Sunday, 1 June 2014

Sergio Leone as an Auteur

Sergio Leone was one of the most influential and iconic directors of the 20th century. He was an Italian director best known for his “Spaghetti Westerns”: westerns that are produced by European companies (often but not always Italy), and filmed in Europe (often Southern Spain). Contrary to popular belief, Leone did not create the Spaghetti Western, but he is responsible for making it internationally popular. Leone was naturally an auteur director as over the course of his career, during which he directed a total of seven films, he created his own unique impressions of the genre and often tried to play with conventions.

Leone often put a notable emphasis on sound effects. This is most notable in Once Upon a Time in the West, where a large portion of the audio was Foley art, especially at the beginning. The very first scene is three armed men waiting for a train. Aside from the station master asking them for tickets, there is not a single word of dialogue spoken by any of the characters present. Instead, the audio is based entirely around sounds made by various objects present, most notably the windmill, which is heard creaking repeatedly throughout the scene. There is also emphasis on the sounds of water droplets landing on a man’s hat, and a fly crawling on another man’s face.

The scene immediately after the train station has another clever use of sound editing. The scene takes place on a farm, occupied by a family who is preparing for the arrival of the main character, Jill McBain. Suddenly the background sounds of crickets stop abruptly, catching the attention of the viewer, but then start up again, putting them into a false sense of security. The sound stops again shortly after, resulting in a short period of silence with only a few scattered birds being heard, at which point a gun is suddenly fired and one by one the family is killed.

Duck, You Sucker also utilized a clever editing technique known as a “sound bridge”.  The flashbacks would largely be silent aside from background music and specific noises, such as the gunshots when John shoots his best friend. However, on some occasions, the flashback ends and a sound that would be audible in the scene is heard when the film cuts to the present. For example, in one scene when John watches a firing squad killing revolutionaries, and sees that their leader provided the soldiers with information, he recalls a similar incident when his best friend told the authorities about him. The younger John is seen aiming a gun towards his friend, and pulls the trigger, with the scene immediately cutting to the prisoners being shot by the firing squad.

All of Leone’s films contained various scores composed by Ennio Morricone. Among the soundtracks composed by Morricone, he always created a specific piece as the “theme’ which would be played throughout the film (the most famous of these is probably the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The music itself was used to achieve various purposes in different films. For example, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had a score which played when Tuco and Blondie are led into the Union prison camp, which gave the scene a sad tone and a feeling of pointless brutality. However, later on in the movie, during the showdown between Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes, a different score is used to build up tension as the camera cuts between the three of them waiting to draw.

In addition to clever use of sound, another thing that helped Leone to stand out among other directors was his casting choices. He would often have a cast with diverse nationalities (many of them were Italian, but there were actors from other European countries as well). When they were shooting the film, each of the actors would speak in their own language, and certain lines would be dubbed in post-production depending on the version of the film. For example, in the English version of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the original lines spoken by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach remain intact, and the lines of the Italian cast are subsequently dubbed. Meanwhile, in the Italian version of the film, the Italian lines would be left intact, but a voice actor would dub the lines spoken by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach.

Leone seemed to get closer to America and further from Italy with each of his films considering the cast. A Fistful of Dollars was mostly a European cast aside from a then-unknown Clint Eastwood. Sergio had wanted to work with Henry Fonda in For a Few Dollars More, but as he had not yet established himself as a director, he was unable to get him and instead hired another American, Lee Van Cleef. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly reunited Eastwood and Cleef, and also brought in another American, Eli Wallach as Tuco, also known as “the Ugly”, with Italian actors portraying various supporting characters they meet over the course of the film.

Once Upon a Time in the West had a cast made up of American actors Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson, alongside Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. Duck, You Sucker was focused almost entirely on the relationship between Rod Steiger and James Coburn’s characters (interestingly enough, both were American actors playing a Mexican bandit and a former Irish terrorist, respectively), and only brought in an Italian supporting cast when it was necessary to the film. Finally, when making Once Upon a Time in America, Leone abandoned his usual style of casting actors of mixed nationalities, instead opting to have a cast made up entirely of American actors.

Despite the fact that each of his films was completely different, Leone did have a number of characterizations that he frequently used. One of the most common as the “mysterious stranger”, a character whose true identity either remains unknown or whose background is only partially shown. The most famous example of such a character in a Sergio Leone film is Clint Eastwood as “the Man With No Name” in the Dollars Trilogy. His real name is never mentioned (he is only referred to by a nickname in each of the films), and almost none of his back-story is even mentioned.

