Fistful of Dollars in the US and abroad brought a new international attention to Sergio Leone and the Spaghetti Western trend he did not invent, but instead perfected. Clint Eastwood makes his first appearance as the Man With No Name, a devious, cold-blooded yet strangely charismatic anti-hero who stumbles into an epic family battle that he craftily exploits to his own advantage. Although he transparently modeled his story very closely upon Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Leone would later play down the influence of the Japanese master director after Kurosawa successfully sued him for copyright infringement. A Fistful of Dollars sets into motion the key elements of the Leone style – stark, woodblock characters whose inscrutable faces tell us all we can know about them; explosive and darkly comic violence; and a dynamically plastic use of the widescreen to craft expressive and sculptural imagery.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef,
Gian Maria Volontè
Italy 1965, 35mm, color, 130 min. In English
A favorite of the most die-hard Leone fans, For a Few Dollars More is his first mature film, a major showcase for Leone’s masterful use of the human face as a expressive object, explored through the bold close-ups that push to a radical extreme Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of typage – characters offered as instantly recognizable representative models of social class and cultural stereo-types. In Leone’s case, however, he turned to the iconic myths of the American West, and of Hollywood cinema, to fashion a fever dream of masculinity and violence using studio and television actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as icons swept off the ordered mantle of studio-era classicism into the raging fire of Leone’s baroque and tempestuous frontier. Cast as rival “bounty killers”, Eastwood and Van Cleef are bonded into a laconic partnership, and possible friendship, when they join forces to capture the notorious bandit, “El Indio” brilliantly played as a haunted, decadent man-child by Gian Maria Volontè. Using rapid-fire montage and wonderfully integrating Morricone’s sublime orchestral score into its narrative, For a Few Dollars More is a profoundly sophisticated example of a polyvalent film style that is able to be simultaneously parodic and tragic, comedic and frightening, cooly detached and ardently emotional.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Robert De Niro, James Woods,
Italy/US 1984, 35mm, color, 229 min
Although Leone spent a full decade working almost full-time on his magnum opus and final film, he had begun to envision the project even earlier, in the late 1960s when he first discovered Henry Grey’s 1952 novel The Hoods and began to imagine breaking free from the Western with his own reinvention of the American gangster film. His most cherished and personal film, Once Upon a Time in the West offers the purest expression of Leone’s obsession with time and memory, revealed in the complex structure of inter-nested flashbacks that triggers the film’s hallucinatory collage design, and in the figure of Robert De Niro’s lonely aging gangster looking back at the past with regret and confusion. Tragically, Leone was unable to prevent the US distributor from butchering his vision by removing ninety minutes of crucial footage and, outrageously, “correcting” his radically non-linear narrative by insisting that the film’s events should proceed in chronological order. Restored to the complete length and structure of the film’s successful European release, Once Upon a Time in America reveals the full dimensions of Leone’s vision, a sweeping panorama of Prohibition-era New York conjured with astonishing attention to detail – and at tremendous expense – as seen from the perspective of two childhood friends, Jewish bootleggers played by De Niro and James Woods, each in revelatory mid-career performances.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli
Italy/US 1971, 35mm, color, 157 min. In English
The late 1960s witnessed a spate of Italian Westerns wearing their Leftist politics emblazoned on their sleeves, fashioning didactic stories about mercenary soldiers and Mexican peasants into crudely direct anti-Imperialist and implicitly anti-American screeds. Leone offered his own take on the politicization of the spaghetti Western in Duck, You Sucker! whose Italian title Giù la Testa! is better translated as “Keep your head down!”, that is, don’t be easily swayed or swept away by the events around you. While cynically mocking the propagandistic tendencies of the Italian popular cinema, Leone offered a boldly ambiguous statement about revolution and social responsibility that counted Pier Paolo Pasolini among its admirers. Curiously neglected, even to this day, by fans and critics alike, Duck, You Sucker! is a key transitional work that reveals Leone working towards the more complex and ambiguous characters of his late films, embodied here in the friendship between Rod Steiger’s Mexican peasant bandit and James Coburn’s dashing Irish revolutionary.nd space for thorough examination.
Followed by a one-hour program of the early television work by Clint Eastwood that first attracted Leone to his most famous star.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards Jr.
Italy/US 1968, 35mm, color, 165 min. In English
After declaring himself finished with the Western, Leone was nevertheless easily tempted back to the genre by his first offer from an American studio, Paramount, who promised him creative freedom and a leading role for Henry Fonda, Leone’s original first choice for the Man With No Name. Pledging this to be his last Western, Leone set out to make a final statement on the quintessential American genre, employing the rising young directors Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci to craft a “a fresco on the founding of a great nation” focused on the rise and almost simultaneous Edenic fall of the frontier and taking the train as its contradictory emblem. A new sobriety and elegiac tone enters Leone’s oeuvre with Once Upon a Time in the West – a dark fatalism that defines history as an inexorable and blindly shaping force driven by greed and primitive violence. Arguably Leone’s most influential film, Once Upon a Time in the West is among his most aesthetically complex works on many levels – from its soundtrack that places diegetic sound effects (the squeaky wheels, gunshots and insects buzzing brilliantly employed in the celebrated opening sequence, for example) at the same level as Morricone’s incredible score, to Delli Colli’s dynamic widescreen cinematography that allows the actors’ faces to speak the words suppressed by the film’s extraordinarily minimalist screenplay. The restored version screened at the HFA restores the full twenty minutes slashed by Paramount for the film’s original US release.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Rory Calhoon, Lea Massari,
France 1961, 35mm, color, 128 min. Italian with English subtitles
Leone’s successful early career as an assistant director within the Italian studio system on historical epics including Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah and Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy, lead directly to the rousing and lavishly crafted and budgeted “sword and sandals” epic that was his directorial debut. Using as a vivid backdrop the unveiling of the massive eponymous statue of Apollo that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, The Colossus of Rhodes tells a tale of dark political intrigue and courage centered on a young Greek solider determined to topple the island’s despotic leader when the solider discovers a secret plan to conspire with the rival Phoenicians. Auspiciously, Leone’s first major star was an American actor best known for Western pictures and television programs – Rory Calhoun. The Colossus of Rhodes is noted, among other aspects, for the erotic undercurrent running beneath the many scenes of raw sadism, with extended sequences of bare-chested soldiers being tortured and abused.
Directed by Sergio Leone. With Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach,
Lee Van Cleef
Italy 1966, 35mm, color, 161 min. In English
Among the best-known Westerns of all time, the final film of Leone’s Dollars trilogy is a thrilling epic that dramatically expands the historical sweep and ambition of his earlier films, once again casting Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name, who this time sports a strange halo of sorts as a crypto-religious figure, an angel of redemptive death. In its very title The Good, the Bad and the Ugly openly declares Leone’s interest in creatively using recognizable film archetypes to fashion a new critical iconography that playfully confuses visual tropes of cinema, religion, history and popular culture with a wit and sophistication similar to emergent Pop Art. Set during the Civil War, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly uses its improbable story of hidden gold to again pit Eastwood against Lee Van Cleef, now a sinister mercenary, with Eli Wallach completing the unholy trilogy as the lusty, oafish stumbling bandit – a striking, twitching emblem of human weakness and greed. A massively influential film, Leone’s epic is a bravura example of both his baroque visual style, revealed as much in the incredible sets as Tonino Delli Colli’s extraordinary widescreen cinematography, as well as his savage gallows humor – with both intertwining in an astonishing cemetery shootout that remains one of the iconic moments of postwar Italian cinema.