Sergio Leone (3 January 1929 30 April 1989) was an Italian film director who almost single-handedly launched (and directed the most memorable movies of) the mid-sixties/early-seventies cycle of Spaghetti Westerns.
Leone was literally born into cinema: his father was silent film director Vincenzo Leone (often credited as Roberto Robertinote ), and his mother actress Bice Valerian. Although born in Naples, he spent most of his childhood in Rome, where he attended school with his future collaborator Ennio Morricone. His father took part in the anti-Nazi Resistance in Rome during World War II but forbade his teenage son to join him. Leone initially intended to become an attorney, but after several semesters at law school, dropped out to follow his father's footsteps instead.
After the war, Leone began his career as an assistant director, notably working on Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves and as an assistant to producer Dino de Laurentiis. In the 1950s he also served as an assistant on various Hollywood productions which filmed at Rome's Cinecitta studios, including Ben-Hur (1959) and The Nun's Story. Finally, in 1961 he was offered his debut film, a Sword and Sandal epic called The Colossus of Rhodes. As the sword-and-sandal boom had faded by then, Colossus was not a major hit. However, in 1963 Leone was approached by Jolly Film to direct a low-budget Western, and the rest is history.
His major films:
- A Fistful of Dollars — An inspired rip-off of Yojimbo, which effectively transplanted Kurosawa's Jidaigeki to The Wild West (and made Clint Eastwood a star). Together with the next two, it makes up the "Dollars" Trilogy.
- For a Few Dollars More — The sequel. It has Eastwood's "man with no name" and Lee Van Cleef's "man in black" as rival Bounty Hunters going after a Frank Booth-esque bad guy played by Gian Maria Volonté again. For one of them, It's Personal.
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — The Prequel, and one of the greatest films of the Western genre ever. Gold Fever, The American Civil War, lots of romantic subtext between the Villain Protagonist and the Supporting Protagonist, and an Ennio Morricone theme that has since become a Standard Snippet. Lee Van Cleef plays a completely different character, this time, the Big Bad.
- Once Upon a Time in the West — Leone's deconstruction of the entire Western genre, including his own previous films. Best known among film buffs for its stroke-of-genius casting: Charles Bronson as another "man with no name," smoky Claudia Cardinale as the Determined Widow whose fortunes drive the plot, and Henry Fonda as the villain. Best known to the rest of the world as the title that launched a thousand snowclones, including Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China, and Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
- A Fistful of Dynamite — Takes place during the Mexican Revolution in 1913, undoubtedly his most overlooked film. Suffered badly from Leone's conviction that Americans have ever used the phrase "Duck, you sucker!" (its original title).
- My Name Is Nobody — Leone's farewell to the genre he helped to create. Leone is credited as the producer, but directed several scenes himself. He also produced a follow-up, the In Name Only sequel called Nobody's the Greatest (or A Genius, Two Partners, and a Dupe).
- Once Upon a Time in America — Epic gangster movie set in New York during The Roaring '20s. Follows the rise of four boys in the criminal underworld.
Besides his directorial career, Leone produced a number of movies through his studio, Rafran (named after his children, Rafaella, Francesca and Andrea) in the '70s and '80s. Besides My Name is Nobody, his most successful were a series of comedies directed by and starring Carlo Verdone. At the time of his death, Leone had several projects in gestation, including a film based on the World War II Siege of Leningrad.
While Leone's Westerns were highly successful upon initial release, they were generally dismissed by contemporary critics, especially in America and the UK (not helped by the fact that many of his movies suffered from heavy cuts in their international releases). Nonetheless, their Gray-and-Grey Morality, stylized violence, iconic soundtracks by Ennio Morricone and unique visual style (contrasting widescreen Scenery Porn with extreme close-ups of his protagonists) proved extremely influential on subsequent filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino.