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Sergio Leone (Italian: [ˈsɛrdʒo leˈoːne]; 3 January 1929 – 30 April 1989) was an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter credited as the pioneer of the Spaghetti Western genre and widely regarded as one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema.
Leone's film-making style includes juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots. His movies include the Dollars Trilogy of Westerns featuring Clint Eastwood: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966); and the Once Upon a Time films: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
Born on 3 January 1929 in Rome, Leone was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Valerian). During his schooldays, Leone was a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone for a time. After watching his father work on film sets, Leone began his own career in the film industry at the age of 18 after dropping out of law studies at the university.
Working in Italian cinema, he began as an assistant to Vittorio De Sica during the production for the movie Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Leone began writing screenplays during the 1950s, primarily for the 'sword and sandal' (a.k.a. 'peplum') historical epics, popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, notably Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), financially backed by the American studios.
When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei), starring Steve Reeves, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film. As a result, when the time came to make his solo directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi, 1961), Leone was well equipped to produce low-budget films which looked like larger-budget Hollywood movies.
Historical epics fell out of favor with audiences in the mid-1960s, but Leone shifted his attention to a subgenre that came to be known as the "Spaghetti Western" because of its connection to the American Western. His film A Fistful of Dollars (Persè pugno di dollari, 1964) was based on Akira Kurosawa's Edo-era samurai film Yojimbo (1961). Leone's film provoked a court challenge from the Japanese director, but Kurosawa's film, Red Harvest, was in turn based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel, which was clearly based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel. Clint Eastwood has also been credited with a Fistful of Dollars, which makes him the star of the series. Eastwood had only appeared in American television films for a few years before being recognized in film roles.
A Fistful of Dollars was established by its Spanish headquarters, which presented a violent and morally complex representation of the American Old West. The film owed a nod to classic American western films, but it deviated from them in terms of plot, description, and mood. Leone gives credit for a major western cowboys' success in traditional western films, with some heroes and villains looking alike, even down to the hero wearing a white hat and the villain wearing a black hat (except for the most popular of the 'traditional western cowboys') in traditional western films, with obvious moral opposites, even though the hero wore a black suit upon a pale horse.' Leone's characters were, in comparison, more'realistic' and complicated; they rarely shaved, looked dirty, and sweated profusely; and there was a strong hint of criminal conduct. The characters were also ambiguous in terms of being generously caring or brutally self-serving as the situation required. Power and revenge feuds were more based on emotion than conscience, rather than conscience-driven. Some commentators have remarked on the irony of an Italian director who could not speak English and had never even visited the United States, much less the American Old West, in an attempt to rewrite the common image of the American cowboy. Leone knew a great deal about the American Old West, according to Christopher Frayling's book Something to do with Death. It was as an infant that fascinated him, as well as his adulthood and his films.
Leone's next two films, For a Few Dollars More (Perso qualche dollaro in più, 1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, 1966), culminated in the Man with No Name trilogy (or the Dollar Trilogy), with each film being more financially viable and more technically advanced than its predecessor. Ennio Morricone, a composer who worked closely with Leone in devising the themes, contributed to the films' innovative music scores. Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone's music. In addition, Clint Eastwood remained with the film series, with Eli Wallach, Lee van Cleef, and Klaus Kinski joining them later.
Leone was invited to The United States in 1967 to direct Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) for Paramount Pictures, based on the success of the Man with No Name trilogy. The film was shot mainly in Almer, Spain, and Rome's Cinecittà. It was also shot in Monument Valley, Utah, for a brief period. United States National Park Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale appeared in the film. Once Upon a Time in the West began as a long, brutal, dreamlike reflection on the American Old West's mythology, with numerous stylistic references to classic western films. Audience tension is maintained throughout this nearly three-hour film by concealing both the hero's identity and his volatile motivation until the final predictable shootout scene. Leone and his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati, among others who went on to have significant careers as directors, were unsurpassed as a retribution drama. However, Paraphrasedoutput: It was ruthlessly edited by Paraphrasedoutput, contributing to the poor box-office results in the United States before its release. Nevertheless, it was a big success in Europe, grossing nearly three times more among French viewers and being highly praised amongst North American film students. Many regard it as Leone's best film.You Sucker, a Time in the West, Leone directed Duck, You Sucker! (Giù la testa, 1971). Leone had intended to produce the film but Leone was asked to direct the film instead due to technical difficulties with then-director Peter Bogdanovich.
Duck, You Sucker!This is a Mexican Revolution action drama starring James Coburn as an Irish revolutionary and Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit conned to becoming a revolutionary.
Leone continued to produce, and on occasion, step in to reshoot scenes from other films. Tonino Valerii's My Name Is Nobody (1973), a comedic western film that poked fun at the spaghetti western style, was one of these films. After Henry Fonda's death in a final confrontation after his brother's death, it starred him as an old gunslinger fighting a final confrontation. Terence Hill appeared in the film as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying West in style.
Leone's other film appearances included A Genius, Two Partners, and a Dupe (1975, another western comedy starring Terence Hill); The Cat (Il Gatto; 1977, starring Ugo Tognazzi); and A Dangerous Toy (Il Giocattolo; 1979, starring Nino Manfredi). Leone also produced three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone (1980), Bianco, rosso Verdone (red and Verdone), and Troppo Forte (Great!, 1986). Leone has also produced several award-winning TV commercials for European television during this time.
He appeared at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival in 1978 as a member of the jury.
