Once Upon A Time In Italy (did you see what I did there?) there were two little boys. Their names were Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone and they were classmates who decided that when the war was over, they would go and work in the movies.
It turned out to be a good choice since, in the post-war poverty of Europe (winners and losers alike) all Italy had going for it was STYLE – in cars, fashion, music and low-budget movies. These areas, Italy ruled.
And so it was that Ennio (the son of a trumpeter) became Italy’s leading film score composer, while Sergio (the son of a film director) became its leading film director.
It took a while – both had to learn their craft. However, by the end of the Fifties, both were on their way.
Sergio had worked on a number of “sword and sandal” epics, and was assistant director on “The Last Days Of Pompeii” (’59) when its director came down with a liver complaint on Day One of shooting and Sergio was let loose with the megaphone.
With this on his CV, Sergio was finally in business. Initially, he directed another S&S movie, but with oiled, waxed, muscle-mary pictures on the way out, he began to look around.
It was then that he saw the film that changed his life – “The Magnificent Seven” (’60). It featured Charlie Bronson, James Coburn and Eli Wallach (about all of whom, more later) and a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein.
Sergio learned it was essentially Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (’54) remade as a Western – so he had a look at the Japanese director’s other work. The latest was “Yojimbo” (’61) and Sergio decided it would do.
He called his version “A Fistful Of Dollars” (’64).
At this point, Sergio evolved the techniques that he would use throughout his career…
While shooting his interiors in Cinecità, in Rome, he shot the exteriors in Spain, in the desert.
The scorched, pale yellow sand reflected the sun, allowing him to stop his camera down to get enormous depth of focus, which meant it could sit behind one gunfighter as he squared off against another, several hundred feet away – with both staying in focus.
The heat also made the actors sweaty and grimy, thus establishing a “realistic” feel – a mile away from the clean-cut, white-hatted heros of traditional westerns, sitting stiffly on horseback, occasionally bursting into song.
Plus, now scope was in the public domain and colour film stock had become more affordable, he used these media to give his low-budget movies epic proportions.
And he teamed up with his former classmate, Ennio Morricone, to use music as an integral part of his movies.
In those days, in Italy, it was usual to make movies without live sound, which meant his lead American actors could deliver their lines in English, while the Italian featured players delivered theirs in Italian.
Then in post, the Italian actors would be dubbed by Americans for the American print and vice-versa – while Spanish, French and German versions would be completely dubbed in those languages.
This gave Sergio the freedom to record much of Ennio’s score before he even started shooting, having gone through his scenes with the composer and actually play the music on set while he was shooting the scenes, in order to give his actors a “feel” for what they were doing.
A perfect example of this is the powerful scene in “For A Few Dollars More” (’65) – where Gian Maria Volonté has a “duel” with the man who caused his character to be incarcerated for a number of years. This is more of an execution, since the poor wretch has no skills with a gun.
Killing the man’s wife and child to drive him into the state of mind where he will draw on him, he starts a musical watch which, when it runs down, will signal both men to draw and fire.
The scene takes place in a derelict, roofless church, so Ennio recorded a herculean piece on a massive church organ.
This he dubbed onto the rest of the cue, which starts with a musical representation of the watch. Next, over single bass-drum signatures, comes an acoustic Spanish guitar. It has to ratchet up the tension, so Ennio drove the guitarist to overplay the instrument to the point where its strings hit its neck. Then in powers the organ, which is followed by a rising climax…
…look, why not watch the scene? I linked a soundbite from the guitarist to the clip, detaching the score (in stereo) for YouTube (20,000 hits, forty likes and no dislikes – thus far). Just crank up your volume and click…
…but remember to come back here, afterwards, alright?
Okay, you get it now? Imagine the scene without the music…
But let us return to “A Fistful Of Dollars”. Sergio initially tried to get the afore-mentioned Charlie Bronson and James Coburn – and Henry Fonda – to play the lead, but at this point in time, Italian movies were still viewed in Hollywood as decidedly second-rate.
They would all change their minds later.
And so Sergio finally settled for Clint Eastwood, who had achieved TV fame, playing “Rowdy Yates” in “Rawhide”. After trying and failing to get into Hollywood movies in the Fifties, Clint was prepared to put up with the hardships of European film-making, if it meant a starring role.
And hardships abounded: Clint’s trademark snarly expression was created by filming under the noon-day sun in the deserts of Spain – in which he could barely see – and he could hardly wear shades, the films being set in the late C19th. Plus a rock from the exploding bridge sequence in “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” nearly killed him.
And the same film nearly killed Eli Wallach several times.
But despite all this, “A Fistful Of Dollars” was completed – and blew European cinemagoer’s minds. But before it could get any further – it blew Akira Kurosawa’s mind, as Sergio had omitted to pay him anything for “lifting” his film.
An immediate court case ensued, which effectively blocked the film’s distribution in Britain and America. In Europe, Clint was a star – but in Britain and America, he was just that guy from “Rawhide”.
