The good, the bad and Leone
Christopher Fraylingâ€™s “Once Upon a Time in Italy” shows why Sergio Leone, master of the spaghetti western, should be ranked among the 20th centuryâ€™s great filmmakers.
By Richard Schickel
September 11, 2005
Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone
Harry N. Abrams: 240 pp., $40
Modernist, postmodernist or merely mannerist? It’s hard to know how to label Sergio Leone, but of this much I’m certain: It is time to pry open the portals of the Pantheon and permit him to enter that company of filmmakers â€” Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa (feel free to season the list to taste, with others who speak with special urgency to you) â€” who in the middle of the 20th century expanded (exploded, really) the expressive and stylistic possibilities of world cinema.
The foregoing will be stale news to the Leone cult; these cinephiles have always known that he was the movies’ unlikely great man â€” a chubby, bombastic, motor-mouthed figure with a short fuse and an equally short filmography, confined almost exclusively to westerns, who somehow administered a galvanic shock to a genre that was virtually moribund. This may come as new news, however, to those who believe that elevated filmmaking, to be worthy of high critical discourse, demands elevated subjects; that westerns must be made on American soil, not on Spain’s rainless plains by a bunch of feckless Europeans; and that they require overt statements of a traditional morality if they are to be taken to the ever-patronizing hearts of those who insist on defining movie art in essentially literary terms.
Leone’s cause was not helped by the vicious critical response to his first three westerns when they were released in the United States in the 1960s. Renata Adler, in the New York Times, for example, thought “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” should be retitled “The Burn, the Gouge and the Mangle.” It didn’t help that the pictures’ success in Europe had been largely populist and that they achieved their huge grosses here mainly in the “animal houses,” where male adolescents went to get off on lowbrow action fare. Like his first star, Clint Eastwood, Leone has withstood vast amounts of early calumny. In this struggle, Christopher Frayling has been his most reliable ally. Frayling is the author of a definitive biography of the director, as well as a thorough study of the spaghetti western, which was a preoccupation of Italian filmmaking in the decade after Leone pioneered it. It helps greatly that Frayling speaks in measured tones and that he is rector of the Royal College of Art in London, a school of visual art, which means he approaches Leone’s work from the correct perspective.
“Once Upon a Time in Italy” is the handsome and generous companion volume to an invaluable exhibition, centered on Leone’s westerns and curated by Frayling, at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West in Griffith Park through mid-January. One would like to think that the imprimatur of a museum show might finally secure Leone’s place in the critical-historical mainstream, but I somehow doubt it. There’s still a lot of prejudice (and indifference) to overcome.
In his introductory essay, Frayling firmly places Leone among the postmodernists, which is all right with me, since his films stress major post-modernist themes: They are self-conscious and knowing comments on the past; they are ironic in tone; and most important, they always emphasize style over substance.
Taking these points in order, we see that Leone, who had an encyclopedic knowledge not merely of the West portrayed in movies, but also of the real West, was always quoting from previous westerns. In “Once Upon a Time in Italy,” Frayling includes a six-page chart of all the homages to other films that Leone offered in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” As important, all his major characters are clearly descended from classic western figures. What, after all, is Eastwood in these pictures but the mysterious stranger who wanders into a godforsaken community, stays around long enough to clean the place up, then rides off? The difference between him and his predecessors is that he is much less voluble about his motives than they generally were.
Silences of this sort are the hallmark of Leone’s irony. He’s saying that the only reliable guide to morality is behavior, that modernism’s emphasis on psychological explanation doesn’t carry much weight in a fundamentally anarchical postmodernist world. That’s why most of his characters squint in silence at the world through appraising eyes. In Leone’s West, all alliances are expedient (see Tuco and Blondie in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), all final judgments rendered at the end of a gunfight. Such a world tends to make a man quiet â€” too quiet even to laugh aloud when his worst suspicions about his fellow man prove true. A thin smile will have to do.
Above all, Leone was a great stylist. In our fictions today, it is not what you say but how you say it that counts most. It may be that the most telling film clip in the Autry exhibition is not from a western at all but from Leone’s first film, a sword-and-sandal epic called “The Colossus of Rhodes,” in which he staged a swordfight on the humongous shoulder and arms of the title statuary â€” a truly arresting visual idea. In his westerns, it is Leone’s manner that keeps us interested while everyone glowers sullenly at everyone else. It begins with his settings: All those stark, sun-baked towns rob the region of the Edenic potential implicit in the traditional western, which required only the removal of a few nasty serpents for it to become a full-scale paradise. Nothing’s ever going to grow in Leone’s West.
Beyond that, there’s Leone’s use of the camera â€” tight close-ups of faces, eyes, shooting irons and twitching trigger fingers fill the big screen in alternation with the broadest imaginable panoramic shots â€” very disorienting to audiences used to less-vivid contrasts. And that says nothing about the way he ignored the conventions of the American western’s shootouts. He was famous for liking three-man, as opposed to two-man, gunfights, but he also liked to tie together, in a single shot, a gun being fired and its victim falling. Genteel American convention had always insisted on a cut between those two occurrences and on the victim falling forward, whereas, in reality, he would have been blasted backward by the impact of the bullet.
People thought when they first saw these films that they were more violent than anything they’d seen before. Maybe they were â€” but only marginally so. What made them seem more transgressive was the way Leone would extend time â€” another postmodernist trope â€” as his combatants stalked and circled one another, indulging themselves in, as it were, endless foreplay, before their rather efficiently managed climax was achieved. And then, of course, there are Ennio Morricone’s scores to consider. Orchestrating Fender Stratocaster guitars, moaning choruses, penny whistles, jew’s-harps, mariachi brass and the kitchen sink, he eschewed traditional symphonic themes, signaling disorienting postmodernist intent as powerfully as Leone’s camera did.
Leone was a disappointed lover of the Old West as it was refracted in the films of traditionalists like his beloved master, John Ford. He once said that contact with real U.S. soldiers during and after World War II disabused him of the notion that Americans were any more noble or principled than anyone else. He brought that weariness and cynicism, not so different from the attitudes of his countrymen, Fellini and Antonioni, to a hallowed place where it had never been before.
Frayling’s book â€” rich in interviews with Leone’s creative collaborators, out of which an amusing collective portrait of the artist as an instinctively smart and playful child emerges â€” fails only in its attempt to make a case for Leone as a model for later filmmakers. He really wasn’t. The western is well and truly dead now and the anxiety of influence prevents direct imitation of him in other movie contexts. He’s admired by many directors for the intransigence with which he pursued his vision, but like most major artistic innovators, he is sui generis, a man standing outside the mainstream’s rush, entire unto himself.