Nationality: Italian. Born: Rome, 3 January 1929. Education: Attended law school, Rome. Family: Son of director Vincenzo Leone; married Carla (Leone), 1960, three daughters. Career: Assistant to, then second unit director for, Italian filmmakers and American directors working in Italy, such as LeRoy, Walsh, and Wyler, 1947–56;
scriptwriter, from late 1950s; directed first feature, Il colosso di Rodi, 1961; headed own production company, Rafran Cinematografica, 1970s. Died: In Rome, April 1989.
Films as Director:
Il colosso di Rodi (The Colossus of Rhodes) (+ co-sc)
Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) (+ co-sc)
Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More) (+ co-sc)
Il buono il brutto il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) (+ co-sc)
C'era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West) (+ co-sc)
Giù la testa (Duck, You Sucker; Il était une fois la révolution) (+ co-sc)
Un genio due compari e un pollo (+ co-sc)
Once upon a Time in America (+ co-sc)
Nel segno di Roma (Sign of the Gladiator) (co-sc)
Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii) (Bonnard) (co-sc, uncredited co-d)
Sodoma e Gommorra (Sodom and Gomorrah) (Aldrich) (2nd unit d, co-d according to some sources)
My Name Is Nobody (story idea)
Il gatto (pr)
By LEONE: book—
Conversations avec Sergio Leone, edited by Noel Simsolo, Paris, 1987.
By LEONE: articles—
Interview, in Take One (Montreal), January/February 1972.
"Il était une fois la révolution," interview with G. Braucourt, in Ecran (Paris), May 1972.
"Pastalong Cassidy Always Wears Black," with Cynthia Grenier, in Oui (Chicago), April 1973.
Interview with M. Chion and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1984.
Interview with J.P. Domecq and J.A. Gili, in Positif (Paris), June 1984.
Interview with M. Corliss and E. Lomenzo, in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1984.
Interview with G. Graziani, in Filmcritica (Florence), October/November 1984.
Interview in Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 4, no. 12, March 1984.
Interview in Revue du Cinéma, no. 434, January 1988.
On LEONE: books—
Lambert, Gavin, Les Bons, les sales, les méchants et les propres deSergio Leone, Paris, 1976.
Frayling, Christopher, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans:From Karl May to Sergio Leone, London, 1981.
Cèbe, Gilles, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1984.
De Fornari, Oreste, Tutti i Film di Sergio Leone, Milan, 1984.
Cumbow, Robert C., Once upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.
Cressard, Gilles, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1989.
Mininni, Francesco, Sergio Leone, Paris, 1989.
De Cornare, Oreste, Sergio Leone: The Great American Dream ofLegendary America, Rome, 1997
Frayling, Christopher, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, New York, 2000.
On LEONE: articles—
Witonski, Peter, "Meanwhile . . . Back at Cinecitta," in Film SocietyReview (New York), Fall 1965.
Sarris, Andrew, in Village Voice (New York), 19 and 26 September 1968.
Frayling, Christopher, "Sergio Leone," in Cinema (London), August 1970.
Kaminsky, Stuart, in Take One (Montreal), January/February 1972.
Jameson, Richard, "Something to Do with Death," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1973.
Garel, A., and F. Joyeux, "Il etait une fois . . . le western: de Sergio Leone," in Image et Son (Paris), July 1979.
Nicholls, D., "Once upon a Time in Italy," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1980/81.
Mitchell, T., "Leone's America," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1983.
"Sergio Leone," in Film Dope (London), March 1986.
"Special Issue," Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 139, January-February 1989.
Cohn, L., obituary in Variety (New York), 3 May 1989.
Bertolucci, Bernardo, obituary in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1989.
Thomson, D., "Leonesque," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1989.
"Il Leone sorride: qu'est'ce que le cinéma?" in Segnocinema (Vicenza), vol. 10, no. 43, May 1990.
Starrs, P.F., "The Ways of Western," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 15, no. 4, December 1993.
* * *
Not since Franz Kafka's America has a European artist turned himself with such intensity to the meaning of American culture and mythology. Sergio Leone's career is remarkable in its unrelenting attention to both America and American genre film. In France, Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol have used American film as a touchstone for their own vision, but Leone, an Italian, a Roman who began to learn English only after five films about the United States, devoted most of his creative life to this examination.
Leone's films are not realistic or naturalistic visions of the American nightmare or fairy tale, but comic nightmares about existence. The feeling of unreality is central to Leone's work. His is a world of magic and horror. Religion is meaningless, a sham which hides honest emotions; civilization is an extension of man's need to dominate and survive by exploiting others. The Leone world, while not womanless, is set up as one in which men face the horror of existence. In this, Leone is very like Howard Hawks: as in Hawks's films, death erases a man. A man who dies is a loser, and the measure of a man is his ability to survive, to laugh or sneer at death. This is not a bitter point in Leone films. There are few lingering deaths and very little blood. Even the death of Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte) in Fistful of Dollars takes place rather quickly and with far less blood than the comparable death in Yojimbo. A man's death is less important than how he faces it. The only thing worth preserving in Leone's world is the family—and his world of American violence is such a terrible place that few families survive. In Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood's primary emotional reaction is to attempt to destroy the family of the woman Ramon has taken. In the later films, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once upon a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker and Once upon a Time in America, family life is minimal and destroyed by self-serving evil, not out of hatred but by a cold, passionless commitment to self-interest. Leone's visual obsessions contribute to his thematic interests. Many directors could work with and develop the same themes and characters, but Leone's forte lies in the development of these themes and characters in a personal world. No director, with the possible exception of Sam Fuller, makes as extensive us of the close-up as does Leone, and Leone's close-ups often show only a portion of the face, usually the eyes of one of the main characters. It is the eyes of these men that reveal what they are feeling—if they are feeling anything.
Such characters almost never define their actions in words. Plot is of minimal interest to Leone. What is important is examination of the characters, watching how they react, what makes them tick. It appears almost as if everything is, indeed, happening randomly, as if we are watching with curiosity the responses of different types of people, trying to read meaning in the slightest flick of an eyelid. The visual impact of water dripping on Woody Strode's hat, or Jack Elam's annoyed reaction to a fly, is of greater interest to Leone than the gunfight in which the two appear in Once upon a Time in the West. The use of the pan in Leone films is also remarkable. The pan from the firing squad past the church and to the poster of the governor, behind which Rod Steiger watches in bewilderment through the eyes of the governor's image, is a prime example in Duck, You Sucker. The shot ties the execution to the indifferent church, to the non-seeing poster, and to Steiger's reaction in one movement.
The apparent joy and even comedy of destruction and battle in Leone films is often followed immediately by some intimate horror, some personal touch that underlines the real meaning of the horror which moments before had been amusing. The death of Dominick and his final words, "I slipped," in Once upon a Time in America undercut the comedy and zest for battle. There is little dialogue; the vision of the youthful dead dominates as it does in the cave scene in Duck, You Sucker, in which Juan's family lies massacred.
At the same time, Leone's fascination with spontaneous living, his zeal for existence in the midst of his morality films, can be seen in his handling of details. For example, food in his films is always colorful and appetizing and people eat it ravenously.
The obsession of Leone protagonists and villains, major and minor, with the attainment of wealth can be seen as growing out of a dominant strain within American genres, particularly western and gangster films. The desire for wealth and power turns men into ruthless creatures who violate land and family.
Leone's films are explorations of the mythic America he created. Unlike many directors, he did not simply repeat the same convention in a variety of ways. Each successive film takes the same characters and explores them in greater depth, and Leone's involvement with this exploration is intense.
—Stuart M. Kaminsky