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Euphoria and Liberating Laughter: The Cinema of Sergio Leone

 | Director Profile |

  BY Adrian Martin

Sergio Leone

In a time that I think of as the heroic age of cinephilia, the early 1960s, film lovers were experiencing what seemed like the slow death of Hollywood and its studio system. The great American masters, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, were making their last, elegiac pictures. And alongside that, in a violent contradiction, cinephiles were simultaneously experiencing the rise of young, bold, confrontational, New Wave cinema movements all over the globe in France, Brazil, Italy, Poland and Japan. There must have been the feeling that one could see this drama unfold right before your eyes, at Film Festivals and in some special cinemas.

All around the world, in 1964, film critics encountered the first Western by Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars. You have to imagine the shock, the rupture of this historical moment in film history. It is not Leone’s best film and (as many commentators – and lawyers – have subsequently pointed out) it owes a great deal to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961). But A Fistful of Dollars, back then, was a poke in the eye for everybody. It was brash and angular and exhibitionistic, loud and vulgar and cartoonish, in a way that no film previously had been – at least, no film with this kind of runaway international success. A Fistful of Dollars offered a double spectacle, one that was both disquieting and invigorating: it was like seeing the death-throes of the Hollywood Western, violently displaced, reinterpreted and pulped to shreds in another country; yet it also suggested birth – the birth of a new kind of cinema.

Leone, like Kurosawa, was one of the first truly international filmmakers. I mean by this that he took the classic forms and genres of American cinema – the Western, the male buddy saga, the gangster movie – and he refashioned and reinvigorated them, often in cheeky, sardonic ways. And Leone’s revolution impacted on America’s own New Wave of the ‘60s: the Movie Brats such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Philip Kaufman who emulated Leone’s irreverence towards tradition and his willingness to experiment. This what critics including Bill Krohn in America and Noël Simsolo in France call the ‘boomerang effect’ of Leone’s films of the ‘60s – the way in which they took off from American cinema and then returned to it, in the process transforming it.[1]

Yet, beneath all the lurid violence and stylistic brashness of Leone’s Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars followed in rapid succession by For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good,The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – beneath all this cinematic birth and death, there was, from the start, something poignant, even grandiloquent, happening in Leone’s work, in his choice of stories and his very particular way of telling them. Krohn called Leone one of the cinema’s “great Romantic poets”. The beloved Australian critic Ivan Hutchinson (1928-1995) – long a Leone fan – agreed. In his book Movies on TV and Video, in an entry on the director’s final film Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he wrote: “In spite of its scenes of explicit sex and violence ... Leone’s overview of American society, its growth, its power, its corruption and (...) the beginning of its decline through its own excesses, is romantic rather than realistic”.[2] Hutchinson did not mean that romantic tag as a put-down – as if Realism is somehow always superior to Romanticism. Rather, there was always a duality, sometimes wrenching in Leone’s work, between a rough, cruel realism, and a yearning, sometimes sentimental Romanticism. The pull, the tension, between these two extremes is central to the power and dynamism of his cinema. 

Leone often referred to his films as “fairy-tales for adults” – with all the irony and complexity that formulation could imply. His movies seem to express both a heavy disenchantment with the dreams bequeathed to us by cinema and society, and an almost childlike desire for re-enchantment, for magic and wonder. And with the fairy-tale comes one of Leone’s favoured narrative forms: the form of the ‘once upon a time’ recollection or recall. In fact, there’s something about Leone’s movies that seems to attract the telling of once-upon-a-time-type experiences – the kind where people vividly remember when, where and how they first saw, or were first strongly affected by, a Leone film. 

Krohn, for instance, wrote a beautiful tribute called “The Planet Leone” when the director died in 1989. I consider this to be the finest piece of critical writing that exists on the director (in more recent years, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Jean-Marie Samocki and Philippe Ortoli have substantially added to the literature).[3] In his piece, Krohn includes his own once-upon-a-time recollection; it revolves around a famous moment in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). No one who has ever seen the film forgets this moment. It is a shot of Claudia Cardinale and Henry Fonda in a tight close-up seemingly standing up, facing each other very closely; it is hard to tell initially whether it is a scene of violent menace or violent passion (or both at once). Then the camera executes what Krohn describes as a ‘90 degree roll’: the whole screen tilts the figures from vertical to horizontal as it zooms out, revealing that they are in fact lying down in bed, with Fonda looming over Cardinale. The scene plays, in a visually punning way, on a certain visual and spatial disorientation. It is a very typical kind of showy camera movement in cinema these days but, back then in 1969, it jumped off the screen – it was really something new, something you only saw in extreme movies, excessively stylised works like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) or John Boorman’s Point Blank(1967). 

Krohn describes when, where and how he first saw this moment in Once Upon a Time in the West. It was “on a black-and-white TV with a group of friends who had recently graduated from film school”. This little group of friends, Krohn recalls, had been violently split apart by what he calls “esthetico-ideological disagreements”, in what was a hotly politicised period in film culture. But when the camera turned as it moved out from Cardinale and Fonda, Krohn says that their disagreements “evaporated in a communal outburst of glee and admiration”. What Krohn goes on to say about this experience is very telling. “We were responding, of course, to the sheer virtuosity of the thing. But our pleasure was also the pleasure of discovery, sharing the exhilaration of the artist in his own invention, embarking with him on a voyage into a new kind of mental space.”[4]

This essay is devoted to those qualities of exhilaration, virtuosity and pleasure; and the “new kind of mental space” in cinema that Leone largely inaugurated. But first, I too have a once-upon-a-time story to tell, one that might go some way towards explaining my attraction to this filmmaker. 

Duck, You Sucker (1971)

I was eleven years old when I first saw A Fistful of Dynamite, variously also known as Duck, You Sucker or Once Upon a Time in the Revolution or, in Italian, Giù la testa. I viewed it at a Hoyts cinema in central Melbourne; this was 1971. I was there because, every Saturday afternoon, my father took me to a Western – and in 1971, there were just enough Westerns left (if you include comedy Westerns and Italian Westerns) to allow this type of father-son bonding ritual. 

At the age of 11, I was not yet any kind of cinephile. But on that day in 1971, I was completely overwhelmed by the spectacle of A Fistful of Dynamite; I can truthfully say that I went into a trance of sheer bliss. After the session, I checked with my father and confirmed that neither of us had followed the plot past the first few scenes. For me, the experience had been a great stream of sensations: faces – incredible, weathered, male faces in close-up; sounds of frogs croaking in time with a thundering musical score; harsh, desert landscapes; and a compelling alternation of silent stillness and a mad, chaotic action full of yelps and cries, explosions and gunshots.

I treasured the primal memory of Fistful of Dynamite so much throughout the burgeoning of my teenage cinephilia that I assiduously avoided seeing the film again for a long time – some seventeen years, in fact. I would only allow myself to listen, obsessively, to an audiocassette of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack score. But when I reached the age of 28, I finally bit the bullet and cautiously slipped a rare VHS copy of Fistful of Dynamite (still far short of proper restoration) into my player. I was ready to be disappointed, as so often happens with movies you saw once, long ago, and loved when you were some other, more naive self. But this, about fifteen minutes into the film, is what I saw. 

Irish Sean (James Coburn) and Mexican Juan (Rod Steiger), two outlaw desperados, meet for the first time. Here is how it happens: the attentions of Juan and his band of thieves (who are also his many sons) are caught by a sudden, prodigious chain of explosions. Out of the smoke stirred by all this activity rides Sean, a well-groomed dandy on a motorbike, tall in the saddle. He indifferently sails right past Juan and the boys; in return, he gets a bullet in his back tire. He coolly hitches up the rear of his bike and, with the motor still running, takes a slow stroll up to Juan’s wagon. Then he throws something in the air, escorts a small child away from the vehicle, and calmly announces: “Duck, you sucker”. A hole is blown in the roof of the wagon by a small but powerful explosive.

Now Juan and his mob react. They pull out all their guns – an arresting, exaggerated, split-second soundscape of scraping and clicking noises. Sean, ever cool, warns them: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”. Opening his coat to reveal a vast armory of explosive devices assiduously organised and arranged, he adds: “You pull that trigger and shoot me, I fall. And if I fall, they’ll have to alter all the maps”.

Leone has built up the scene, step by agonising step, to a silent, suspenseful stand-off between these two leading men. But now, on a vivid close-up of Juan – the camera zooming into his manic, fiery eyes – a new direction is announced in this fateful confrontation of anti-heroes. We get a marvellous wide shot, almost a tableau image, of Sean standing stock still, his coat wide open. Morricone’s rag-tag orchestral combo of banjo, organ and strings makes way for a shrill, chattering choir. This image of Sean (we quickly realize, after a beat) is Juan’s point-of-view – and above Coburn’s figure appears, in animated roll-out, a scroll that reads: Banco Nacional de Mesa Verde. In the space of a few moments, this tense, modern Western has transformed itself dexterously into a Tex Avery cartoon – just as surely as Sean has changed, in Juan’s very eyes, from a mysterious, annoying enemy to an object of total desire, the instant path to unutterable wealth.

