Sergio Leone | The Surrealist Western

Posted: June 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Cinema, Painting, Poetry, Quotes

Sur·re·al·ism: the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.

He gave back to the actors from the USA, the confidence that a western can be a great movie.

-Bernardo Bertolucci

When I go to the cinema, I’m often frustrated because I can guess exactly what is going to happen about ten minutes into the screening. So, when I’m working on a subject, I’m always looking for the element of surprise.

-Sergio Leone

A Sergio Leone film is an Ozu-esque journey into an arid, surreal land. The stories unfold at a pace that allows you to feel the passing of time like the best of post war Japanese cinema. The landscapes of the face, the expressions of the land, the scratchy gaze of taciturn men, Morricone’s wild, melodramatic score filling the dry air.

To watch a Leone film is to wait. The payoff will arrive, Sergio will always deliver, but you must wait and watch and wrap yourself in the languid pacing until the violence explodes in a flash. Then, it is time to wait again.

Leone was a big admirer of painters, especially the surrealists and Giorgio De Chirico in particular. You can see in De Chirico’s canvases that same bleak austerity that infuses Leone’s every frame. Leone shot many of his scenes on the same locations that Salvador Dali used in many of his nightmarish images from the 1930s. After filming the desert torture scene in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, Leone later told  cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli that it was shot “in a way that was worthy of the great surrealist painters.”

His slow hand is so far away from what is being show in theaters today with the emphasis on showing continual loud, explosive pay-offs, dispensing with the whole notion of earning a climax through suspense. Once Upon a Time in the West, the film I consider to be the height of Leone’s career, features about 15 pages of dialogue for a film that is well over three hours, following the maxim laid down by John Ford that true cinema is short on dialogue and long on action.

I’m a pessimist by nature. With John Ford, people look out of the window with hope. Me, I show people who are scared to even open the door. And if they do, they tend to get a bullet right between the eyes. But that’s how it is.

-Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) 1966

One of the best cinematic introductions of a character, Tuco makes his first appearance in the film, glass in his hair, mouth full of food, bottle of wine, leg of chicken, bursting through a window after having just killed three men that tried to ambush him.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Props like a simple mule-driven water wheel become gothic mechanisms in Sergio’s hands. Little details such as the need for the boy to duck twice during each rotation make a commonplace contraption into a bizarre device.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Designed and built by Carlo Simi, Leone’s interiors are substantial, heavy, and overbearing sometimes, with compositional motifs running throughout. There is a weighty permanence throughout the production design of all of his movies that differs from the clapboard, transient feel of Hollywood westerns.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The long torture scene in the desert is accessorized with Tuco’s pink parasol.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Shot like most Spaghetti Westerns in Almeria, Spain, Sergio, unlike other directors did not make the landscapes try to appear like the American West. He shot them as disturbing, alien terrains.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The ghost stagecoach appearing out of the desolation, carrying its cargo of the dead.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Each scene in a Leone film just feels slightly (sometimes overtly) bizarre, as if things real and recognizable, are just somehow, slightly, disturbingly off. His choice of props only help to build this tone. Here, Blondie plays with a kitten before he gets up to kill a man.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The iconic bathtub scene is one of the funniest moments in the film with Tuco telling the fallen assassin, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Eli Wallach, as he played the scene straight, said he never understood why everyone thought it was funny.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Leone’s attention to details and historical accuracy was famous but these elements were rendered so large and melodramatic, that they felt unreal in his hands, enough so that he had to show source photographs to some skeptics.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

There was a degree of realism in his movies, as surrealistic as they were, that always seemed to be missing from the Hollywood westerns of the thirties, forties and the fifties.

-Quentin Tarantino

The introductory shot to the Ecstasy of Gold sequence. It took two weeks and scores of men to make all of the graves.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The final showdown, a triangle of shooters in the circular plaza with the radiating spokes of graves.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

The main motif of the movie, the hangman’s noose, frames Tuco’s transformation from joy to anger in a slow reveal as the camera cranes upwards, letting both the viewer and Tuco discover the rope.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West) 1968

What they [Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci during the writing of Once Upon a Time in the West] were doing was something that is very common now but in 1967 was very uncommon, which is films about films. And in fact, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has called Leone the first postmodernist film director for this reason.

-Sir Christopher Frayling

One of the greatest opening sequences , the long languid set up of the arrival of Harmonica at the train station sets the pace for the rest of the film with exquisitely framed compositions, three legendary western character actors and a thick palpable tension as we wait. Almost no dialogue, Morricone’s natural ambient sounds score a’la John Cage; Jack Elam and the fly, Woody Strode and the dripping water, the sea of railroad ties. Sublime.

