Around midway through Sergio Leone's 1968 film Once Upon A Time in the West, Charles Bronson's Harmonica character wins the auction for a ranch for 5,000 dollars, however, it turns out that he will make the payment by turning in Cheyenne, who has a 5,000 dollars bounty on his head. Played by Jason Robards, Cheyenne likens this betrayal to that against Jesus, and says, 'Judas was content for 4,970 dollars less.' Harmonica quips, 'There were no dollars in them days,'" to which Robard's reply is unforgettable: 'But sons of bitches... yeah.' The essence of spaghetti western, for me is this short dialogue.
Nevertheless, one should add a more official definition from Rekin Teksoy's holy handbook for the trade, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Film Terminology: 'The name given to western films made in Italy after the Italian national dish, spaghetti.' No need to include Teksoy's quite extensive spaghetti western entry, but to quote some information, Sergio Leone did not use his own name in the credits but the alias Bob Robertson in his first western, and that as a visual innovator of the western genre, he developed a style based on tension sequences, making use of extreme close-ups.
Born in 1929, in Rome, Sergio Leone's father Vincenzo Leone was an esteemed filmmaker, and his mother Edvige Valcarenghi was an actress, so he was born into cinema. Moreover, Vincenzo Leone was in fact the first director to have filmed a western in Italy in 1913 (Indian Vampire). In short, Sergio was already familiar with the film set atmosphere at an early age, and when he turned 18, he quit his law education to work in the film industry. It would be appropriate to say that his formation was actually in the 40s and 50s during which he worked as assistant director or second unit director with filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica, Carmine Gallone, Mario Camerini, Mario Bonnard, Mervyn LeRoy, Mario Soldati, Robert Wise, Fred Zinneman, Robert Aldrich, and William Wyler. Even more, it is known that some crucial parts of the famous race scene in Ben-Hur was shot by Leone. That is to say, Sergio Leone was embraced by both American cinema––it was cheaper to film in Cinecittà than Hollywood––and Italian cinema. Imagine working in a classic such as the Bicycle Thieves and a huge production like Ben-Hur on the other hand. A career hop would not be wise, and thus Leone continued working in film where he made a huge impact, and he passed away when he was 60. But first…
Popularity was a curse
Speaking of impact, who else has made an impact but Leone, with a handful of films? Perhaps Quentin Tarantino comes to mind (who has made nine films, and claims he would quit filming with his tenth, but keeps filming nevertheless.) Tarantino openly declares that without Leone, Tarantino would not exist, or would be someone else. It would not be wrong to mention Leone alongside Kubrick and Tarkovski, filmmakers who have made an impact with few films, but with one crucial difference that he has always been mentioned as being a part of popular cinema. The list of a handful of awards he garnered is the proof that he was not taken seriously.
Leone's first film that he owns completely is The Colossus of Rhodes, an historical 'sword and sandal' epic that was prevalent in Italian cinema in that period. Leone later would admit that he made this film only to be able to pay for his honeymoon. It would not be inappropriate to say that his career took off in 1964 with the western A Fistful of Dollars.
To attain the illusion of a true American western, Leone anglicised not only his own name, but also the names of his lead Gian Maria Volonte (Johnny Wels) and the composer Ennio Morricone (Dan Savio). He managed to complete the shooting in 11 weeks with a budget of about USD 200,000. The film was in fact like a copy of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and Leone said 'Kurosawa's Yojimbo was inspired by an American novel of the serie-noire so I was really taking the story back home again.' When A Fistful of Dollars opened in August 1964 in Florence, it is rumoured that only a handful of viewers came to the screening. Knowing well that a box office failure for a film without any PR would mean a kiss of death, Leone dejectedly returns to Rome only to hear a few days later that ticket sales doubled afterwards on Sunday. And on Tuesday, tickets were sold out. Thanks to excellent word of mouth, the film not only attained record-breaking admission but also became the most watched western film in Italy. Of course, part of the credit goes to Clint Eastwood and Ennio Morricone.
From TV to the world
Never mind that Leone is famously quoted to say that he 'at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.' He said that only because Clint Eastwood declined to work in Once Upon A Time in the West, and Eastwood's influence in Leone's career is undeniable. Of course, the opposite is also valid: it is hard to imagine Eastwood's CV without Leone, although it certainly would not be so illustrious, which was evident to Eastwood, too, as he would dedicate his 1992 film Unforgiven 'To Sergio and Don.'
