Sergio Leone

Dafato Team | May 11, 2022

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Sergio Leone († April 30, 1989 ibid) was an Italian film director. He gained particular fame for his works in the field of Italo-Westerns. He achieved his greatest successes in the late 1960s with the epic western films Two Glorious Scoundrels and Play Me the Song of Death.

Childhood and youth

Sergio Leone was the son of film pioneer Vincenzo Leone ("Roberto Roberti") and actress Edvige Valcarenghi ("Bice Valerian"). His father was active in the film business from 1911 and became known in Italy mainly for his collaboration with silent film star Francesca Bertini. He sympathized with the communists and largely withdrew from the outside world under the impact of fascism.

Leone himself was affected in his youth not only by the rule of the Duce, but also by the occupation of Rome, as well as the last years of the war in 1943

Vincenzo Leone started making films again in 1939. Since he regularly took little Sergio to his work, the latter was already familiar with the processes of film production from an early age.

First steps in the film business

From the mid-1940s, Leone worked in a wide variety of positions in the Italian studio system. As an extra, assistant director, director of the second camera team or author of scripts, Leone worked on a large number of Italian films. Most of them were artistically rather undemanding films in the style of the then very popular sandal film (Peplum).

However, Leone also participated as a bit player and assistant director in the classic film Bicycle Thieves (1948). On the American monumental film Quo Vadis (1951), shot in Rome, he acted as one of the directors of the second shooting team. He held the same position in 1959 for Ben Hur, the most elaborate film project of the 1950s, under the pseudonym Bob Robertson. This Hollywood epic was also shot in Italy. As a director, Leone was later strongly influenced by American cinema and was primarily interested in epic, crowd-pleasing films.

In 1959, Sergio Leone served as (unnamed) co-director on The Last Days of Pompeii, a period sandal film directed by Mario Bonnard. Flicks of this type were being produced in large numbers in Italy at the time. Leone, remarkably, had several collaborators on The Last Days of Pompeii who later became leading directors of the Italo-Western: Duccio Tessari was assistant director, and Sergio Corbucci and Enzo Barboni acted as director and cinematographer, respectively, of the second camera crew. Even though The Last Days of Pompeii was a low-budget production, Leone learned a lot about film financing while making the film.

In 1961, 32-year-old Sergio Leone made his actual directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes, another Italian-style sandal film. Compared to the director's later works, this film is generally considered to be of minor importance. Leone himself admitted he only made the film to finance his honeymoon. This led to the fact that this film is treated only rudimentarily or even omitted in overall representations of Sergio Leone's work. Nevertheless, some characteristics of his later work can already be discerned.

Dollar Trilogy

While the demand for sandal films slowly ebbed away in the early 1960s, Leone was already busy preparing his next film. He oriented himself in a completely different direction this time and prepared the production of a western. Leone was enthusiastic about this genre and believed that European Western films could also be successful, although up to that point all important Westerns had come from the USA. Since 1962, however, the films of the Karl May series had already been running with great success in German-speaking countries.

Since Sergio Leone had only a small budget at his disposal ($200,000), he was unable to hire an established American star like Henry Fonda or James Coburn for the lead role in For a Fistful of Dollars. In his search for an affordable U.S. actor, Leone came across the then relatively unknown TV actor Clint Eastwood, who was eventually signed on for $15,000. The 34-year-old Eastwood appeared in the role of a mysterious gunman who pits two hostile clans against each other in a remote village in New Mexico and excels at his phenomenal shooting skills.

For a Fistful of Dollars was initially considered obscure and was either panned by the critics or ignored altogether. However, the film developed into a sensational box-office success. In the role of the cynical "stranger without a name" (he actually wore the role name "Joe"), who confronts his opponents in a poncho with tantalizing nonchalance, Eastwood became an international star. Countless Western actors took their cue from this type of character in the years that followed. Leone himself didn't think too much of his leading man's acting skills: "He has two facial expressions: one with a hat and one without."

To create the impression that For a Fistful of Dollars was an American film, Leone and his collaborators had adopted English pseudonyms (Leone, for example, acted as "Bob Robertson" - a tribute to his father, who had been known as Roberto Roberti). In For a Few Dollars More (1965), on the other hand, the real names of the filmmakers were given in the opening credits. He had a much higher budget ($600,000) for this second film in what would later be called his "Dollar Trilogy." Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson or Henry Fonda were to play the second leading role alongside Clint Eastwood, but could not be engaged, which is why Leone hired the 40-year-old Lee van Cleef, who had until then appeared in numerous Hollywood westerns (including Twelve Noon) in smaller supporting roles.

Eastwood again appeared as an unshaven gunslinger, playing a bounty hunter who hunts down a gang of crooks with his "colleague" (van Cleef). Like the previous film, For a Few Dollars More was shot mainly in the Almería area of Spain and also became a big box office success.

