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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, English Language Film Industries, European Cinema

Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time… in the West’ (1968), ‘… the Revolution (1971), & ‘… in America’ (1984)

Directed by: Sergio Leone || Produced by: Fulvio Morsella1, 2, Arnon Milchan3

Screenplay by: Sergio Donati1-2, Luciano Vincenzoni, Roberto De Leonardis, Carlo Tritto [2], Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Ferrini [3] , Sergio Leone1-3 || Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson [1] , Rod Steiger, James Coburn [2], Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci [3

Music by: Ennio Morricone1-3 || Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli1, 3, Giuseppe Ruzzolini2 || Edited by: Nino Baragli || Country: Italy1-3, United States1-3, Spain2 || Language: English1-3, Italian2, Spanish2

Running Time = 165 minutes [1] , 157 minutes [2], 229 minutes [3]  || 1 = The West, 2 = The Revolution, 3 = America

Though I have written extensively on the legacy of American (USA) frontier culture on Hollywood filmmaking in particular and film culture as a whole, I came to the realization that none of my favorite movies are Westerns. Perhaps this is indicative of the Western genre’s declining influence on modern popular culture, despite how many trendsetting filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind) were themselves influenced by classical Western movements and recall many of the genre’s conventions in their work. Despite how much of a hard-on film professors, historians, students, and critics have for the many incarnations of the genre — from the silent Westerns of the early 20th century to the John Ford classics of the 1950s to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai “oriental-Westerns” to Sergio Leone’s Italian “spaghetti-Western” riffs — I have yet to meet a single peer of mine (i.e. ~30 years of age or younger) to name a single Western as one of their favorite movies.

The few classical (re: non-revisionist, non-contemporary) Western films I have studied in detail are the aforementioned Italian “spaghetti-Westerns.” This movement, which dominated the genre from the 1960s-1970s, was itself a sort of tongue-in-cheek commentary on the classical American Westerns of the 1950s and earlier. No single filmmaker was more critical to this movement than the Italian auteur, Sergio Leone, whose Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966) birthed the subgenre as well as the career of its star, Clint Eastwood. Following this series, Leone transitioned from a lighthearted, almost playful reworking of classical Western tropes to a more serious, dramatic deconstruction of the genre’s conventions. To further the irony, this darker series of Western and crime drama films, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time… The Revolution (also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, or Duck, You Sucker!), and Once Upon a Time in America, could be thought of as rough benchmarks for the even more reactionary, deconstructionist, and and cynical revisionist Westerns (e.g. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch [1969], Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven [1990]) that would follow.

Top: Robert De Niro relaxes in an opium den in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in America, the plot device that frames the rest of the story. Bottom: Rod Steiger (right), a scrappy Mexican bandit, thinks that Irish expatriate, James Coburn (left), may be up to something.

The first movie of this loose trilogy, the final series of epic films Leone would direct, Once Upon a Time in the West (henceforth, The West), feels the most contemporary of the bunch and, in my assessment, has aged the best. Many Italian productions of this era, including and beyond Westerns, were shot without any sound recording whatsoever during principal photography, adding all their sound in post-production (this includes the process of dubbing, a term often used interchangeably with Automated Dialogue Replacement, or ADR). All of Leone’s native Italian films, to my knowledge, were shot this way, and it remains distracting no matter the context or how conditioned one is to watching dubbed films. Perhaps the best underhanded compliment of The West is how minimal its post-production sound-design feels; aside from then child-actor Enzo Santaniello miming gunshots and a few comical punch sound FX (PAP! PAP! POW!), The West’s sound-design is a strength rather than a distraction. One can’t always say the same for other Leone films, spaghetti-Westerns as a whole, or classical Italian productions in general.

Perhaps the best part of Leone’s sound-design, however, is Ennio Morricone’s score. Morricone, who scored Leone’s entire filmmography and whose work on Western films alone is legendary, crafts one of the better film scores ever made in The West, with epic symphonies, charismatic leitmotifs, and unforgettable melodies aplenty. As mixed as my feelings are with regards to the ADR-dominance and obvious post-production sound FX of Leone’s work, which can be so distracting as to create unintentional humor, Morricone’s emotional music congeals with Leone’s gorgeous landscape shots and imposing, dare I say intimidating extreme close-ups like few other soundtracks in cinema.

