Sergio Leone Italian director with a vision of the west

Sergio Leone

The Italian director Sergio Leone resented the label “spaghetti western,” which critics and pundits applied to his films A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The films were a labor of love for the ambitious Leone, and he felt that the label — meant to connote that his movies were Italian productions, and therefore less authentic than homegrown American westerns – belittled his work. Leone may have had a point.

For their visual style, hoof beat-inflected musical score and gritty, amoral gunslingers, his “Dollars” trilogy proved to be some of the most successful, influential and revered films of any era. Quentin Tarantino, for one, is an avowed fan of Leone’s innovations, which include close-ups of adversaries’ eyes – turning actors’ faces into craggy landscapes — and the unapologetic violence and greed of the characters. The over-the-top depiction of violence upturned the American western’s insistence on the noble, and sometimes singing, cowboy.

A native Roman, Sergio Leone was born on January 23, 1921, to his director father and actress mother. Though encouraged to pursue law, Leone, who adored Hollywood movies as a child, soon dropped out of school to pursue filmmaking, having already worked on several films by exploiting family connections. He worked on the Italian film Bicycle Thieves (1974) and shot-in-Europe blockbusters, such as Ben-Hur (1959), Sodom and Gomorrah (1961) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1959).

Leone then embarked on the project that would have profound and enduring influence on all of filmmaking. Leone, an Italian director, set about adapting Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961) into an American-style Western shot in various European locales. This was a tall order by any measure, but Leone lost nothing in the translations (so to speak) as his A Fistful of Dollars took European box offices by storm. And after a copyright imbroglio was avoided by giving Kurosawa’s production company Far East rights to distribute the film, the movie proved a phenomenal success in the U.S. and worldwide. The sequels were made with ever-increasing budgets, and with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood, who starred in all three, became an international superstar.

Sergio Leone

Leone’s innovations transformed and shook up the American western. Unaware of what was acceptable violence in Hollywood, Leone unwittingly broke the rules, thereby unfettering future filmmakers from the old restrictions. With his amoral characters, he also attacked the assumption that the Wild West story was one of good vs. evil playing out on the American frontier. Leone’s cactus-studded deserts (often shot in arid Southern Spain) hosted dog-eat-dog struggles and unmitigated greed.

Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) came on the heels of the “Dollars” trilogy. But the film flopped in the U.S. after doing well in Europe. Reasons for its failure included brutal studio editing and cutting of the American-release version and perhaps the casting-against-type of Henry Fonda as a killer. Similarly, the Mexican Revolution-set Once Upon a Time, the Revolution (also released under the titles A Fistful of Dynamite and Duck, You Sucker) (1972) proved a bust. Leone then took a ten-plus year directing hiatus, releasing in 1984 his Jewish gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Again, American studios were fearful of the European version’s three-hour 49-minute running time and cut the film by nearly a third — with devastating, incomprehensible results. After success in Europe, another Leone opus washed up on American shores a dud.

Leone died on April 30, 1989, while planning his next project – a film about the World War II Nazi siege of Leningrad.

Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
A Fistful of Dynamite (1972)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)