When I was 11 as when I was 28, I believe I had exactly the same experience watching this scene: I roared laughing, and wept, and was completely overcome by the majesty and gravity of these images, these sounds, these bodies. This is when and where the cinema began for me – my primal scene – with an experience of the materiality of the medium, something quite beyond literary abstractions of theme or theatrical notions of three-dimensional, psychological characters. Something irreducibly and tangibly cinematic was happening. And I believe that irreducible component of cinema – that pure cinema, if you like – was part of the shock of Leone’s first Westerns in the ‘60s, and why they cause a problem for so many critics then and still today.

The scene contains many Leone trademarks – what fans have come to know as his signature touches. First, there is a pronounced element that Michel Sineux calls the ritual aspect in Leone, the almost ceremonial way that he stages and choreographs the tense face-offs, the games of bluff that go on between his larger-than-life iconic characters.[5] Everything is played out in grave, gradual gestures that slowly accumulate tension. In a Leone film, the world is always a stage. Characters walk toward each other in a measured way; they introduce or comment upon everything they do with a one-liner – like “duck, you sucker”, which serves a refrain across the entire film. Indeed, Leone was the first master director (building upon the pioneering efforts of Robert Aldrich in Vera Cruz [1954]) of the one-liner, the precisely placed, explosive or laconic single line of dialogue – something that has become obligatory in action movies today.[6]

Another very important part of the scene-choreography or (as I prefer to say) scenography in Leone is the very theatrical way that each character receives an introduction. Sean’s intro here is pure Leone: riding serenely out of the smoke and chaos, in full regalia, not speaking a word for a while; he is a stranger from nowhere, a Man with No Name (as Clint Eastwood was known in Leone’s Westerns), no past. He is pure presence, pure show. There is a frieze-like effect, a static, pop-out impression, in Leone’s visuals, which had critics in the ‘60s comparing his visual style to that of Pop Art.

Next – and this is also in the Pop Art vein – let us note the cartoonish game with POV shots. When Sean first looks at Juan, the view is through his dirty, distorting goggles. And then – in what is one of the most euphoric moments of my entire cinema-going experience – Juan sees Sean with that scroll rolled out above his head. That is the kind of Leone touch which subsequent filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Raúl Ruiz have taken much further, framing shots through bullet holes in bodies, or from the inside of someone’s mouth. It is also what links Leone in cinema history back to Michael Powell, who offered this kind of outrageous, hilarious image often. Both Powell and Leone were fascinated with thinking about pure film in a very musical way: images married to music, and to a precise series of sound and noise events - to the point where the entire cinematic universe, its total spectacle, appears to be governed by musical principles of tempo and sudden dynamics of crescendo and contrast.

Another important facet of Leone’s scenography is that he is an incredible tease as a director; the form of his scenes suggests a spectacular striptease, where not everything is shown all at once. We can use a game metaphor, scenes with the performative dynamics of a card game: not all the cards are laid out all at once, certain items of information, certain moves are kept in reserve. It is important, the first time that Sean lights his explosive and throws it in the air, that the other characters in the scene – and we, the viewers – are not exactly sure what is happening for a moment. Those slightly illegible, unreadable, mysterious moments of confusion are all-important in Leone. The great critic Serge Daney once remarked that, like Hitchcock in the thriller genre, like Jacques Tati in the comedy genre, Leone was always constructing a cunning rebus, a sort of puzzle built up from a succession of clues, cues and fragments.[7]

Leone’s approach to a scene is always a mosaic one. It was from the Australian film editor Ken Sallows that I learnt something which I have since realised permeates Leone’s work at every turn: what editors call the reveal, where you hold some detail in a scene back for a while and then finally show it at an optimum moment. That could be any kind of detail: the gun on a desk, the character who has been standing in the doorway listening all along, the landscape behind one of the actors. 

Leone was a great artist of the reveal, which he could use for the purposes of comedy or tragedy, of action or introspection, alike. The reveal in Leone is not just a matter of how shots are cut together but also how he uses and moves his camera; Leone’s formal choreography is very holistic in this way. A typically grave or solemn moment in a Leone film is one in which the camera will slowly move to a spot where it shows the back of a character whom we did not previously know was there in the space: at that moment, the eye or mind of the camera seems to become the eye or mind of that character, absorbing the scene and its dramatic implications. Once Upon a Time in America has many beautiful moments of this sort. 

Some filmmakers we recognise because of their penchant for singular, striking images, bold compositions at key points, high points of a scene: Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento or (in a different key) Andrei Tarkovsky. Leone belongs to an even more excessive, exhibitionistic tradition: every shot is striking; he is always modulating up and down on a basically Expressionistic scale. But I never think of Leone as a bombastic or monotonous film stylist. He was a master of timing and layering. Like an orchestra conductor, he would very gradually and carefully bring in, or bring up each formal element. Now the light will perform, as it emerges from darkness and eventually returns to darkness (as in the Expressionist or ‘Caligarist’ films of F. W. Murnau); now the monumental, iconic bodies of the actors will enter the frame; now the music will do a little dance, and now other sounds can be introduced to colour the scene, to pinpoint or highlight certain key events; now the editing can accelerate or decelerate; now the camera can start to move, or slow down its movement before resuming a static, contemplative position. And so on.