Leone was now so established as a director that he was granted a budget of $1.2 million for the final installment of the "Dollar Trilogy," which allowed for the production of an epic Western film with elaborate set-ups and a large number of extras. In Two Glorious Scoundrels (1966), Eastwood again starred as a bounty hunter in a poncho, chasing after a hoard of gold lost in the turmoil of the Civil War alongside van Cleef (as a sadistic villain) and Eli Wallach (as a Mexican bandit). Leone's third western became a huge box office success and advanced over the decades to become a popular cult film. It ranks 9th on the Internet Movie Database's list of best films and is considered the best Western of all time (as of January 2022).

The budgets that grew with his success were also reflected in the running times of Leone's productions; from Two Glorious Scoundrels on, all films had an excess length of at least two and a half hours.

Significance of the Dollar Trilogy

The enormous financial success of the relatively cheaply produced "dollar" films triggered the wave of Italo-Westerns, which peaked in the second half of the 1960s and spawned hundreds of films of varying quality. Almost all of the representatives were low-budget productions oriented on the works of Leone, who had a lasting influence on the genre stylistically and thematically.

Typically, Italo westerns featured cynical, unshaven gunslingers fighting sadistic villains in the American-Mexican borderlands. Explicit depictions of violence and scenes of torture characterized the genre, and the protagonists were often severely abused (even in Leone's work). The common themes of American Westerns (land settlement, war against the Indians, etc.), on the other hand, were hardly dealt with. Corresponding with the zeitgeist of the late 1960s, numerous films were conceived as "revolutionary westerns" and showed the struggle of the Mexican rural population against their oppressors. Since many of the films were shot in Spain, the southern-looking Spanish extras could easily be passed off as Mexicans.

In the early 1970s, the end of the Italo-Western was heralded by the enormously successful Klamauk-Westerns with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, in which the clichés of this sub-genre were satirized. Until the mid-1970s, a few serious films were still made, such as Keoma - The Song of Death (1976) with Franco Nero, probably the most distinguished Italian star of this genre. Although directors such as Sergio Corbucci (Django) or Duccio Tessari (A Gun for Ringo) also made their mark in the Italo-Western, Leone remained the defining figure in both commercial and artistic terms.

Leone's first three westerns revolutionized the staging style of the entire genre and had a style-shaping effect not only on the Italian western. The American Western film, which had ossified in its conventions by the mid-1960s, subsequently took a clear cue from the much more contemporary Italian Westerns. Films such as The Dreaded Four (1966), Hang Him Higher (1968), The Lullaby of Manslaughter (1970), but also the English production Chato's Land (1971) took their cue from the hard, cynical basic tone of the Italo Western.

Employees and performers

Leone worked from the mid-1960s with a permanent staff that was involved in most of his films. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli provided the special look of Leone's films, which included alternating between opulent landscape panoramas and unusual close-ups of the actors' faces. Delli Colli and Leone also specialized in arranging elaborate camera movements (such as the tracking shot across the roof of the train station building in Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod).

The film editor for all Leone films from Two Magnificent Scoundrels onwards was Nino Baragli, who, together with Leone, was responsible for the complex scene montages ("Triello" at the end of Two Magnificent Scoundrels). As production designer and costume designer, Carlo Simi was responsible for the sets of the Leone films, which were usually characterized by a particular opulence.

Of elementary importance for Leone's films was the music of Ennio Morricone. As composer, he was responsible for the music in every Leone film from 1964 on. On the recommendation of the producer of For a Fistful of Dollars, he rather reluctantly contacted Morricone, who told the puzzled Leone that they had gone to the same school at the same time and could also prove this with an old photo - they even sat in the same row. After some back and forth, they agreed on a composition by Morricone that was already nine years old at the time, for whose reinterpretation a piper was still being sought who would give the title song its characteristic sound. Morricone, who had been working as a film composer since 1961, created soundtracks for Leone that differed fundamentally from the traditional symphonic Western soundtracks and were notable for their use of unconventional instruments (Jew's harp) and sound effects (coyote howls). Morricone usually completed his music before filming began, and Leone often matched scenes or camera movements precisely to the finished music. This makes it understandable that Leone said of Morricone, "He's not my composer. He's my scenarist!"

Morricone rose to become one of the most famous and internationally sought-after film composers, creating melodies that became part of popular culture beyond cinema (Song of Death, Nobody Theme). He is responsible for more than 500 soundtracks. His music became so popular that he performed it live for years with large orchestral accompaniment. Numerous composers, such as Bruno Nicolai, based their Italo-Western soundtracks on Morricone's work.

Leone, who was strongly influenced by American cinema, hired mainly U.S. actors for his films. One exception was the Italian Gian Maria Volonté, who appeared as the villain in the first two films of the "Dollar Trilogy". Their leading man was Clint Eastwood, who became a pop culture icon as a cigarillo-smoking gunslinger and made it from TV cowboy (Rawhide) to international movie star. As an actor, director and producer, Eastwood has been one of Hollywood's leading personalities for decades. Lee van Cleef advanced through the Leone films to become one of the most popular stars of the Italo-Western, often playing detached bounty hunters and similar characters. Charles Bronson became an international action star in 1968 with Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod.