However, on the strength of the success of the movie, Sergio was able to get finance for its “sequel” – but not from the film’s producers, who saw Sergio’s style as too lavish, with him shooting way more material than ever ended up in his films (and even those got cut for time in America – about which, more later).
No, at this point, Alberto Grimaldi enters the story. He was prepared to give Sergio carte blanche – and thus, in ’65, “For A Few Dollars More” burst upon the scene.
But now, the producers of “A Fistful Of Dollars” sued, claiming the small print gave them the rights to any sequel to that film. Sergio argued that the title of the new film was just designed to cash in on the success of the first one and whilst it had the same stars (plus Lee Van Cleef) costume, style, crew, composer and director – it was otherwise unconnected. But once again, distribution outside of Europe was blocked.
Nevertheless, when “For A Few Dollars More” grossed even more than its predecessor, Grimaldi coughed up the biggest budget yet for the next entry in the Leone spaghetti-western canon (not “Dollars Trilogy”) the title being, “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” (’66).
In this movie, Sergio finally got to work with Eli Wallach. The two men got on well, both having a little French. But Clint was less happy – in the first film, he was the sole star – in the second, he had been teamed with Lee Van Cleef – and now he had Eli to contend with.
Plus it was a difficult shoot. Scant attention was paid to safety and language difficulties dogged the production. Sergio spoke Italian and a little French. Eli spoke American and a little French, Clint spoke only American – and most of the crew were Spanish.
This contributed to the bridge being blown up before the cameras had started rolling (a scene portrayed in Blake Edwards’ “The Party” a few years later). Sergio was furious and fired the man he deemed responsible.
When the Spanish head of the demolition team heard this, he calmed down Sergio (a man never far from eruption) and pointed out the man would be emotionally scarred for life – then promised to get his men to run down the river and recover the wood, then rebuild the bridge and blow it up again for free, if Sergio re-hired him. Sergio reluctantly agreed.
Meanwhile, back home – good news awaited. The court cases involving the first two movies had gotten sorted out, within weeks of each other.
Akira Kurosawa had been persuaded to accept $100,000 and 15% of the worldwide gross of “A Fistful Of Dollars” – which actually made him way more than “Yojimbo” – and the judge had agreed that “For A Few Dollars More” was not actually a sequel.
Thus it was that three films whose releases had spanned the previous three years in Europe – got belatedly released just a few months apart, in Britain and America.
And now they blew those countries’ cinemagoers’ minds too.
The trailers for the films featured a gravelly American voiceover that proclaimed, “This is the man with no name” (actually, the character’s name was Joe) – and “This is the first movie of its kind” for “A Fistful Of Dollars” – then, “The man with no name is back” – and “This is the second movie of its kind – it won’t be the last” for “For A Few Dollars More” – while for “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” that format was dropped in favour of a repeated “The…” – although this caused confusion as to who was who.
You see, in Italian, the title is “Il Buono, Il Brutto E Il Cattivo” – which translates as “The Good, The Ugly And The Bad” – and the trailer showed the three protagonists in that order (Clint, Eli and Lee) – but the English-language title reversed the last two’s descriptions.
It is not hard to see why: Buono, Brutto, Cattivo and Good, Bad, Ugly – just sound right.
Nevertheless, the obfuscation failed to dent the film’s appeal, following immediately on the heels of the previous two. Thus ’66-7 was ruled by this “trilogy” – and its resulting soundtrack records.
Since the first two films had not been released in Britain and America, nor had their soundtrack albums.
But when a beated version of the title theme from “The Good, The Bad The Ugly” by TV-theme hack Hugo Montenegro topped the charts, the record company who owned the soundtracks (RCA – then owned by the Mob – no surprise) finally woke up and released the highlights from the first two films on a budget album (due to budgetary restraints, a fair portion of both scores consisted of whip-cracks, slap-sticks, castanets, bells and whistles) and when that sold by the shed-load, issued “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” – at full price.
Of course, knowing nothing of the legal hassles that had held up British and American distribution of the first two films (and with them being so far ahead of their time) given the gaps between the release of each film had only been a few months, cinemagoers expected the next in the series to follow in just a few months more.
But it was nearly two years before it finally emerged.
This time, Sergio had no trouble roping in the big American stars he had wanted for his first western. Henry Fonda and Charlie Bronson were now only too happy to oblige. Also along for the ride were Jack Elam and Jason Robards – and Claudia Cardinale filled in the female side.
“Once Upon A Time In The West” was the longest and most expensive of Sergio’s spaghetti-westerns thus far, the three that preceded it having ran (in sequence) an hour forty, two hours twelve and nearly three hours (and they were just the release versions) – this latest came in at eight hours.
Obviously this was no good to anyone except film clubs – so large amounts of it hit the cutting-room floor. The first version was edited by Sergio himself, at a reasonable two hours forty-six and it was a fair hit in Europe. However, Paramount cut another twenty-one minutes out and the film flopped in America.