Harmonica serves a similar role in Once Upon a Time in the West. Like the Man With No Name, very little is explained of whom he is, but in this instance it is clear from the start that he is after the villain Frank, and he intends to kill him. A series of flashbacks reveal that Frank had murdered his brother and that he is seeking revenge.

To a lesser extent, John Mallory in Duck, You Sucker could also be considered an example of this concept. Unlike the Man with No Name and Harmonica, he does have a clear back story: that he was involved with a revolution in Ireland and had killed his best friend. Nonetheless, many of the details are left unclear, such as the fact that the identity of the woman in the flashbacks is never revealed.

Another character which can be traced through all of his films is the use of remorseless killer as the villain. A Fistful of Dollars featured Ramon, a ruthless outlaw who is strongly skilled with a rifle. For a Few Dollars More once again brought Gian Maria Volonté back as the main antagonist, El Indio, the leader of a ruthless gang of bandits. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly also featured a ruthless bounty hunter (ironically played by Lee Van Cleef, who had previously appeared in For a Few Dollars More as one of the heroes) as the titular “bad”. Once Upon a Time in the West featured Henry Fonda playing against his usual type as a ruthless gunslinger who is willing to massacre an innocent family and even murder children.

In Duck, You Sucker, the main villain is Colonel Günther Reza, an officer in the Mexican army. Unlike Ramon, El Indio, Angel Eyes, or Frank, Reza was not a gunslinger himself, but an authoritative figure working for an oppressive government, whilst the main characters are in fact technically outlaws. Nonetheless, while he had soldiers doing the actual killing, Reza seemed to feel no remorse for the off-screen massacre of most of the revolutionaries (including Juan’s whole family), nor did he object to sentencing the remaining prisoners to face firing squads.

In an interesting case of playing with conventions, Sergio’s cast often included a bandit as an anti-hero. In a traditional “classic” western, bandits would usually play the roles of villains, who would have to be brought to justice by the hero. While this tradition was maintained in For a Few Dollars More, many of his later films would take this basic character and turn it around, showing them as a complex character whom the audience can relate to.

This started with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, in which the titular “Ugly” is a Mexican bandit named Tuco. Tuco is a ruthless bandit who is more than willing to murder his double-crossing partner by forcing him to walk through the desert, and only saves him because he knows where to find a stash of buried gold. Nonetheless, there is a short scene where Tuco meets his brother, who is now a priest, where he shows a more emotional side, and it is hinted that he became a bandit because of a life of poverty.

Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West is an interesting variant of the traditional bandit. He first appears after an off-screen gunfight, and initially seems like a typical outlaw with his drinking habits and an attempt to convince Harmonica to fight him. However, as the story moves on, it becomes clear that he actually has strong morals, and makes a point of not shooting women or priests. Even more interesting is that he is framed for the murder of Jill McBain’s family by Frank, and much of his story is simply his effort to clear his name and find the real killer.

Juan Miranda is much more ruthless than Cheyenne, but he also has the same sense of likeability. Juan’s “gang” is made up of his family, including his children. They are all living in a capitalist society run by an oppressive government and torn apart by revolution. Juan genuinely cares for his family, and he is simply an ordinary man trying to provide for them by whatever means he can.

Once Upon a Time in America is centered entirely on the story of a gangster’s rise to power. Noodles and his friends grew up in a poor community, and like Juan, they were merely trying to provide for themselves. Unfortunately, this started to lead to a life of crime, and eventually violence as well.

One of the most common aspects among Sergio Leone’s characters was the concept of a dark past which they regret, often influencing the choices they make in the present. Usually these stories are shown in a series of flashbacks. The first case of a character driven by a past event was in For a Few Dollars More, in which a series of flashbacks are seen showing the villain, El Indio, breaking into a house and entering a room occupied by a young couple. The man is quickly shot, and he begins raping the woman, who is eventually revealed to have shot herself. At the end of the film, it is implied that the woman was in fact Colonel Mortimer’s sister, and that he wanted to kill Indio in an act of revenge.

