Sergio Leone (Rome, 3 January 1929 – Rome, 30 April 1989) was an Italian film director, screenwriter and producer.
He is recognized as one of the most important and influential directors in film history, particularly known for his films in the spaghetti-western genre. Although he directed only a few films, his direction set the standard and contributed to the rebirth of the Western in the 1960s, thanks to titles such as A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which form the so-called “Dollar Trilogy”), Once Upon a Time in the West and Down Under, while with Once Upon a Time in America he profoundly renewed the lexicon of gangster movies (these last three films make up the “trilogy of the Second American Frontier”, as defined by Leone himself, also known later as the “trilogy of time” from a definition given to him by the film critic Morandini or even, finally, the “trilogy of the fairy tale”).
In 1972, with Giù la testa, he won the David di Donatello for best director. In 1984 he was also awarded the David René Clair. In 1985 with C”era una volta in America he won the Silver Ribbon for Best Film Director and was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director and the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Director. On October 9, 2014, at the Premio America ceremony at the Chamber of Deputies, he was awarded a special memorial prize by the Fondazione Italia USA.
Origins and beginnings
Sergio Leone was born in Rome, at Palazzo Lazzaroni located in Via dei Lucchesi, a few meters from the Trevi Fountain, on January 3, 1929, the son of Roberto Roberti (1879-1959), a director and actor from Torella dei Lombardi (in the province of Avellino), considered one of the pioneers of Italian silent films, and Bice Waleran (1886-1969), a Roman actress, born into a Milanese family that also boasted remote Austrian origins.
In 1931, Leone”s family moved to Via Filippo Casini, in the working-class neighborhood of Trastevere: “My way of seeing things is sometimes naive, a bit childish, but sincere. Like the children on the steps of Viale Glorioso”: the plaque with this inscription was affixed to mark the house where Leone lived the years of his childhood and youth along the steps of Viale Glorioso that descend towards Trastevere.
He studied with the Lasallians, by choice of his family, who opposed the fascist public organization of education, where he met one of his future, closest and most famous collaborators: the composer Ennio Morricone. Not excelling in studies, he approached with interest since those years to History and Italian.
A convinced anti-fascist, at fourteen he decided to join the Resistance, but was dissuaded by his mother.
Passionate about American cinema since he was a child (he loved John Ford and Charlie Chaplin), Leone, after his first experiences with his father Vincenzo, began working in the film industry at the age of eighteen. In fact, he had a small part, as an extra, in Vittorio De Sica”s Bicycle Thieves, for which he was an unpaid assistant for that film: when the protagonists Antonio and Bruno are surprised at Porta Portese by a storm, they take shelter under a ledge where some foreign seminarians, including Leone, arrive. Subsequently, Leone will begin to be interested in the peplum genre, based on heroic and epic actions of both Greek and Roman soldiers and emperors.
In 1949, his father Vincenzo retires with his wife Edvige to the native village of Torella dei Lombardi: the twenty-year-old Sergio, enrolled at the university in law, decides to stay in Rome and work in cinema, coming into contact with his father”s knowledge in the film world. (Carmine Gallone, Mario Camerini and, above all, Mario Bonnard, who takes him under his protective wing).
The fifties: peplums and the first important works
At the beginning of the fifties he made his directorial debut, having written the screenplay for a film, never produced, Viale Glorioso, which followed the themes expressed by Federico Fellini in I vitelloni of 1953. The release of this film temporarily convinced Leone to abandon his directing ambitions, dedicating himself to assistant directing. The first works of a certain importance saw him first as assistant director of his father in Il folle di Marechiaro, then of Carmine Gallone and Alessandro Blasetti, and then of his family friend Mario Camerini. He covered the same role or that of director of the second unit (uncredited) in some Hollywood productions of great importance, filmed at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, in the period of the so-called Hollywood on the Tiber: those worthy of note are Quo vadis by Mervyn LeRoy (1951) and especially the colossal Ben-Hur by William Wyler (1959), winner of 11 Oscars, of which Leone directed the important and spectacular scene of the “duel of the chariots”. In 1954 he directed his first film as a director: the documentary short “Taxi… sir?”. In 1959 he took over from Mario Bonnard, struck down by an illness that forced him to abandon the set (but Leone later recounted that Bonnard actually “ran off to direct the film ”Gastone”, with Alberto Sordi, entrusting him with the direction of the film he was abandoning and in which he had been hired as assistant director”), to direct The Last Days of Pompeii, to which he had collaborated on the screenplay.
