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, 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, as illustrated all throughout the sensational Blu-ray box set named after his most iconic character – The Man With No Name.
Each of the three films offered here have their own unique narrative and plotpoint mythos. In 1964’s Fistful, the small town of San Miguel is in turmoil. Two families, the Rojos Brothers and the Baxter clan, are battling for control. Into this melee walks a stranger, a Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood). Playing both groups against each other and instigating an escalation in their mutual hatred, this strategy sees the preemptive victory of one side over the other. With Few from 1965, a pair of bounty hunters, Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and the Man with No Name are after the notorious madman El Indio. The depraved desperado is addicted to opium and tends to fly off the handle in more and more murderous rages. The Colonel has personal reasons for hunting this wanted fugitive. His enigmatic partner is only in it for the reward. Together, they hope to take out this violent, villainous scourge once and for all.
Finally, 1966’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly showcases three desperate men who head off to find a lost cache of gold coins. The Good (Eastwood) has teamed up with the Ugly, a man named Tuco (Eli Wallach), to search for the bounty, while the Bad, also known as Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), remains hot on their trail. Via a series of double crosses and stand-offs, Tuco and his pal think they’ve managed to shake their treacherous tracker. But Angel Eyes is smart, avoiding detection and death along the way. After stumbling upon a battle between Union and Confederate troops, the trio locates the graveyard where the loot is stashed. Naturally, ownership has to be worked out with weapons.
The story behind these films is just as intriguing as the tales finally told. It wasn’t because he wanted to make American TV regular Clint Eastwood a star. It had nothing to do with a love of Wild West mythology. There was really no call, especially in American markets, for the overdone archetypes of the six-gun saga, and the rest of the planet wasn’t pining for the days when blood, sweat, and steers semi-civilized the U.S. plains. No, Sergio Leone fell into the form that would later be called the spaghetti Western because it was gaining a small amount of notoriety in his native Italy.
There were already more than two dozen of the so-called deconstructionist films floating around Mediterranean movie palaces, and Leone was looking to add his name to the growing list of potential profiteers. Borrowing the storyline from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the very angry Japanese auteur would later sue—and win!), and tossing in unique aesthetic choices, Leone felt he had the makings of a fine film. Unfortunately, many of the actors approached, including a candid Charles Bronson, thought it was the worst script they had ever read, due in large part to the number of conventions the filmmaker chose to avoid. When an associate suggested he view the American TV western Rawhide for inspiration, Leone found his lead. Tall, tanned, and slightly sinister in stature, Eastwood became the soon-legendary Man with No Name in Per un pugno di dollari – translated as A Fistful of Dollars when it finally expanded internationally. The rest is movieola history.
Critics and purists were dumbfounded. Unlike other Italian cinema, which seemed to pay homage to the movies made in Hollywood, A Fistful of Dollars was the aesthetic antithesis of what the Western supposedly represented. Amoral and confused, with good and evil intertwined and competing for narrative prominence, Leone wanted to make literal horse operas, movies where the emotional and psychological undercurrents were laid out bare and brazen on the silver screen. A Fistful of Dollars is a movie that uses the vastness of the West as a metaphor for man against the forces of value and honor. He removes the classic Tinseltown shtick of black hats and white hats, and instead re-imagines the boom and bust towns of the era as the dirty, stinky, sweaty, smelly primitive enclaves they must have been. Thanks to the location—the sunny and scorching Almeria region of Spain—Leone could crank up the fire factor, using the sweltering setting to underline the tensions between the characters. He also set up the visual aspects—odd angles, unusual framing, candid close-ups—that would bring the genre to the forefront of world cinema.
Unlike anything anyone beyond the European market had ever seen, Fistful did phenomenal business. Of course, success breeds sequels, and Leone wanted to quickly capitalize on his film’s sudden fame. But there was a problem. Eastwood wasn’t that interested. He had yet to see the final product, and wasn’t sure if Leone’s vision – and his part in it – had translated well. Going so far as to send the reluctant actor a print to screen on his own, Leone went about creating the follow-up. For A Few Dollars More, would see the now-happy actor repeat his symbol of stoicism, along with another confused character – in this case, a fellow bounty hunter played by Lee Van Cleef – both placed in a direct line of conflict with each other and a raging criminal mental case named El Indio.