Leone turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather in favour of working on another gangster story he had not imagined earlier. He devoted ten years to this project, which was based on former mobster Harry Grey's book The Hoods, which focused on a group of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. Robert De Niro and James Woods appeared in the final four-hour film Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It was a reflection on another facet of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence, and their uneasy interplay with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship. At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, it received a raucous, record-breaking ovation of nearly oxygenated minutes (reportedly heard by diners at restaurants across the street from the Palais), at a time in Cannes's history before marathon applause became a regular occurrence. Despite such a fawning reception, Warner Brothers felt that it was too long. The studio slashed it to two hours for the American market, dumping its flashback style for a linear storyline. This version came as a result of a lot of criticism and fizzled out. The original version, which was released in the United States, saw marginally higher box office returns and mixed critical feedback. When the original version of the film was released on home video in the United States, it received a lot of critical attention, with some commentators lauding it as a magnum opus.
Leone was seriously affected by Studio-imposed editing and poor commercial reception of Once Upon a Time in America in North America, according to biographer Sir Christopher Frayling. It was his last film.
He was director of the jury at the 45th Venice International Film Festival in 1988.
Leone died of a heart attack at the age of 60 on April 30, 1989. He was buried in Pratica di Mare's cemetery.
Leone, Luca Morsella, and Fabio Toncelli developed a treatment for a "Americanized" western. It's likely to have been Leone's last western, and it would have stars Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere as the two main leads. The tale was set during the American Civil War, focusing on a Union drafter from Georgia, whose job is to enroll men in the Union Army. Richard Burns, a Southern shady businessman transplanted to the North after a lucrative heist with his ex-lover and partner, Mary, is the other. They begin looking for the buried treasure left behind in an unmarked grave outside Atlanta's "A Place Only Mary Knows." They are battling the battles between the two states, led by a freed slave and an Italian immigrant, Francesco, who arrived via the Port of Boston.
The film was supposed to be an honor to classic writers from literature, such as Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology), Ambrose Bierce (The Private History of a Campaign That Failed), Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), whose novel he wanted to film a remake of. Even though the script never developed to a full screenplay, Leone's son Andrea had it published in the Italian cinema journal Ciak's June 2004 issue. It's unclear if the treatment's publication will ever result in a full production in America or Italy.
Leone was captivated by Harrison Salisbury's non-fiction book The Siege of Leningrad, and he wanted to make the book a war epic when completing work on Once Upon a Time in America in 1982. Leone appeared in the opening scene and the basic plot even though no official script had been completed or leaked. The film, according to Sergio Leone's documentary Once a Time, began in medias res as the camera shifts from focusing on a Soviet hiding from the Nazis' artillery fire to panning hundreds of feet away to show the German Army Panzer divisions encircling the city's walls. The mission was to put an American photographer on assignment (whom Leone wanted to be played by Robert De Niro) and Leningrad became stranded as the German Luftwaffe began to bombard the city. He becomes intimately involved with a Soviet woman, whom he later impregnates, as they try to escape the long siege and the clandestine police because foreigners are forbidden. "The cameraman dies on the day of the city's liberation, when he is currently filming the German surrender." Leone says. The girl is alert of his death by chance seeing a movie show: it explodes under a shell, " according to the photographer."
Leone estimated the film's budget at $100 million in 1989 and had received half of that amount in loans from independent backers from the Soviet Union. He had convinced Ennio Morricone to write the film score, and Tonino Delli Colli was chosen to be the cinematographer. Sometime in 1990, shootings were supposed to begin. When Leone died two days before he was due to sign on for the film, it was cancelled. Leone was able to be replaced by Alex Cox as director, but the film was unable to obtain the remaining $50 million needed to produce it.
According to Frayling's biography, Something to Do with Death, he envisaged a modern version of Cervantes' 17th century novel Don Quixote starring Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza, and even portrayed Sancho Panza. He had considered the project from the 1960s to the 1970s, and he began seriously considering it near the end of his life.
Sergio Leone contacted his old colleagues Sergio Donati and Fulvio Morsella in 1987, pitching an idea for a TV miniseries about a Colt revolver that went from owner to owner throughout the Old West, similar to Anthony Mann's film Winchester (1950). Leone, according to Donati, was more interested in a more modern interpretation of the genre than his earlier works, wanting to portray the Old West "as it really was." Leone dropped this bid in favour of A Place Only Mary Knows, but Donati wrote a prescription and the scheme stayed in progress for years after Leone's death. An adaptation based on Leone's topic is currently in production. Stefano Sollima, an Italian film-maker, has been nominated to direct film.
Leone was also a huge fan of Margaret Mitchell's book Gone with the Wind and the 1939 film version. He talked to his relatives and close friends about a remake that was closer to the original book, but it never advanced beyond discussions to any serious type of production.
Sergio Leone was contracted to direct 99 percent and 44/100% Dead, with Marcello Mastroianni and Charles Bronson starring. John Frankenheimer was fired as director, but Bolivia's Mastroianni was recast with Richard Harris.
Leone was a fan of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night and was considering a film version in the late 1960s; he incorporated elements of the tale into The Good, the Bad, and Duck, You Sucker. However, his proposal of adapting the book itself never made it to the planning stage.
Leone was a long shot to direct Flash Gordon (1980). Leone was a fan of the original Alex Raymond comic strip but decided against the film because the script did not match Raymond's.
Awards and honors
- David di Donatello
- 1972: Duck, You Sucker! (Won)
- British Academy of Film and Television Arts – Award for Best Direction
- 1984: Once Upon a Time in America (Nomination)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Director
- 1984: Once Upon a Time in America (Nomination)