Tag Archives: Sergio Leone

According to The Wrap :”MGM Hit With $5 Million Lawsuit Over Classic Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando Films”

the wrpa

Fistful of Dollars (1964) was involved in legal disputes upon its release due to copyright infringement on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) (1961) — of course, that film infringed on Dashiell Hammet’s novel The Red Harvest. Well, it has recently been reported that the legal issues around rights and royalties for the Dollars films continue. Obviously, these are valuable properties.

According to Pamela Chelin at The Wrap:

Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Inc. has been hit with a lawsuit by P.E.A. Films, Inc. alleging a breach of contract over the classic films “Last Tango in Paris” starring Marlon Brando, and Clint Eastwood‘s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “For a Few Dollars More.”

P.E.A. Films owns the rights to these films, and seeks to terminate MGM’s licenses, alleging that MGM failed to provide accurate and honest accounting statements with revenue and expenses for the films, nor did they provide timely payment of amounts due to P.E.A. They seek termination of their agreement with MGM on the grounds that they claim MGM breached the agreements.

P.E.A. further seeks a full accounting of all sums due from MGM, as well as more than $5 million in damages.

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Criticizing the critic: Judith Hess had a problem with her parents, not with western movies

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So, if you follow the blog and podcast, you have probably figured out that I like to try to figure how the Spaghetti western genre works, how films are related to each other, and why audience liked (and still like) them. I think some of my ideas are interesting, but I always like to find other people’s ideas. So I decided to read Judith Hess’s influential 1974 article Genre film and the status quo.

Hess proposes that we look at the cultural and political function of film genres like the western:

I think that we may see what genre films are by examining what they do. These films came into being and were financially successful because they temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts. They helped to discourage any action which might otherwise follow upon the pressure generated by living with these conflicts. Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves. So we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.

Hess argues that genre films simplify the conflicts that people face, reframing these conflicts in a distant setting (the Old West) and providing a simple resolution to deep contradictions in the society. Genre movies, like the western, ultimately make audiences politically quiescent.

About westerns specifically, she writes:

The western centers on the violent act and ascertains when, if ever, it becomes morally right.

I agree with this point. In fact, in a post from yesterday I said essentially the same thing when I was talking about what makes a Spaghetti Western protagonist an ‘anti-hero.’ Usually, they do exactly what John Wayne or Gary Cooper would have done (That would be a great bumper sticker: “What would John Wayne do?”), but in films like Fistful of Dollars they  don’t bother explaining away their actions by pointing to grand narratives of law or justice. Even in Once Upon A Time In The West, Harmonica’s revenge is not justified in terms of the coming of ‘civilization.’ Leone goes out of his way to say that Harmonica, Frank, and Banjo all exist before the justifications that society must necessarily bring with it.

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing you were around somewhere alive.

Harmonica: So, you found out you’re not a businessman after all.

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: An ancient race. Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.

Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now – not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now, you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica: …Only at the point of dyin’.

Frank: I know.

This is the main difference of between the Italian western and the Hollywood western. These movies strip away the origin myths of the American frontier and reveal the underlying mythic structure. It is after this happens that you begin to see more and more movies in which the hero or villain even becomes supernatural (Django Kill, High Plains Drifter, Dead in Tombstone, etc . . .). The genre changed profoundly in 1964.

Hess continues along this vein:

The problems posed by these contradictions are solved simply. The western decrees that the violent act can become morally right when it occurs within the confines of a code which allows for executions, revenge killings, and killings in defense of one’s life and property. In the microcosmic western society everyone’s code is the same; thus absolute guilt and innocence are possible because social and moral goodness are the same. . .

