Along with names like Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa, Leone deserves a much stronger cinematic status - even with a limited creative canon.
He was born into the belly of Italian show business: his father a famed director (Roberto Roberti), his mother a certified star (Bice Waleran). By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with film, and took several jobs on Hollywood and homeland period productions. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he was forced to fill in for Mario Bonnard when the filmmaker grew ill. Suddenly, he was behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. Oddly enough, he only made nine credited films from 1959 to 1984, but for fans of the spaghetti Western—a showy subgenre that brought grit and gravitas to the sagging cinematic staple—four of his films would remain major motion picture milestones.
Indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West would both revolutionize and reign in the format’s filmic impact. They become the beginning and the end of the sagebrush switch-up. But there was more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed. He was first and foremost a man of extraordinary vision, a auteur’s panache that has carried over for the decades since his death. Now, with the arrival of Once Upon a Time in America on Blu-ray, it’s crucial to understand how a limited oeuvre has both driven Leone’s legacy as well as marginalized his meaning. He was more than just a hero of the post-modern horse opera, though few can see the truth behind all the trigger fingers.