Anything can happen
'With John Ford, people look out of the window with hope. Me, I show people who are scared to even open the door. And if they do, they tend to get a bullet right between the eyes. But that's how it is,' said Sergio Leone in an interview. This statement demonstrates not only the difference between a western and a spaghetti western, but also highlights one of the key notions in Leone's cinema: tension. A true master of tension, Leone manages to keep the tension running high even in the 'calmest' scene. While watching his films, the viewer cannot fend off the foreboding feeling. The only element that could perhaps comfort the viewer or ease the tension is humour.
Italian writer Alberto Moravia once wrote that 'while Hollywood Westerns are based on myth, spaghetti westerns are a myth of the myth.' We can add that the most important difference between the two is that the spaghetti western deconstructs almost everything in classical American western – there are no heroes but anti-heroes, no clean-shaven, good-looking cowboys as symbols of morality but unshaved (also applies to Eastwood, who is never shaved clean in the dollar trilogy), dishevelled, crooked, cussing dirtbags. Alliances are transient, friendships untrustworthy, and when money is in question, which is always the question, betrayal is imminent, and the faster gun wins. Of course the element of violence is much more prominent in these films, and the plot usually forms around the notions of disloyalty, confrontation, payoff, and revenge. Perhaps it needs to be recalled that these films were made in an era when 'good' guys representing law and order were believed to have disappeared in Italy, a country which had lost World War II, and before that was gripped tight by fascism. Therefore, the 'dirty' hero prototype was somehow not regarded odd. Good was not all the way good, as neither evil was evil all the way. Everybody vied in being immoral and guns made the final decision, or in Leone's words, 'Probably the greatest writer of westerns himself was Homer. His character were never all good or all bad. They're half and half, these characters, as all human beings are. And I am searching as Diogenes did with his lantern for all of these wonderful human beings. I haven’t found them yet.'
The Morricone factor
One of the most fascinating collaborations of all time in cinematic history is arguably that of Leone and Morricone. Honestly, it is quite impossible to imagine Leone's films without Morricone's music. To further that, Morricone's music was as influential as Leone's framing, characters, themes, as far as spaghetti westerns go. Music and sound are the elements that Leone benefits most to build up tension. He has, most of the time imagined to have prepared the music before the film itself (which he did not achieve in all his films, but succeeded in some scenes of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and almost all of Once Upon A Time in the West), releasing the scenes to the rhythm of the music instead of dialogues. Swiftly grasping his style, Morricone came up with wonderful results by crescendos, recurring themes, instruments he added or removed according to the character, and lifted the score to a dominant element that is not only an accompaniment to the moving images. Although western is an American invention, opera is an Italian art, after all.
Opus magnum: Once Upon A Time in America
Sergio Leone's final legacy Once Upon A Time was screened at the Istanbul Film Festival years ago with two intermissions due to its length. Leone who departed fairly early, considered he was 60 years old, is told to have waited a very long time to secure the finance for this film, and even is rumoured to have turned down filming the Godfather because the plots were similar. Having completed the film in his head, Leone finally managed to realise the film when he coincidentally met producer Arnon Milchan at Cannes. The result was a 4-hour mafia epic. However, things did not turn out as he imagined. When it was released in the states, the editing was tampered with and entire scenes were cut. Many claim that Leone's health deteriorated afterwards, until his death in 1989.
Leone always looked back in his films (advancing at most until the '60s) and except for his first film, he always told about America though he did not speak English (which actually saved his life. Hint: Charles Manson). Undoubtedly, what he depicted was something much profound than America itself, probably an America from his childhood, distilled from the films he had watched and he stared into his own soul, telling the tales he had heard or not heard in those years. If his life had not ended, he would perhaps make another film, which would look to the East this time (though once more backwards in time). The book titled The 900 days that he had read in 1969 and told about the siege of Leningrad required a budget of about USD 100 million in 1980s to be adapted to screen. At a press meeting a few months before his death, he disclosed that he had made some deals for this film, but alas, this project became one of those unfinished legends of cinema. Sergio Leone passed away on 30 April 1989 due to a heart attack. Close to his death, it is rumoured that he went to the Pratica de Mare cemetery in Rome with a friend and selected a grave spot with a sea view and shade. When his friends said that 'there is someone lying there already,' he replied so much like him: 'We'll have him moved.'