[13 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
First and foremost, Leone was large - not just in aesthetic appetite or physical stature, but in scope and the presentation of same. Even in his quietest, smallest moments, he used visually striking strokes to detail his ideas. Quentin Tarantino describes it as something instantly knowable and yet difficult to truly describe. It’s all about eyeline, framing, composition, and perhaps most importantly, meaning within the overall mise-en-scene. Leone loved to amplify whatever emotion was occurring in his scenes, from sadness to rage, sexual assault to equally sadistic killing. When his angry anti-heroes starred into the camera, the brim of their dirty fedora barely allowing the fury in their eyes seep out, it was like the exclamation point on an already potent moment.
Leone also loved the look and texture of settings, the tactile wash of the arid desert wind or the groveled grit of a immigrant New York ghetto. He made his backdrops as important as his actors, working meticulously to bring his often arcane ideas to life. One oft-cited example comes from the amazing Once Upon a Time in the West, when Claudia Cardinale arrives in Sweetwater. The entire sequence set piece is just one stunning example of cinematic craft after another. Once Upon a Time in America has something similar, as when a young Noodles walks out into the bustling streets of his Jewish neighborhood. All throughout the widescreen vista are small accents, details which, when added up, turn the mundane into something magical. Such sweep was learned early by Leone, the vast canvases of Cinecitta Studios capable of creating anything he and his peers could perceive.
Leone was also a “man’s man” moviemaker, infusing his titles with a mannered machismo that had no real resonance outside the genre he was working in. Westerns were always about good guys vs. bad guys, but beside blurring the moral phases, the director also accentuated the throttling testosterone within. Take his characters out of their particularly empowered settings and they become caricatures, cartoons carrying torches for a time and temperament that really never was. Since he was all about making myth, Leone loved to play with the power of iconography. His performers were always personally part of the process, their look and demeanor cast in complete congruity with where he was going with his particular project. This was true of The Dollars Trilogy, West, and even the often overlooked Duck, You Sucker.
Where the system let him down was with Once Upon a Time in America. Producer Arnon Milchan forced the filmmaker to use his then gal pal Elizabeth McGovern as the object of Robert DeNiro’s obsessed/stalker sentimentality and the decision backfired. Even with an Oscar nom in her possession (for some otherwise middling work in Ragtime), she was completely overwhelmed by the creative company she was keeping. Along with some less than successful choices in child actors, McGovern gave Leone fits, failing to fulfill a single symbolic aspect of her all important role (a 12 year old Jennifer Connelly did a much better job as the childhood version of said object of desire). To add insult to injury, The studio hated the movie, mandating massive cuts.
Leone, who had already whittled down his 10-hour magnum opus twice before just to reach a ridiculously short (in his mind) four-hour running time, would not budge. In fact, he was still seething over the loss of nearly 60 minutes of what he considered essential narrative material. That didn’t stop Warner Brothers from further fiddling, working the eventual running time down to nearly 90 minutes. Gone were important scenes and sequences. Gone were entire character motivations and enigmatic element. Most importantly, gone was Leone’s unusual narrative structure, the fever (opium) dream like movie constantly shifting between the ‘60s, the ‘20s, and the ‘30s. Now severely truncated, the film was released to universal disdain, with such critics as Roger Ebert complaining that, no matter the flaws in the four-hour film, the resulting studio hack job was just horrible.
While his original vision would eventually be somewhat restored for home video, and later endlessly contextualized for DVD, the failure finally finished him professionally. Leone grew ill—he had a long battle with a bad heart—and eventually died in 1989. Still active (he was planning a war epic with Robert DeNiro), he never regained the stature he savored in the ‘60s. Luckily, the more understanding we gain on the process behind his artistry, the more we come to appreciate and support it. Twenty years ago, people laughed at the notion of the spaghetti Western as anything other than a foreign film fad, the typical twisting of an American standard for some shock-value cinematic currency. But the truth is far more formative.
Along with the work done by the aggressive auteurs of the ‘70s, Leone stands as one of film’s most influential practitioners. He took the standard language in one of the art form’s most important genres and redefined it in a way that brought new insight and importance to all aspects of film. That’s saying quite a bit considering his relatively small overall output. Along with names like Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa, Leone deserves a much stronger cinematic status - even with a limited creative canon.