Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Directors: Sergio Leone

Our spaghetti western weekend goes on. Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was one of the very few visionaries who both have an instantly recognizable style, and also shaped the face of cinema so strongly that it never really was the same after he was done. Leone started out by learning filmmaking by being a trusted second unit director, and went on to almost single-handedly creating the spaghetti western genre. With the success he got, he sought to create bigger and bigger epics, each taking more and more painstakingly accurate work and years to complete. It's too bad we didn't get any more films from Leone, but at least each and every one of them is highly worth watching, and they all give unforgettable experiences to the viewer. Leone is also one of the manliest directors out there, women rarely have a big part in his larger scheme of things. Not to throw the word around lightly, Leone is an icon, having created numerous images that stay in the collective unconscious and still shape cinema today.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Il colosso di Rodi, 1961)

Early in his career, Sergio Leone did second-unit directing a lot, and even allegedly directed some films credited to other people. But we'll start out with the first film that is solely credited to the man. This historical epic came from a time when the Italians churned out historical adventure movies of sword and sandals genre. The industry would have hits from more interesting genres by the middle of the decade, but at that point the way to go was with peplum.

Rhodes is a peaceful island, that has managed to divide itself from the raging wars of the city states of Greece. The proud citizens of Rhodes have finished a giant statue of Apollo, called the colossus, that works as a lookout for any war ships coming in from the sea. Darius comes from the battelefields of Athens to seek rest and relaxation. However, he soon finds himself soon tangled in a feud between the island's King Serse (Roberto Carmadiel) and a group of rebels that claim that the king is a tyrant. The feud also spreads beyond the limits of the island as Darius finds out about a sinister plot to conquer the entire island.

Leone's film does actually reflect on his later films, as the protagoinist is no larger-than-life muscle man that would solve all the problems with his sheer strength. The hero, Athenian war hero Darius (Rory Calhoun) is as powerless to stop war and carnage as Leone's heroes later on would be in the face of war and bloodshed. One man doesn't weigh much in the grand scheme of warfare. Leone is also as sadistic as ever, and has devised quite cruel contraptions that the captured rebels get tortured with. By the end, he also has a grandiose natural catastrophy scene that spares no people. Leone manages to shoot with his minimal budget scenes that wouldn't look out of place from that period's high-budgeted Hollywood films. The group shots are particularly wonderful. The director is clearly still young, eager, relentless and perhaps a bit angry. Plot-wise the film doesn't offer anything too amazing, but as a starting point it is not without its charms.


A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugnio di dollari, 1964)

Like many so-called firsts in cinema history, A Fistful of Dollars wasn't actually the very first western done in Italy, but it was the first significan piece and the first hit, which makes its mark. Genre filmmaking is funny in the way that certain elements go around the world as well as through different genres to come back where it started. The first film in the Dollars trilogy steals its plot ruthlessly from Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo. Kurosawa himself was inspired by American westerns which featured one man against a system, such as High Noon.

A stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides into a town. He notices not a lot of people are around and even a small child by a well gets beaten for being at the worng place. Indeed, the town is terrorized by two criminal gangs, the Rojos (mexicans) and the Baxters (Americans). The tough and smart stranger (who is called Joe, but doesn't actually give his name to anyone) decides to earn as much from the situation as he can, and plays the gangs against each other. But the plan doesn't go flawlessly and leads to a massacre or two. In the end, "Joe" must face off against the leader of the surviving gang in a big face-off.

The film is notoriously violent and cynical but hey, that's the way I want my spaghetti westerns. Leone created an iconic cinematic look for the film, where everything from the sets to the actors themselves looks shoddy, dirty and badly sunburn. But at least for me, the film isn't yet a masterpiece. In following Kurosawa's film's plot too closely, the film is uneven and drags at parts, where Kurosawa would have his philosphy about nobility and sacrifice. Of course, Leone's film lacks such subtexts, and the only motivation for the characters is greed, which can lead to pretty ruthless businesses.

The spaghetti western genre, started by Leone here, would later go on to inspire the new American action film genre in the 70's and 80's. Leone has as little dialogue in his film as possible, perhaps because while Clint Eastwood acted in english, most of his cast were italian. With as strong as possible visual sense everyone would understand the film without language. That's also probably why the film became such a crossover hit acroos the world.

