Directors: Leone, Sergio–Master of Spaghetti Westerns, Starring Clint Eastwood

Sergio Leone (Italian, January 3, 1929–April 30, 1989) was an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter, the creator of the Spaghetti Western genre, and widely regarded as one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema.

Leone’s filmmaking style includes juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots.

His movies include the Dollars Trilogy of Westerns featuring Clint Eastwood: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966); and the Once Upon a Time films: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Born January 3, 1929, in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Valerian).

During his schooldays, Leone was a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone. After watching his father work on film sets, Leone began his own career in the film industry at the age of 18 after dropping out of law studies.

Working in Italian cinema, he began as an assistant to Vittorio De Sica during the production for Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the ‘sword and sandal’ (a.k.a. ‘peplum’) historical epics, popular at the time.

He also worked as an assistant director on large-scale international productions shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), backed by American studios.

When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic, The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei), starring Steve Reeves, Leone stepped in and completed the film.

When the time came to make his solo directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi, 1961), Leone was read to produce low-budget films which looked like larger-budget Hollywood movies.

In the mid-1960s, historical epics fell out of favor with audiences, and Leone had shifted his attention to a subgenre which came to be known as the “Spaghetti Western,” owing its origin to the American Western.

His film A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) was based upon Akira Kurosawa’s Edo-era samurai adventure Yojimbo (1961). Leone’s film brought legal challenge from the Japanese director, though Kurosawa’s film was in turn based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest.

A Fistful of Dollars is also notable for establishing Clint Eastwood as a star, who until that time had been an American TV actor with few film roles.

The look of A Fistful of Dollars was established by its Spanish locations, which presented a violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. The film paid tribute to traditional American western films, but significantly departed from them in storyline, plot, characterization and mood.

Leone gains credit for one great breakthrough in the western genre. In traditional western films, many heroes and villains looked alike as if they had just stepped out of a fashion magazine, with clearly drawn moral opposites, down to the hero wearing  white hat and the villain wearing black hat.

Leone’s characters were, in contrast, more ‘realistic’ and complex: usually ‘lone wolves’ in their behavior; they rarely shaved, looked dirty and sweated, and there was strong suggestion of criminal behavior.

The characters were also morally ambiguous by appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation demanded. Relationships revolved around power and retributions were emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.

Some critics have noted the irony of an Italian director who could not speak English, and had never even visited the US, let alone the American Old West, single-handedly redefining the typical vision of the American cowboy.

According to Christopher Frayling’s book Something to do with Death, Leone knew about the American Old West. It fascinated him as a child, which carried into his adulthood and his films.

Leone’s next two films, For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966), completed what has come to be known as the Man with No Name trilogy (or the Dollars Trilogy), with each film being more financially successful and more technically accomplished than its predecessor.

The films featured innovative music scores by Ennio Morricone, who worked closely with Leone in devising the themes. Leone had personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone’s music ongoing.

Clint Eastwood stayed with the film series, joined later by Eli Wallach, Lee van Cleef and Klaus Kinski.

Based on the success of The Man with No Name trilogy, Leone was invited to the U.S. in 1967 to direct Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West) for Paramount.

The film was shot mostly in Almería, Spain and Cinecittà in Rome, and also in Monument Valley, Utah.

The film starred Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale.

Once Upon a Time in the West emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American Old West, with stylistic references to iconic western films. Audience tension is maintained throughout this nearly three-hour film by concealing both the hero’s identity and his motivation until the final predictable shootout scene.

The script was written by Leone and longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati, from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom would become significant directors.

Before its release, however, it was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its low box-office results. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe, grossing nearly three times its $5 million budget among French audiences, and highly praised amongst American film students. It’s regarded by many as Leone’s best film.

After Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone directed Duck, You Sucker! (Giù la testa, 1971). Leone intended to produce the film, but due to artistic differences with then-director Peter Bogdanovich, Leone was asked to direct. Duck, You Sucker! is a Mexican Revolution action drama, starring James Coburn as Irish revolutionary and Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit who is conned into becoming a revolutionary.

Leone continued to produce, and also stepped in to reshoot scenes in other films. One of these films was My Name Is Nobody (1973) by Tonino Valerii, a comedy western film that poked fun at the spaghetti western genre. It starred Henry Fonda as an old gunslinger facing a final confrontation after the death of his brother. Terence Hill also starred as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying West with style.

Leone’s productions included A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (1975, another western comedy starring Terence Hill); The Cat (Il Gatto; 1977, starring Ugo Tognazzi), and A Dangerous Toy (Il Giocattolo; 1979, starring Nino Manfredi). Leone also produced three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone, which were Fun Is Beautiful (Un Sacco Bello, 1980), Bianco, rosso e Verdone (White, Red and Verdone – Verdone means “strong green” – a pun referring to the three colors of the Italian flag, the star and to director Verdone, 1981) and Troppo Forte (Great!, 1986).

During this period, Leone also directed various award-winning TV commercials for European television.

In 1978, he was a member of the jury at the 28th Berlin Film Festival.

Leone turned down the offer to direct The Godfather, in order to work on another gangster story he had conceived earlier. He devoted ten years to this project, based on the novel The Hoods by former mobster Harry Grey.

The book focused on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood.

The finished four-hour film, Once Upon a Time in America, featured Robert De Niro and James Woods.

It was a meditation on another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy co-existence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship.

It received a raucous, record-breaking ovation of nearly 20 minutes at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

Despite such a reception, Warner felt it was too long, and drastically recut it down to two hours for the American market, abandoning its flashback structure for a linear narrative. This version suffered heavy criticism and flopped.

The original version, released in the rest of the world, better box office returns and a mixed critical response. When the original version of the film was released on home video in the US, it gained major critical acclaim, with some critics hailing the film as a magnum opus (masterpiece).

Leone was deeply hurt by the studio-imposed editing and poor commercial reception of Once Upon a Time in America. It was his last film.

In 1988, he was head of the jury at the 45th Venice Film Fest.

Leone died on April 30, 1989, of a heart attack at the age of 60.