With Eastwood satisfied and the rest of the casting completed, Leone headed back up Almeria to recapture the original Dollar dynamic. But something more interesting occurred. Without Kurasawa and his storyline strapping him in, Leone allowed his own ideas to slowly seep out and filter throughout the production. Emphasis on character over carnage became apparent, as long sequences of introductory exposition were used in place of rapid-fire gunplay. Vistas were expanded beyond believability, further isolating the action and the individuals within it. In El Indio, the evil inherent in the narrative was raised several sensationalized notches. He in turn became a benchmark of the genre’s growing gruesomeness.
In retrospect, For A Few Dollars More is like watching the Devil duke it out with a couple of misguided Messiahs who, themselves, hide their own inherent wickedness. It’s a showdown in the most classic of cinematic senses – internal struggles battling against greater outside forces. In each one of our leads, a rage is growing. Like any maelstrom of murderousness and dementia, there is lots of calm before our sickening storms, and Leone loves to languish over these moments. He keeps the suspense continuously twisted, taking time out of the forward momentum of his story to simply stay with a sequence and let it play out. If A Fistful of Dollars was into creating emblems, then For a Few Dollars More was interesting in extending their cinematic shelf life beyond simple imagery. It managed to do so brilliantly.
Having created the genre – at least in the eyes of America audiences – and delivered its second statement, Leone was determined to solidify his status as the spaghetti Western’s ultimate interpreter. With U.S. film studio United Artists looking to capitalize on the format’s success, they contracted with Italian screenwriters eager to advance their position of power. But without Leone, the company realized they’d have very little of value on their hands. So they turned to the director to see if he could help elevate the genre once again. With The Good, The Bad and The Ugly he did just that. Expanding his celluloid canvas to include mind-bending landscapes and endemic extreme zooms, and blurring the distinction between virtue and depravity to the point of meaninglessness, the director divided up his core theme into the trio of onscreen characters, ready to once again approach the epic.
In essence, that’s exactly what he did. This is a scathing denouncement of war, its political trappings and its inhuman sacrifices. Typical of most directors working in cruelty, Leone never took his brutality seriously. He laughed at the impression that he was some manner of sadist, stating that the kind of aggression he showcased in his movies was meant as kind of a sidewise satire on the ridiculousness of said aspect of human nature. While many might argue with such a statement, few could question the vastness of Leone’s vision. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is so massive in scope it seems to draw on all facets of filmmaking’s honored history. There are bows to battle, the sensational stuntwork of silent films (Leone even referenced Buster Keaton’s The General in the “bridge” sequence), the existential character pieces that were permeating the 1960s, and the old-fashioned flourishes that made Tinseltown’s trappings the worldwide standard.
But Leone never let style totally subvert substance. He maintained a visceral attachment to his characters, leading them through a literal Pilgrim’s Progress of horrors and tasks before allowing them a chance to bask in the glow of their (frequently ill-gotten) gains. Yet nothing is ever resolved rightly in this amazing classic. Victory is always tainted by the surrounding circumstances, death distilled through place, purpose, and personality. Aside from the obvious directorial flourishes and widescreen wonders, Leone legitimized the counterculture approach to cinema. If he could successfully separate the Western from the names who made it magical – Ford, Aldrich, Walsh – then all motion picture categories had to be up for grabs.
Everything was in place then for a real masterpiece (though many consider The Good, The Bad and The Ugly one as well), and Leone went overboard in delivering one. Poised perfectly at the heart of the Peace Generation’s sudden segmenting, Once Upon a Time in the West was the brashest bit of moviemaking the director would ever helm. It took everything that made the historical era iconic and sheered it of its symbolism. In its place was a weird world view where sin was sanctified, power was proprietary, and ethics evaporated in the heat of the midday sun. In a masterstroke of casting, Leone convinced Hollywood good guy Henry Fonda to play one of the most horrific villains in the entire Western canon, and his convincing turn anchors what is a stunning, sweeping motion picture monument.
