Sergio Leone held the title of my favorite director for quite some time, until the man who inspired most of his work and then a Russian man (whom you may have heard of) took the top spot in succession. Not only that, but I still hold two pieces of the man’s work within my top 5 favorite films of all time to this very day, and it was three, for a long, long period of time beforehand.
Sufficed to say the guy has played a huge part in shaping my cinematic journey, for better or- no. For BETTER- So here is my tribute to him. I realize he has done other films outside of these, but his Italian works, whilst oft interesting- aren’t truly worth listing among his best, and I am not counting primarily co-directed pieces here either.
So now then, shall we dance?
A Fistful Of Dollars – 1964
Not technically his first film, but his first work really worth watching, Fistful lies among the most iconic Westerns ever made, and it’s not hard to see why.
Stripping the town social stage to its barest bones, and in doing so lifting (the most polite term I could use here for blatant plagiarism) Kurosawa’s story from Yojimbo and setting it in the American Old West. Whilst the eastern picture is vastly superior, one cannot deny the artistic flair, comic validity and essential style of Leone’s first hit. Fistful is no masterpiece, no meditation on morality or man- merely another pulpy Western from the 60s. No- wait I got that wrong. The pulpy Western of the 60s.
Beginning one of the most equally integral trilogies in filmic lore (all across the board), and one that would only continue to grow over the next few years- A Fistful Of Dollars changed everything we knew and love about the western- and for that- at least- it deserves to be remembered.
“Get three coffins ready”
Eastwood slinks away.
Mule insulted. Guns drawn. Men die.
Eastwood slinks back.
“My mistake. Four coffins.”
For a Few Dollars More – 1965
Imagine a Fistful Of Dollars, but with better character introductions and Lee Van Cleef.
Few More follows the two Western stars’ hunt for a notorious bandit, and does so in immediately spectacular form. Not having the strength of superb *ahem* ‘source material’ to base it off this time, Leone did remarkably well, plastering this film between one that relied more on its sprawling story-line and one based on a Japanese action masterclass with relatively strong narrative focus.
Of course, the focus itself is still on the shooting, the trademark detached violence and stylistic integrity, but Leone’s second Western project, taking into consideration its foundations in Yojimbo, improved upon Fistful and introduced a man who would once again become a western icon- The man in black- Angel Eyes- Colonel Mortimer. Whatever you want to call him, it’s his playful, morbidly flirtatious fencing with Eastwood that truly makes the flick.
Favorite Moment: Another badass Eastwood line; in fact Im pretty sure “Now we start” ranks among my favorite lines in movies, in general. The climax, of course, working as a enticing entre for what would come to cap off the trilogy…
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly – 1966
What really is there to be said? A film that will, thankfully, last forever not only as a vast- gorgeous, well characterized adventure film- but as the very epitome of cool.
I really couldn’t decide whether this was an A+ or an A. I simply couldn’t. Next time I watch it- perhaps it will creep even higher. One thing’s for sure- the final- brilliant standoff sequence is inarguably worth the highest ranking I can give. Oh and don’t get me wrong- despite the ranking- I adore this film.
Favorite Moment: I love Angel Eyes’ introduction- but my favorite moment outside of the aforementioned battle to become ultimo hombre occurs in the fight in the town. Cannons are going off, Blondie and Tuco vs 5 baddies. Tuco is left alone, and, just as he is about to be downed when the shooter is killed- Blondie resting lackadaisically on the broken skeleton of a house, the man responsible, grins at Tuco. Tuco smiles. The music cues. The third and final act of this 3 hour journey kicks into motion and we are more than fucking ready.
Once Upon a Time in the West – 1968
Best Western ever made...?
Another film who’se reputation really does proceed itself; OUATITW (as well as being quite a mouthful) follows four people and their struggle to survive the last days of the old west. Fonda trapped by the times as an old, deadly gunslinger, Robards as the haggard but lovable bandit, Cardinale as the finest woman in western canon (a triumph considering how Leone was originally going to introduce her in the film) and finally Bronson. Charles Bronson. Not an actor, more a guy who would stand where a director put him and look badass- the man does exactly that by (by my estimate) exceeding Eastwood as the steely but simultaneously charming Harmonica.
