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Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone (January 3, 1929 – April 30, 1989) was an Italian film director who is considered by many to be on the short list of the greatest film directors of all time.

Sergio Leone (January 3, 1929 April 30, 1989) was an Italian film director who is considered by many to be on the short list of the greatest film directors of all time. Sergio Leone is well-known for his Spaghetti Western films, and his recognizable style of juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with extreme long shots, as in the opening scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

Biography: Born in Rome, he was the son of the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti), and the actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran), and started working in the film industry himself at the age of eighteen.

He began writing screenplays in the 1950s, primarily for the so-called "sword and sandal" or "peplum" historical epics which were popular at the time. He also worked as an assistant director on several large-scale, high-profile Hollywood productions, a.k.a. runaway productions, filmed at Cinecitt Studios in Rome, notably Quo Vadis (1951) (in which a teenaged Sophia Loren appeared in a small role) and Ben-Hur (1959).

When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the production of the 1959 Italian epic Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompei) starring Steve Reeves, Sergio 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), he was well equipped to produce low-budget films which looked and felt like Hollywood spectaculars.

Clint Eastwood in Leone'sThe Good, the Bad and the UglyIn the early 1960s, demand for historical epics collapsed, and Leone was fortunate enough to be at the forefront of the genre which replaced it in the public's affections: the Western. His A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) was an early trend-setter in a genre which came to be known as the "spaghetti western". Based upon on Akira Kurosawa's Meiji-era samurai adventure Yojimbo (1961), it elicited a legal challenge from the Japanese director; the film is notable for its establishment of Clint Eastwood as a star. Until that time, he had been an American television actor with few roles to his name.

The look of the film was established partly by its budget, partly by its Spanish locations, and it presented a gritty, violent, morally complex vision of the American West which paid tribute to traditional American Westerns, but significantly departed from them in storyline, plot, characterization, and mood. Leone deservedly gets credit for one great breakthrough in the Western genre that is still followed today: in traditional Western films, heroes and villains alike looked like they had just stepped out of the fashion magazine and the moral opposites were clearly drawn, even down to the hero wearing a white hat and the villain wearing a black hat.

Leone's characters were, in contrast, more "realistic" and complex: usually "lone wolves" in their behaviour, they rarely shaved, looked dirty, and there was a strong suggestion of body odour and a history of criminal behaviour; they were morally ambiguous and often either generously compassionate or nakedly and brutally self-serving as the situation demanded. This sense of realism continues to affect Western movies today, and has also been influential outside this genre. Many have said it ironic that an Italian director who could not speak English and had never even seen the American west could have almost single handedly redefined the typical vision of the American cowboy. According to Christopher Frayling's book Something to do with Death, Leone was an avid reader of the American West. He knew a great deal about the American West, and it was reflected in his films. It fascinated him as a child, and that carried into his adulthood and his films.

His next two filmsFor a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)completed what has come to be known as the Dollars trilogy, with each film being more financially successful and more technically proficient than its predecessor. All three films featured scores by the prolific composer Ennio Morricone: Leone had a personal way of shooting scenes with Morricone's music ongoing. Critics have often said that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the finest of the trilogy.

Based on these successes, in 1967 he was invited to America to direct what he hoped would be his masterwork, Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West) for Paramount. Filmed in Monument Valley, Utah as well as in Spain and Italy, and starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale it emerged as a long, violent, dreamlike meditation upon the mythology of the American West. It was scripted by Leone's longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Donati.

The story was written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom went on to have significant careers as directors. Before its release, however, the film was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its poor box-office results in America. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe and highly praised amongst North American film students, and it has come to be regarded by many as Leone's best film.

After Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone directed A Fistful of Dynamite (Gi la testa, 1971). Leone was originally producing the film, but due to artistic differences between its stars and director Gian Carlo Santi, Leone was asked to step in. The film is a Mexican Revolution action drama starring James Coburn as an Irish revolutionary, and Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit who is conned into becoming a revolutionary.

Leone continued to produce, and on occasion step in to re-shoot scenes. One of these films was My Name Is Nobody (1973) by Tonino Valerii (though true participation of Leone in shooting is disputed), a comedy western film which poked fun at the spaghetti western genre. It starred Henry Fonda as an old gunslinger who watched 'his' old west fade away before his very eyes and Terence Hill as the young stranger who helps Fonda leave the dying west with style.

His other productions included, A Genius, Two Friends and A Dupe, (Un genio, due compari, un pollo, (1975), another western comedy starring Terence Hill. The Cat (Il gatto) (1977) starring Alberto Sordi, The Toy, (Il giocattolo, 1979) starring Nino Manfredi, and three comedies by actor/director Carlo Verdone, Fun Is Beautiful (Un Sacco Bello, 1980), Bianco, Rosso e Verdone (White, Red and Verdone - Verdone means "green", referring to the three colours of Italian flag, 1981) and Troppo Forte (Great!, 1986). During this period he also directed various award winning TV commercials for European television.

Leone had turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather, but spent the ten years developing a new epic project, this time focusing on a quartet of New York City Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. This work, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was a project he had conceived before Once Upon a Time in the West, and it was for this very reason he turned down the offer to direct The Godfather.

Based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, Once Upon a Time in America was a meditation on another aspect of popular American mythology, the role of greed and violence and their uneasy coexistence with the meaning of ethnicity and friendship, and like the earlier film, it was too long and stately for the studio to stomach. The studio cut (only for the American market) its four-hour running time drastically, losing much of the sense of the complex narrative. The recut version flopped and received much criticism.

The original version, projected in the rest of the world, had great appreciation of public and critic.

When the integral version of the film was released to DVD in the USA, it gained major critcal acclaim, with many critical circles hailing the film as a masterpiece.

At the time of his 1989 death at the age of 60, Leone was part way through planning yet another epic, this time on the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. Leone was infamous for his compulsive eating which led him to be borderline obese. This was with no doubt a contributing factor to his early death of a heart attack. In his later years, Leone had a falling out of sorts with Clint Eastwood, his most famous actor. When he directed Once Upon a Time in America, he commented that Robert De Niro was a real actor, unlike Eastwood.

However, the two made amends before Leone's death. In 1992, Clint Eastwood directed Unforgiven, a revisionist Western for which he won the Oscar for best director. Leone was one of the people he dedicated it to.

In 2004 his son Andrea published a long treatment for a new film entitled A Place Only Mary Knows written by Sergio Leone, Luca Morsella and Fabio Toncelli. It is a fascinating story about two soldiers during the American Civil War.

Critical opinion of Leone's film contributions were initially mixed due to the negative bias towards spaghetti westerns. However, today Sergio Leone is universally acclaimed, receiving a 94% average filmography rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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