Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was an Italian film director, well known for his Dollars Trilogy, which includes A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which also established Clint Eastwood as a star.
Sergio Leone was virtually born into the cinema - he was the son of Roberto Roberti (aka Vincenzo Leone), one of Italy's cinema pioneers, and actress Bice Valerian. Leone entered films in his late teens, working as an assistant director to both Italian directors and American directors working in Italy (usually making Biblical and Roman epics, much in vogue at the time).
By his own reckoning, he worked on about 50 Italian and American films in the 1950s, mainly as an assistant director. Hollywood productions flocked to Rome during this period to utilise the cheap facilities and use up local profits from American films, which Italian law demanded be spent within Italy. Leone’s credits from this time include Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955), William Wyler’s remake of Ben-Hur (1959) and Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959).
On the end of the 1950s he started writing screenplays, and began directing after taking over The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) in mid-shoot after its original director fell ill. His first solo feature, The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), was a routine Roman epic, but his second feature, Fistful of Dollars (1964), a shameless remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), caused a revolution. Although it wasn't the first spaghetti Western, it was far and away the most successful, and shot former TV cowboy Clint Eastwood to stardom (Leone wanted Henry Fonda or Charles Bronson but couldn't afford them).
As an Italian best known for making European Westerns, American critics have generally regarded his contributions to the genre with suspicion or outright contempt. Conversely, Leone was too populist to ever be completely accepted, at least in English-speaking countries, as an ‘art house’ figure. He directed only seven films, of which six are generally considered ‘films by Sergio Leone’, his debut being a straight forward studio product from the Cinecittà production line. His most famous works are the films of the so-called ‘dollars-trilogy’: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). All of these star Clint Eastwood, are extremely violent, and enjoyed great box-office success.
None of his last three films were huge money-earners, and his final work, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was butchered by his American backers when released in the United States. Despite the fact that his stylistic flourishes have now become shorthand for ‘the West’ in countless television commercials and Hollywood movies, his enormous influence on the Western has never been fully recognised in America. To this day, European Westerns are rarely even mentioned in English-language considerations of the genre. To understand why this is so, it is necessary not only to understand something of Leone’s background, but the particular manner in which this background coloured his inflection of American genre conventions.
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