Get Three Coffins Ready

BY ANDREW MOODY

Sergio Leone is widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative directors in cinema history. His trilogy of 1960s Westerns starring Clint Eastwood as the stranger, (or the Man With No Name) have settled into iconic status. It was actually the American distributor United Artists that played up the No Name concept as a way of selling the movies to Western audiences: In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Eastwood is called Joe, A Few Dollars More (1965) he’s Manco, and in the concluding part The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) he’s referred to as Blondie.

Born January 3, 1929, in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi.  As a child Leone was a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone. After graduation he began his own career in the film industry after dropping out of law school.

Leone began as an assistant to Vittorio De Sica during the production for the classic neorealist movie Bicycle Thieves in 1948.  He wrote screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for historical epics, popular at the time.  

By the time the sixties had arrived, with most American westerns having retreated to the passive ennui of the small screen, Sergio Leone created the genre of the Spaghetti Western (so called not because of the increased gore, but because of the influx of Italian filmmakers involved in a sweep of exploitation Western cinema). Phil Hardcastle, in a review of A Fistful of Dollars for The Spaghetti Western Database wrote enthusiastically:

It is obvious when viewing the films of Sergio Leone that he had a strong affection for the classic western films of his American predecessors and a clear understanding of their visual iconography. As a largely ‘visual’ director, that is to say a director who concentrated heavily on the image rather than the dialogue of a film, his generic sympathy led to striking and hugely satisfying pictures linking explosive action sequences. A combination which would be copied by many in the ensuing decade but never equalled. In particular, Leone’s tight framing and ultra close ups of lined, haggard faces (there are no pretty boys here) jump out of the screen leaving lasting impressions of grittiness, evil and greed. Boots, spurs and pistols, long standing dressings of the western genre are in Leone’s hands magnified before us into almost monastic icons. 

A master at making essentially low budget pictures look more expensive on the screen, each of the trilogy had double the budget and double the cinematic ambition of the predecessor, climaxing with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a bounty hunter thriller set to the cinema scope, technicolor spectacle of the American civil war. Eli Wallach steals the film with his performance as ‘The Ugly’, an opportunistic thief with little empathy for the horror and insanity of the unfolding war, only for the gold buried in the soldier’s cemetery known as Sad Hill. Lee Van Cleef, who had a small part in the Gary Cooper western High Noon (1952) plays a decent, moralistic bounty killer in the second part, For A Few Dollars More, and plays an evil one as ‘The Bad’ in the climactic film. Quentin Tarantino, who sampled Ennio Morricone’s score for Kill Bill, has said that he believes The Good, the Bad and the Ugy is “the best directed film of all time.”

A Fistful of Dollars was in fact an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961) and the Japanese producers pursued a successful lawsuit.

The Man With No Name trilogy still holds up as entertainment and iconic pop art. With its sunbleached Spanish locations, Leone’s suspense grabbing extreme close ups of twitching eyes and itchy trigger fingers, Eastwood’s gritty, movie star good looks, and Morricone’s experimental music score, transporting the viewer into a world where men were men and women were women, life is cheap and virtue signalling will get you a bullet between the eyes. They don’t make em like this anymore…

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction