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Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone is a filmmaker who sits uneasily in the canon of great directors. As an Italian best known
for making European Westerns, American critics have generally regarded his contributions to the genre
with suspicion or outright contempt. Conversely, Leone was too populist to ever be completely
accepted, at least in English-speaking countries, as an art house figure. He directed only seven films,
of which six are generally considered films by Sergio Leone, his debut being a straight forward studio
product from the Cinecitt production line. His most famous works are the films of the so-called
dollars-trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More(1965), and The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly (1966). All of these star Clint Eastwood, are extremely violent, and enjoyed great box-oce
success. None of his last three films were huge money-earners, and his final work, Once Upon a Time in
America (1984), was butchered by his American backers when released in the United States. Despite
the fact that his stylistic flourishes have now become shorthand for the West in countless television
commercials and Hollywood movies, his enormous influence on the Western has never been fully
recognised in America. To this day, European Westerns are rarely even mentioned in English-language
considerations of the genre. To understand why this is so, it is necessary not only to understand
something of Leones background, but the particular manner in which this background coloured his
inflection of American genre conventions.
Leone came from a family with roots deep in the Italian film industry. His mother, Edvige Valcarenghi
(stage name Bice Walerian), was a silent movie actress who gave up her profession when she married
Vincenzo Leone in 1916. Vincenzo (stage name Roberto Roberti) directed and acted in films during the
silent era, but for reasons that are not entirely clear he was prevented from working during the 1930s by
Italys Fascist regime. (1) He did manage to direct three films between 1939 and 1945, although the last
of these was not released until 1951. (2) Vincenzo tried to discourage his son from entering the world of
cinema, and Sergio briefly studied law before working as an unpaid fifth assistant on Vittorio De Sicas
The Bicycle Thief in 1948. Sergio also appears fleetingly in the film, as part of a group of German priests
sheltering from the rain. (3)
Despite this beginning in the world of Neo-Realism, it was in the highly commercial realm of Cinecitt
studio production that Leone was to receive his training over the next decade. By his own reckoning, he
worked on about 50 Italian and American films in the 1950s, mainly as an assistant director. Hollywood
productions flocked to Rome during this period to utilise the cheap facilities and use up local profits
from American films, which Italian law demanded be spent within Italy. Leones credits from this time
include Robert Wises Helen of Troy (1955), William Wylers remake of Ben-Hur (1959) and Fred
Zinnemanns The Nuns Story (1959).
Leones first directorial eort came in 1959, when he stepped in to finish The Last Days of Pompeii for
his aging mentor Mario Bonnard. The film was released under Bonnards name, but its box-oce
success in Italy allowed Leone to take his first directorial credit with The Colossus of Rhodes in 1960. It
seems Leone never regarded these projects as anything more than workaday jobs, and he later claimed
he made The Colossus of Rhodes simply to pay for a honeymoon in Spain. (4)
By 1963, the Italian industry was experiencing a sharp downturn as ticket sales dropped and the
Hollywood studios withdrew in the wake of such catastrophic financial failures asCleopatra (Joseph L.
Mankiewicz, 1963). Sergio Leone is often credited with starting the European Western craze that saved
Cinecitt at this time, and its true that when Kurosawas samurai film Yojimbo (1961) was released in
Rome, Leone immediately recognised the potential for a Western remake. The idea did not, however,
come from nowhere. Leone was able to find backing for the project primarily due to the success of a
series of German Westerns based on Karl Mays pulp-fiction novels about Winnetou, last of the
Mescalero Apache, and his blood-brother, Old Shatterhand. The first of the Winnetou films, The
Treasure of Silver Lake (Harald Reinl, 1962), was a phenomenal success across Europe, and a further 11
Westerns based on Mays books were produced between 1962 and 1968. (5) Several cheap Westerns
came out of Spain in the wake of the first Winnetou films, and Leones Yojimboremake, A Fistful of
Dollars, was actually made on the back of another bigger-budget Western entitled Pistols Dont Argue
(Mario Caiano, 1964), shot concurrently using the same Spanish locations. (6)
In contrast to the Euro-Westerns that preceded it however, it was clear right from the opening credits of