Having reached the pinnacle of his production acumen, having poured everything he had into this last shot at scenic greatness, Leone was done with the genre. He would willingly work on other examples as a kind of hired hand, but he did not want to direct another of these increasingly difficult films. Besides, a glut of wannabe competitors was slowly sapping away the spaghetti Western’s novelty, reducing it to its own set of failing formulaic elements. In fact, most merely copied what Leone did and placed their own name on the results. The auteur was looking to move on. Unfortunately, fate stepped in to draw him back.
For some reason, the choice of Peter Bogdanavich wasn’t working. Rumors and legends still forwarded today claim it was incompetence meshed with diva-like fits against the novice director from the “Where’s Sergio?” stars. In respect, the acting angle may be the more believable. After all, James Coburn had turned down chances to be in A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. So why would he finally sign on for this type of film without Leone in the directorial driver’s seat? Similarly, Oscar winner Rod Steiger was a studio mandate. The notoriously contentious method actor would never have agreed to appear had the man who legitimized the genre not guided the production.
Whatever the story, Giu la testa, entitled Duck You Sucker, then A Fistful of Dynamite for U.S. release, became a kind of unintended anomaly in Leone’s path. Since each of his previous movies had built on the other, providing stepping stones of solid craftsmanship leading up to Once Upon a Time in the West, this sudden digression into rebellion and revenge seemed odd. But when you look at it in retrospect, it would become a kind of mea culpa for the director, a chance to atone for being thought of as a man more concerned with his status as a visionary than evolving as a filmmaker. Tackling tougher subjects here, context with its own concerning outer (the IRA, the Mexican Revolution) and inner turmoil, Duck sees a reluctant emblem redefining his aesthetics. Perhaps he was meant to helm this film after all.
After some uncredited assistance on two other titles – My Name is Nobody and Trinity is Back – the director disappeared for over a decade. He produced a little for friends, and helped scholars who were working to reconfigure his historic import. Then in 1983, it was announced that Leone was coming back—and his ambitions were bigger than ever. Instead of working within the Western milieu again, the director was to deliver his take on the still-popular gangster/crime family film. Film fans, already in love with Francis Ford Coppola’s own operatic The Godfather, saw the master doing nothing less than manning up to show the student who’s boss.
But when the film Once Upon a Time in America finally arrived in 1984, there was as much controversy as creativity involved. The studio hated the movie, mandating massive cuts. Leone, who had whittled down his 10-hour magnum opus twice just to reach a ridiculously short 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. Severely truncated, the movie 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 be somewhat restored for home video, and later contextualized for DVD, the failure finally finished him professionally. Leone grew ill – he had 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.
Outside of the dedicated and the obsessive, the spaghetti Western is still seen as a stunt, a near-grindhouse gimmick that robbed the genre of all its ra-ra jingoistic sovereign splendor – at least from a “USA, All The Way” mentality. But viewed within the context of recent examples of Western deconstruction – Unforgiven (dedicated to Leone), Lonesome Dove, Open Range – the influence of these films is obvious. Leone wanted to rewrite the rules when it came to visualizing the past, and his is now the preferred method, at least amongst the more mindful post-modern set.
Oddly enough, the so-called Man with No Name actually had a moniker in each of the films he appeared in. He was Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, Monco in For a Few Dollars More, and Blondie in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. But giving the enigmatic figure a frame of reference, no matter how minor, robbed him of his inherent allure. Thus, the aura of mystery is maintained. The situation is exactly the opposite for the man who first put this symbolic statue on film. For Sergio Leone, the more context 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. A Blu-ray collection like The Man With No Name Trilogy will go a long way in securing said standing – if, in fact, it already hasn’t arrived.