However, the opening credits of the film do not show his name but only that of Bonnard. The producers entrusted the development of a new film work to Leone (who in the meantime in 1960 had married Carla Ranalli, a dancer at the Teatro dell”Opera in Rome), who developed it as a ridicule of the genre, while remaining faithful to the basic structure. From this intent, he made his debut with his first accredited direction with Il colosso di Rodi (1961). Thanks to his long experience, Leone was able to produce the film with a low budget that looked as spectacular as a real Hollywood colossal. The story, set on the island of Rhodes, had as its protagonists two lovers: a traveler and the daughter of the king of Rhodes, who financed the construction of an enormous bronze giant capable of pouring burning embers on enemy travelers who dared to get too close to the island. This film represented the last experience in the peplum genre for Leone, who refused numerous subsequent proposals from film producers to take up the theme of his first direction.
The sixties: the “spaghetti-westerns” and their success
In the early sixties, the demand for peplums petered out, even though Leone, after two years of collaborating on scripts for films of the genre, after “The Colossus of Rhodes”, was working on the preparation of his third peplum, or “sandalone film” (as he called it): “The Eagles of Rome”, a sort of remake of “The Seven Samurai” in a peplum key. During this period, Leone was entrusted with the writing of the screenplay for a western, based on the western novel of the same name, “The Bounty Killer”, an Italian-Spanish co-production, initiated by the Hispanic José Gutiérrez Maesso and supported by the Italian “Jolly Film” of Papi and Colombo. But Leone”s work was rejected by Maesso. In the spring of 1963, the cameraman Stelvio Massi and the director of photography Enzo Barboni met Sergio Leone at the “Rosati” bar in Piazza del Popolo. They told him that they had just seen the Japanese film “The Challenge of the Samurai” at the nearby “Arlecchino” cinema and suggested that he make a western out of it. Leone was one of the first pioneers of what became the genre preferred by the general public, the western, even giving birth to an important sub-genre of Italian matrix, known as spaghetti-western, whose stylistic model will be Leone”s first western, For a Fistful of Dollars of 1964, one of the most famous films of the genre, which largely follows the plot of The Challenge of the Samurai (in Japanese Yojimbo), a film by Akira Kurosawa of 1961, as admitted by Leone himself.
The need to devote himself to the new genre arose from the cinematic crisis of the early sixties and Leone”s search for narrative forms inspired by the German genre cinema in vogue in those years. Not being a lover of the original American genre, he decided to work on the game of masks, inspired by the works of Carlo Goldoni.
Working on this film, Sergio Leone launched into the firmament of stars Clint Eastwood, who until then had remained a modest American television actor with few roles to his credit. To direct, Leone signed himself Bob Robertson, an anglophonization of the stage name used by his father Vincenzo, Roberto Roberti, and with the intention of proclaiming himself Roberti”s son. Since it had to be passed off as an American western, the names in the titles had to sound American: thus Gian Maria Volontè was called John Wells and Ennio Morricone signed himself Dan Savio. The final version of the film was heavily conditioned by low budget problems and in part by the numerous Spanish locations; it presents a violent and morally complex vision of the American Far West that seems on the one hand to pay tribute to classic westerns, while on the other hand it is detached from them in tone.
The following two films, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), complete what is known as the “dollar trilogy”. Each of these films was able to benefit from an ever-increasing budget and better technical means than the previous one, and the director”s skills were also able to produce gradually superior results at the box office, given the success of the public. Just think that when influential emissaries from United Artists came to Rome to ascertain the success of Leone”s films, they saw that at the premiere of the film “For a Few Dollars More” there was a real assault on the box office! Shortly after dinner, the Americans asked Sergio Leone “Next movie?”, i.e. what the next movie was. Leone, disconcerted, looked for help to Luciano Vincenzoni, co-writer of “For a Few Dollars More”, who, without hesitation, recounted the plot of the film “The Great War”, for which he had been the screenwriter, in a western key. This was enough to excite the Americans, who put up an advance of about a billion liras to start Sergio Leone”s third western, which was initially titled “Due magnifici straccioni” (Two magnificent beggars). Then the third protagonist, the ugly Eli Wallach, was brought on board… All three films made use of the remarkable soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (who, precisely with “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo”, began composing the music before the film based on the script, and not afterwards, on the edited film), a composer made famous thanks to these works, who will accompany Leone in the making of the next three films until “Once Upon a Time in America” in 1984.
Based on these successes, in 1968 Leone directed what was intended to be his last western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Shot in the Monument Valley, Italy and Spain, the film was a long, violent and almost “dreamlike” meditation on the mythology of the West. Two other great directors, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, also collaborated on the subject; the latter, at the time, was still almost completely unknown. The screenplay was instead written by Sergio Donati, together with Leone.
