Sergio Leone is often thought of as an ironic and humorous filmmaker, a mischievous genre deconstructionist. But though his films have plenty of humor and wit and mischief, they also contain great beauty and depth and insight. Though he may have worked most famously in a genre largely considered pulp—the Western—but Leone was one of the great cinematic artists.
Pacific Film Archive is presenting seven of Leone’s best films, starting Saturday and running through Oct. 28.
Leone is best known for his films with Clint Eastwood, the so-called “spaghetti westerns” in which the director deconstructed and built upon the traditions of a uniquely American genre. The “Dollars Trilogy” culminated in perhaps his most beloved film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967). But his masterpiece is Once Upon a Time in the West, (1968) a nearly three-hour epic that re-imagines the great myths and imagery of western expansion.
Leone did not merely deconstruct and caricature the Western, he revitalized it, bringing a greater depth and mystery to its vistas and villains. He delved into the roots of the form’s archetypes, digging up the primal thoughts, emotions and characters that inhabited the landscape. And then he magnified it all; he distilled the genre to its essence and then spread it on thick in deep sepia tones.
But it is the faces of his characters, even more than the dramatic Monument Valley backdrop, that provide Once Upon a Time in the West’s most enduring images. Leone deepened the impact of the close-up, juxtaposing and equating the rugged terrain of the landscape with the equally rugged terrain of the human face, each giving greater significance to the other. The eyes of his sweat-soaked, sun-scarred outlaws reflect the landscape and imbue it with meaning, and the landscape shapes the characters who survey it.
Though the widescreen format is ideal for shooting vast panoramic landscapes, it poses problems for photographing people. Close-ups must crop the face above the eye, and still leave wide swaths of wasted open space on either side. Leone made use of these limitations brilliantly, however, bringing his camera in even tighter and expertly balancing close-up faces on one side of the frame with open vistas on the other.
Leone’s masterful use of the widescreen format is particularly evident in the scene where Jill arrives at the McBain ranch to find the bodies of her husband and his children laid out on tables in the dooryard. The body of her husband, his head in the lower left corner of the frame, slants upwards across the frame to where Jill’s grief-stricken face is positioned in the upper right. Across the frame to the left of her is a group of attentive neighbors dressed in black, and behind them the rugged hills as backdrop. In one expertly composed image, Leone tells the whole story.
Leone knew how to move his camera as well. One of the most stirring moments in any Western comes when Jill first arrives in Flagstone, hoping to find her new husband waiting for her at the train station. She waits and watches in vain as the throng of passengers moves past until she finally heads into the station office. And here begins a brilliant marriage of form and content: Leone’s camera follows her to the door and then watches through the window as she asks for directions from the station agent. The agent guides her through a door on the opposite side of the building as Leone lifts his camera above the window, up the wall and over the roof, and as the music swells we get our first look at the town, all construction and bustling activity. It is the birth of the West, and we encounter it along with Jill, who is soon to become its guiding feminine life force. Indeed, it is as if the town only comes to life once she lays eyes on it. It is a shot full of the promise, the legend, the myth and the glory of the West, achieved with simple but masterful technique.
Claudia Cardinale, as Jill, is in fact the cornerstone of the film. Though the photogenic Italian’s voice was dubbed by an actress with a better grasp of English, Cardinale was not cast simply as eye candy, but for her expressive face and her ability to project a mix of weariness and determination. In the scene at the station and again toward the end of the film, when Harmonica walks into the house only to announce his departure, Cardinale demonstrates her talent in close-ups that see her effortlessly transition from happy anticipation to crestfallen disillusionment to iron-willed perseverance. Her face is beautiful yet damaged, once by the life she has escaped and again when the life she hopes to escape to is ripped from her grasp. And again Leone demonstrates his knowledge and faith in the terrain of the human face, patiently holding the camera’s gaze on Jill as the emotional change overtakes her features.
As the New Orleans hooker turned pioneer homesteader, Jill may at first seem like a mere variation on a stock Western character. But Leone is after something else here. Throughout the film, Jill is consistently associated with water—the water that runs beneath the dream of a town that will be known as Sweetwater; the water that will fuel the heaving, churning steam train that represents progress; the water she heats for the weary Cheyenne’s coffee; the hot bath with which she renews herself after suffering the world’s degradations; and the water she brings to the thirsty railroad workers in the film’s closing shot. She is the life force of this brave new world, the madonna that gives birth to this new land. And though the moments when her clothing is torn or barely held together by flimsy string may seem at first like simple exploitation, there is greater significance in these images. For in the end it will be her strength and determination that shine through the dust and violence, just as it is her beauty and courage that are unleashed once her dandified city clothes are torn apart, the phony veneer of sophistication and respectability giving way to the earthy mother of the West.