What is Leone’s place in the film canon, in the history of what gets said, taught and written about film? The answer to this question is quite disturbing. Krohn has remarked upon the “tone of defensiveness and grudging approval” evident in even some of the best scholarly studies of Leone’s work – a note of uncertainty, equivocation or special pleading in relation to the quality and significance of the films in question. Leone’s place in the film history canon is, it must be said, a paradoxical, uneasy one. On the one hand, Leone has influenced, and continues to influence, hundreds of key filmmakers, from the American movie brats I have mentioned through to George (Mad Max) Miller, John Woo and Robert Rodriguez – even the supreme Austrian avant-gardist Peter Tscherkassky has devoted a reworked found-footage masterpiece to Leone, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine(2005). Beyond cinema, in the realm of art, post-Warholian Popism draws much from Leone – another boomerang effect at work – as in Maria Kozic’s remarkable painting series Western Spaghetti (Venice Biennale, 1986).[8] And the impact of Leone on ironic pop music is another epic tale altogether, as is evident (to take only one of a hundred examples) in Magnifico’s brilliant 2007 video The Land of Champions (“It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy … down in Yugoslavia”).

Leone has influenced independent and experimental filmmakers from the Brazilian Glauber Rocha to the French-Chilean Ruiz. Many of the most esteemed art-house epics of the past twenty years, including Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1995), are recognisably Leonesque in many of their dimensions. Outright homages to Leone’s work abound in films as diverse as The War of the Roses (1989), Unforgiven (1992), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) and The Right Stuff (1983), not to mention full-out Leone tributes like Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) and Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995). Leone is widely regarded as the filmmaker’s filmmaker, his movies a lasting inspiration and also an inexhaustible bag of tricks to be merrily plundered. But when lists of the Top 10 or Top 50 films of all time are compiled (like for instance the poll that Sight and Sound magazine takes every ten years), the usual suspects rarely include a Sergio Leone film. 

This overlooking and underrating of Leone, this criminal neglect, has everything to do with the work’s show-off qualities. Leone’s cinema is one of spectacle, display, histrionics. It is the palpable material thrill, that “exhilaration of the artist in his own invention”, that irreducibly cinematic sensation of pure film. Yet to be a practitioner of pure film is not necessarily a blessing in our sophisticated film culture; to be tagged a pure filmmaker is something of a backhanded compliment, and even a damnation. Old-fashioned literary standards of artistic evaluation die very hard – contrary to a popular, misguided perception that they are long dead and gone. What this means in practice is that a film considered all style and little content, all surface and no depth, risks being cast out as trivial, a mere exercise, of minor significance at best.[9] Even some of the most feverish and loving fans of Leone fall in line with these dubious criteria: in an estimable publication, one such fan avows that there is “no profound content” in Leone’s films, only an “incredible quality of ornamentation”; while another states that his plots, containing “nothing exceptional”, are merely pretexts for the vertiginous flight of his “melancholic and sumptuous, earthy and baroque” style.[10]

Krohn asks a good question and sets a fine direction for the appreciation and study of Leone’s films, when he writes: why should there be a defensive reaction in front of a Leone movie, when “euphoria and liberating laughter would seem [a] more appropriate” reaction? Euphoria and liberating laughter: this is the effect, emotional and intellectual, of Leone’s exhibitionism, his carving of a new mental space where we join in the cunning guess-work, in the games of hiding and revealing, in the brutal play with character and genre stereotypes, and the shattering of cherished narrative and dramatic conventions. Leone’s cinema is convulsive, grinning – and that does not rule out the fact that it also is, often, very sad and reflective. 

Let us now consider a famous set-piece from a Leone masterpiece: the opening of Once Upon A Time in the West, which shows three hired guns killing time as they wait for a train that is carrying their target to arrive. There have been wonderful evocations or re-descriptions of this scene by some of the best writers in film criticism. Richard Jameson and David Thomson have captured the aura, the air, the ethos of this scene, the way it presents a kind of pure Western, a super-Western; the way it gives you a compacted diagram of how this genre pits a savage, lawless wilderness against a fragile civilisation (symbolised as always by an incoming train); and the way the scene fills you instantly with the grimy atmosphere of impending and senseless death, like some absurdist, existentialist ceremony.[11] There’s the Pop Art, cartoon element again in those faces – literal, physical quotations of great Western faces, belonging to Woody Strode and Jack Elam. There’s the comedy, the propensity for ludicrously extended, expanded, stretched-out gags in Leone: this comedy of stiff male Stoicism, where one mean hombre derives pleasure from the sound of water collecting on the top of his hat, another gets his jollies from the desperate sound of the insect imprisoned in his gun barrel, and the third just likes cracking the bones of his fingers.