A Fistful of Dollars that Leone wasnt interested in simply imitating American Western conventions. The
film opens with a hazy white spot on a blood-red screen, creating an almost psychedelic eect and
immediately setting the tone for Leones fantasy vision, with one foot in history and the other in
Hollywood dreams. The title sequence resounds to the sound of gun-shots and Ennio Morricones
distinctive music, strikingly dierent to the orchestral scores and hokey renditions of folk songs that had
characterised the soundtracks of American Westerns up to that time. Ironically, Leone had initially
resisted hiring Morricone, and only met with the composer at the behest of his producers. Despite the
fact that they had been at school together, Leone considered Morricones score to an earlier Western,
Gunfight at Red Sands (Ricardo Blasco, 1963) to be boring and derivative. Morricone won him over by
concurring with this opinion, claiming the producers had commissioned a pale imitation of American
scores. (7) His collaboration with Leone was an altogether more fulfilling aair, and Morricone went on
to cement one of the most fruitful composer-director partnerships in the history of cinema by scoring all
of Leones subsequent films. Drawing on sound-eect experiments he had been conducting since
attending a seminar run by the American avant-garde composer John Cage in 1958, Morricone
incorporated gunshots, cannon fire, whip-cracks, chanting, whistling and watch-chimes into his
soundtracks for Leones first three Westerns. The attention-grabbing music proved an ideal complement
to Leones baroque imagery and playful use of genre iconography.
Several other distinctive elements of Leones approach are apparent from the opening scene of A Fistful
of Dollars. The film begins with Clint Eastwoods character approaching a well in a sun-baked
landscape of harsh light and white-washed stone buildings. Whereas many Spaghetti Westerns sought
to make their Spanish locations look as much like the American-Mexican border region as possible,
Leones expansive wide-screen vistas highlight the landscapes slightly alien feel, creating a setting that
certainly doesnt look European, but doesnt quite look American either. Leone was a great admirer of
surrealist art, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the Spanish locations of his Westerns are the same
arid dreamscapes Salvador Dali employed in many of his nightmarish images of the 1930s. Leone was
to later comment that the cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli filmed the desert sequence in The Good,
the Bad and the Ugly in a way that was worthy of the great surrealist painters. (8)
In his first three Westerns, Leone introduced into this landscape an array of grotesque characters with
faces as weather-beaten as the countryside they rode through. Leone played up the traditional
unshaven image of the Western villain, filling his films with an array of bearded, over-the-top Italian
actors who leered at the camera and laughed with sweaty abandon at their frequent acts of sadistic
violence. Their histrionics formed the perfect counterpoint to the restraint Leone elicited from his
American actors such as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, cultivating an icy screen presence in the
Americans that had only been hinted at in their previous roles.
Clint Eastwood was known mainly as a TV cowboy from the Rawhide series when Leone signed him
up for $15,000 to star in the first dollars film. His original choice had been Henry Fonda, followed by
Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Fonda and Bronson turned him down flat, while Coburn proved
too expensive for the low-budget production. Leone reluctantly agreed to sign Eastwood after viewing
an episode of Rawhide in Rome. (9) A Fistful of Dollars made Eastwood an instant star in Europe, a
status he was not to achieve for several more years in America. Eastwood went on to co-star in Leones
next two features, developing a persona that by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was perfectly
balanced between detached ruthlessness and sardonic humour.
Leones films similarly made Lee Van Cleef a major star in Italy, resurrecting an acting career that had
never risen above playing villainous bit parts in American films of the 1950s. After appearing alongside
Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef went on to make
another ten Italian Westerns.(10)
Leones most startling use of an American actor was in his fourth Western, Once Upon a Time in the
West (1968). Financial backing from Paramount allowed Leone to fulfil his long-held ambition to work
with Henry Fonda. Leone transformed the traditionally clean-shaven hero of American cinema into a
blue-eyed child killer of ruthless ambition.
Adrian Martin has described all of Leones films as odes to the human face, and the director delighted
in alternating between stunning wide-screen panoramas and extreme close-ups of his actors faces and
eyes, often within the same shot. (11) The opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a classic
example of this eect, as an apparently empty countryside is suddenly blocked out by a grimy, wizened
face swinging up into frame. Appropriately, the final image of Leones last film is the face of Robert De

