12
Sep
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Sergio Leone
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"If you're gonna shoot, shoot, don't talk." Tuco (Eli Wallach), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


I feel no shame in saying I have never been a huge fan of the western. My grandfather is as big a John Wayne fan as ever lived (so much so that one of my uncle's is actually named John Wayne Ferguson), but I have found most of the western's I've seen to be poorly paced, morally simplistic, and far too hinged on the shootout that will inevitably close the movie. Yet everything I knew to be true about the (admittedly few) westerns I've seen was supposedly turned on its head by the "Spaghetti Western" movement that became popular in Italy and Spain in the 1960's. So called because they were produced in Italy and Spain, by Italian directors, and often filmed in Italian to later be dubbed into English, the movement is pretty much centered on the work of Sergio Leone, who in actuality only made five spaghetti westerns in his career (and only seven full films in total). Leone was a huge American History buff, and had a distinct idea of how to portray the old west in a new and dynamic way. Though dialogue and plot were rarely important features in his films, he theorized that, "The west was made by violent, uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures." Leone embraced the pacing of the western genre, but added a layer of complexity to its morals by pointing out that it was the characters within that period for whom morals were black and white, not the director behind the camera. Leone's moral outlook, his juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, and his work with composer Ennio Morricone make his films, and in particular, his spaghetti westerns fully distinct from the work of any other director.

Leone's first, and most problematic, western, A Fistful of Dollars shows all of these traits in full force. The film is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (so much so that Kurosawa is said to have sent Leone a note reading, "It is a very fine film, but it is my film." Kurosawa later won a copyright infringement suit against Leone), which was in itself a Japanese riff on the American western. Leone coasts through most of the film on Kurosawa's visual schemes, placing his "Man with No Name" (Clint Eastwood, who by the way has at least a nickname in all three of the so called "Man with No Name" movies. Here, he is Joe, in For a Few Dollars More he is Manco, and in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly he is Blondie. To avoid using the misnomer, I will refer to the three as "The Dollars Trilogy" from here on out) in the middle of a dusty street with opposing gangs entrenched at either end and watching him play one side against the other while hoping to come out on top himself.



The larger problem with A Fistful of Dollars is not that it is an unofficial remake so close to the original as to actually be distracting, but that Leone has chosen to work with a conventional plot, and one that involves double-crosses on top of triple-crosses to boot. The film is at its best when it ignores its plot entirely, giving into long shots of the quiet desert, or close ups of the cold eyes of its characters. Leone's movies are not focused on plotlines or development; they are about existential self-definition in an era where a man could fully redefine himself by climbing on his horse and riding one town over where he could easily be just a stranger in a strange land. As such, Leone does much better when he is allowed to build the tension that develops just before a shoot out, or pan across the desert while Ennio Morricone's score defines what exactly it would have been like to ride across these uninhabited plains with barely even a road to guide or constrain you. Critic Richard Jameson once described Leone's films as, "operas in which the arias are not sung but stared" and in fact, the best moments in Leone's films often come when the guns are about to start blazing and he lingers in extreme close up on the eyes of those about to do battle. This seems as good a time as any to point out the Leone's very distinct alteration between long shots and close ups is not entirely a matter of style, but in fact was partially derived from the limitations of Techniscope, the cheap process of wide-screening film that Leone used to keep his budgets low, which did not function well in middle distances. However, the interspersing of epic long shots and detailed close ups also fits with the worldview Leone espoused, where the world is an expansive and empty moral vacuum, in which sheer will and the number of bullets in your gun are the only currency that actually makes a difference.



This leads Leone to populate his films with taciturn characters who spout philosophical worldviews whenever they take the trouble to talk at all. Eastwood's character in A Fistful of Dollars lives by the creed, "When a man's got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace," while Gian Maria Volonte's rugged gangster believes, "When a man with a Winchester meets a man with a pistol, the man with the pistol is a dead man."