But above all, I believe, the euphoria and liberating laughter come from the fact that this is an extraordinarily virtuosic opening scene, virtuosic on every material and formal level – a pure, playful performance of the film medium itself on all its registers. Bernardo Bertolucci said something simple but profound when Leone died: “His movies are good directly at the surface level”.[12] Even the credits, in the way they appear, are part of this performative fun. In this first set-piece, fourteen and a half minutes long, dialogue hardly figures; not meaningful or intelligible dialogue, anyway, just some mumbles, squawks and grunts, leading eventually to a few hard-boiled one-liners. The soundscape is extraordinarily musical in its build-up and bring-down, with various artificially recreated components – creaking windmill, blowing wind, squeaking door, buzzing mosquito and so on – mixed in and out as dramatically and scenographically required. It takes all of eleven minutes for the first note of Ennio Morricone’s score to enter this scene: it starts inside the fiction with a lone harmonica, and then overlaid on its melodic structure is an eerie string sound that seems to recall the wind and the screeching train wheels – and that kind of mix of registers, sliding between levels, is very characteristic of the radical work that Morricone did with Leone. And finally, when the stand-off is over and the bullets have been fired, we return abruptly to that sole sound of the windmill.

We only see that windmill in the last moments of the scene – another Leone reveal. Far more dramatic, of course, is the revelation of Harmonica’s figure that has been deliberately hidden by the train. Visually, compositionally, the scene is just as stunning as its soundtrack: note the stylistic tendency, seized on by Leone after Samuel Fuller’s pioneering efforts, to exaggerate the difference in editing between wide vistas (in which each character is theatrically positioned) and extreme, disorienting close-ups.

The essential principle of Leone’s grand, operatic, florid style – whether in its most outrageously over-the-top moments, or its quietest, most subtle ones – is the poetic interrelation of the cinematic functions of time and space. Of course, no film can avoid using time and space, with greater or lesser degrees of expressive mastery. But few, I would argue, have gone as far as Leone in marrying the audience’s sense of dramaturgical space – the tensions, the possibilities instantly conjured by the respective positions of people and objects – to our enforced experience of screen duration, how time can be made to pass on screen. As Vincent Ostria has put it, for Leone “time is a means for exaggerating the density and intensity of space”.[13] And space, in its open vastness or claustrophobic closeness, is a means for carving out a particular, weighty sense of time.

Time is not just a stylistic matter in Leone; it opens up a fistful of his grandest romantic themes – time, memory, history as lived, often painfully, on both the individual and collective, social scales – with those two frames of experiences (the individual and the social) often on a tragic collision course. In this light, we must consider Leone as a poet alongside some other tough and tortured Romantics of cinema, such as Max Ophuls, Kryzstof Kieslowski and Wong Kar-Wai. In many ways, the new mental space that Leone’s films invite us to enter is governed by this fraught, tragic sense of time. Yet cinema is the liberated and liberating time-machine par excellence – and few directors were more obsessed with flashbacks and flashforwards, the gradual reliving and recovery of primal, traumatic scenes, and the splintered pieces of time-crystals, than Leone. 

It is not just the characters that remember in a Leone film. In a particularly vivid instance of what Raymond Bellour calls cine-repetition, we are all asked to recall, to retrieve, to piece together the rebus of a story, a history, an identity.[14] Raymond Durgnat’s description of Theo Angelopoulos holds true for Leone: his overall theme is “Time, Lifetime, History. Not nice nostalgia, but the bitterness of lifetimes wasted, of geography (the same places) betrayed by history (changed states)”.[15]

As suggested earlier, Leone’s fairy tales for adults have a double edge. In terms of the march of time, and the wounds it inevitably inflicts on Leone’s anti-heroes, the fairy tale mode offers a cool, hard reminiscence or remembrance of things past – but also a kind of balm, a soothing, a road to fantasy. This is essentially the story, and the deep psychic logic, of Leone’s final testament-film, Once Upon a Time in America. This was both a summation and a departure for Leone. It offered a deeper reflection than ever on cinema – and on cinephilia, the mad love or desire for cinema. This gangster film epic is like a search for lost origins, fantasies of a golden time and place that never were. It is worked out in the temporal structure of either an opium dream or an opium-induced flashback – the film maintains a careful ambiguity on this point. Many commentators have pointed out that the opium den is a kind of primal picture theatre, with its shadow puppets and supine spectators. And it is the cinema itself – particularly the great Hollywood cinema – which figures as a lost origin, the lost home to which we must all return, all the while working out the difference between this fantasy and the reality pressing in around us. Here, Leone’s style turned more than ever before to the funereal and the elegiac. 