Niro filling the screen, shot through hazy black netting as he descends into opium bliss.
The unique style Leone displayed from the opening moments of A Fistful of Dollars made an immediate
impact on Italian audiences, and his first three Westerns were huge hits across Europe. They were
released in quick succession between February 1967 and January 1968 in the United States, to boxoce success and general critical panning. Many reviews echoed David McGillivrays assessment in
Films and Filming, that the European Westerns were nothing more than cold-blooded attempts at
sterile emulation. (12) It was not until the 1970s that any serious re-evaluation of Leones work
occurred in English-speaking countries. Christopher Fraylings 1981 book Spaghetti Westerns played a
major part in this reassessment, although as already noted, European films are still largely ignored in
American discussions of the Western genre.
Frayling argues that Leones work should be considered in the context of the critical cinema produced
by filmmakers such as Chabrol, Bertolucci and Pasolini in the late 1960s and early 70s. (13)Especially
in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone self-consciously evokes the themes, characters and settings of
the American Western, divorcing these elements from their ideological and historical base in order to
consider aspects of frontier history and mythology that Hollywood studio products had evaded or
ignored. Leones explicit employment of reflexive genre clichs inOnce Upon a Time in the West, and
again in his final film, Once Upon a Time in America, would seem to cast him as a trail-blazing postmodernist, but there is an important dierence between Leones referential system and the blank irony
that Frederic Jameson identified as being cental to a post-modern aesthetic. (14) Leone has a profound
emotional and intellectual investment in the cinematic mythologies he explores, however compromised
and clichd these mythologies may have become. Thus, as his films become increasingly selfconscious about the lost classical American filmic tradition they are drawing on, they start to exhibit a
meditative, melancholic quality that is completely absent from the energetic exuberance of the dollars
trilogy. Adrian Martin admirably summed up this aspect of Leones later work in his book on Once Upon
a Time in America:

It was as if, for Leone, such disembodied quotations if they could be made to retain their mythic
intensity and potency might provide a kind of catharsis or ecstasy for modern-day cinephiles pining
over their precious lost object. That is why, finally, form can never be pure in Leones work: at stake
in it is a psychic investment, a whole elaborate machine of selfhood, culture and longing(15)
In this sense, Leones films are above all about living with the image of America, but never being
American. His films form a small but potent body of work that may be read as an extended celebration,
interrogation and finally mourning of the myths underlaying 20thcentury American cinema, as seen from
afar. From his first Western, Leones films revolved around a vision of America as a ubiquitous cultural
presence always seen from a distance, through the image. An image that is thrilling, violent, extreme,
repulsive, and often ridiculous.
The source material for Once Upon a Time in America is indicative in this regard. The film is based on
The Hoods, a 1952 autobiographical account of criminal life during Prohibition. The author, an exgangster writing under the non de plum Harry Grey, had set out to counter the glamorised Hollywood
vision of the era. What fascinated Leone was the fact that Greys writing was steeped in the very
Hollywood clichs he claimed to be combating, as if it were impossible for the writer to separate his
memories from the movies. (16)
In a similar (though obviously more reflexive) manner, Leone creates a world in his films rooted in
historical detail, but refracted through the looking-glass of Hollywood movies. The closer Leones films
came to contemporary America, the more explicitly abstract they became, and the more his vision
appeared as a hallucination, dragged up from our collective cinematic unconscious.
Leones investment in Hollywood dreams stretched back to his childhood growing up in Mussolinis
Rome. He was obsessed with American movies and stars such as Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper, and
after the entry of America into the war in 1941, its cultural products gained the added allure of
forbidden fruit. In this context, Leones first contact with American soldiers following the invasion of
Italy from 1943 came as something of a shock. He later remarked:

In my childhood, America was like a religionThen, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life in
jeeps and upset all my dreamsI found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no
longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any othersmaterialists, possessive, keen on

pleasures and earthly goods. (17)


This disjunction between American mythology and the reality of America crucially informs all Leones
work. His films are essentially about what America means to those who have never seen America
except through its cinema for those millions in the world who grow up with a displaced sense of being
part of a nation that has no consciousness of its part in them. Towards the end of his life Leone
commented; I cant see America any other way than with a Europeans eyes, obviously; it fascinates
me and terrifies me at the same time. (18) For Europeans of Leones generation, growing up in a postwar continent being rebuilt with US dollars and politically determined by US foreign policy, the
experience of dreaming American dreams while resenting the reality of American domination was
particularly acute.
This divided relationship with the United States, equal parts derision and longing, love and resentment,
perhaps helps explain the diculty American critics have had in coming to terms with Leones work.
David Thomsons perfunctory and dismissive entry on Leone in hisBiographical Dictionary of Film is
typical of the critical reaction to Leones films since the 1960s: I think Leone really despised the
Westernwe never feel were in America or with people who think in American. He makes fun of the
very mythology and obsession that underlie film art. (19) At a Festival in 1981, one of Leones American
stars, James Coburn, defended the Italian against oft-repeated charges of disrespect for the Western
genre with the motion lets hear it for irreverence. (20) Yet both these assessments miss the deep
sense of ambivalence that informs Leones relationship to America and the mythology upon which that
country is built.
Especially in the dollars trilogy, Leone distilled Hollywood Western mythology down to its most base
and alluring elements, taking the promise of total untrammelled freedom to its logical extreme. The
West in his hands became a mythical landscape where a man could reach beyond the pall of civilisation
to a fantastical space where enrichment depended on ones skill with a gun and ability to deceive an
opponent. Hollywood Westerns had always invoked this dream of pure freedom only to subsume it by
films end under the sheen of domestic white civilisation. Leone, in contrast, dared to embrace the
dream wholeheartedly, and in doing so reached into the dark heart of the American capitalist ethos,
constructing a savage vision of the West that American critics found largely unpalatable. Not because it
was false, but because it spoke a certain truth about American mythology undiluted by the rhetorical
tropes of civilisation, justice and manifest destiny. Leone portrayed an America stripped of all
rhetoric beyond that of burning self-interest and murderous individualism. For all their historical
liberties, Leones films seem to embody certain essential truths regarding the illicit appeal of American
foundational mythology in a way that few, if any, American movies have ever done. As Christopher
Frayling noted in his ground-breaking study of the Spaghetti Western phenomenon, Leones films
contain no universal moral messages (as many Hollywood Westerns have claimed to), and his heroes
are not intended to set an example for today. (21) Instead, Leones camera celebrates the visceral
energy of Americas mythology of violent individualism while remaining coolly ambivalent about its
morality. His West is the savagery of the frontier without the posthumous, self-justifying liberal veneer
with which American films of the classic era liked to coat it.
Although ambivalent regarding American notions of freedom and progress, Leone was equally
suspicious of the left-wing politics embraced by many European filmmakers of the late 1960s. His 1971
film Duck, You Sucker is set during the Mexican revolution, and can be seen as a rejoinder to some of
the more overtly left-wing Italian Westerns of the period, such as A Bullet for the General (Damiano
Damiani, 1966). While Leones film doesnt condemn revolutionary politics outright, it refrains from the
unambiguous endorsement of violent political activity seen in many Italian Westerns set in revolutionary
Mexico. Originally Leone had intended only to produce Duck, You Sucker, and his decision to take over
directing the film several days after shooting had commenced possibly contributed to its slightly uneven
quality. Despite this, it does feature some of Leones most aecting set-pieces, especially in the scenes
depicting mass executions during the revolution.
Leone dedicated most of the 1970s to preparing Once Upon a Time in America. The strain of shooting
the film in 1982-83 worsened an already serious heart condition, and the legal battle he endured with
the studio in trying to preserve the films 228 minute running time further eroded his health. Despite his
eorts, the Ladd Company excised 84 minutes from the film, and re-edited the carefully constructed
cross-cutting between three dierent time zones into a nonsensical chronological narrative. Thankfully,
Leones original cut is available on video.

Since his death in 1989, Leones films have become something of a template for directors wishing to
imbue their self-conscious use of genre iconography with a sense of dream-like nostalgia for imaginary
lost times. But few filmmakers have matched Leones skill at deconstructing Hollywood dreams while at
the same time retaining a melancholy longing for their revalidation. Although he remains a controversial
figure in critical circles, his stylistic influence is everywhere in 90s American cinema, from Back to the
Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990) to the work of Quentin Tarantino and his associate Robert
Rodriguez. Leone-like imagery and Morricone-sounding scores have formed the basis of countless
television commercials surely the final proof that his stylistic traits are now firmly entrenched in the
lexicon of cinematic clichs. His Spanish-flavoured images of the Western frontier, dramatic flourishes
and prolonged pauses have become a thoroughly internalised part of the Western genres iconography.
The Leone style, some forty years after he made his first Western, has become absorbed into the same
mythology of twentieth century cinema to which so much of his work was devoted to exploring.

Looking back at Sergio Leones


Dollars trilogy
With Django Unchained out now in the UK, Paul looks back at Sergio Leone's classic
Dollars trilogy that helped inspire it...
Howard Hawks, one of the most successful Western directors of all time and a key influence on
Sergio Leone, once said a great movie can be defined as one with "three great scenes, and no bad
ones." There can be few directors who understood the power of great scenes quite as strongly as
Leone, the director of the Dollarstrilogy and de facto godfather of the spaghetti western.
Some might argue his emphasis on great individual moments was to his detriment, as the
MacGuffin-laden plots of his films seem to exist mainly as devices on which he can hang his
elaborate setpieces, and were subsequently labeled as exercises in pure style. While the artistic
and intellectual merits of the three films are up for debate, their influence on modern movies particularly in the action genre - is not, with legions of filmmakers in debt to Leone to this day.
Not least of these is Quentin Tarantino, who cites The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as his favourite
film of all time, and with the recent Django Unchained has crafted an unashamed love letter to a
spaghetti western genre that Leone popularized and arguably invented with these films.
The early 60s saw the American Western in a state of decline: Hawks, along with John Ford, had
been one of the key figures in the Westerns golden age, the period that lasted between the 1930s
to the mid 50s and saw the release of classics such as Stagecoach, Red River, My Darling
Clementine, Shane and The Searchers. The pair had managed to infuse the traditionally pulpy
genre with a hitherto unseen moral and psychological complexity, as well as providing a deceptively
rich social and cultural commentary on the period.
However, while these two still were capable of producing the odd masterpiece (see Hawks's Rio
Bravo in 1959 and Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962), the genre as a whole had
descended into self-parody and stagnated, and had largely been written off both by critics and as
reliable box office performers.
By the early 60s, the western had been replaced in the public's imagination by big-budget historical
epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus, and the Italian genre-film industry
- never ones to let a trend escape unexploited - cashed in with a succession of sword-and-sandals
pictures, starring a rag-tag bunch American B-movie actors and bodybuilders.

Leone had directed an unremarkable entry in this genre - The Last Days Of Pompeii, starring Steve
Reeves but as a history buff with a lifelong obsession with the American West, he longed to make
his own Western. He believed that there was still an audience for them, certainly in Europe - the first
European Westerns had already been produced by German backers, and had enjoyed a modest if
unremarkable success. However, Leone realised that latter period American Westerns had suffered
from being too glossy, cliched and overly preachy: his idea for A Fistful Of Dollars was to try and
marry the tropes and iconography of the American Western to the more immediate, unvarnished
style of Italian filmmaking of the period.
That Leone not only succeeded but also managed to create a true pop cultural milestone in the
process was of course largely down to his phenomenal abilities as filmmaker: however, it must be
noted that he also got very lucky. Fistful - and, by proxy, the subsequent popularity of the Spaghetti
Western genre - was also borne out of a timely convergence of talents, all of whom were operating
at the very top of their game.
Leone's first masterstroke was to hire Clint Eastwood, at that point a TV star in Rawhide but yet to
make any movies of note. Frustrated by Hollywood's reluctance to cast an actor who "people could
see at home for free", Eastwood went to Europe for the same reasons American actors travelled
there for the sword-and-sandals films and the later polizioschetti (police-action) movies: the US had
all but given up on him. He was paid just $15,000 for the job, but the journey also afforded him a
bona fide starring role and, as Eastwood later put it, "at least I got a trip to Spain" (the films were
produced by Italians but filmed in the Spanish desert, which cost a fraction of the price).
Eastwood's approach to acting was a perfect match for the style Leone had in mind for his new
Western. A phlegmatic presence, Eastwood relied on an economy of movement that also extended
to his dialogue: the actor reportedly frequently petitioned Leone for fewer lines in the films. The
actor was also responsible for creating his character's iconic costume from scratch, combining his
own wardrobe with props liberated from the set of Rawhide and the famous poncho, which was
discovered in a Spanish shop. Then there was that face: craggy and weary even at 34, it was the
ideal subject for Leone's regular extreme close-ups. What it lacked in expressiveness (Leone later
said Eastwood had only two expressions: with the hat and without) it made up for in gravitas and
quiet menace.
Looking back, it's hard to say how much of Leone's signature style was deliberately engineered by
him, and how much was him simply reacting to his resources and his environment. For example, his
much-celebrated technique of using music, facial close-ups and extended periods of silence to tell a
story rather than dialogue may have actually been a result of the unique conditions of an Italian film
set: as the multi-lingual dialogue of the actors would all be dubbed over in post-production anyway,
shooting on spaghetti westerns was often accompanied by the sound of the crew chatting and
banging on equipment (ironically, given Leone's use of silence), much to the consternation of
American actors used to the quiet respectfulness of film sets in Hollywood.
The director's focus on ambient sound, music and violent action to tell a story led to many critics to
label Leone's style as 'operatic'; it also proved a superb technique for engineering tension, as well
as sustaining the atmosphere of grizzled, monosyllabic machismo that Leone was striving for. He
neatly and perhaps inadvertently summed up his attitude to storytelling with Tuco's famous line
inThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly: "If you're going to shoot, shoot. Don't talk."
It's also unsurprising that music plays such a key role in the Dollars trilogy when you consider that
Leone had one the best film composers of all time at his disposal in Ennio Morricone. His
innovative, surreal music was also borne out of restraints - unable to afford a full orchestra, he
would have been unable to replicate the grandiose sweep of the classic western scores even if he

