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FIlm Review: The Works Of Sergio Leone
arts and media |
Wednesday February 16, 2005 18:10 by James R
It took years for movies dramatising the agony of the Vietnam conflict to hit the big screen, yet oddly enough a jaundiced contemporary view of the states seeped into a mass audience through Leone's spaghetti westerns. Remaining conspicuous through absence from the canons of motion picture greats, the stylistic flourishes of Sergio Leone westerns provide the popular mind with an immediate shorthand for the genre cinematically.
Sergio Leone: ''As Romans, we have a strong sense of the fragility of empires. It is enough to look around us.'
The weird jaunty offbeat music of Morricone, defined the western musically, with scores used as a substitute for dialogue. In a method that echoed sampling techniques, he spliced sound effects like pistol shots alongside whoops and hollers. Leone also defined the genre visually. With surreal sparse landscapes to rival Dali compensating for Italian locations, and fast zoom ins on squinted eyes creating rising tensions and ebbs that can be so easily missed if the viewer drifts. And it is easy to drift watching Leone, his movies are best analogised (and accompanied) by a spliff, they burn slowly and languidly. Yet remain an extremely lucid experience. His early work experience on blockbusting Imperial epics made in Italy such as Ben Hur gave him an impetus to use lengthy films as a means to draw out every detail, both visually and psychologically for total worth. Famously Leone showed Tonino Delli Colli, his main cinematographer, the paintings and engravings of Rembrandt before shooting 'Once Upon A Time in The West'. As anyone that has seen his film will admit, they have a chronically surreal feel. Leone also hijacked Rembrandts physiological portrait and ran with it as a cinematic method ensuring in that a person's history is etched in their face. When it came to American releases, this was something the studios couldn't appreciate. Tellingly before the release of ˜Once Upon A Time In America', the editor of Police Academy Two was hauled in for a hatchet job.
Famously, Leone plucked Eastwood from his role as a limping deputy on the set of Rawhide for $6,500. One critic has harshly described how "Clint had two expressions, one with the hat, and the other without a hat." In both movies, he plays a character existing outside the law but firmly on the side of a self defined justice arising from his own experience. It's a figure Eastwood has tried to assimilate into the American establishment ever since with such roles as Dirty Harry, a brute reply to the sixties counter culture A Fistful of Dollars is a startlingly obvious remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, a tale of a silent samurai arriving in a town torn asunder by two rival gangs of fighters. He plays them off against each other, helping a family to escape, and in the end allows both gangs to finish each other off leaving him with all the money. Apply a quick costume change, a few cowboy hats, cigars, and Leone's film remains much the same. In For A Few Dollars More, Eastwood returns playing the same archetype, this time hooking up with Lee Van Cleef in a conspiracy to hand in Il Indio, a bandit planning to rob the Bank of El Paso. In this film traits of Leone's visual style become defined. The close up's on opponents eyes in shootouts, and the use of Morricone's scores as musical flashbacks, where a musical pocket watch becomes associated with the bounty hunters memory of his sister being raped by Il Indio. Its in this theme of familial revenge based on an almost chivalrous notion of honour in which many find hints of Leone's conservatism. As lonesome figures protect family units from encroaching strangers be they bandits or official transgressors. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly thematically defines Leone's work during this period, a tale of three people searching for two hundred thousand dollars worth of gold against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Eastwood is Blondie, the good. Lee Van Cleef returns as Angel Eyes, the bad. And Eli Wallach plays, the ugly Tuco, a two bit bandit. But this is the stuff of beyond good and evil, each character is driven by their own eager motives and the only value system is relativity, it's a film of ambivalence.
From the later sixties on, his films would retain their childlike visual quality but take on much more explicit adult themes as social commentaries. Leone had a double attitude to America which came from a youth spent watching bootlegged tapes of John Ford movies under fascism. As American troops arrived on the scene after the liberation of Italy, Leone realised â€˜they were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any othersâ€¦materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods.' He later contrasted himself with John Ford's work, describing how 'his characters and protagonists always looks forward to a rosy, fruitful future. Whereas I see the history of the West as really the reign of violence by violence.' Its the assimilation of this unlawful violence by the American establishment that Leone begins to explore in the 'Once Upon A Time' trilogy. Once Upon A Time In The West is essentially a film about the onset of industrial capitalism in the west and the demise of social relationships based on almost knightly codes of honour and their replacement by ones mediated by access to capital. In Once Upon A Time In The West, we have the crude caricature of the railroad boss cripple Mr Morton who uses cash to buy control of criminal gun slingers like Frank (Henry Fonda), incorporating them into the rising corporate establishment to hound rustic family figures like Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) off their land in an effort to monopolise the railway. Set in contrast to this is Charles Bronson, a man who throughout the film adopts the names of those killed by Frank as his own identity. With his newfound ally Cheyenne (James Robards) we see a final battle between the old forces of the west and the monopolised violence of an encroaching state and capitalism, represented by Morton and Frank.
The Once Upon A Time series present a startlingly critical view of America as an institution, whereas Leone's earlier work simply critiqued the idea of the romantic American hero. Leone moved unto a jaundiced view of American foreign policy in A Fistful of Dynamite, starring Rod Stieger as an Irish revolutionary, Sean Mallory dealing with his own betrayal by Irish nationalism, yet continuing his fight for land and freedom among the Mexican peasantry during the years of Zapata. The films opening scene where Juan Miranda, a Mexican bandit bums a lift in a carriage of upper class snobs rivals Otto Dix's 'Card Playing Cripples' for setting up grotesque ruling class stereo types, that proceed to utter a series of crass racial and class based slurs against the bare foot bandit as a camera zooms in and frames their fat faces as they wolf down food. When Juan's bandit family finally dole out some class justice, one American on board exclaims 'Im an American' to which Juan replies 'to me you are just a son of a bitch.' Throughout Morricone returns with a croaking "wop, wop. wop" theme tune for Juan and a haunting refrain of 'Sean, Sean, Sean' for Coburn as the mismatched pair get caught up in the Mexican revolution. So from films about social bandits, to socialist bandits, his next movie was about the rise of the American Mob in 'Once Upon A Time In America' and focuses partially on the corruption of the American socialist ideal at the hands of mob interference in the American union movement. Leone's work presents timely films for a period where the reign of American Empire is increasingly challenged and resisted as he himself said 'as Romans, we have a strong sense of the fragility of empires. It is enough to look around us.'