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

I have been stressing the style and the rhetoric of Leone’s cinema. But he also had his favourite, recurring themes, characters, plots and situations. Once Upon a Time in America gives us many of these; it is almost a Leone anthology. There is Leone’s obsession with what he called “virile friendship”, the deep but treacherous relationship between men. There is the theme of a Twilight of the Gods: remarkable individuals, like cowboys or gangsters, eclipsed and tricked by time, history and changing social circumstances. There is the theme of memory or recall as both the recovery of one’s own complete identity – think of the narrative structure attached to the figure of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon a Time in the West, the flashbacks that gradually come into focus and fill out – but also as the mark of a loss, dissipation or exhaustion of the self. And there is the spectacle and the problem of masculinity itself, celebrated in all its vulgar, phallic rudeness, but also mourned as a site of intense dysfunction and perpetual loss. In this light, Noodles (Robert De Niro) in Once Upon a Time in America is the archetypal Leone hero, a man beset by a fatal ‘original sin’, which is his propensity towards impulsive, reckless violence – and also wracked by an inability to sort out his oceanic feels of love, longing and need from his aggressive impulses.

I confessed to a dear friend, shortly after seeing Once Upon a Time in America for the first time, that its final scene – and especially its final shot – made me weep in a completely inconsolable way. (As it happens, only two other films have affected me in quite this way: Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar [1966] and Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In [1993].) But my friend was able to testify to an even more remarkable experience. She told me that she began crying at a precise moment of the film twenty five minutes in – even though she had no idea whatsoever where the plot was going and what specific sadness it would entail – and that she could scarcely stop sobbing for the subsequent three hours and fifteen minutes. This scene had stirred me, too – and it still gets to me, many viewings and thirteen years later, in a way that I am yet unable to entirely explain.

The passage in question does not even constitute a whole scene. It is a matter of six shots, and a part of a seventh, a passage defined by the start and end of Morricone’s extraordinary music. These shots constitute an absolute cinephilic moment for me – encapsulating what Barrett Hodsdon once called the “mystique of mise en scène”. [16] There is not only a mystique at stake, but also a mystery: the fact that the emotion this scene can prompt seems so utterly excessive in relation to the simple, even banal actions that are literally depicted.

A transition takes us into these sublime 190 seconds of cinema. At the end of the previous scene, Noodles stands impassively at the side of a Jewish graveyard that is being dug up; as he bows his head in sombre reflection, the first low, long-held note of “Deborah’s Theme” is faded up through the machine roar. Then we cut to the first shot of this new scene: a neon sign declaring “Fat Moe’s” is flickering uncontrollably. The camera is looking through the window from a higher-than-human vantage point; now it cranes down to frame the “Drinks and Sandwiches” neon as Moe enters and switches off the signs. It is a shock to see, once more, a character who was young on screen only minutes before now old and grey, slow and stooped. 

The camera stays outside looking in for the entire one and three quarter minutes of this shot. Now it tracks laterally, following Moe (Larry Rapp) to a table where he begins to hustle out his last customers. We hear only murmurs from their insignificant conversation; the music is the driving, organising force in the soundtrack mix. All the action in this shot evidently was choreographed to match the modulations of the musical score – Leone is famous for using a rough version of the music on set, in order to guide the movements of the actors, and enhance the mood of the scene. 

Still on its lateral path, the camera moves back, reframing a little more widely, as that first batch of customers files out. Moe stops at another table, pours one more drink for a last, lost soul; as he does so, the phone begins to ring. Another ringing phone! – the very sound carries so many ghostly associations since its initial, dramatic appearance in the opening scene.[17] Moe moves to pick up the receiver and the camera tracks across to reframe him through the glass panes of the front door of his establishment.  His lips move – he is further from the camera than before, so this time we hear no words at all – and picturesque steam or smoke from the street fogs up our view. A sudden fogging up, thickening or filling of the image (through various pictorial means) regularly signals, in this film, the beginning of a process of recall, an imminent falling back into the past: speak, memory.

Moe turns his body towards our gaze, but his head is down. Evidently agitated by this message, he bangs the receiver on the bar (this we hear) without hanging it up, and hurries over to the customer. More smoke, and a passer-by or two, as Moe persuades the man to leave by squeezing some money into his hand. As this exit is accomplished, the camera pulls back more ostentatiously now, and begins to sweep upwards, as the musical theme modulates into its more stirring, second part. As the man walks away down the street, the camera suddenly swoops down and, as if magically, reveals the phone booth directly across from Moe’s bar from where this unsettling call is coming. It is Noodles, lips moving, speaking words we cannot hear under the grand, emotional sweep of the music.