In order to flesh out these assertions it is necessary to examine each of the genres in some detail. The western male is dominated by a code of honor which prescribes his every action; violence by lynching or shooting, amorous advances, or friendships are determined by some fixed rule. One lynches cattle rustlers but not petty thieves—one runs them out of town. One sleeps only with bar girls, not eastern school teachers. One never shoots a man in the back; one is utterly loyal to one’s friends, defending them physically and verbally at every possible opportunity. At a certain mystical point in the interaction between two opposing forces, the western version of the duel becomes morally acceptable. Both the villain and the know immediately when this point comes as they do not exist as psychological entities apart from the code—rather, they embody the code. The earliest westerns afford the clearest expression of the workings of this code. In these movies the heroes and villains are like chess pieces moved about to depict the code’s intricacies. In a great many westerns you will note the eerie occurrence of two phrases which are as far as these movies go toward positing motivation: “I have to…” and “All I know is… “ These phrases express how the code provides motivation, not the person himself. Westerners act together in absolute, unthinking accord. Westerns examine those aspects of the code which determine the westerner’s response to situations which demand violence. The compartmentalizations of the code—one treats bank robbers one way and friends another—allow for situations which involve contradictory responses. What happens, for example, in THE VIRGINIAN (Victor Fleming, 1929), a movie that Robert Warshow calls “archetypal, “ when a captured rustler is at the same time a friend? Gary Cooper, a chess-piece representation of the code, is caught on the horns of a moral and social dilemma. Although he must bow to the will of the other members of the posse, for whom the situation is not complicated (the rustler is not their friend) and assist in the lynching, and his friend exonerates him, Cooper must work within the code to redeem himself—to rid himself of guilt by balancing the books.

And, there is a single, simple solution. His friend has been drawn into rustling by the film’s real villain, Trampas. Cooper must wipe him out, at the same time showing the restraint demanded of the westerner. He must wait for that mystical point in time at which the showdown becomes morally and socially right. And, Trampas, because he is a villain and thus cannot act any other way, provides Cooper with sufficient injury and insult, and is thus shot in fair fight. Several violent actions are condoned in the movie: traditionally sanctioned violence demanded by the group (note that Cooper never questions the lynching, he only suffers because he is forced to abandon his friend); violence which is brought about by repeated attacks on one’s character (Trampas indicates that Cooper is a coward) and which redeems the violence Cooper has been forced to do to his friend. These acts of violence have complete social sanction. Only Cooper’s eastern schoolmarm girlfriend fails to condone Cooper’s actions; she has not as yet been assimilated into western society.

In the western every man who operates solely with reference to this strict code lives and dies redeemed. He has retained his social and moral honor. The code provides justification; thus it allows for a guiltless existence. On the other hand, we do not know ourselves when, if ever, violence is justifiable. We have great difficulty in forming a personal code and we cannot be sure that this code will conform in any way to the large, impersonal legal code set up to regulate our unwieldy, decaying economic structure. The westerner’s code is at once personal and social—if a man lives by it he both conforms to social norms and retains his personal integrity. It is evident whence comes the satisfaction we get from the western. Momentarily we understand the peace which comes from acting in accord with a coherent moral and social code and forget our fragmented selves. Many critics have seen the western as a glorification of traditional American individualism. On the contrary, the western preaches integration and assimilation and absolute obedience to the laws of the land.

Then she closes out with this:

We may trace the amazing survival and proliferation of the genre films to their function. They assist in the maintenance of the existing political structure. The solutions these films give to the conflicts inherent in capitalism require obeisance to the ruling class, and cause the viewer to yearn for less, not greater freedom in the face of the insoluble ambiguities which surround him or her. He or she is encouraged to cease examining him/her. He/she is encouraged to cease examining his/her surroundings, and to take refuge in fantasy from his/her only real alternative—to rise up against the injustices perpetrated by the present system upon its members.

This article has been hugely influential. It distilled the attitudes of the Marxist influenced academics and critics of the late 1960s, establishing a foundation for the way that genres are studied in the university in disciplines like Cultural Studies. But I must admit that I find this type of criticism nauseating.

There are a number of issues that I have with this perspective, but the one I will briefly discuss here is this: Hess disagreement is with the values of a previous generation, not with genre films. Given that the factory system in pre-1960s Hollywood was so centralized, it makes sense that the movies they produced would have a very limited perspective on the world. Indeed, many of them did resolve conflicts in an unrealistic way. But that is not a characteristic of the genre film, but instead of many genre films made in Hollywood at a particular time.

If you look a little deeper, you find that this argument about the function of genre films begins to fall apart. First, many of the psychological westerns of the 1950s presented a much more ambiguous, complex view of the world. . . and they were following film noir in this anxious uncertainty. Second, outside of Hollywood there was a vibrant B-movie industry independent of Hollywood’s centralizing tendencies. Many of these movies were very transgressive.

Finally, if we look at the Italian film industry, we have an almost anarchic industry churning out films to meet the public’s taste . . . very irreverent tastes. Audiences are not passive. They choose what they want to see. In the 1940s and 1950s, the many international audiences (and great filmmakers like Kurosawa) gravitated to the worldview of John Ford and Howard Hawks (as well as Roy Rogers and Wild Bill Elliot). In the 1960s, they still loved westerns but instead loved the playful irreverence of the Spaghetti western. And still later, the troubled nostalgia of the revisionist western was preferred.

Hess is too simplistic. She had a problem with the beliefs of her parent’s generation and blamed it on western movies.

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Joe Kaiser “Clint Eastwood Western Review”

 

There are not enough Spaghetti Western reviews on Youtube! Here, Joe Kaiser does his part by reviewing Leone’s Dollars films. Joe looks like an enthusiastic movie fan that likes to share his experiences of watching different movies. He is not a spaghetti western expert, but it is cool to hear what a normal (non-obsessed Eurowestern geek-freak) thinks about some of the films.

What is really cool is how he picks up on how Cline Eastwood’s Man With No Name always ends up helping out another character at some pivotal point in the movie. In Episode 2 of the Django Rising Podcast, I briefly talked about the protagonist in an Italian western. They are often times called anti-heroes. The idea is that they do the opposite of what a typical western hero would do. Supposedly, they are ultimately amoral and cynical. But this is not the case at all. In fact, movies with characters like that rarely work for audiences. Instead, Leone and Eastwood agreed to cut out most of the expository dialogue for the Man With No Name in Fistful of Dollars (1964). That had a wonderful effect. The audience is not really sure why the character is doing what he is doing. In fact, he ends up freeing Marisol and her family, then liberating the town . . . and he makes a fortune. But this is what happens in many classic Hollywood westerns. But in a classic Hollywood western, the hero usually justifies his violence. Not in the Italian western . . . the laconic hero does not bother excusing himself. That is what makes him an ‘anti-hero’: he doesn’t make excuses for his violence.

In later Italian westerns, the heroes do make ‘excuses.’ Sometimes they do it for revenge. Over the course of 13 years (1964-1977) he number of fictional wives, mothers, and sisters that are raped and murdered to provide a motivation for the hero is staggering and, ultimately, monotonous. In other movies, the heroes are motivated by a cause. There are the Zapata westerns like A Bullet For The General and Tepepa.

What is an ‘excuse’? Well, by that I mean a justified reason. And the reasons that justify actions are specific to a culture and political regime. So in Hollywood westerns, there was a particular set of justifications (‘ideology’) for the actions of the heroes. In late 1960s Italy, many of the filmmakers were populists or socialists, so their justifications reflected there time, place, and beliefs.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood did something slightly different. They stripped the western film of its timeliness  and made it more timeless, in a sense. They found the underlying mythic structure of the story. This is where the force of the genre comes from. This is why it is compelling. This is more important than finding excuses for why the Man With No Name does what he does. There are deeper reasons that transcend the political and cultural climate both of their time (mid-1960s) and our time (mid-2010s).

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Explain yourself: film critics and their shorthand

incritc

Among contemporary film critics, there is a shorthand that communicates alot of information about a film quickly. One example of this shorthand is calling something a ‘spaghetti western.’ The terms is generally used to evoke memories of Sergio Leone’s Dollars films, which by now most of the film literate world are intimately familiar with. But I often find the use of the term just lazy.

For instance, in a review of The American (2010)a recent Hollywood film starring George Clooney, there is a well-written and thoughtful review at incritic. However, the author titles it The American: Reinventing the Spaghetti Western. Sounds like an interesting title, right? But nowhere does he explain why the film is like a spaghetti western nor how the genre is being ‘reinvented.’ So the author is trying to build up the significance of an over-looked movie he or she liked by creating a linkage to the classic movies of Sergio Leone. The final lines just add to the confusion:

 

The American is actually fully Italian, then: beautiful, deliberate, spare, symbolic, Catholic, overly sentimental. And a throwback to the great Italian Neorealismo of the Sixties.

The respected, self-consciously artistic directors of the Neorealism and the opportunistic, pulp directors of the popular cinema were two distinct traditions of filmmaking. Largely made up of Northerns from cities like Milan, filmmakers like de Sica, Rosselini, Fellini, and Visconti were respected internationally. At least early in their development, they created a cinema focused on Italian lives and experiences. The popular filmmakers Leone, Corbucci, Bava, and others tended to be Southerners. They made movies in whatever genre money could raised for at the time. I think most people would agree that there movies had a subtext of significance drawn from the lives and experiences of people in Italy, but this submerged under the surface formulas of giallos, westerns, police films, spy films, peplum, etc.