Leone hits the mark with For a Few Dollars More, where his style seems to cohere with the story (which becomes much simpler than in the previous film). The film opens with a title card reading "When life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. This is why the bounty killers appeared," and follows Eastwood's bounty hunter as he teams up with an older killer (an excellent Lee Van Cleef) to bring down a murderous gang leader (Volonte). A few flashbacks play up a history between Van Cleef and Volonte, which pays off in one chilling line near the film's end, but that is all the plot development Leone needs before letting these three loose on each other. All of the emotion the characters feel can be conveyed through close up, which works perfectly to add layers to characters who couldn't be less verbose, and the epic stage on which they fight their battle of wills is set up again by Leone's masterful long shots. Morricone's score simultaneously captures the epic struggle between predator and prey and the tragic undercurrent that has lead Van Cleef down a path he would regret if he took occasion to feel.





While For a Few Dollars More is better than A Fistful of Dollars, and is in fact a very good film, it still feels in places like a dry run for Leone's masterpiece, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a three hour epic that again eschews the plot (which, quite simply, sets the titular characters against each other on a quest to be the first to get to $200,000 in buried gold) in favor of an immersive experience that draws the audience in to the philosophical posturing of three diverse figures and sets their battle against the backdrop of the Civil War. Each character has their own distinct worldview, which is played out across three hours before coming to a head in the film's legendary Mexican standoff in a cemetery. Without the preceding hours spent with the characters, their showdown might seem like the logical conclusion to a tale of greed, yet knowing all we have learned about them, the tension that the final sequence builds gives us time to think about how each character got to this point, and what they might do when the shooting starts.



The verbose Tuco (Eli Wallach), the title's "The Ugly," who uttered the line that opened this week's column believes that there are two kinds of people, "Those with a rope around their neck, and those who have the job of doing the cutting." His sometimes partner, sometimes rival Blondie (Clint Eastwood), "The Good" thinks similarly, that "In this world, there's two kinds of men: Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig." And Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), "The Bad" thinks more simply, "["¦] the pity is when I'm paid, I always follow my job through." Leone sets the film up as a struggle between three philosophies, and his ideas about which are superior and which will fail are played out against a sea of poetic violence and empty landscapes. The battle between these three men and the philosophies they represent actually comes to be more important, in Leone's eyes, than the Civil War that is going on all around them, as at one point Blondie looks at a battlefield and sighs, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." In Leone's mind, violence can be meaningful, but it can just as easily be pointless. There are battles worth fighting in his world, and battles it would be better to walk away from. Knowing the difference takes a level of wisdom only some of his characters ever attain.





Leone completed his meditation on the American West with Once Upon a Time in the West (though he would return to the western with Duck, You Sucker which is set in Mexico during the Revolution), which is fittingly set during the advent of the transcontinental railroad, which heralds the arrival of civilization and marks the death of the old west. The film follows the struggle between Frank (Henry Fonda, playing against type as a cold hearted killer), Harmonica (Charles Bronson), Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and, to a lesser extent, Jill (Claudie Cardinale) who inherits the land at the center of the film's struggle. Jill's new husband purchased the land years ago in anticipation of the railroad's arrival, knowing the his property had the only large source of water for miles, and that the railroad would need to buy his land to come through the area. When a railroad tycoon learns of this, he sends Frank to intimidate the man, and Frank kills him and his three children, leaving the land in the possession of the newly arrived Jill. Throughout the film Frank attempts to leave his past as a gunslinger behind and become the sort of businessman that society will expect to find when it reaches the frontier, yet he is continually driven back to violence by a past that haunts him and has caused Harmonica to pursue him endlessly.





Throughout his work, Leone intersperses long shots and close ups, integrates the brilliant scores by Ennio Morricone, and creates characters that fully sum up a world view he hopes to examine. The work of Ennio Morricone alongside Leone cannot be undervalued, (which is why I have included segments of Morricone's scores for each film above. Trust me, they're worth it) and in fact, Morricone scored A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More before production even began on the films (an event so unusual, I briefly considered the possibility that Morricone was himself an auteur, though that is an entirely different column) allowing Leone to play the scores on set and perfectly time the action to the score, inverting the common practice. Leone used his distinct style and individual outlook to shape his westerns, altering the genre immensely and changing the way we view westerns to this day. From aping Kurosawa, Sergio Leone quickly grew into a unique voice, examining the role of self-definition and personal morals in an era where authority was corrupt and law and order was nowhere to be found.


Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

9/26: Ingmar Bergman

10/10: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: George Romero

10/24: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: John Carpenter

11/7: James Cameron
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