wanted to. Instead, the scores for the Dollars trilogy are a psychedelic mix of whistling, whip cracks,
trumpets, wailing, gunshots and, crucially, the newly invented Fender guitar.
The anachronistic guitar is not only brilliantly used, but also served to dislocate Leone's vision of the
West from those that had preceded it, firmly placing it in an exhilarating, pop-influenced, alternateuniverse America entirely of Leone's imagination. Morricone's music is integral to all three films in
the trilogy - at points, it acts as wry punctuation, such as the way the iconic "Ay-iy-ay-iy-ah!" cuts off
Eli Wallach's final curse of Blondie in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. At other points, it becomes
a key part of the narrative, such as the mournful motif of the pocket-watch chimes in For A Few
Dollars More. The importance of Morricone's compositions is highlighted by the fact Leone, starting
with For A Few Dollars More, would ask Morricone to write the music before shooting and would
then direct to his music on-set.
His obsession with faces, also, is understandable given his access to some of cinema's most
remarkable visages - with the distinctive features of Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Gian
Maria Volont, and even Klaus Kinski on hand, it's no wonder he presents them in such loving
detail. Leone's close-ups are more than just reaction shots: the combination of the faces, his
unusual use of space within the frame and the backdrop of the alien-looking Spanish landscape
lend his images a surreal, painterly quality that just serves to add to the otherworldy atmosphere.

One of the most notorious aspects of the trilogy is the violence: a reaction if not an outright parody
of the Polyanna-ish Westerns of the late fifties, Leone transformed the stereotype of the clean-cut
cowboy into a dirty, unshaven, morally ambiguous loner. He argued: "The West was made by
violent, uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my
pictures. The Western landscape was re-imagined as a savage battleground where the only rules
were to get rich and be more devious than your opponent, exploding the myth of the noble frontier in
a hail of blood and bullets that was also undercut with (sometimes literally) gallows humour.
Many objected to this interpretation of recent American history, with David Thomson saying: "I think
Leone really despised the Westernwe never feel were in America or with people who think in
American. He makes fun of the very mythology and obsession that underlie film art, but Leone
argued later in his life that the films were not intended as arch but a genuine reflection of his
feelings towards the country, arguing: I cant see America any other way than with a Europeans
eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.
It must be said that while Leone was an innovator in many respects, he did start the ball rolling with
a shameless rip-off: A Fistful Of Dollars wasn't so much an 'unofficial remake' of Akira Kurosawa's
samurai action movie Yojimbo, as a re-skinned version of the same film, replacing warring clans in
feudal Japan with warring families in a Mexican border town. Leone waved away accusations of
cinematic plagiarism by saying that Yojimbo had been influenced by Dashiell Hammet's noir
novelRed Harvest, and that Red Harvest in turn had been influenced by the Italian play A Servant
Of Two Masters.
To watch both films is to realise that Leone was being more than a little mischievous and
disingenrous here - while there are clear similarities between all three, whole scenes and beats
inFistful are lifted from Yojimbo. Kurosawa later quipped that Leone had "made a great movie, but it
was my movie." However, Kurosawa freely admitted that Yojimbo had been influenced by classic
Westerns, so perhaps there was something to Leone's claim he was bringing the story back "home",
even he was referring to Hammett's novel and not the Western genre as a whole.