Speaking of the Harmonica- was there ever any better music in a movie like- ever? Ever? Arguably Morricone’s best score- and arguably Leone’s best work- which, in both cases, is saying a lot.
The first of two Leone films that have held a place in my top 10 ever since I first saw them, this film in fact held the top spot for quite some time- though the current illustrious achiever of that accolade remains a mystery… ;)
Favourite Moment: I have a few. Here they are.
“Hehehe. Looks like were- Looks like were shy one horse”
“No. You brought two too many.”
That music cue.
I can’t even.
That fucking cue as Fonda’s men stalk out of the brush following the McBain massacre. The chills, man.
Henry Fonda, as you never have seen him before and never will see him the same again, sitting unrecognisable in a chair in his second scene. Seriously- I barley recognise the man.
Fonda riding down the road for the final showdown. That shot kills me every time- Sweeps me right away.
The final- utterly impaling cue as the camera rises above that arch- revealing to us something we could never have expected- and yet made so much sense.
Duck, you Sucker! – 1971
Suffering greatly (in that it has disappeared from general consciousness) by being sandwiched between the man’s best works, Leone’s 70s fair is a very different film from the last 3 (and certainly proceeding one) he made.
Following an Irishman and a Mexican’s odyssey through a revolution (a cause embodied in a superb opening quote) this Zapa Western reeks of charm and echoes Fistful more than any other piece the man made, though holding a more comedic air than his other works.
As well as flexing his comedy muscles, the brilliant contrast of the many hundreds of explosions that fight an orchestral battle in the background create a superb canvas for Leone to paint yet more masterful compositions on.
Its gratuitous, it’s not as smart (on the surface), nor as tight as his other films- and it only just slides in above Fistful and Few More, But Duck, You Sucker! Is a rare breed of Western that really is to be cherished, something that embraces its campy, shallow mould it was cast in whilst weaving in remnants of something magical that defined Leone’s Dollar’s trilogy- as well as some real emotion from its actors.
Perhaps I just want it to have a little more attention, and that’s why it scored as it did, but regardless, it remains another essential part of a vital- vital filmography.
Favorite Moment: Im torn between the opening carriage ride, and it’s hilarious, marvellously vengeful twist- and the lighting of the last firecracker. Both are great.
Once Upon a Time in America – 1984
You remember when I said there was two Leone films that have rested in my top 5 favourites for quite some time now- and that OUATITW was perhaps his best film, and perhaps Morricone’s best score? Say hello to the best film he ever made, and my choice for the best film Morricone ever scored.
A story that, despite spanning four hours and surprisingly even more decades, is something that truly has to be seen to be believed. Following De Niro’s Noodles’ stint through the prohibition, as well as the memories and regrets of his past and future (?) respectively, this is a film that can make me cry- whenever. No matter how simple, or silly, the moment may seem, it simply does.
A film I can watch on repeat, as many times a day as I deem possible, which, considering it lasts over 240 minutes, says all I need to say about how fucking legendary it is. The real question is not: was it all a dream? The real question is: Why aren’t you watching it right now?
Favourite Moment: Again- here are just a few.
Old Noodles talking to Fat Moe just outside the bar, unable to do it face to face.
“I’ve been going to bed early.” Poor bastard.
The scene on the stairs with the cupcake. You may not think it, but if you’re looking for what really personifies the real theme of the film- it’s this.
Morricone’s haunting cue sealing poor little Dominic’s fate, as well as the death of the boy’s innocence.
As unbearable as it is (particularly with the effective silence of the score), how brutally real and [in a very sad, unbearable way] necessary the rape scene was. Noodle’s whole life was characterised by greed and power, he was the only one to resist. Leone masterfully builds up his problems with girls throughout the film, and the resultant scene is one of the hardest things to sit through I have perhaps ever seen- but an utterly vital part of the man’s arc, particularly considering we know him after it happens, before it does.
That smile. God. What a way to end it.
6. A Fistful of Dollars
5. Duck, you Sucker!
4. For a Few Dollars More
3. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
2. Once Upon a Time in the West
1. Once Upon a Time in America