Sergio was devastated and announced his retirement from directing.
He then moved into production, although – uncredited – he directed a few bits of the resulting films. Then along came “Giù La Testa” (’71).
Having fallen out with the slated director, Peter Bogdanovich and at the insistence of Rod Steiger and James Coburn (the latter of whom was another of the Hollywood stars who had turned him down in the early days) – Sergio reluctantly decided to direct it himself.
The result was another rambling saga – but a great Morricone score and top performances by the leads make this a Leone film that few are prepared to dismiss.
However, once again the American release was bowdlerised, cutting forty-odd minutes from its original running time of two hours thirty-seven.
In addition, the English-language version was released as “A Fistful Of Dynamite” – then changed to “Duck, You Sucker!” in a feeble attempt to sell it as a comedy.
However, while Sergio had indeed worked on comedy-westerns, after “Once Upon A Time In The West” – two featuring Terence Hill and one with Henry Fonda – this was definitely not one such.
And finally, the American theatrical release prints were of poor quality.
The film bombed there. And it did not fare much better in Europe. It appeared spaghetti-westerns had run their course.
By now though, Sergio found that, like Ennio, he was being courted by Hollywood. He was offered the chance to direct “The Godfather” (’72) – but turned it down. This seems incredible today, but he had no way of knowing how big that trilogy would turn out to be – or even that it would be a trilogy.
The reason was he wanted to make his own gangster trilogy, beginning with – “Once Upon A Time In America” (’84).
And the reason that took over a decade to appear was he had to wait to get clearance on the source novel.
But eventually it burst forth, with a running time of… four hours twenty-nine. The original version ran nearer to six and was slated to run in two parts. However, while this actually happened in Russia (about which, more below) elsewhere the scissors came out yet again.
Once more, the first cut was Sergio’s own, removing forty minutes. But as usual, this was not considered enough and Embassy International bashed another hour and a half out of it.
The now-two hour nineteen minute version went straight down the dumper in America – partly because cinemagoers knew it had been cut.
And after the Godfather Trilogy, no-one was much interested in mobster sagas anyway – a fact that also killed it in Europe, despite the longer version being released there.
Sergio was devastated again. What he had envisioned turned out to be made – but not by him. The Godfather Trilogy’s success should have been his, one way or the other. The fact that his “Dollars Trilogy” (sic) rivalled it – cut no ice.
But this time, Sergio was not finished. Several projects were considered and the one he decided on was “Leningrad: The 900 Days” (’91) – set against the backdrop of the Siege Of Leningrad.
Scored, as ever, by Morricone and starring Robert De Nero, the production was backed by a Russian film company, with a budget of $100 million.
Russia has never shied away from making long, moody, intense films.
“Solaris” runs for two hours and forty-five minutes, while the American version comes in at just one hour, thirty-nine.
Likewise, the America/Italian version of “War And Peace” is three hours and twenty-eight minutes long – but the four-part Russian version has a total run-time of seven hours, eleven minutes (cut by nearly an hour in America – even the current “remastered” version is still twenty-six minutes short).
And, as stated above, Russia happily released “Once Upon A Time In America” in its complete form.
Thus Russia had no problem with the length of Sergio’s epics.
But two days before he was set to officially sign on for the production, Sergio died from a heart attack, aged 60 (my current age) – ’91 was when it WOULD have been released.
Sadly, I have never attended any of the extended club screenings of Sergio’s films – although I have seen the uncut Russian versions of “Solaris” and “War And Peace”. They were magnificent.
Perhaps Sergio Leone should have been born in Russia. Sergei Lev?
Anyhay, that is almost that. Ironically, being about Sergio, this piece is now approaching the 3,000 word mark – which is bloody long for this scribe.
But as you have stayed with me, I’ll reward you with an industry joke about Italian film-making that explains why those Hollywood actors were less than enthusiastic about appearing in Sergio’s first western…
A Hollywood producer dies at 60, from an excess of wine, women and… more women and in due course, finds himself at The Gates Of St Peter. St Peter opens The Big Book and after a long intake of breath tells the producer he cannot enter. The producer asks why.
“Are you kidding? According to The Book, you’ve spent your whole life exploiting, corrupting and cheating people – and I’m not even prepared to talk about that casting couch of yours. How old was that girl?”
“Aw, come on – that was just business.”
“Hmm – alright, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. As you spent many years in Italy, making those spaghetti-westerns and low-budget horror pictures – I’ll give you the choice of going to Italian Hell, rather than American Hell.”
“What’s American Hell like?”
“Well – there, they stick you on top of a big fire and jab you with red-hot pokers all day.”
“Wow, I don’t fancy that. What’s Italian Hell like?”
“Ah – well there, they also stick you on top of a big fire and jab you with red-hot pokers all day. But more often than not, the fire goes out… they lose the pokers…”