Watch: Sergio Leone’s Western Journey

Watch: Sergio Leone’s Western Journey

How could it be that one of the greatest directors known for directing films about the American west was not an American himself?
Sergio Leone was born in 1929 in Rome, Italy to parents already working in the silent film industry—his father was a director and his mother was an actress. He became inspired to start a career in film himself after visiting his father’s film shoots. He met his frequent collaborator, Ennio Moriconne, at a young age while they were classmates in school.
At 18 years old, he got his first job in the industry as Vittorio de Sica’s assistant during the classic film ‘The Bicycle Thief.’ After a period of writing screenplays, he went on to work as an assistant director for more than 30 films including the 1959 William Wyler epic ‘Ben Hur.’ He worked on many epics similar to ‘Ben Hur’ as an assistant director, but when he worked on a film titled ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ he took over the job as director when the original director got sick during the beginning of production. He continued working as an assistant director after this, but soon these “sword and sandal” epics (as they were called) started flopping at the box office. Because of this, the Italian film industry decided to switch to making westerns, after the westerns coming over from Hollywood started to gain popularity. So, the Italian film industry started to produce films in Italy about the American west and had their directors use more American sounding names to try and trick Italian audiences into thinking that they were authentic Hollywood westerns—and thus began the era of the “Spaghetti Western.”
His first “Spaghetti Western” was titled ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ which was only produced as a way to earn back money spent on a larger film titled ‘Guns Don’t Talk.’ ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ would cost much less money to make because it would use all the same sets, costumes, and other materials made for ‘Guns Don’t Talk.’ However, A ‘Fistful of Dollars’ was significantly more successful than ‘Guns Don’t Talk’ and it ended up becoming the first “Spaghetti Western” to make it to America. Because of this, Leone was able to use his real name.
‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ which would become the first in a trilogy that also contained ‘For a Few Dollars More’ and ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ was more or less a reimagining of an earlier Akira Kurosawa samurai film titled ‘Yojimbo.’ Clint Eastwood, who played the protagonist of ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ was relatively unknown at this time ,and Leone actually discovered him as a cast member of a television show called ‘Rawhide.’
Directly after the ‘Dollars Trilogy,’ Leone started another trilogy—the first installment, an epic titled ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ shocked audiences with Hollywood ‘good guy’ Henry Fonda cast as a brutal child murderer. The next installment, titled ‘Duck, You Sucker’ (also known as ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ or ‘Once Upon a Time… the Revolution’) takes place during the Mexican Revolution. It would be Leone’s last western film.
The third installment (and Leone’s last film) was released 13 years later and is set in New York City during the prohibition era. This would be the first and only time that Leone would work with Robert De Niro who played the lead character, Noodles. What binds these three films together is the greed and corruption in the shaping of America from the turn of the century up to the 1960s. Each takes Leone’s personality and style to an even grander scale and reveals the breadth of his artistry. Even though ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ is not a western as many of his iconic films were, it was a beautiful and fitting end to a remarkable career.

Clips used:

‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1949 dir. Vittorio De Sica)
‘Ben Hur’ (1959 dir. William Wyler)
‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1959 dir. Mario Bonnard, Sergio Leone)
‘The Searchers’ (1956 dir. John Ford)
‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Guns Don’t Talk’ (1964 dir. Mario Caiano)
‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (1966 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Yojimbo’ (1961 dir. Akira Kurosawa)
‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Duck, You Sucker!’ (1971 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984 dir. Sergio Leone)

Tyler Knudsen, a San Francisco Bay Area native, has been a student of film for most of his life. Appearing in several television commercials as a child, Tyler was inspired to shift his focus from acting to directing after performing as a featured extra in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. He studied Film & Digital Media with an emphasis on production at the University of California, Santa Cruz and recently moved to New York City where he currently resides with his girlfriend.