Before its theatrical release, however, the film was retouched and edited by studio executives leading to a shortened version, lasting approximately 165 minutes. The original film, with the director”s cut lasting a total of about 175 minutes, was rediscovered and re-evaluated only years later. The film, along with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America, is considered among the director”s best, and is one of the cornerstones of the western genre.
The Seventies: Films in the USA
In 1970, he was approached by Paramount to direct the film The Godfather, but Leone declined the offer.
He then directed Giù la testa in 1971, a project put together in a short time with a medium budget, starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger. Initially, the film was to have Leone (who had already been thinking about his “Once Upon a Time in America”, the film”s initial title, for four years) as executive producer and Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah and Giarcarlo Santi, who had been Leone”s assistant director on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”, were considered as directors. But in the end Leone directed the project, in what is the film where he manifests most of his reflections on humanity and politics. According to some it would be an uncomfortable, bombastic film, given the political message before the opening credits taken from Mao Tse-tung”s thoughts and also the US title: A Fistful of Dynamite (as well as “Duck You Sucker!”), or “a fistful of dynamite”.
The reflection of this can be found in a collective film of counter-information of the same year 1971: “December 12 or document on Pinelli”, in which there is also the signature of Sergio Leone.
In the meantime, Leone did not remain completely inactive: together with his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella, he founded the production company “RAFRAN Cinematografica” (an acronym of the names of his three children: RAfaella, FRancesca, ANdrea), and began the production of two “picaresque” westerns: the first, directed by Tonino Valerii “Il mio nome è Nessuno” (My Name is Nobody) with Terence Hill and Henry Fonda (where Leone directed – by his own admission – two sequences of the film, but was credited only as executive producer and scriptwriter). Then, under the direction of Damiano Damiani, the film Un genio, due compari, un pollo (A genius, two mates, a chicken), shooting (after the director left the set) the initial scenes (other sequences were shot by Giuliano Montaldo) and becoming, together with Claudio Mancini, the executive producer. Also during the making of this film, Sergio Leone”s name was not credited in the opening credits.
He was contacted by director Stanley Kubrick, who at that time was shooting Barry Lyndon, who wanted to know how Leone had managed to harmonize music and images in the sequences of “Once Upon a Time in the West”, in order to replicate the same technique for his film.
Later, with his production company Rafran, he also produced Il gatto (1977) by Luigi Comencini and Il giocattolo (1979) by Giuliano Montaldo.
The eighties: the return to Italy
At the beginning of the 1980s, Leone had Medusa produce two films by Carlo Verdone: Un sacco bello (1980) and Bianco, rosso e Verdone (1981). In fact, the director was a close friend of Carlo”s father, Mario Verdone, a well-known film critic, and like a father, Leone helped Carlo in the making of his first two films, advising him in his choices as a director.
In 1986 he found himself working again with his friend Carlo Verdone, this time in the making of the film Troppo forte with Verdone himself, Mario Brega and Alberto Sordi in the leads. Leone wrote the subject and the screenplay together with Verdone and Rodolfo Sonego.
From the second half of the sixties until the eighties, Sergio Leone worked for about fifteen years on his own epic project, this time centered on the friendship between two Jewish gangsters in New York: Once Upon a Time in America (1984), an idea born even before Once Upon a Time in the West. The film was a great success with audiences and critics all over the world, except in the USA where the production proposed a version reduced in length (140 minutes instead of 220) and upset in the temporal structure. The re-editing of the work, made in chronological order, changing the original setting of flashbacks and flashforwards, therefore caused a flop in the U.S. market, even if the original version, proposed in Europe and the one proposed years later both in VHS and DVD, had great appreciation.
In 2011, Sergio Leone”s sons bought the rights to the film for Italy and announced a restoration of the film. The operation also included the addition of 25 minutes of deleted scenes, present in the first cut made by the director, and the restoration of the original dubbing. The film, restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, was screened on May 18, 2012 at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, with the presence of Robert De Niro, James Woods, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern and Ennio Morricone. The restored version of the film was shown in theaters from October 18 to 21, 2012 and from November 8 to 11, 2012. It was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 4, 2012.
The last projects and death
At the beginning of 1989 he founded the Leone Film Group, a film production company. When he died, he was working on a project that would have dealt with the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. The film should have told, in addition to the most dramatic pages of the war in Russia, a love story between an American journalist and a Russian girl, in an ideal message of peace between the two superpowers. Gorbačëv”s USSR, in the midst of perestroika, had already granted the director”s production company an authorization in principle for filming on Soviet soil, but Leone”s death made everything fade away. In 2001, director Jean-Jacques Annaud drew inspiration from this subject for The Enemy at the Gates, but transferred the action to the Siege of Stalingrad.
