I hesitated about writing this review because you have to be a real fan of Sergio Leone films to enjoy this book, and I wasn’t sure how many of the readers of this blog are. But you know that I can be a bore about films I love—so here goes.
Sergio Leone was an Italian director who started out making “sword and sandal” films but is best known for his Spaghetti Westerns made in the 1960s. At that time, the Western, a mainstay of American cinema, seemed to have had its day in Hollywood. It took an outsider—a man who didn’t speak much English but had a definite vision of where this genre should be headed—to bring it back to life. Leone’s Westerns were all shot in Spain and on sets in the Cinecittà studios in Rome. American actors played the leads with Italians and Spaniards playing all the other parts (which were dubbed later into English). A young unknown actor, Clint Eastwood, was hired to play “Blondie” or The Man With No Name in the trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Leone’s work is the focus of Christopher Frayling’s Something To Do With Death. In this review I’m going to focus on the Westerns. Going into all the other material in this rich biography would take up a lot more space. The reason I’m doing this, apart from the fact that I know and love Leone’s Westerns, is that I find that the genre is an interesting indicator of its time. The stories take place in a fixed universe: a particular time period with a strong code of “frontier justice”, or personal retribution. But even within this narrow frame, the Western is able to reflect the mores of the contemporary period. If you compare the early John Wayne films to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992 (which was really an anti-Western, with all the glamour knocked out of it), you can see the blurring of the demarcation between the good and the bad guys.
Sergio Leone believed in blurring these distinctions. He subverted the genre, got rid of any noble sentiments—there are no “good guys” in his films, everyone has their own interests at heart—and then he tried to be historically accurate (in a Leone sort of way, which meant he could be selective about which bits he chose). This meant a close attention to detail: for example, guns were built to historical specifications. He broke one of Hollywood’s cardinal rules at the time, which forbade showing the gun firing and the man being hit in the same frame. Leone was having none of that—if he was going to portray violence, it was going to be realistic (again, in a Leone kind of way—stylized and almost balletic at times).
Clint Eastwood was not the first choice for the lead in A Fistful of Dollars. Leone approached Lee Marvin, who wasn’t interested, and Charles Bronson, who looked at the script and thought it was awful. Bronson said later that he didn’t realize that in Leone’s films, the script didn’t really matter. Leone had the film in his head and know exactly what he wanted from his actors. Eastwood’s character in the trilogy is laconic because, with the language gap, it was easier that way. Lee Van Cleef provides a glimpse of the language problems on the sets of For a Few Dollars More. During filming, Van Cleef said he could hear five languages being spoken. But he managed because “I knew what everyone was supposed to be saying in English because of my script. So when they’d stopped speaking, I’d say something. …The simple trick of it, of course, was to memorize everyone else’s dialogue.”
But my two favourite Leone films are also his most ambitious. Taken together, they tell the story of the making of the United States, one in the west and the other on the east coast. One is about settling the Old West and the other about the rise of organized crime. Once Upon a Time in the West has the only strong woman character in any of Leone’s films, Jill McBain (played by Claudia Cardinale) and also has Henry Fonda cast against type as a villain (and some deliciously corny dialogue). But the film close to Leone’s heart was Once Upon a Time in America. Based upon The Hoods, a book by Harry Grey, it is about Jewish gangsters in New York. The film moves back and forth in time as one of the gangsters, Noodles (one of Robert de Niro’s finest performances), remembers his past. In spite of the violence, the film has a lyrical feel to it. But the distributors thought it was too long and not only cut it to 139 minutes from 229 but put it in chronological order, which destroyed its rhythm. Leone never really got over this ham-handed treatment of his film—it was the last one he made. Fortunately, it has since been re-released in its original form. Together, these two films form a testament to his vision and his ability to tell stories that still live on.
Leone died in 1989 while watching a film. A fitting way to go, if there was one.