Watch: A Video Essay on the Truly Iconic Figures in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

Watch: A Video Essay on the Truly Iconic Figures in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

Sergio Leone, as indicated in such films as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars, and as shown in this beautiful video essay by Michael Mirasol, recently posted at Movie Mezzanine, understood a couple of basic things about the human gaze. One was that if you look into another’s face for a long time, really, hold the gaze, really stare deeply, the effect is unsettling. You begin to see things in the face: possibilities, flaws, other faces, perhaps. The gravity of an expression grows, the longer you look at it. A well-placed squint becomes a predictor of future danger. Similarly, a human figure, positioned against a landscape, may in one sense seem dwarfed by it, as the figures in Once Upon a Time in the West seem here, but in another sense become all you notice in the frame. The story you’re watching ultimately comes to hinge on these solitary figures and their relationship to the landscape–which begins to be equated with ther relationship to the universe itself. It’s been said that the grandstanding expressions the American Founding Fathers wear in early portraits come directly from the proud way in which the subjects often carried themselves, which would today seem exaggerated; similarly, the slow strut of a Charles Bronson, a Henry Fonda, a Clint Eastwood, or a Jason Robards in one of Leone’s westerns suggests, when one considers the context Mirasol offers here, a readiness for battle with consuming forces (history, industry, the railroads) which will eventually win out, but which the humans will not give up without a struggle–and in so being, the figures Leone portrays become equivalent with the heroes of Ovid, Homer, and Virgil, timeless icons surrounded by swirling dust.

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival 2012!

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival!


Editor's Note: Press Play has two critics covering the Cannes Film Festival this year. Simon Abrams and Glenn Heath Jr. are tag-teaming their way through the most anticipated collection of screenings in the film industry. This is your ticket to Cannes. Enjoy!

nullGlenn Heath Jr.


nullSimon Abrams

Glenn Heath Jr. and Simon Abrams pick the winners at Cannes 2012. 




If nothing else, the new 4K restoration of the late Once Upon a Time in America proves the necessity of film preservation. This essential new cut of Sergio Leone’s last film was re-assembled from newly rediscovered footage long thought lost. At last night’s packed screening, actor James Woods insisted that Leone “died of a broken heart” because he could never release the cut of the film he really wanted to. So the mandate to restore the film was clear, once the footage was recovered and cleaned up by a number of people, including Gucci, the Leone estate, and the Film Foundation. And while though Leone couldn’t supervise the restoration of his last masterpiece, the new footage that debuted yesterday is every bit as essential as one could hope.

Rest assured, the new scenes, including a new final confrontation between Max (Woods) and the head of the union, are definitely not extraneous. Some new scenes serve as crucial juxtapositions against relatively canonical ones, like a previously missing sequence after Noodles (Robert De Niro, also in attendance last night) drives his gang’s car off of a short pier and (more on this in a moment).  Others remind us of characters’ limited agency and inability to totally remake/self-fashion themselves, as when Noodles talks to a chauffeur who disapproves of the fact that he’s both Jewish and a gangster (“Everyone knows what you are.”). When viewed holistically, the new cut is revelatory. Its restoration has only served to make this masterpiece that much more fulfilling.

I've singled out the new brief scene after Noodles drives the car into the water because, while it seems fairly negligible, it's surprisingly rich when placed alongside other scenes. In this new sequence, all the gang members resurface except Noodles. This understandably makes Max nervous. He panics and thrashes around trying to find his friend but is overshadowed by a nearby crane that’s busily and indiscriminately picking up garbage from the bottom of the sea floor.

This short sequence creates a parallel with Max's garbage compactor suicide as well as mirroring an earlier scene where the group, as adolescents, scheme to recover submerged contraband with sacks of salt. So in an instant's time, this newly restored scene further establishes Noodles' fatalistic identification with Maxie as his twin. The post-crash footage also sets up a troubling intermediary image to connect the relatively innocent past with a forbidding future. And this is probably the least impressive of the recovered scenes!

Sequences like the one where Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, who was also at last night’s screening) performs Cleopatra's death scene in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Noodles talks to the caretaker of the gangsters' tomb confirm Leone’s status as a master choreographer. The film’s vision of life is all the more complex for these bridging scenes, because they call attention to Noodles’s inability to reconcile his past with his oppressive present. It’s as if key missing pieces of a never-completed jigsaw puzzle have finally been put into place. Every piece is important, even the smaller ones.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.