Sergio Leone was also the director of seven commercials, as in the case of the first, the award-winning “Il diesel si scatena”, filmed in 1981, commissioned by Publicis, to advertise the Renault 18. In 2004, his son made public a long unpublished treatment, almost a pre-script, of about fifty pages, entitled Un posto che solo Mary conosce (A place that only Mary knows), then published as a world exclusive by the Italian monthly cinema magazine Ciak. This last project – written together with Luca Morsella (his assistant-director in C”era una volta in America) and Fabio Toncelli (author of documentaries) – is the only one of which a complete and exhaustive draft of the plot and characters remains. It was a project for a new western film conceived for two great American actors (at the time, there was talk of rising stars Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke). The events of the protagonists take place against the backdrop of a great historical fresco, the American Civil War, according to the purest lines and themes of “Leonian” cinema; the title recalls a line from the Spoon River Anthology (“a secret none but Mary knows”) taken from Francis Turner”s epitaph.
Sergio Leone died on April 30, 1989, at the age of 60, of a cardiovascular arrest.
The director”s body is buried in the small cemetery of the village of Pratica di Mare.
The style and technique of the western
Leone brought great innovation to the western genre (and beyond) and his style is still influential today. In traditional American westerns, both the heroes and the villains tend to have idealized and stereotyped character traits. On the contrary, Leone”s characters have elements of marked realism and truth: they are rarely bearded and appear dirty and sometimes rough. They are generally presented as anti-heroes, characters with complex personalities, cunning and often unscrupulous. These elements of stark realism live on in some of today”s westerns.
“From Once Upon a Time in the West onward, Leone”s American Dream invents one of the most exciting adventures of intellectual emigration of a European to the United States in the last fifty years. The gaze widens and the director, while maintaining the analytical ability to break down the action and stop time, conquers the sense of the Fordian gaze, the pleasure of letting the eye ride within known geographical coordinates” (G. Brunetta).
Sergio Leone was married to Carla Ranalli for 29 years, until the director”s death. She also worked in the artistic field: she was prima ballerina at the Teatro dell”Opera in Rome and, later, worked as a choreographer in the film “Il colosso di Rodi” directed by her husband (while the choreography of the film “C”era una volta in America” is by Gino Landi). Three children were born from their union: Francesca, Raffaella and Andrea, the latter two being the owners and directors of the Leone Film Group production company.
Quentin Tarantino has called him the first post-modern filmmaker, who has influenced countless directors.
Stanley Kubrick declared that he could not have made A Clockwork Orange if he had not seen The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.
Because of its importance in the development of cinema, not only as regards the western, in 1992 Clint Eastwood, director and interpreter of The Merciless, included in the credits the dedication “To Sergio”. Quentin Tarantino did the same eleven years later, in 2003, in the credits of Kill Bill: Volume 2. A great lover of Italian cinema and of Leone, according to an anecdote told by the director himself on the set of Le iene in 1992, at the beginning of his career, not yet knowing all the technical cinematographic terms, he used to ask his cameramen “give me a Leone”, or rather “give me a Leone”, in order to have one of those evocative close-ups of details, a trademark of the Roman director.
Stephen King, in the introduction to the 2003 edition of The Black Tower, a series of fantasy novels (a blend of fantasy, science fiction, horror and westerns), lists The Lord of the Rings and The Good, the Bad, the Ugly among the sources. King writes: “In 1970, in an almost deserted movie theater, I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone. It was called “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” and before I was even halfway through I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien”s sense of quest and magic, but had Leone”s almost absurdly majestic West as its setting. “”The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” is an epic film that rivals ”Ben Hur””.
In 2013, the Italian rap group Colle Der Fomento dedicated a song to him with the title Sergio Leone.
In 1969, during a business trip to the USA, Sergio Leone and screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni received an invitation for an after-dinner drink from an American writer friend of Vincenzoni at the home of Sharon Tate (at that time wife of Roman Polański). Due to a second invitation to Vincenzoni by a producer to spend the weekend at his house, the director was left alone. The day after the evening, Vincenzoni learned on television about the massacre that took place in the home of Sharon Tate in which they had all been murdered by Charles Manson”s gang and thought that Leone had died with the others. Only later did he learn that at the last minute Sergio had turned down the invitation because, speaking English poorly, he had not gone to the party.
He closely followed Carlo Verdone in the making of the films Un sacco bello and Bianco, rosso e Verdone, for which he bought the rights and then sold them to Medusa Distribuzione.