Today’s topic: the not so Spaghetti Western of Sergio Leone. The 1960s were a time of booming ecstasy in European cinema, especially the Italian, German and French, which were producing an average of 112 films every year. It may not seem as much compared to today’s Hollywood productions, but in those times the three countries I mentioned were on a roll. However, quantity doesn’t mean quality. In fact, most of those movies were called ”B-movies”; cheap, quick to make and either comedic or action-packed. In the main roles were either foreign, mostly American, washed-up stars or Italian good looking actors like Terrence Hill or Franco Nero. They weren’t there to play a part, they were there to carry a story. And that’s how Spaghetti Westerns got made; German, French and Italian directors would film stories of revenge and justice in the Spanish desert instead of Monument Valley because of budget restraints. Spaghetti Westerns were the bread and butter during those years, and honestly they all looked the same. Until the very day, one chubby Italian from Rome appeared on the Spaghetti Western stage: Sergio Leone. Maybe to some his movies seem too long and too predictable, but try and compare them to other movies of the cheap genre and you’ll notice that what this man did was start a Western Renaissance.
In this post I’ll have a look at what I think is his most mature work – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – which doesn’t mean that his other pieces of filmography aren’t worth discovering: the whole Man with No Name Trilogy has some of my favorite set pieces ever put on film; Duck, You Sucker from 1971 is hilarious fun, and Once Upon a Time in America, his last effort before his sudden death in 1984 is a brilliant gangster epic. On the other hand though, I can’t help myself but think that Leone reached a peak of his directorial efforts in his smash hit, Once Upon a Time in the West. Why is that? Well, take a look at the opening scene. No one, not even Hitchcock could reach the same level of suspense and tension that Leone used in every movie of his. The first twelve minutes are almost played out without a single word being said. The only sound we hear is that of a broken windmill spinning, a fly buzzing around, and water slowly dripping onto a man’s hat. It’s the details that make us nervous. Leone’s strategy is to create a very long moment of silence and then disrupt it into million pieces with the use of the loudest sounds available, to make the audience jump, to make the audience think on the importance of sound. In fact, his movies never really focus on dialog almost as if they were silent films. In Once, the opening scene follows three strangers covered with thick dusters and dirty hats. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they come from and why are we following them but for some odd reason we can’t take our eyes off them. They’re nasty, ugly looking men, for all we care they’re simple bandits waiting for a train, and yet Leone manages to make it interesting and fun just looking at them. And when the train arrives, the credits stop rolling, we witness the climax of all that we’ve been waiting for. The windmill stops.
Leone didn’t simply direct Westerns; by combining the ugly with the beautiful, the evil with the good, the present with the past he created art. A scene in Once that takes place in a sleazy saloon in the middle of the desert, where bounty hunters and filthy horsemen sit drinking and spitting, is a perfect place to introduce us the real nature of Claudia Cardinale’s character, the gorgeous Jill, a frightened yet strong woman that will face any man that stands in her way. How does the man behind the camera do it? Close-ups. That’s Leone’s trademark and something that went on and influenced later famous directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. It made him recognizable. We see a close-up and we immediately know it’s him. And again it’s the attention to detail that shapes this movie. In American Westerns, well respected directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks would never use close-ups because they felt the West was all about the posture and strong figure of cowboys, muscular lawmen. Leone had his own idea. His focus was on the slight movements, barely visible tics, a tear in the corner of the eye. Leone’s details tell us more about a character than any form of dialog. In Once we have the mysterious character of Harmonica, played by legendary Charles Bronson, we know nothing about him and yet he’s one of the main characters of the movie. In that same saloon scene, Leone directs a close-up of Harmonica’s face while the man plays a tune on his silver instrument. We ask ourselves what’s the meaning of this close-up? And I say precisely that: the audience asking themselves a question. We raise questions because we’re curious and Leone delivers the answers with the same close-up at the very end of the movie, letting us finally discover the character’s identity, motivation and dark past. You’ll never play harmonica again.
Finally, the score. Leone without composer Ennio Morricone is like steak with no fries. It’s good but the taste is not the same, it’s as if something’s missing. Morricone, an old friend of Leone’s from high school, would in some way help create the movie. He gave the director’s movies their identities, their spirit. Today almost everyone knows the celebrated tracks “Ecstasy of Gold” or “A Fistful of Dollars” with the recognizable whistle and whip sound because Morricone knew how to make the song not only suit the scene it played on, but make it memorable, make something special that people will always come back to and be left with their jaws dropped just like the first time they heard and saw it. Here, Morricone composes the chilling sound of a peaceful harmonica, and whenever we hear it we know who’s behind the instrument, ready to draw first.
Leone created a new way of telling personal stories in an impersonal world. His guns didn’t always fire bullets; they fired emotions and bruised feelings. The protagonists weren’t always presentable good guys: they were people touched by the past.
Luckily for us, Leone will always be the future.