The greatest scene he ever directed was the opening sequence to Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s like a haiku poem, it’s flawless. I mean it’s extraordinary filmmaking.

-James Woods

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The famous mittens in Monument Valley filmed over and over again by John Ford. Shot by Leone, the landscape has never felt so enormous while at the same time, so much less majestic and picturesque than Ford’s treatments.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The way station is part stable, part saloon, part inn and is a baroque space, massively constructed. The alternating light and dark spots within the crowded heavy space gives this long scene a continual sense of unease.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The slaughtered family laid out on gingham picnic tables with wildflower garnish.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in front of Sweetwater Ranch. Designed and built by Carlo Simi, the massive structure, which still stands today in Almeria was made using lumber from Orson Welle’s failed Falstaff production. The formidable ranch does not even resemble a home at all. A Leone film is no place for a comforting, inviting homestead as in a typical western.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Jill shot through the lattice of the lace canopy which was a very unusual and original framing. Shots like this lent credence to the school that called Leone’s films ‘art westerns.’

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Figures either appear magically out of landscapes like apparitions or are swallowed up by them.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The fight sequence in the unfinished town has the most obvious Dali references with the painted clocks and the cheeky High Noon reference.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The hanging bed in the pueblo for the lovemaking/rape scene is bizarre and to Leone’s credit, it somehow makes sense and the viewer never questions why anyone would construct such a thing.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

One of the best sight gags in all of his movies, Jason Robard’s revolver in a boot.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

We’d have wonderful long lunches. Charlie Bronson would say ‘Wait, wait a minute, what is this? Why don’t we get back on the set and get working.’ Hank Fonda  and I would say, ‘Relax, Charlie. Relax. You’ll never get it like this again.’ It was a great atmosphere there.

-Jason Robards

Crippled and stuck in his self-imposed prison inside a luxury train car, a gothic gold cage descends from the ceiling, allowing Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to move around.

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

The arresting, out of focus image of the ghostly figure appearing out of the haze of the desert is repeated throughout the three hour film. Teasing the viewer, the mystery of the lone haunting figure is finally revealed during the final duel between Harmonica and Frank as the image finally comes into focus. One of the best pay-offs in the history of cinema, Leone takes the ultimate western cliche, that of revenge, and makes it as melodramatic and as epic as only he can.

The function of the flashback is Freudian…[Y]ou have to let them wander like the imagination or like a dream.

-Sergio Lenoe

Once  Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

There is a zoom shot into Charles Bronson’s eyes at the moment, the flashback of why he’s there on his mission, is told. That may be the biggest close-up of an actor’s eyes I have ever seen in my life. They completely fill the screen.

-John Carpenter

Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

When I say give me a ‘Sergio Leone’, I’m implying the feel that I want. It’s not just an extreme close-up. It’s not just a frame.

-Quentin Tarantino

…the eyes are the most important element to me. Everything can be read in them…

-Sergio Leone

Duck, You Sucker (Giù la testa) 1971

You can’t shoot a film as if you were putting a salami into its skin. From a project like [Kurosawa's] Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.

-Sergio Leone

The Clergy, American Big Business and Italian Upper Class rolling in the mud of a pig sty.

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

He had a huge canvas on which he worked, psychologically, historically, even in terms of the economic understanding of the development of America because you know that triptych, starting with Once Upon A Time in America, Duck, You Sucker, Once Upon A Time in The West…I mean there’s sort of the European- Marxist view of the founding of America at the hands of robber barons and organized crime. It’s not far from wrong by the way, if at all.

-James Woods

A little al fresco dining between Rod Steiger and James Coburn.

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

At one point, James Coburn slips away from Steiger, leaving only his mule and hat behind as a taunt.

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

These humorous and surreal moments come effortlessly and often in Duck, You Sucker.

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

I think a case can easily be made that Morricone and Leone may be the greatest composer-director collaboration in the history of film. Even as wonderful as the Hitchcock- Bernard Herrman collaboration was, it almost even isn’t comparable to how important Morricone was to Leone and Leone was to Morricone. You can’t even imagine the movies without Morricone’s music.

-Quentin Tarantino

James Coburn’s Irish partisan Sean tends to exit scenes with big bangs.

Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, 1971, Sergio Leone

The [John] Ford film I like most of all…is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about. In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West…Because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West…He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it.

-Sergio Leone

A hundred years from now, Leone will be one of the great, you know, he’ll be unequivocally up there with the greatest of them all.

On my deathbed, when someone says, ‘What was the greatest artistic experience you’ve ever had?’, it was working with Sergio Leone. There’s no doubt about it. It was the Everest of my life, you know. I never got a chance to tell him that because I was too young or confused or too shy to call him up and sort of say it. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was to say it so someone could hear it.

-James Woods


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