Friday, February 19, 2010

SERGIO LEONE - Hasta la Vista baby

Smoke 'em if you got 'em

is scarcely a cinema-goer on the planet who has not, at one time or another, sat spellbound in a darkened room and watched a tall man with a three day beard flip his sarape back, switch his cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other and narrow his blue eyes into slits. When this sequence of events unfolds you just know something bad is going to happen next, and most likely it will involve that long barrelled Colt hanging from his low-slung gunfighter's belt. These images of a young Clint Eastwood have over time become so iconic that they now practically define cinema, even though at the time of their release they were almost uniformly pooh-poohed by critics as populist trash.

But what the hell do they know anyway? It is precisely these deliberate, ritualistic actions that make these movies so compelling. It is the reason they are still being shown in cheap movie houses and drive-ins the world over. And the best part of it is, the person who created them wasn't even American, but Italian. Even though Sergio Leone was born long after the west was tamed forever, he knew how to use the myths and legends of that endlessly fascinating period of history to make immortal stories that were almost Zen-like in their simplicity.

With an ability to recognise great acting talent when no-one else did, a unique eye for composition that was both startling and original and a collaborator who composed scores as memorable as the images they accompanied, he turned the horse opera into an art form and in the process spawned a thousand imitators.

A Fistful of Dollars

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Victor Catena, Jaime Gil and Sergio Leone
Players: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonte, Wolfgang Lukschy

The first in the 'Dollar' series is loosely based on Yojimbo by the influential Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It introduced us to a tall, lanky individual with permanent stubble and flinty blue eyes who didn't say a hell of a lot but let his gun do most of the talking. Sergio Leone would make Eastwood a star and the charismatic actor would go on to direct some of the greatest Westerns ever, acknowledging his debt to this enduring genre. Although Leone couldn't speak English and Eastwood's knowledge of Italian was limited to 'arrivaderci' they still managed to piece together a riveting thriller that made Eastwood an international superstar and cleaned up at both the US and European box office.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Too many to list
Players: Eli Wallach, Lee van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov

Although the first two Dollars are interesting enough, the third one eclipses them both. A sprawling tale of three men chasing a chest full of gold set against a backdrop of the American civil war, it is a near perfect movie. With action, wit, pathos, gorgeous cinematography and of course stunning music by the legendary composer Ennio Morricone, it adds up to one of the best loved movies of all time. Leone regulars Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef provide the steely hero and villian respectively but it is the presence of Eli Wallach as Tuco that really makes this as an entertaining a film as you can ever hope to see. Wallach's impish humour is timeless and he makes one of the greatest scenes in cinema truly immortal when he utters the classic line: "if you're gonna shoot, shoot... don't talk!" Leone's energetic use of the camera, ranging from incredible panoramas to intense close-ups in the blink of an eye, are really in evidence here, particularly in the final climatic showdown. His fascination with the human face is unparalleled and TGTB&TU features a dazzling line-up of colourful rogues and striking character actors. Initially dismissed by critics as a poor cousin to US-made westerns TGB&TU has since taken its rightful place as an epic of great and enduring power.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati
Players: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti

Leone was pretty much done with the western by the time he wrapped Good/Bad/Ugly. He had always wanted to tackle that other American genre staple, the gangster flick. This time, however, it was going to be shot in the USA, not some dusty European backwater masquerading as the real thing. However, before the studios gave the green light on the gangster picture, they said he needed to do one last western. Leone relented and began work on what would be Once Upon a Time in the West. Remarkably, despite his fatigue with horse operas, the movie he came out with tops even the immortal trio that preceded it and is now considered his finest achievement. From its amazing opening credit sequence (considered the longest ever filmed) to the classic Leone showdown at the end, Once Upon a Time is a visually stunning treat that is also a heartfelt tribute to the mythical wild west. All of the Leone elements are in place, although this time we have Charles Bronson rather than Eastwood (who was offered the part of Harmonica first but turned it down). Leone's choice of villain was even more surprising - legendary good guy Henry Fonda. Fonda proved he was no one-trick pony by turning in one of the most chilling performances to ever grace the silver screen. A typically superb Sam Robards and the magnificent Claudia Cardinale round out the cast. Although the film is meant to be experienced on as big a screen as possible, it is still possible to appreciate the massive canvas that Leone worked on, thanks to a lovingly re-mastered special edition DVD. Along with David Lean, he was undoubtedly one of the true masters of the cinemascope format.

Once Upon a Time in America

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Too many to list
Players: Robert de Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Treat Williams

When Leone finally got to make his gangster picture it was a sure bet that it would be a doozy. And when the film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival it received a standing ovation. What is less easy to fathom, however, is why studio execs chose to slash the movie to pieces and offer a vastly different film to the original version for commercial release. Thanks to DVD it is now possible to watch the original version of this great classic, which is often compared in the same breath to The Godfather, although it is a very different film. Robert De Niro gives yet another stellar performance as lead character Noodles, but it is James Woods who really stands out here. Although Woods has never been considered an A-list lead man like De Niro, in terms of sheer intensity he is capable of standing toe to toe with the legend and his abilities are very evident here. A sprawling work that gives new meaning to the term epic, Once Upon a Time in America is now rightfully acknowledged as one of the great works of modern cinema. Sadly it was also to be Leone's last movie.

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