★★★ 1/2

For A Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in piú, 1965)

The second Dollars film is the first one in Leone's career that feels completely his own. Instead of ripping off Kurosawa's Sanjuro, Leone decided to go with an original story and the world is richer because of that. Luciano Vincenzoni was his credited co-writer, but also acclaimed Italian screenwriters Fernando di Leo (director of Milano Calibro 9) and Sergio Donati worked for the script.

The stranger is back, this time he is called Monco (which means one-handed in spanish). For legal resons, Leone has had to explain that the protagonists in the two films were not actually the same person, but aside from the name, there's nothing that would separate the two. They are both played by Clint Eastwood, they both wear the same poncho, they both are low on words but quick with guns, both have a grim sense of humour and both are skillful bounty hunters, out to grab as much cash as they can. The cigarrillo-chewer sets his eyes on a group of bandits led by the notorious El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté). But he finds out that another skillful bounty hunter is after the same reward. Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) has also some personal businnesses to settle with Indio.

Also one of Leone's recurring themes is building his film on a three-way fight between characters. The embryonic Good, Bad and Ugly are at play here, but not yet as clearly defined and thus almost more interesting to follow. But the film is not merely a show for its three leads. With a bigger budget Leone managed to grab some interesting European character actors to play minor roles, not just any available italians. The most famous is of course Klaus Kinski as a hunchbacked henchman (try saying that as fast and many times as you can with a mouthful of chips) Wild. But other members of Indio's gang are also played by some greats, such as Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli and Panos Papadopulos.

The key sequence of the film is the one where Monco and Mortimer attempt to intimidate each other to leave town. This includes scaring up a bellhop, stomping on each other's shoe, and shooting the hat off one another to further and further away. A group of children observes, noting "just like the games we play". Leone is having fun toying around with the western elements. Altough his films may be cynical and show that only money matters, it is the sort of ironic cynicism that should not be taken to be symbolic of the real world. Leone's films are pastiches, parodies and caricatures, distorting anything wholesome the American westerns may have had. They are in a sense, comic movies that work with the same logic as Italian western comics or pulp fiction would. The setting, characters and iconography is what's important. The rest is just for fun, and it's about as much fun as you can have with a movie.


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966)

From the beginning you know what you're in for. The crude animation with stark colours plays as Ennio Morricone's iconic theme music is playing. All of the Dollars films have fine opening sequences and great music, but the one in the closing film takes the cake by not being as incredibly clumsy as before, and being properly cut to the main theme. The opening should tell you all you need to know: the film is sort of like pop art. It takes iconography that you know by heart and makes something altogether new with it. At the same time it makes fun of the original material and highly respects by raising it as a work of art. The end result should not be taken altogether seriously, but is not by any means a joke, either.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the first major epic in Leone's career. The previous two Dollars films work just as well from a TV set, but from now on we are talking ablout HUGE movies that only really work from a big screen when the sound is up! The film has been a major influence to almost all action films since. The film's tongue-in-cheek philosophy would do well with many movie villains as well: "When you got to shoot, shoot, don't talk!"

The film is set sometime in the American Civil War.  Clint Eastwood's character is this time named Blondie, but is still the same as ever. He still doesn't talk very much and he'll still do anything for a fistful of dollars. But the real focus and the protagonist of the film is the Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), a cruel, stupid, vengeful, greedy, two-faced, but somehow also a very lovable character. He also shows some signs of character development during the film. Tuco is Blondie's best friend, partner in crime and also the worst enemy. The assassin Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef) completes the trio. Angel Eyes is a ruthless man, who'll not only kill a wanted man, but also his family and take their money when he only needed to get was one name. When he gets paid, he'll kill his employer, because he reckons, the previous body wanted to hire him to do so. Angel Eyes also works as a deputy leader of a northern POW camp. All three are after a grave filled with gold bricks confiscated during the war, and willing to betray and kill one another to get it.

As you can guess from the characters, the name is strongly ironic. In fact, Leone had considered using Inglorious Bastards as a title before Enzo G. Castellari swiped it for his own war movie. Although Blondie's namely the Good, he's not really a hero you can look up to. In fact he's only the least bad of the three main characters, who are all greedy and ruthless men,  prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way. But what sets Blondie above the rest of them is that he seems to be the only character  capable of some sort of empathy towards dying soldiers. The Bad is really bad, unredeemably so, but The Ugly shows that while he may be a real bastard, there are some good sides to him, too.