Leone, of course, popularized the resurgent spaghetti-Western movement in part through his unique combinations of extreme wide and extreme close-up shots. The West in particular is dependent on this broad range of visual scale to accentuate its pacing, using tight, almost claustrophobic indoor cinematography against massive, seemingly endless landscapes during outdoor, on-location photography to give its story a natural ebb and flow. Combined with a straightforward revenge narrative told across an ensemble cast (Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards), The West’s diverse shot composition and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s use of scene-geography helps the 165-minute run-time flow. This consistent juxtaposition of tight vs. wide shot composition also increases suspense before violent shootouts, often aided with sharp zooms more striking than any sound effect.

Much of this identifiable, throwback (by today’s standards) cinematography repeats itself in Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (henceforth, Duck, You Sucker!), Leone’s final and perhaps most overlooked Western epic. Unlike the more common revenge or outlaw-driven plots of Leone’s previous Westerns, Duck, You Sucker! has a more overt political focus given its setting during the 1910s Mexican Revolution. This rich civil war diegesis is far more interesting than the generic bandit skirmishes and villainous industrial barons of The West, and its plot far less predictable. The character arcs of co-leads Rod Steiger and James Coburn interweave with the background sociopolitical conflict in fascinating ways, making this one of Sergio Leone’s better screenplay credits.

From a directorial standpoint, Duck, You Sucker! is less consistent than Leone’s most spectacular name brand-productions, including The West and his most famous Eastwood collaboration, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Its general action cinematography is great, conveying vast gun battles, explosions, and vehicular stunts with good coverage and effective pacing. The film stumbles with its inconsistent sound-design and ADR, however, as well as awkward, unintentional comedy from inexplicable slow-motion flashbacks with cornball music (e.g. Coburn’s backstory), not to mention a sloppy ending. Though Leone’s sense of humor can be hit or miss for certain audiences, his use of visual humor, like superimposing the logo of the Mesa Verde National Bank over Coburn’s nitroglycerin equipment, works more than it doesn’t.

Leone’s final installment in this thematic trilogy and the last film he ever made was Once Upon a Time in America (henceforth, America), a grungy, angst-ridden coming-of-age story about New York Jewish youth and their rise to power in the Jewish Mafia during Prohibition. The film is perhaps the most notable non-Western feature Leone ever produced, and was in fact his preferred final project despite being offered the director’s chair for The Godfather (1972, Leone developed America’s script for about a decade). Starring Robert de Niro and James Woods as the adult versions of upstart, scrappy teenagers from an early 20th century Lower East Side ghetto, America unfolds like a modern crime drama embellished with Leone’s characteristic Western cinematographic (looooooooooong zooms) and screenwriting (the film’s 224 minutes long!) excesses. The story has an episodic feel a la Gone with the Wind (1939), which helps the near four-hour running time and separates its main characters’ development into three distinct acts.

Jack Elam: Looks like we’re shy one horse… Charles Bronson: *shakes head* You brought two too many.

America is also more character-driven than most of Leone’s previous efforts, and thus depends as much on its lead performances (De Niro and Woods) as its director’s flashy, charismatic style. In that respect, America is a resounding success, an acting tour de force by heavyweight De Niro and a career highlight from Woods, both of whom take advantage of an ambitious story free of Leone’s usual dependence on ADR. The only thing that sort of spoils these characters is a somewhat contrived, dark ending that may or may not be a dream sequence, depending on viewers’ interpretation.

All in all, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the Revolution, and America are a brilliant, if sometimes frustrating showcase of the Italian maestro’s command of genre filmmaking. His Italian roots in post-production only sound-design date these films to an extent, but his affection for Western and crime drama epics allow his visual direction and musical collaboration with Ennio Morricone to command attention across gargantuan storylines. Before the modern action, science-fiction, and fantasy blockbusters unleashed by Star Wars (1977), there were endless waves of Westerns and Western-inspired crime dramas, of which Leone’s contributions shall forever be a critical part.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: If you need a reminder why the Western persisted so long in mainstream cinema, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time… trilogy is a good place to refresh your memory. All three films are ambitious to a fault, but also demonstrate Leone’s unforgettable cinematographic compositions of a wide range of colorful characters.

However… the sound-design and dubbing of Leone’s films can be frustrating, as can some of his goofy cinematographic choices (e.g. Duck, You Sucker!), inconsistent humor (Duck, You Sucker! again) and bizarre endings (… America).

—> The West is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, while I’m ON THE FENCE with Duck, You Sucker! and America is also RECOMMENDED.

? What kind of flashback music uses lyrics like, Shaw, shaw… shaw, shaw… shaw, shaw, shaw, shaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwww?”

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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