From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Leone is well-known for his Spaghetti Western films, and his recognizable style of juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with extreme long shots, as in the opening scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Born in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti) and the actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran). He started working in the film industry at the age of 18.
Leone is well-known for his spaghetti western films and his style of juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots and original music soundtracks. His most well-known movies include The Man with No Name trilogy (a.k.a. the Dollars Trilogy) (which consists of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America.
Leone began writing screenplays in the 1950s, primarily for the so-called "sword and sandal" (a.k.a. "peplum") historical epics, which were popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale and high-profile runaway productions filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).
When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompeii), starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when the time came to make his solo directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi, 1961), Leone was well-equipped to produce low-budget films which looked and felt like Hollywood spectaculars.
In the early 1960s, demand for historical epics collapsed, and Leone was fortunate enough to be at the forefront of the genre that replaced it in the public's affections: the Western. His film A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari, 1964) was an early trend-setter in a genre that came to be known as the "spaghetti western". Based upon Akira Kurosawa's Edo-era samurai adventure Yojimbo (1961), Leone's film elicited a legal challenge from the Japanese director. A Fistful of Dollars is also notable for its establishment of Clint Eastwood as a star, who until that time had been an American television actor with few roles to his name.
The look of A Fistful of Dollars was established partly by its budget and Spanish locations, which presented a gritty, violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. The film paid tribute to traditional American western movies, but significantly departed from them in storyline, plot, characterization and mood. Leone deservedly gets credit for one, great breakthrough in the western genre that is still followed today: in traditional western films, heroes and villains alike looked as if they had just stepped out of a fashion magazine, and the moral opposites were clearly drawn, even down to the hero wearing a white hat and the villain wearing a black hat. Leone's characters were, in contrast, more "realistic" and complex: usually "lone wolves" in their behaviour; they rarely shaved, looked dirty and there was a strong suggestion of body odour and a history of criminal behaviour. The characters were also morally ambiguous by appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation demanded. This sense of realism continues to affect western movies today, and has also been influential outside of the western genre. Many critics have called it ironic that an Italian director who could not speak English, and had never even seen the American Old West, almost single-handedly redefined the typical vision of the American cowboy. According to Christopher Frayling's book Something to do with Death, Leone knew a great deal about the American Old West. It fascinated him as a child, which carried into his adulthood and his films.
Leone's next two films — For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) — completed what has come to be known as the The Man with No Name trilogy (a.k.a. the Dollars Trilogy), with each film being more financially successful and more technically proficient than its predecessor. All three films featured innovative music scores by the prolific composer Ennio Morricone who worked closely with Leone in coming up with the themes. After they met to plan the soundtrack, they realized that both of them had gone to school together and were classmates at one time. Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone's music ongoing. Critics have often said that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the finest of the trilogy.Template:Fact
Based on the success of The Man with No Name trilogy, Leone was invited to the United States in 1967 to direct what he hoped would be his masterwork, Once Upon a Time in the West (C'Era una Volta il West) for Paramount Pictures. The film was shot mostly in Almería, Spain and Cinecitta in Rome. It was also briefly shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The film starred Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. Once Upon a Time in the West emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American Old West. The film was scripted by Leone's longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati. The story was written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, Once Upon a Time in the West was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its poor box-office results in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe and highly praised amongst North American film students. It has come to be regarded by many as Leone's best film.
After Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone directed A Fistful of Dynamite, a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker (Giù la Testa, 1971). Leone was originally just going to produce the film, but due to artistic differences from then-director Peter Bogdanovich, Leone was asked to direct the film instead. A Fistful of Dynamite is a Mexican Revolution action drama, starring James Coburn, as an Irish revolutionary, and Rod Steiger, as a Mexican bandit who is conned into becoming a revolutionary.
Leone continued to produce, and on occasion, step in to reshoot scenes in other films. One of these films was My Name is Nobody (1973) by Tonino Valerii (though true participation of Leone in shooting is disputedTemplate:Fact), a comedy western film that poked fun at the spaghetti western genre. It starred Henry Fonda as an old gunslinger who watched "his" old West fade away before his very eyes as he played his guitar. Terence Hill also starred in the film as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying West with style.
Leone's other productions included A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (1975, another western comedy starring Terence Hill); The Cat (Il gatto; 1977, starring Alberto Sordi and The Toy (Il giocattolo; 1979, starring Nino Manfredi). Leone also produced three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone, which were Fun Is Beautiful (Un Sacco Bello, 1980), Bianco, Rosso e Verdone (White, Red and Verdone - Verdone means "strong green", a pun referring to the three colours of the Italian flag, the star and to director Verdone, 1981) and Troppo Forte (Great!, 1986). During this period, Leone also directed various award-winning TV commercials for European television.
Leone turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather, in favor of working on another gangster story he had conceived before the offer of The Godfather. He devoted ten years on this project, based on the novel The Hoods by former mobster Harry Grey, which focused on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. The finished film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), starred Robert De Niro and James Woods. It was a meditation on another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy coexistence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship. Feeling the final product was too long, the studio cut its four-hour running time drastically for the American market, losing much of the sense of the complex narrative. Lasting over just two hours, the recut version that was shown in North America flopped and received much criticism. The original version, projected in the rest of the world, received a warm box office reception and great appreciation by the public and critics.
When the integral version of the film was released on DVD in the USA, it finally gained major critical acclaim, with many critics hailing the film as a masterpiece.
Later Years and death
Leone died on April 30, 1989 of a heart attack. He was 60 years old. Leone was infamous for his compulsive eating, which led him to become obese. Before his death in 1989, Leone was part way through planning yet another film - this time on the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.
In his later years, Leone had a falling out of sorts with Clint Eastwood, his most famous actor. When Leone directed Once Upon a Time in America, he commented that Robert De Niro was a real actor, unlike Eastwood. However, the two made amends and reconciled before Leone's death. In 1992, Eastwood directed Unforgiven, a revisionist western drama for which he won an Oscar for best director, as well as Best Picture. Leone was one of the two directors whom Eastwood dedicated his award to, the other one was Don Siegel.
Critical opinion of Leone's film contributions to cinema was initially mixed, partly because the spaghetti western was initially considered a low-prestige genre and Italian filmmakers were not taken seriously by American audiences. However, today Leone is widely acclaimed as a master filmmaker, receiving a 100% average filmography rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Among the many filmmakers who have claimed reference or inspiration by Leone's films include: Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Gore Verbinski and Stanley Kubrick (for his film Barry Lyndon). The cultural impact of Leone's films, particularly his early westerns, is also immense. The showdown sequences, the anti-hero, and Morricone's musical scores have become icons of cinema and pop culture.
A Place Only Mary Knows
The script was written by Leone, Luca Morsella, and Fabio Toncelli. Set at the height of the American Civil War, the treatment for Leone's idea of an "Americanized" western concerned a Union soldier and a Southern con man/drifter searching for buried treasure while avoiding the battles between the Confederate States of America and the North. It was to star Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke as the two main leads.
Although the written draft never got into pre-production, Leone's son Andrea had it published in 2004.
Leningrad: The 900 Days
While finishing filming on Once Upon A Time In America in 1982, Leone was impressed with the Harrison Salisbury novel The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, and he planned on adapting the book as a war epic. Although no formal script had been completed or leaked, Leone came up with the opening scene and basic plot. According to the documentary Once Upon A Time, Sergio Leone, the film opened in medias rea as the camera goes from focusing on a Russian hiding from the Nazis' artillery fire to panning hundreds of feet away to show the German Panzer divisions approaching the walls of the city. The plot was to focus on an American cameraman on assignment (whom Leone wanted to be played by Robert De Niro) becoming trapped in Russia as the German Wermacht begin to bombard the city. Throughout the course of the film, he becomes romantically involved with a Russian woman, whom he later impregnates, as they attempt to survive the prolonged siege and the secret police, because relationships with foreigners are forbidden. According to Leone, "In the end, the cameraman dies on the day of the liberation of the city, when he is currently filming the surrender of the Germans. And the girl is aware of his death by chance seeing a movie news: the camera sees it explode under a shell .... " The narrative of the film was to be framed in scenes set in the late 1960s, not unlike Once Upon A Time In America, where the woman and her daughter discover his fate.
By 1989, Leone had been able to acquire $30 million in financing from independent backers, and the film was to be a joint production with a Soviet film company. He had convinced Ennio Morricone to compose the film score, and Tonino Delli Colli was tapped to be the cinematographer. Shooting was scheduled to begin sometime in 1990. However, the project was cancelled, because Leone (as stated above) died of a heart attack two days before he was to officially sign on for the film.
In early 2003, acclaimed Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore sparked interest in announcing he would direct a film called Leningrad, and he expressed interest in casting Nicole Kidman in the role of the female love interest. The film was in production by 2008, but whether or not it is related to the Leone project has yet to be revealed.
Other Planned Films
Leone was also an avid fan of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind and the 1939 film adaptation. His relatives and close friends stated that he always talked about filming a remake of the film that was closer to the original novel, but it never advanced beyond discussions to any serious form of production.
Leone also started writing a screenplay based on Lee Falk's The Phantom, and scouted locations for the project. Despite this, he never got to make a movie based on the comic book hero. He declared he would have liked to follow his Phantom project with a movie based on another Falk-created character, Mandrake the Magician.