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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sergio Leone: Recreating the American Cowboy


He's an Italian filmmaker who left his mark on the world by telling uniquely American stories. And given his background, it's no wonder he has emerged as a legend in his own right. 

Known throughout the world for his iconic Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone comes from a family of filmmakers. His mother, Edvige Valcarenghi whose stage name was Bice Walerian, was a silent movie actress who gave up her career to become a wife and mother when she married Vincenzo Leone in 1916. Vincenzo whose stage name was Roberto Roberti, was a noted filmmaker who directed and acted in movies during the silent film era. He actually tried to discourage his son from pursuing a career in cinema, so Sergio Leone briefly studied law. But then fate stepped in and he landed a position as an assistant on Vittorio De Sica’s "The Bicycle Thief" in 1948. Leone also briefly appears in the film, as part of a group of German priests taking shelter from the rain.

Leone and Eastwood on set
Although he literally got his feet wet in the genre of Neorealism, Leone migrated early in his career towards the big budget epics being produced at the time at Cinecittà. After spending most of the decade during the 50's as an assistant on dozens of films, he stepped into the limelight in the 60's, single-handedly creating a whole new genre. 

It's been said that Leone understood the American cowboy better than his stateside contemporaries. Before him, the denizens of the American West were portrayed as freshly scrubbed heroes who looked as if they'd just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Leone's incarnations on the other hand were unshaven, a little dark in nature and not well-behaved. His first Spaghetti Western, "A Fistful of Dollars," took the world by storm while launching the career of fellow film legend, Clint Eastwood. Leone's direction coupled with the soundtrack of Italian maestro, Ennio Morricone gave an almost psychedelic tone to these Spaghetti Westerns, and he succeeded in creating something that had truly never been done before. With these films, Leone started the European Western craze that saved Cinecittà financially during that time. The most famous works to come out of that genre are the films of the ‘dollars-trilogy’: "A Fistful of Dollars" in 1964, "For a Few Dollars More" in 1965, and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in 1966. All of these films starred a smoldering young the young Clint Eastwood as the enigmatic "Man With No Name."

Henry Fonda in "Once Upon a Time in the West"
Leone enjoyed working with American actors, and nowhere was that more apparent than in his fourth Western, 1968's, "Once Upon a Time in the West." Generous financial backing from Paramount studios gave Leone the opportunity to fulfill his dream of working with Henry Fonda. Leone transformed the clean-shaven hero into a demon-eyed killer, forever changing the way America viewed him as an actor. The famed Australian film and arts critic, Adrian Martin described Leone’s films as “odes to the human face”, describing the director's signature use of extreme close-ups of his actors’ faces, eyes and expressions. A great example of this can be seen in the opening of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" as a desolate, frightful face comes into frame. Another example can be seen in the final scene of Leone’s last film, "Once Upon a time in America" as the face of Robert De Niro fills the screen. And speaking of this last film, Leone actually turned down the opportunity to direct "The Godfather" because he had already committed himself to this project. Over a decade in the making, the four-hour epic film, "Once Upon a Time in America" featuring Robert De Niro and James Woods, is a story of greed, violence, ethnicity and friendship. It explores the ability and challenges in coexisting with other cultures, races and beliefs. Although the final version was cut for the first release of the film, the original version was released on DVD to much acclaim, with many critics declaring the film a masterpiece.

Back in Italy, Leone is credited with launching the career of one the country's most celebrated filmmakers, Carlo Verdone. When I interviewed Verdone a few years back, I asked him about his relationship with Leone. "Sergio Leone was my first producer. He saw me on a television show where I played a lot of different characters. He called me and said, I want to produce your film. Before we made the first film, I lived in his house for a year. He was a wonderful teacher for me. He was like a padrino, a godfather. So, thanks to Sergio, I am here." This YouTube video features a very young Carlo Verdone with his padrino, Sergio Leone. 

Leone passed away from a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60, tragically cutting his filmmaking short. Given the renown his works have achieved though, many are still readily available allowing us to enjoy his unique vision and daring style of filmmaking to this day.

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