SFIFF52: Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West'

Dennis Harvey April 30, 2009

In a sense, nobody has ever made movies larger than Sergio Leone. Not large in expense, epic scale, or god knows in cosmic import. But rather large in the sense of, well, tangible largeness —no one has ever quite equaled his ability to maximize the unforgiving vastness of wide open spaces and the intransigent solitude of humans hellbent on enforcing their will within that inhumane desolation. Could he have made his mark in any genre but the Western, with its innate need for harsh wilderness and stark good-vs.-evil conflicts? Perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine how. Leone’s sensibility fit the Western so completely that in the end he was almost incapable of working his way out of it.

This Sunday afternoon the SF International Film Festival presents a meticulously restored new print of Once Upon a Time in the West, there’s little risk in promising that it will be spectacular. This 1968 Italian-U.S. coproduction was Leone’s magnum opus, granted all the length, extravagance and star power he could desire. Was this fulfillment (not to mention the sheer exhaustion of marshaling such sprawling resources) so overwhelming that it made future effort near-impossible?

That left a hugely influential stylist with exactly seven features to his credit as director—after over four decades in the industry—when he died (of a heart attack) in 1989, at age 60. How could this have happened? Unlike say, Bresson, Dreyer or Orson Welles, it wasn’t that his movies were considered "uncommercial" and thus difficult to finance. Instead, perversely, fame and success were themselves at fault: The more in demand Leone became, the more his overweening perfectionism, insecurities and ambitions dogged his realizing each project.

It took a long time for those traits to develop a stranglehold, since Leone (himself the son of a silent-era director) was schooled in the world of post-WW2 Italian moviemaking, where speed and corner-cutting were the rule. He worked as an assistant director from the late 40s, eventually handling second unit work on visiting Hollywood mega-productions like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur. He started writing screenplays for Italy’s own cheesier version of that costume-epic trend, the "sword-and-sandal" adventures featuring bodybuilders as Hercules or other spear-throwing, temple-destroying superheroes. When a director fell ill on the set of one such 1959 exercise, he took over the folded chair without credit; two years later he made his official debut in that role with The Colossus of Rhodes.

But those muscleman movies were already fading from box-office favor as the local film industry struggled to find a genre to replace it. As a result, Leone wound up in 1964 making a low-budget action film of a different type with a minor American TV star in the lead (partly because favorite Hercules actor Steve Reeves turned it down, along with James Coburn and several others). That was A Fistful of Dollars, the lanky star was Clint Eastwood, and the result was a slow-burning phenomenon. This wasn’t the first so-called "spaghetti western," but it was the first to attract any real international attention. Over the next decade virtually hundreds of imitations would be made in Italy, Spain and elsewhere.

In the U.S., where they began, Westerns had been slowly walking into the sunset of box office relevance. Fistful (inspired by Kurosawa’s Samurai classic Yojimbo, no less) excited new interest, however, with its ramped-up violence, stark aesthetic, minimal dialogue and characterization, air of existential fatalism; in this arid, claustrophobic universe of greed and vengeance there were no real heroes, just bad men and worse ones. Ennio Morricone’s haunting music proved just as widely imitated as Leone’s striking style of extreme closeups, extreme longshots, and tense stillnesses followed by abrupt bloodshed. They and Eastwood gave hungry audiences more of the same each succeeding year with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

By Once Upon a Time in the West, nobody was turning down Leone movies—except Eastwood himself, now a huge star and busy back in Hollywood where he came from. So Leone got Charles Bronson (then a much bigger star in Europe than at home) to play the laconic "stranger" Harmonica, who with Jason Robards’ Cheyenne pursues the killers of ripe beauty Claudia Cardinale’s family in the Utah frontier. Their murderous quarry is led by Frank, an assassin and robber so coldblooded he shoots a young boy point-blank just because he can. That this monster was played by Henry Fonda—Hollywood’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Tom Joad, and general representative of all things morally upstanding—really lent a kick to the epic nastiness of a screenplay whose contributors included Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, soon to be famous directors themselves.

is grand, cynical, lavish and above all huge, Leone’s penchant for the iconically gargantuan (perhaps at the willing expense of relatable human detail) expressed in ultimate form. It’s endlessly eye-filling; the widescreen Techniscope images choreographed to another unforgettable Morricone score surrendering no end of striking shots and setpieces.

A great success everywhere else, West was a disappointment in America, where Paramount cut 20 minutes from its nearly three-hour runtime. Still, Leone remained a hot property. Indecision plagued him, however. He directed 1971’s misconceived comic "political" western Duck, You Sucker only after others (including young Peter Bogdanovich) refused, realizing he wanted a puppet who would do the on-set heavy lifting while leaving all actual creative decisions to him. He co-wrote and produced some other films, a couple times directing sequences without credit. But time marched on and on as plans for his "comeback" collapsed, one announced project after another.

Finally in 1984 there was what was supposed to be his real masterpiece, tellingly called Once Upon a Time in America. Yet that Godfather II ish trans-Atlantic mafia epic with Robert DeNiro and James Woods found a very mixed reception both in its original four-hour version and the drastically shortened (by 90 minutes!) one released to U.S. theatres. Was it mishandled? Probably. Misunderstood? So many now say. Was it violent, cruel, flashy, ambitious, full of characteristic blood and hate-sex? Of course. (There are no "tender love scenes" in the Leone oeuvre.) But it was still no Once Upon a Time in the West—a canvas stretched so tall and wide that perhaps even its director knew his art could only shrink after such a perfect exercise in one-dimensional expansiveness.

This restoration was made possible with support by The Film Foundation and the Rome Film Festival in association with Sergio Leone Productions and Paramount Pictures. Presented by The Film Foundation and American Express. Presented with support from the Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco. Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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