Thursday, January 17, 2013

Great Directors: Sergio Leone

The godfather of the spaghetti western is not only a treasure to Italian cinema, but iconic in world cinema. The old west of Hollywood was turned on its head in the mid 1960s when Leone found the new face of the west. Clint Eastwood became the new John Wayne. He was more mysterious and even spoke less than the Duke, however, it wasn't only the new face that changed the west, it was Leone's entire universe. It was the vast landscape of the southwest and Mexico (actually shot in southern Spain), the ultra-violence, anti-heroism and surrealism that transformed the west, enhanced by Leone's technical skill and style as a filmmaker i.e. extreme long-shots, extreme close-ups.

All these aspects gave birth to a more ruthless, dramatised and operatic west. Leone followed the lives of bandits and bounty hunters rather than the sheriff and townspeople. The wholesomeness of 1950s westerns, reflected by American society was threatened and ambushed by the Italians. Leone's nihilistic expression occupied the American silver screen before Sam Pekinpah's Wild Bunch (1969) and the new wave of Hollywood that reflected the United States occupation in Vietnam.

Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Franco Nero were the anti-hero, outsiders before Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Godfather (1972). Leone's villains killed without hesitation or feeling, they were immoral compared to past western antagonists. They would steal, murder, bribe, torture and rape in this unforgiving west.

For all its depravity, Leone somehow made it all very poetic and this boils down to his style and vision. He made the west his canvas to paint with breathtaking landscapes, weathered faces with character and blood. An intrinsic factor that helped make Leone's films so epic and fuelled with tension was the music, composed by Ennio Morricone. This partnership was even more essential than Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann. Frankly, Leone's work wouldn't be discussed today without the input of Morricone, it was that important. It's arguably the greatest collaboration in cinema history and without a doubt Morricone is the greatest film composer of all time. When this music fused with these rich scenes tension arose to the point of ecstasy. This improved with each try in the Dollars trilogy from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to the opus of the Mexican standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

After the chauvinistic ambiance of the Dollars Trilogy, Leone conveyed the west to the audience through the eyes of a woman. His new face of the west was Claudia Cardinale, a much prettier face than Clint's. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is Leone's most poignant portrayal of the west. He also got to work with one of his idols, Henry Fonda. He transformed America's white knight and blue eyed angel into his most despicable western villain. Something I would to see a contemporary filmmaker to do with Tom Hanks.

Once again Morricone's score compliments Leone's images, especially with Claudia Cardinale's theme, encouraging audiences to empathise with her. In my opinion she is the most beautiful and empathetic woman ever within the history of the genre. 

Leone also took his directing style to the next level on this picture. It is so directed, if that makes any sense. It runs so smooth and flawlessly, should be taught in film school for any upcoming directors. The  extreme long-shots and close-ups are unparalleled here. You can see the thickness of make-up on Charles Bronson's face for God's sake and such depth he shoots close ups of minor character's face's, so  much detail you could memorise the lines and wrinkles of these weathered men. 

After tackling the west and reinventing it with his operatic sensibilities, Leone began preparing for his most ambitious project yet, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). This film is one of cinemas biggest tragedies in terms of it's U.S. release. The original 227 minute version was seen by the rest of the world and considered a masterpiece by most. It is a luxurious, operatic, gangster tale. There is no doubt that you must be prepared to sit and concentrate for nearly four hours, but Leone makes it easy. The American studios obviously didn't have the patience that most of us adults possess and were distracted easliy. In a condescending manner, they assumed audiences weren't capable of concentrating for that amount of time or couldn't follow non-linear storytelling. So in order to make what they understood a non-sequiter narrative, they edited and chopped it down 90 minutes into what can only be described as the world's longest trailer ever. Portraying non-sensical clips in a linear fashion, which places characters in places we've never seen and scenes containing characters we've never been introduced to. It was a complete disgrace to the film, Sergio Leone and to their profession.

However, back to the original Once Upon a Time in America (1984), an unflinching epic tale of childhood poverty, rise through crime, friendship, betrayal and violence that spans over a period of fifty years in New York. What Sergio Leone did in essentially was migrate the wild west to the lower east side of Manhattan, a new landscape for bandits to roam and raise hell. This time round we are placed into the crime underworld on New York alongside Jewish ghetto youths. 

Leone goes into more depth with these characters than he has done previously. These are possibly the most ruthless and immoral gangsters ever depicted in cinema, but he delves into their childhood and we see how they saw the world living in poverty. They steal, rape, murder without any real moral consciousness. We don't necessarily empathise with them, but by witnessing their living conditions we understand their motives. In an incredibly touching scene we see one of the child gang members, Patsy, ready to exchange a cupcake for sex with the neighbourhood whore. While he awaits outside her apartment his hunger gets the better of him and he eats the cake. It's sad because he is poor and starving, but also relieving for the audience because he is just a kid and by choosing candy over sex, we acknowledge that. It gives us hope that there is some innocence left among these children.

Sex is a recurring theme in this movie and we see it through the distorted and unhealthy viewpoint of the gangsters. Robert De Niro's character is the most depraved and desperate out of all of them. He possesses an unhealthy appetite for sex, committing two acts of rape during the movie, we guess there's probably more. One occurs during a robbery and the victim actually enjoys it. The second is more disturbing as it is with the girl he loves, Deborah. He takes her out for a romantic dinner, they lie on the beach, talk until dawn and he figures since he has done all this, he deserves to have sex with her. The scene is long and difficult to watch as he awkwardly ravages her. Then we remember that this man is our protagonist. 

I contend that Leone doesn't intend for audiences to identify with a protagonist or antagonist, but is simply displaying a tale that occurs over a lifetime. There is no sugar-coating or white washing the brutality or true nature of these men, it is a document of their behaviour. This certainly stands as Leone's most complex movie due to it's characters and also it's storytelling. We begin in the 1930s, fast forward to 1967, rewind to 1920, back to 1967 where from here we learn the remainder of the story through flashbacks. Oh yeah, Back to the Future was released a year later in 1985. By the end we don't know whether it all really happened. Was it a nightmare or a hallucination from an opium high?

I'd feel comfortable in knowing it was a dream, because De Niro's character goes through the most nightmarish predicament since James Stewart in Vertigo (1958). De Niro living through thirty five years of guilt believing his betrayal killed his friends only to discover that he was the one who was betrayed. I'd also like to point out the movie's title "Once Upon a Time...." the staple phrase in folklore or fairytales. Leone's films have always lived in a surrealist hyperreality of excess and violence, proposing the notion that possibly his entire oeuvre is a dreamlike fairytale. 

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