In the religion of the movies, Sergio Leone is a prime candidate for beatitude. Among his miracles, the Italian director— who is getting his first local retro at the American Museum of the Moving Image on the 10th anniversary of his death— reinvented a genre (the western) and created a star (Clint Eastwood). Leone made plenty of money spinning dross into gold but he endured martyrdom as well, struggling for 15 years to make a would-be masterpiece (Once Upon a Time in America), only to see it butchered by the studio.Mainly, however, Leone created a totally distinctive place— voluptuous, even elegiac, in its rabble-rousing cynicism. (“To me, cinema is adventure, legend,” was his suitably kitsch credo). Frontier towns with the look of decaying movie sets nestle in landscapes of Martian desolation. Everyone needs a bath and drinks their whiskey from the bottle. Biblical plagues— dust, flies, thirst— underscore an ethos of universal sadism. You know you’re in Leone country the moment a huge, unshaven face lolls across the wide, wide screen and one of Ennio Morricone’s twanging, banshee-shriek themes rises on the soundtrack like a vamp for the Last Judgment.
These movies can never work on TV; their use of space is tonic. Epic vistas are joltingly juxtaposed with mega-close-ups. The three-way shoot-out that ends The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), amid corrida fanfares and tolling bells in a graveyard half the size of Texas, is one of the great set pieces in Western history. The outrageously prolonged Once Upon a Time in the West credit sequence exemplifies the whole Leone aesthetic of exaggerated spectacle and revisionist grunge. Three gruesome pug-uglies wait in a dilapidated station for the train that will bring their intended victim. Framed so tightly that each drop of sweat becomes a visual event, the sequence is less a parody of High Noon than of Mount Rushmore.
The son of a director and an actress, Leone was born into the faith. He was a teenage extra in The Bicycle Thief, worked on half the Hollywood movies made at Cinecitta during the ’50s, and broke into direction with the cheesy Supertotalscope sword-and-sandal muscle-man flicks the French call peplums— the 1959 remake of The Last Days of Pompeii and the surprisingly credible Colossus of Rhodes (1961). Perhaps something of a rogue— in 1961 Robert Aldrich fired him, for loafing, from the Sodom and Gomorrah second unit— Leone had an epiphany when he saw the 1962 Akira Kurosawa samurai flick Yojimbo, shamelessly plagiarizing it in his first, enormously successful low-budget western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
There had been 25 Italian oat operas made before Leone’s but he put the mode on the map. Like the Beatles and the Trinitron, his spaghetti westerns marked the internationalization of American pop culture. A Fistful of Dollars and its follow-ups, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), rehabilitated TV cowboy Clint Eastwood as the last western hero. Leone’s sense of the quintessential American genre was at once more abstract and more violently naturalistic than Hollywood’s. Bringing a taste for recurring flashbacks and a knack for peplum crowd shots, he raised the magnitude of the slaughter while eschewing the patriotic self-glorification that traditionally came with the territory.
Throughout the convoluted course of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Eastwood’s scuzzy bounty hunter, Lee Van Cleef’s reptilian hired killer and Eli Wallach’s blasphemous bandit (an infinitely sly, violent, opportunistic Everyman) form and dissolve various alliances, littering the screen with corpses as they search for an elusive box of gold coins. The plot keeps intersecting the fringes of the Civil War, consistently presented as a far larger and more meaningless bloodbath than anything in which the principals get mixed up.
Flush with the success of the Dollars trilogy, Leone journeyed to Hollywood to find backing for a gangster epic. But The Godfather was still several years in the future and instead, Paramount made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: carte blanche to do another western with Henry Fonda as star. Thus, even as Sam Peckinpah embarked on The Wild Bunch, Leone conceived of Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) as his western to end all westerns— “a ballet of the dead.” There was nothing else quite like it. As coaxed and teased by Morricone’s remarkable score— a swelling, keening mélange of slowed-down Neapolitan street songs, yé-yé, choral requiems, and Ventures guitar licks— the film is constantly reading and readjusting its thermostat, from self-parody to nostalgia, from mythmongering to spectacle.
But this exercise in glacial pacing and rampant grandiloquence— chosen to open AMMI’s retro— proved as dormant at the box office as its predecessors were successful. Leone was cast into darkness. He directed only two more movies— both male love stories in the form of flawed, violent epics. Revisiting the lumpen leftism of the Dollars trilogy— although the opening quote from Chairman Mao is missing from the studio print AMMI is screening— A Fistful of Dynamite (a/k/a Duck, You Sucker, 1972) has an exiled Irish terrorist (James Coburn) and a Mexican bandit (Rod Steiger in the Eli Wallach part) inadvertently swept into the revolutionary maelstrom of 1913 Mexico. Overtly Third Worldist (and at times almost Eisensteinian in its class-conscious agitprop), the movie dwells on the wreck of revolutionary dreams, Leone’s not the least.
Then, after years in the wilderness, Leone got to make his gangster film. The story of two star-crossed shtarkes (Robert De Niro and James Woods) rising from the gutters of Jewish Williamsburg to rag-trade racketeering and the lavish splendor of a palatial speakeasy above Fat Moe’s Deli, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is brutal, inventive, and daringly cerebral. Closer in mood to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan than to Coppola’s Godfather, it made for a stunning swan song.
Beginning with a mystery and ending in an opium den, Once Upon a Time in America hopscotches from 1933 to 1968 to 1921 back to 1968. All is vanity— peplum grandiosity, spaghetti western savagery, the so-called American dream. It’s not Leone’s greatest movie, but who else could have conceived an action flick in the form of a reverie? The brute delicacy with which the resurrected artist took leave of his medium was the greatest miracle of all.
Once Upon A Time: The Films of Sergio Leone at the American Museum of the Moving Image, 35th Ave and 36th St, Astoria, 718-784-0077, Aug 21 through Sept 5.