In other words, it at first seems strange to say that The American combines the very different approaches to filmmaking of the spaghetti western and neorealism. This is not to say that these two traditions did not influence each other because they certainly did. It is also not to say that the director and screenwriter did not make a decision to make a film combining features from each. But only that this is not explained by the author. Instead, we are left with a cryptic shorthand, a few ambiguous gestures that tell the reader too little about the film.

 

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Learning to see beyond Django: Christopher Forsley of PopMatters on “Minnesota Clay” (1964)

minne clay

At PopMatters, there is an interesting review of Sergio Corbucci’s second western Minnesota Clay (1964) by Christopher Forsley. Since Quentin Tarantino popularized Corbucci’s Django (1966) among film geeks and hipsters, the ‘other’ Sergio has been a great deal of attention. Here is what Christopher had to say:

It’s hard not to compare Minnesota Clay (1964) to A Fistful of Dollars(1964). Not only were they filmed at the same time, released the same year, and both made by men named Sergio—Sergio Corbucci in the first case and Sergio Leone in the second—but they also used the same source material to tell similar stories. The source material used was Dashiell Hammett’s early hardboiled detective novel, Red Harvest (1929), along with Akira Kurosowa‘s cinematic samurai version of that novel, Yojimbo(1961). The stories told involve marksmen who, after arriving to towns in turmoil due to on-going gang wars, pin one gang against the other to bring gold to their pockets and peace to the citizens.

Minnesota Clay and A Fistful of Dollars are also two of the earliest offerings from the two greatest Spaghetti Western directors. But whileA Fistful of Dollars became an international sensation, launching and then guiding the genre in the years that followed, Minnesota Clay was in comparison a quickly forgotten box-office bust. One reason for its failure was the bad-timing that left it in the shadow of Leone’s groundbreaking film, but another was its mediocrity, which becomes especially obvious when you compare it to Corbucci’s later triumphs like Django (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and Companeros (1970).

 

He continues:

Structurally, Corbucci tells his story with just as much craft as Leone, and the plot of Minnesota Clay, like A Fistful of Dollars, is an entertaining one. But unlike A Fistful of Dollars, nearly every element surrounding the plot is bland. For most of Minnesota Clay’s 91 minute runtime, I felt as though I was watching one of the many nondescript American westerns that the Hollywood studio system shitted out during the ‘40s. The costumes are too clean and colorful, and the sets are too well lighted and swept.

 

While Forsley is a bit harsh at times, he does admit that the film isn’t terrible, only that he found it bland.

51jSFOzUAgL._SL500_SY300_What I found interesting about this article was not its analysis. I differ with Forsley’s conclusion about the film, but I would not have when I first started watching Eurowesterns. As with most people, my introduction to the genre was through the Dollars trilogy, then Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). In the early 1990s, you simply couldn’t get your hands on most other spaghetti westerns. I was able, however, able to get my hands on a couple of VHS tapes including a washed version of Day of Anger (1968). When I first saw this film, I was disappointed. I wanted to see another film like For A Few Dollars More (1964). But this movie was “too clean and colorful, and the sets are too well lighted and swept.” The hero was clean cut Giuliano Gemma. The music was a little cheesy (I thought then).

Later, when the internet became ubiquitous, venues like the Spaghetti Western Web Board allowed me to trade duped tapes with other fans. Since then, there has been a Renaissance of the genre in DVDs, peer-to-peer sharing, and even Youtube. Seeing a wider range of films, I slowly was acculturated to the genre. When WildEast released their great DVD version I gave Day of Anger another chance . . . and it is now a favorite.

In other words, I had to learn to see beyond Leone.

If Forsley continues to pursue the genre, I predict that he will eventually have the same experience. He will need to see beyond Django and CompanerosMinessota Clay is a decent b-western effort with the first appearance of a number of Corbucci’s recurrent themes. It does look a bit like an American b-western, but there a number of films made in this imitative aesthetic that are enjoyable: In A Colt’s Shadow (1965), Gunmen of the Rio Grande (1964), Bullets Don’t Argue (1964), etc. If you are willing to accept these films for what they are — and not reject them for what they are not — you will find that they are enjoyable, decent b-westerns (and Day of Anger is a classic . . .).