This first shot is a classic long take, an orchestration of bodies, gestures, movements and spaces over a luxuriant fullness of time, the mystique of mise en scène that all true cinephiles love in the films of Ophuls, Theo Angelopoulos, Vincente Minnelli or Kenji Mizoguchi. But it is not this shot by itself but the way it cuts into the next that secures the intense emotion of this scene – Leone was a wizard not only of the master shot but also of découpage, the overall, expressive plan of a sequence of shots. The film jumps to a set-up right around the other side of the booth, situated between bar and telephone; in a movement that has the gravity of some inexorable force behind it, Noodles turns, and the camera zooms in to his face. He is still speaking, but all that matters here are the eyes, and the gaze towards (we presume) Moe in the bar – and what a solemn, weighty gaze it is.

On my hundredth as on my first viewing of Once Upon a Time in America, I find this second shot of the scene overpowering in its effect. All it shows – according to strict plot-function – is an old guy on a phone. But what a reservoir of dramatic emotion and poetic meaning is contained in these plotless shots in Leone’s testament film – the same kind of oceanic charge that Scorsese works into the wordless flurry of gazes, light glimmers and flashback-apparitions that concludes The Age of Innocence (1993); a scene in which the hero’s identity, his whole biography and life-trajectory is folded over in an act of memory, but also emptied out in sadness: a very Leonesque feeling.

The film gives us a moment to recover, unbind, after this high point of the scene. Another shot of the bar, passers-by, a less intense, upward-tinkle of notes in the musical score. A quick return to the set-up of Noodles in the booth, hanging up. Now the emotion begins to build again. The fifth shot, from inside the bar, follows Moe (zooming out and then tracking) as he hangs up the phone and moves, very slowly and seriously, to the side door. The camera holds its position as Moe proceeds into the dark depth of this set-up; mid-way, he is stopped in his tracks by the harsh sound of the door buzzer, another aural relay of that hellish ringing phone from the opening sequence. Then he arrives at the door and opens it.

Match-cut to another striking image of Noodles: through the widening crack of the slowly opening door, his head cocked a little, the whole right side of the face darkened by shadow. Smoke bellows behind him and, after a moment that seems like an eternity, Moe’s out-of-focus head and shoulders move across to obscure the vision. Leone continues the mood of this image by cutting to a similarly patterned reverse-shot of Moe: he’s smiling, but all the signs and lines of time are fogging up his visage, too.

“Deborah’s Theme” is coming to its end. Leone goes to a wide two-shot, which lingers as Moe unlocks the door completely. The visitor’s grey bulk enters this space. Moe utters a single word – “Noodles” – and moves forward to embrace his old friend. But Noodles blocks this embrace with another gesture, and a match-cut takes us to a closer view of what it he is doing: holding a key between them. “I brought back the key to your clock”, he intones coldly, the same key we saw him take from Moe thirty-five years (in diegetic time) previously. Another reverse-shot shows us Moe’s reaction, his puzzlement and apprehension, as a dull drone of street noise asserts itself as the replacement to sweet music. Noodles, without invitation, proceeds to prowl about this interior that is familiar but strange to him, stopping only to bark a command: “Lock the door”. 

The rhythm, the build-up, the special tension here are completely orchestrated to Morricone’s music. Leone rarely has dialogue and music competing on his soundtracks – a little dialogue maybe, but never important verbal information. By separating the elements of music and speech, he helped create the epic effect in his style. But when Leone did choose to run speech and music together, as happens when Noodles eventually gets inside the bar, the effect can be truly operatic. Here, it is as if the hesitancy, the tentativeness of the talk between these two men is precisely mirrored and expressed in the suspended and halting quality of the musical theme.

… Three minutes and ten seconds of screen time, seven shots, one sustained musical piece, an interior and an exterior space, two key players, twelve words of dialogue, a bunch of extras and a smoke machine – a concentrated fragment of Leonesque cinema testifying to the truth of Bertolucci’s immortal tribute: “Just in the look between two of Sergio’s characters you feel the tension and weight of an epic”.[18]

Leone’s poetry is pieced together from a mosaic of motifs like a ringing phone, and those ever-staring, waiting, wondering faces in close-up. It is also pieced together from all the more vulgar and exhibitionistic stuff – the deliberately iconic, two-dimensional characters; his subjects and themes quoted from the great genres and then gleefully mangled; the penchant for hard-boiled one-liners spat out by gruff heroes. In other words, all the material that, bizarrely enough, comes to count as the problem or limitation of his art for some commentators – as an indication of its missing depths, its lack of seriousness.