After Leone had gained a good reputation with his first film successes and his budgets had grown, he was also able to sign up renowned American character actors such as Eli Wallach, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Rod Steiger. In the 1980s, he also worked with Robert De Niro.

America Trilogy (or "Once-Upon-a-Time Trilogy")

After Two Glorious Scoundrels became a huge success, Leone finally advanced to become an international star director and was given the chance to work in Hollywood. At first, he didn't want to make any more westerns, but planned to produce an epic gangster film. However, since the studios considered this genre to be out of date, Leone agreed to direct another Western.

With his screenwriters Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento (both of whom later became directors in their own right) and Sergio Donati, he devised the epic, operatic story of Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod (C'era una volta il West

Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod was made in America, Spain and Italy and featured American actors such as Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards, with the female lead played by star Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. The film features Charles Bronson in the role of a harmonica-playing gunslinger who hunts down a sadistic villain (Henry Fonda). Since it was produced by the American company Paramount and starred three American stars, strictly speaking, this film can hardly be called an Italo-Western. However, all the key creative positions (script, camera, set, music, editing) were filled by Leone's Italian team.

Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod became a huge success and went down in film history as a classic and cult flick. In the U.S., a heavily abridged version was shown, which significantly compromised Leone's artistic vision, and failed at the box office (he also remained little successful in the U.S. with his next films). In Europe, on the other hand, the director was able to celebrate great successes with the film. In Germany, the Western became one of the most successful films with 13 million viewers and ran for years in some cinemas. Ennio Morricone wrote one of the most famous film scores in cinema history for Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod.

With Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod, Leone had reached the pinnacle of his career. Until his death in 1989, he directed only two more films, both of which failed to get much of a response at the box office: In his project Death Melody (the working title of the script was Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution) (intended as director were Peter Bogdanovich or Sam Peckinpah. After the direction was finally taken over by his former assistant Gian Carlo Santi, differences arose with the actors during filming, so Leone himself switched to the director's chair.

Death Melody is in the tradition of numerous "Revolutionary Westerns" made in the late 1960s. The two bank robbers Rod Steiger (as a Mexican bandit) and James Coburn (as an Irish explosives specialist) involuntarily become heroes of the Mexican Revolution. Compared to Leone's other westerns, this film - the second part of the so-called "America Trilogy" - was not commercially successful and soon fell into oblivion.

For years after Death Melody, Leone worked only as a film producer, as he did in 1973 on the Western comedy My Name is Nobody, for which he also acted as ideas man and co-writer. Terence Hill in the title role plays a similar character here as in his successful fun westerns with Bud Spencer - the likeable adventurer who pulls faster than others. He is joined by Henry Fonda in the role of Jack Beauregard, a legendary gunslinger of advanced age whom the nameless nobody admires as a fan. Although his former assistant director Tonino Valerii is officially credited as the film's director, numerous scenes were apparently directed by Leone himself. The composer was once again Morricone, who created the title tune, probably one of his most famous pieces of music.

Beginning in 1972, Leone prepared his gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, based on Harry Grey's book The Hoods and the third part of the "America Trilogy." After extensive preparatory work, the nearly four-hour gangster saga was finally released in 1984. The film tells the story on three time levels (1922

However, the film was rehabilitated by critics and has long been considered one of the great classics of the 1980s. Leone, however, was never able to make the cut version of the film that he had planned. Under the direction of Martin Scorsese, the film was restored and presented in 2012, at the Cannes Film Festival, in a version extended by 25 minutes.

In 1987, Leone planned the TV miniseries Colt, but abandoned the project for the film A Place Only Mary Knows. However, only the plot was written for this Western, which was to be set in the American Civil War era; no actual production took place. Leone's son Andrea published the plot in 2004 in an issue of the Italian film magazine Ciak.

Sergio Leone died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60 while working on a film about the siege of Leningrad in World War II. The severely overweight director had suffered several heart attacks before. At the time of his death, he had worked out the opening scene of the film (working title Leningrad: The 900 Days) and basic outlines of the plot. Production was scheduled to begin the following year.

Leone was buried in the Cimitero Napoleonico in Pratica di Mare, a district of Pomezia, located about 30 km south of Rome.

From 1960 until his death he was married to the former dancer Carla Ranalli. The marriage produced three children.

Even today, many directors describe Leone as their great idol. In an interview, James Woods said that working with Sergio Leone was the highlight of his film career. Quentin Tarantino is a self-confessed lover of his films and also incorporates many camera shots typical of Sergio Leone into his own films. Clint Eastwood dedicated his Oscar for best director to Leone for Merciless (Unforgiven, 1992), although he had had some disputes with him.


  1. Sergio Leone
  2. Sergio Leone

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