Using Yojimbo as a starting block, Leone found that the addition of the widescreen landscapes from
his beloved John Ford Westerns, as well as Morricone's music and Eastwood's face resulted in a
potent mixture that proved a big hit with audiences. Fistful is comfortably the leanest of the trilogy,
the most stripped-down straightforward action movie of the bunch, but nearly all of Leone's most
recognisable trademarks - the close-ups, the violence, the silence - are already present and correct
here, and more than any of the other three films, traces of Fistful's DNA can be found in just about
every action film made since.
The film proved hugely successful in Europe upon release, immediately standing out as something
special by looking a million miles away from the 'cheap' westerns that had come to characterise the
genre, particularly outside of America. While it was still made for a shoestring budget ($200,000),
Leone's artful adoption of Kurosawa's directorial style and his eye for using the Spanish countryside
to its full potential made the film feel like an epic despite its limited resources.
Eager to quickly make a sequel, Leone tried to get Eastwood on board immediately after production
finished on Fistful; reluctant to commit until he had seen the finished film, Leone arranged for a
screening of an Italian-language print to Eastwood and a group of his friends, to whom he attempted
to downplay the merits of the film in an attempt to manage their expectations. However, the
screening was a huge success: despite the audience not speaking Italian, Leone's stylistic, lowdialogue, heavy-action approach rendered that irrelevant, with a stunned Eastwood remarking that
the audience "had enjoyed it just as much as if it had been in English". Shortly after the screening
Eastwood got hold of his agent and told him he'd "like to work with that director again".

For A Few Dollars More is often overlooked in the trilogy, awkwardly sandwiched between both the
original film and the best-known, but it's a stunning film in its own right - director Alex Cox, one of
the world's foremost experts on the genre, calls it his favourite spaghetti western of all. It packs
probably the most effective emotional punch of all the films, and introduces a more elegiac,
mournful tone that the director would then sustain throughout The Good, The Bad And The Uglyand
Once Upon A Time In The West. The plot sees The Man With No Name (this was actually a
marketing gimmick - Eastwood's character has a name in all three movies. Here it's Manco) actually
takes a back seat for much of the film to Lee Van Cleef, as the straight-edged bounty hunter on a
mission for revenge that proves genuinely affecting.
Even better than Van Cleef and Eastwood is Gian Maria Volente, who as in Fistful, plays the
repulsive villain brilliantly, but this time adds an unmistakable air of tragedy that balances out his
scenery-chewing. Volente was offered a variety of high-profile film work after For A Few Dollars
More, including the Wallach role in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but would come to refuse any
role that didn't chime with his openly-Communist political views, and chose to star in the more
radical Bullet For The General instead.

For A Few Dollars More also sees Leone really grow in confidence as a filmmaker - while there's a
sense that he was standing on Kurosawa's shoulders with Fistful, here he refines his style into
something that is more recognisable as his own - more close-ups, stunning composition, one of the
best uses of music in the trilogy with the pocket-watch motif, and some of his best set-pieces: Van
Cleef and Eastwood's first meeting, where they prove their worth to one another by elaborately and
repeatedly shooting each other's hats off is one of Leone's best and funniest scenes.
However, Leone's best-known film remains The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the tale of a hunt for
stolen Confederate gold set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The film was a global
phenomenon upon release in 1966, largely thanks to Ennio Morricone's all-conquering theme