The movie also has a strong anti-war message. War brings out the cruelty of men and the value of the human life drops to nothing. While there are some epic war scenes, huge explosions and realistic sets, Leone uses them to critize the loss of human life. The POW camp could be a concentration camp just as well, as prisoners get beaten near death as the choir is forced to sing, so the voices of the beating couldn't be heard. You are put to the camp for simply rooting for the wrong side.

But really, the film excels in sheer cinematic storytelling. The scenes near the end at a cemetary are some of the strongest examples of pure style ever committed to film. The showdown relies almost solely to Morricone's score building up the tensions, with Leone's unique skills of intervowing long, landscape shots and extreme closeups bring out the anxiousness of the main characters to settle the schism between them and find out who gets the gold. But the film is by no means a hard watch, even with its violence, cynicism and anti-war stance. In fact, Leone has upped the comedy in this one, which is witnessed from the first scene to the in the immortal final line.


Once Upon A Time In The West (C'era una volta il West, 1968)

After the success of TGTBaTU, Leone set out to make the ultimate western, his last foray into the genre. He hired film critics Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci (who would go on to become iconic Italian film directors themselves) to write a script about every western archetype they could come up with and honor the history of the genre. The initial draft was too intellectual, so Leone started with the story and rewrote the script with his trusted friend Sergio Donati. Once Upon A Time in the West is a western film that is both traditional and also iconoclastic at the same time. It is consistently voted as one of the best western films of all time by both the critics and the audiences. The American Library of Congress has also decided to contain the movie in its library for its ”cultural, historical and aestehical” significance.

Sergio Leone cast his film with various western archetypes, but managed to tell their worn-out stories in a fresh way. He started out with hiring his idol from John Ford's westerns, Henry Fonda. Fonda had played generally good and noble characters, but Leone saw something distant and cool even in these roles, and thus cast him against his type as a ruthless killer. Fonda's Frank doesn't hesitate to kill, but is looking to retire and begin life as a businessman. His past deeds, however, come to haunt him. A quiet gunslinger who refuses to reveal his name appears to settle his score with Frank. He is known only as "Harmonica", and is played by Charles Bronson. Harmonica arrives as Frank is working as a henchman for the railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), probably the most melancholic character of the film. Morton is crippled because of a bone illness. He is slowly dying and wishes to see the Pacfic Ocean befor he dies. This is why Morton needs to rely on ruthless means to gain the properties where his upcoming railroad tracks will go.

One of such properties belongs to the recently widowed (because of Frank) Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale). The adamant woman balances on whether she should sell her ranch or not, and thus lives in the threat of getting killed by Frank. She is being protected first by Harmonica and later, also the notorious bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Cheyenne's part in the story is to have the basic redemption story. He starts out as a feared and dangerous outlaw, but his image grows softer during the movie (perhaps due to him falling in love with Jill).

Although these characters are archetypes, they begin to show signs of breaking their molds. Thus, they are a lot more three-dimentional than similar characters in many other westerns. The film strongly emphasizes the loss of the old-fashioned western gunslinger, as the railroad tracks will bring more physically weak, but cunning men of new order such as Morton. The alienated, isolated, archetypal Real Men of the film are simply incapable of the complex, subtle, emotionally and physically tortured inter-relationships which characterise bounty hunters in many other revisionist westerns. The characters are either friends or foes, although these alliances can switch once in a while.

Leone himself has stated that the characters know their doom is impending, with the only exception being Jill. Leone's interests are depicting this Dance of Death between the characters, the rituals leading to violence. Especially in these instances Leone uses a lot of extreme close ups of his characters, the ”face as a landscape”. It allows Leone to emphasize the underlying emotions and thoughts of the characters without too much dialogue. This is all a part of the rituals preceding action, and character types fulfilling their pre set functions. At the same time these rituals are the ones that link them into the larger vein of western movies.

The film is long, and everything in it is long-winded. Yet the audio-visual perfection, the grandiose operatic of it all make sure that the viewer won't feel a single moment of boredom and three hours just fly by. When it's all over, the viewer is left wanting to spend more time with these, essentially dead characters. The cast of Once Upon A Time In The West live and die in the middle of a transition. As in many westerns, this also will finish the old west, hence the title. The other reason for the title is to emphasize that this is a sort of fairy tale, a tale of myths. This may very well be my favorite film of all time.