Once Upon a Time in the West utilized a similar story with Harmonica. For most of the film, very little information is given on who he is or why he is after Frank. A few flashbacks show a blurred figure walking towards the foreground, with the image slowly getting clearer each time it is shown. During the final showdown, when Harmonica and Frank meet face-to-face, it is finally revealed that Frank gave Harmonica his distinctive instrument after he cruelly hung his brother from a bell, and left him standing on Harmonica’s shoulders. Like Mortimer, Harmonica was after revenge.

However, Duck, You Sucker takes a slightly different approach. The flashbacks focus on John Mallory, an Irish explosives expert. They provide an interesting contrast to the scenes dealing with the present day, as they show the Irish countryside in contrast with the Mexican desert in which the film is set. John is clearly much younger, as he is clean-shaven in these scenes. The flashbacks seem to show that John was involved with an Irish revolution, and reveal that he had killed his best friend after he had been forced to reveal information to the government.

The final flashback showing John’s betrayal of his friend take place while he is alone in a steam engine with a rebel leader who had been forced to provide information. The leader initially expects John to kill him in revenge, but it is soon clear that he is in fact guilty of his actions, and tries to convince the man to save himself when the engine (loaded with dynamite)  is about to hit an oncoming train.

Another theme which can be traced through most of Sergio Leone’s work is the idea of a lawless society. A Fistful of Dollars deals with a gunslinger arriving in a town that is run by two gangs who are tormenting the inhabitants. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly shows how the United States was destroyed by the Civil War. Once Upon a Time in the West deals with a series of violent events that take place in a growing town. Duck, You Sucker illustrates how society is destroyed by a violent revolution. Once Upon a Time in America focuses on the rise to power of a group of gangsters and their violent careers during the 1930’s.

Unlike many other directors, Sergio Leone’s personal life is not reflected in his work. However, it is clear that his experiences as a director may have influenced him with each film he made. In each movie, he uses techniques he learned from his previous work and applies them to something completely different, and each time tried to explore a new idea. A Fistful of Dollars is a simple story based on the earlier film Yojimbo (only now located to the American Wild West). The story is somewhat flawed, and its characters are not fully developed. For a Few Dollars More is an original story centered around a re-imagined version of Clint Eastwood’s character from A Fistful of Dollars, now focusing on a complex relationship between two men as they attempt to outsmart and eventually bring to justice a dangerous Western outlaw.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly contains arguably the most famous score of Leone’s films. The story now focuses on the relationship between three men, but this time it is a lot more brutal, with high tension between the titular “Good” (Clint Eastwood) and the “Ugly” (Eli Wallach), who are both trying to avoid being double-crossed by the other. At the same time the titular “Bad” is constantly in pursuit of them both, and will do whatever he feels necessary to learn where the gold is buried and to claim it for himself. Leone took this a step further by placing the story during the Civil War, meaning that over the course of the journey, both the audience and Blondie (the “Good”) are able to observe just how the war destroyed the United States.

Leone made Once Upon a Time in the West due to popular demand, and wanted to make something completely different from his previous three Westerns. The result was an elaborate epic telling the story of the tragic events which led a young woman to becoming the founder of a new town, and which drove a mysterious stranger’s quest for revenge. Leone experimented with sound and music in this film, and ultimately, it was through diagetic sound, various scores by Ennio Morricone, and elaborate visuals that the story was told, while dialogue was minimal.

Duck, You Sucker allowed Sergio Leone to look at a different kind of Western, known as a “Zapata Western”, set during the Mexican Revolution. Much like how The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly explored the effects of the Civil War on America, Duck, You Sucker  is an examination of the concept of “revolution” in general, as the story is shown from the perspective of a peasant who gets drawn into it through an Irish explosives expert.

Finally, Once Upon a Time in America was the only film Leone made where he was able to try something different. Instead of a Western, the story was now about gangsters, and explored how they rose to power and become who they were. The movie is almost four hours long, and now takes place over a period of 20 years. Along with Once Upon a Time in the west, it is often considered to be Leone’s masterpiece.

The idea of “auteur theory” applies to any director who has shown three major qualities: that they have an excellent technical ability, they have a unique style of filmmaking, and that their own experiences are reflected in their work. Sergio Leone clearly has his own unique style, and has explored with numerous forms of editing (especially relating to sound), and he clearly used the skills he learned while making his movies in later projects. Because of this, it is clear that Sergio Leone is an “auteur”. 

No comments:

Post a Comment