Such a lordly, kill-joy attitude will never help us come to terms with the spectacular, visceral, performative, kinetic heights of popular art and popular culture. It will certainly never help us account for the achievement of Sergio Leone. For all the talk of Leone’s purity, his pure cinema, I think he was, more truthfully, a profoundly and gloriously impureartist. After all, nothing is more characteristic of a Leone film, more confronting or disorienting, than the savage mood swings to which his movies make us submit: in the blink of an eye, we plummet from the most elevated or sentimental tragedy to the wildest, basest, most politically incorrect humour of revenge, lust, comeuppance and venal greed. 

Leone was all at once a classicist and a Modernist, a Romantic and a Realist. He mixed dramatic and comic moods, clashing aesthetic forms, and competing social ideologies with wild abandon in every one of his films.  Leone laid bare all these contradictions for us to grapple with. And, in doing so, he proposed a new kind of cinematic experience for our delectation – a way of thinking not with ancient literary concepts of well-rounded characters and meaningful dialogue, but with the dynamic elements of the film medium itself: time, space, performance, point-of-view. 

Leone is for today what Hitchcock or Edgar Allan Poe were in their time – artists sometimes derided for their lack of conventional depth and seriousness, but who offer us one more precious chance to re-vamp or ditch our tired dichotomies of surface and depth in art and culture. Leone’s cinema engages us through thrills, emotion, sensation – and through that path into a profound reflection on matters of memory, identity and history. Rather than loftily confine this great filmmaker to a minor category of cinema history, we should let our immediate, childlike response to his work guide us. We should stay close to the rhythms, the apparitions, the rising and falling intensities, the mobile play of forms and their music, pulse or heartbeat. 

That is the special, underrated tradition of spectacle and display in cinema – a cinema of effects, if we understand that to mean much more than just special effects – to which Leone belongs, like a father figure. And we have to hold on dearly to those intense feelings of euphoria and that liberating laughter – the euphoria and liberating laughter that were the eternal gifts bequeathed to us, and to the cinema, by Sergio Leone.

This essay is dedicated to Jenny Darling, and to the memory of Ivan Hutchinson.


1. Bill Krohn, “La Planète Leone”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 422 (July/August 1989), pp. 10-13 (English language original courtesy of the author); Noël Simsolo, “Sergio Leone ou l’Amérique-boomerang”, Autrement, no. 79 (1986), pp. 208-10.

2. Ivan Hutchinson, Movies on TV & Video (Balwyn: The Five Mile Press, 1992), pp. 247-8.

3. See Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Sergio Leone (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2008); Jean-Marie Samocki, Il était une fois en Amérique (Brussels: Yellow Now, 2010); Philippe Ortoli, Il était une fois dans l’Ouest (Paris: Éditions de la Transparence, 2010). My own contribution to the field is Once Upon a Time in America (London: British Film Institute, 1998).

4. Krohn, “La Planète Leone”, pp. 12-13.

5. Michel Sineux, “Sergio Leone: Rêver à l’intérieur du mythe américain”, Positif, no. 340 (June 1989), p. 3.

6. See Philip Brophy, “Read My Lips: Notes on the Writing and Speaking of Film Dialogue”, Continuum, Vol 5, No 2 (1992), pp. 246-266.

7. Serge Daney, “Falling Out of Love”, Sight and Sound (July 1992), p. 16.

8. See Philip Brophy’s Venice Biennale catalogue essay “Western Spaghetti and Spaghetti Westerns”, reprinted at < >.

9. I pursue this cultural argument further in my The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency Press, 2003).

10. Vincent Ostria, “Il était une fois dans l’Ouest”, 100 Films pour une vidéothèque, Cahiers du cinéma, hors-série (December 1993), p. 67; and Serge Toubiana, “Il était une fois en Amérique”, 100 Films pour une vidéothèque, p. 68.

11. Richard T. Jameson, “Something to Do with Death”, Film Comment, March-April 1973, pp. 9-16; David Thomson, “Leonesque”, American Film (September 1989), pp. 26-30, 56.

12. Bernardo Bertolucci, “Once Upon A Time In Italy”, Film Comment (July-August 1989), p. 78.

13. Ostria, “Il Était une fois”.

14. Raymond Bellour, “Cine-Repetitions”, Screen, Vol 20 No 2 (1979), pp. 65-72.

15. Raymond Durgnat, “The Long Take in Voyage to Cythera”, Film Comment (November-December 1990), p. 44.

16. Barrett Hodsdon, “The Mystique of Mise en scène”, Continuum, Vol 5, No 2 (1992), pp. 68-86.

17.  See Martin, Once Upon a Time in America, pp. 16-23.

18. Bertolucci, “Once Upon a Time in Italy”.