Duck, You Sucker a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite a.k.a. Once Upon A Time ...the Revolution (Giú la testa, 1971)

Like Sergio Donati told in his Q&A, The initial idea of Duck, You Sucker was his and Leone had to be persuaded to direct after he couldn't find another suitable candidate for the job. The film is often dismissed as one of Leone's lesser efforts, and has only now begun to gain interest from film critics and historians. I think a lot of reason why this has gotten so little acclaim is that it was marketed as a good-natured romp, a buddy movie and a comedy (like the english title would imply), while in fact the subject matter is dealt as heavily as in the other two films in the America-trilogy, and also a lot more political than in any of Leone's other films. The only reason this didn't get its initial title Once Upon A Time ...the Revolution was that the producers feared the film would be confused with Bernando Bertolucci's Before the Revolution.

The film is set in the Revolutionary war of Mexico. An IRA explosives expert, calling himself John Mallory (James Coburn) is on the run from the british. He happens to meet the mexican bandit Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who figures that John's skills with dynamite might make him able to rob a few Mexican banks. But when they do, it turns out in the vaults there is no money, but rather prisoners of war. By freeing them, John and Juan become heroes of the revolution. John has been interested in aiding the revolutionaries from the beginning, but the father of a large family Juan has to adjust to being a freedom fighter a little bit more.

Again, Leone has created a true epic, with massive crowd scenes. In fact, the director openly idolized David Lean, and like him, always wanted to make the biggest epic known to man with his each subsequent film. The film has a great deal of comedy, coming from the awkward buddy relationship of John and Juan. Yet the film has a melancholic undertone, with John harboring sad secrets within him, and Juan realizing just how much his country is hurt with the bloodshed and carnage of the war.  The film returns to the anti-war message of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but also reminiscens more clearly actual historical war crimes, from World War II and the bloody history of Italy itself. Also the power-hungry politics of Italy of that day are cynically addressed, showing that things will not get better over time, but that the greed, wrath and selfishness of people will always lead to cruel wars.

Unusual for Leone, the film doesn't have a clear villain beyond this realization. The men of honor are a dying breed, and when they realize this, the film gains more melancholic undertones. The only problems the film has is the awkward union of this sad sack politization and Leone's goofy buddy-film humour. But otherwise, it's up there with his best.


Once Upon A Time in America (1984)

Leone sought to make his grande finale, a gangster epic bigger than no other, for years and years. During that time, he also refused to direct The Godfather, which would ensure that his film would be compared to it. Perhaps Leone tried to bite down more than he could chew. His 4-hour mammoth of a film is still excellent, but not nearly the best gangster film ever made.

Once Upon A Time in America begins in an opium den, where the aging gangster David "Noodles" Anderson (Robert De Niro) reflects upon his life and his friendship with Max Bercowicz (James Woods). The entire thing can thus be seen to be a fever dream and the seeking of the American dream, whether by crime or by honest work, to be just a hallucination. The actual story spans almost 40 years and has three main decades we follow almost choronologically. First, we are taken back on New York in the 1920's, where packs of pre-teen hoodlums scheme to earn a few bucks and to pop their cherries. Eventually, the boys come into adulthood, and make the relationships that will form the rest of their lives. The ordeal, however comes with a price and the traumatic event of witnessing a violent death of a friend.

Almost ten years later, at the time of the prohibition, Noodles is released from prison and helped out by Max by allowing him to join in his illegal businesses. And those businesses come aplenty at the time of the prohibition and low morales. But altough money comes flowing in and the gangsters become successful, they aren't as lucky with relationships. Things cet even more complicated when the prohibition ends and the gangs has no work. For attempting to do a too outrageous bank job, Max is arrested and thrown into jail. In the late 1960's Noodles comes back to Brooklyn from hiding and tries to come to terms with the people he used to love.

The film sure is complex, but some of Leone's weaknesses start to shine once he's out of the comfort zone of shooting a film of a purely masculine world. He can't do good female characters, and the women in the film exist solely to be either fucked or pined upon. They don't have any other function to the story and remain flat. The gangsters also have a worryingly misgynistic worldview and we have to endure a couple of iffy rape-scenes that don't get punished within the film. 

But with the bank heists, planning of crimes and shooting the scenes of decadence, Leone is as apt as ever. However, the best sequence is the one set in 1920's, and it's like no other adolescent coming-of-age tale I know. Amoral, more than a little dirty, but at the time warm, nostalgic and highly credible, Leone has painstakingly recreated the 1920's New York. The entire film was shot in a studio, which makes some of his trademarked long landscape shots all the more impressive.


Sergio Leone scores the staggering 4,14.

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