Swinging for the Fences – Sergio Leone

When you think about Westerns, a few names for directors inevitably come up. This short list would include names like John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges or Sam Peckinpah, but for me, the list starts with one name above all others; Sergio Leone. I may have come to love Leone’s work later in my cinematic life then some of my other favorites, but his films now resonate with me nearly as strong as any that I’ve come to treasure and admire.

Just as Kurosawa is synonymous with the Samurai film, so is Leone with the Spaghetti Western. His Fistful of Dollars wasn’t the first film in the genre, but it was certainly the movie that finally lifted the genre to prominence in a way it had never experienced before. Soon, the Sword and Sandal flicks that were dying away in Italy were being replaced in the Italian film industry by these Horse Operas, which were actually no longer fashionable in the United States.

The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot, especially by me, but few directors are really able to pull them off, and Sergio Leone was able to direct three of them in his life. With his impossibly long takes and his juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and Widescreen vistas, Leone was able to give his films a scope that few others have even attempted to match. Not only that, but this type of style was still being tweaked and worked on throughout his entire career, right up to the very end, making him a director that never simply rested on his laurels, but continually tried to evolve and get better at his craft.

The son of Actress Bice Waleran and Director Roberto Roberti, Leone spent his entire life in the motion picture business. In his early teens he started working as an assistant director, including uncredited work on Ben- Hur, eventually directing his own historical picture, The Colossus of Rhodes. After his world-wide success with the Clint Eastwood-starring Man with No Name Trilogy, Leone toiled away making three masterpieces that were all butchered by American studios. Luckily though, through the miracle of video and DVD, Leone’s works can now all be seen intact and fully appreciated for the works of genius that they really are.

Batting Order:

1. Colossus of Rhodes (1961) Hit – Leone’s directorial debut is campy, but a ton of fun to behold. With tons of battles and some really impressive effects work for this type of film, the movie doesn’t have a lot of Leone’s style, but does end up a pretty impressive spectacle.

2. Fistful of Dollars (1964) Hit – Just like watching the genesis of the John Ford/John Wayne formula take hold in Stagecoach, the teaming of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone is an awesome experience to behold. Yes, the movie is a blatant rip-off of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but it is nonetheless a breathless exercise in entertainment and created a Western icon that has lasted for decades.

3. For a Few Dollars More (1965) Hit – Not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, but perhaps even more fun is Leone’s Man with No Name follow-up, which has Eastwood’s bounty hunter teaming up with Lee Van Cleef to take on an army of bad guys. You can wish the villains all the luck in the world, but it won’t do them any good, as this rip roaring sequel is tons of fun while the bullets fly and Leone keeps perfecting his style.

4. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) – Hit – You can go ahead and consider the formula perfected by the time this trilogy wraps up here. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is not only one of the best Westerns ever committed to celluloid, but one of the greatest movies in any genre ever made. The three hours of Leone’s first bonafide masterpiece simply fly by, as this true epic of the big screen has style to burn. Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef vie for Confederate gold while the North and South battle it out in stunning sequences of unsurpassed cinematography and music. To top it all, the final act of this picture is about as perfect as any I’ve ever seen. Fully realizing his vision in tight close-ups and vast larger-than-life landscapes, Leone has his three principles face off in a duel to end all duels.

5. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Hit – Leone’s first taste of studio interference came here, hurting a movie that would go on to be his first financial failure. Thankfully, hindsight has finally elevated this film to classic status, as we get one of the ultimate revenge movies and the finest performance from the career of Charles Bronson. Once Upon a Time in the West is a ridiculously entertaining film, nearly the equal of the director’s previous magnum opus, and a movie that gives us one of the best examples of casting against type in movie history; Henry Fonda as Frank, this movie’s dastardly man in black. Frank’s child killer is so evil you can’t wait for him to square off against Bronson’s Harmonica, and when the moment comes it doesn’t disappoint in the least.

6. Duck, You Sucker (1971) – Hit – At the outset of this Western about the Mexican Revolution, it seems that for the first time Leone has gone out and deliberately made his first out and out Comedy. Rod Steiger’s buffoonish thief matches wits with James Coburn’s Irish Revolutionary in a film about wills, until all at once Leone unleashes his most political and dramatic film up to this point. Scenes of genocide and flashbacks of IRA inner workings give us clues to the true dramatic potential that Leone was capable of, and makes this film more than just an interlude between epics from this master.

7. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Hit – Think you’ve seen ambitious Gangster epics with huge handfuls of tragedy and pathos? Well, you haven’t. Once Upon a Time in America is one of the biggest travesties against a director ever made by a studio, as Leone’s four hour, period jumping tour de force was turned into a two hour, incoherent mess by Warner Brothers. This was a shameful display that was only rectified on the home video market, as Leone’s final cut shows him to be the master he really was. Robert De Niro and James Woods are simply awesome in this piece of friendship, regret and violence. Leone was never quieter and more patient in his film making, but his dramatic weight was also never more potent.

Seven films, seven hits. Leone never went on to make a bad picture, though it may have seemed that way when a studio got their hands on one of his movies. Sergio Leone was one of the greatest film makers to ever grace the silver screen with his work. His Pictures have stood the test of time and influenced many of today’s best film makers, making his worth in film history nearly immeasurable. The Spaghetti Western was a genre that eventually died out and held few truly great works, but most of them belonged to this man. Perhaps some film makers have bigger reputations, but few were ever so consistent in bringing out works of brilliance.