music, which topped the charts worldwide and quickly became one of the most instantly
recognisable pieces of music in any genre. It was also released as the spaghetti western genre was
to reach height of his success, with other directors taking Leone's template and runnning with it:
1966 also saw the release of seminal films such Sergio Corbucci's Django and Sergio Sollima's The
Big Gundown. Critics who had been notoriously sniffy towards the spaghetti westerns were
beginning to sit up and take notice, and Leone's film was certainly one that proved difficult to ignore.
Leone directs The Good like it's the last film he will ever make (although Once Upon A Time In
The West is still arguably his defining statement on the Western), and takes advantage of a budget
newly boosted by American investors to create a true big screen epic. Once again building on the
progress he had made with his previous films, The Good is bigger and better than everything that
preceded it: Eastwood and Van Cleef, both now more than comfortable in Leone's universe, both
return as 'The Good' and 'The Bad' respectively, and Eli Wallach adds a welcome burst of comic,
manic energy to proceedings as Tuco ('The Ugly').

'The Man with No Name' (Blondie) is more complex and interesting here than at any other point in
the trilogy: while he's happy to repeatedly abandon and abuse the admittedly untrustworthy Tuco,
he's also arguably at his most compassionate, particularly in the extended Civil War sequence
where he stops to spend time with a dying Confederate soldier. Blondie even uncharacteristically
sees fit to openly philosophise at one point, wearily sighing: "I've never seen so many men wasted
so badly," while watching a battle play out. Even someone as accustomed to the brutality of the
West as Eastwood's outlaw, a figure who actively thrived from it, is shown to balk at the sheer scale
of death involved in warfare on this kind of scale.
Leone conceived the film as one that would show the "imbecility" and "absurdity" of war, and
angered critics by depicting deaths in a Union camp, as opposed to more politically acceptable
accounts of atrocities in Southern camps. Once again, Leone was rebelling against received
wisdom, more than conscious that the history books are written by the victors. Despite his
reputation for contorting the history of the West to his own ends, The Good is now regarded by
experts as one of the most historically accurate depictions of the conflict ever seen on screen.
The reason that the film remains so popular (it is consistently in the top five-rated movies of all time
on the IMDB top 250) comes back to those incredible setpieces: it's the shortest three-hour film ever
made, with scene after incredible scene, scenes that remain etched into the memory of everyone
who has seen them but remain thrilling after endless viewings. There's the pitch-perfect
introductions of all three main players, Tuco and the gun-seller, Blondie's trial in the desert, the
click-clack of spurs tipping off Blondie to Tuco's attempted hit, and the whole Civil War sequence,
which as Roger Ebert notes is "practically a movie unto itself".
Everything culminates with the definitive Leone setpiece, a three-way Mexican stand-off that acts as
a the culmination of the film, the trilogy, Leone's career, and the Spaghetti Western genre up to that
point. It's all here: Morricone's untouchable music, the stunning landscape photography, those
amazing faces, the perfectly judged editing, Leone's obsessive attention to detail and his
unparalleled ability to use every inch of the frame. It's the best scene from a director who
specialised in great scenes, 10 minutes of sheer cinematic perfection.

If it had been the last word by Leone in the genre it would have been a fitting end, but the director
would also go on to direct his most critically acclaimed film Once Upon A Time In The West and the
underrated Duck You Sucker! aka A Fistful Of Dynamite. Once Upon A Time... may have even
forced us to consider the films as a quadrilogy, had Eastwood agreed to play Charles Bronson's role

of Harmonica as originally planned, but the actor was worn out by Leone's endless perfectionism
onThe Good and his reportedly somewhat brusque personality, and so settled back into a long
career as one of Hollywood's most enduring icons instead.
However, Once Upon a Time feels much more blatant and pointed in its echoing of classic
American westerns, and as a result the Dollars trilogy still feels very much like its own thing. It
stands as one of the most important pieces of pop culture of the last century, an astounding body of
work that in its jumble of influences feels timeless, placeless, ageless: they're films set in the
American West in the 1800s, shot in Spain in the 1960s by an Italian ripping off the Japanese.
This maybe why they don't feel at all dated, although it's also possibly because so many films have
learnt and borrowed from their rhythms in subsequent years. It unquestionably one of the greatest
trilogies of all time, and while Howard Hawks never went on the record with his thoughts on Leone's
work, according to his own maxim you would have thought that ultimately he would have approved
of the Dollars movies: three great films, and no bad ones.