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Incredible Hungarian Goulash Western “The Wind Whistled Beneath Their Feet” (1976)

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Last night I watched an incredible Hungarian film “The Wind Whistled Beneath Their Feet” from 1976. Here is some information about the film from the folks at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, NY. They had a showing of the film recently, about which I am very jealous:

György Szomjas brings exquisite style and pacing to this elegiac gallows western about a betyár — a brand of 19th century highwayman popular in contemporary Hungarian balladry — set amid the Great Hungarian Plain in 1937. It follows the path of a brooding, aging outlaw newly escaped from prison whose personal revenge quest dovetails with the interests of the landless herdsman who oppose the state’s building a canal through the fields on which they work their trade. He becomes an unlikely hero to unwashed vagabond workers while facing down a mutually-admiring adversary in the form of a forthright squire who had captured him before. Meanwhile, an opportunistic youngster attempts to work both sides to his benefit. As ditches are dug for canals and corpses alike, the state puts increasing pressure on the wistful squire, who realizes the social order is changing and his fortunes are in decline; and yet he remains dutifully attached to his mission.

Along with Szomjas’s follow-up ROSSZEMBEREK, THE WIND IS WHISTLING UNDER THEIR FEET is probably the only example of a “Goulash Western.” Though carefully paced and supposedly based on historical documents, it aims squarely for populist appeal. The autumnal palette, period imagery, and sudden outbursts of hysterical grotesquery recall Andrzej Żuławski’s THE DEVILS. Yet most of all it brings to mind the unlikely grouping of Woody Guthrie, Miklós Jancsó, and Akira Kuroswawa — or maybe Béla Tarr meets Sergio Leone. Whatever the comparisons, THE WIND IS WHISTLING UNDER THEIR FEET is a stirring, forgotten gem in classic Spectacle tradition and not to be missed.

 

Here is the trailer Spectacle put together:

I thought director György Szomjas did an incredible time mixing the style of Sergio Leone with a more Eastern European approach to filmmaking . . . and Hungarian settings. The film is gorgeous and confident in its timing. Not overlong, it does not rush to come to its inevitable end. The story of the outlaw Farkos Csapó Gyurka, played by Djoko Rosic, translates into an fairly familiar western movie plot about the end of the frontier. It is thematically and plot-wise very similar to Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).  There was an obligatory bar fight, shootouts, etc. There was even a nod to John Ford with a shot of a woman framed by a inn’s doorway.

This is a wonderful film. I really recommend it. The semi-sequel Rosszemberek (1979)  is available on Youtube in Hungarian and there are subtitles floating around for that film. I am eager to watch it as well.

It is a little too early to say, but I think that I would rate this film in the 8.5 range. This is a real classic deserving of more attention from fans . . . or at least for the fan who seen virtually everything.

talpukalattfutyulaszel(2)

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Jean-François Rauger on ” The Salvation “: the ghosts of John Ford and Sergio Leone”

Courtesy of Google Translate:

Presented in a special session at the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival, The Salvation is a cinematic anachronism , a fun and frivolous subject , but with no particular need rather amusing.

Emigrated from Denmark for seven years , a farmer ( Mads Mikkelsen ), his wife and son in the West brought . Just arrived , his family is killed by off – the-law . The revenge of the man then drives a series of violent events in a small town under the control of a band of mercenaries in the service of an oil company wanting to get their hands cheaply , on the land of the settlers.

A VISION OF WESTERN ITALIAN CARNAVALESQUE

Unless a resurrection myths ( operation that cinema now out of print) , The Salvation is a catalog of situations fed by both Hollywood and the carnivalesque vision of the Italian western. The ghosts of John Ford and Sergio Leone are either summoned here . We can find such a nice project whose originality lies perhaps in its absolute lack of originality, except perhaps female character played by Eva Green, cynical and dumb princess West .

THE TRAILER

This article brought to things to mind. First, it was cool that the author recognized the Italian western is a carnivalesque genre . . . I have written about this on this blog before. Soon, I will complete a podcast on the topic.

Second, it is great to see another Eurowestern in the classic style being released. Here is the synopsis from IMDB:

In 1870s America, a peaceful American settler kills his family’s murderer which unleashes the fury of a notorious gang leader. His cowardly fellow townspeople then betray him, forcing him to hunt down the outlaws alone.

the salvation

I am looking forward to this film. There have only been a fistful of Danish westerns including the comedies Tough Guys of the Prairie (1970) and Gold for the Tough Guys of the Prairie (1971).

Præriens_skrappe_drenge film - guld til præriens skrappe drenge billed

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List of films influenced by Sergio Leone

films influence by leone

 

Good list by FilmGuy99 of movies influenced by Sergio Leone.  Of course, as it only contains 22 films it is obvious that this list is only barely scratches the surface of Leone’s influence on cinema.

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The 50th anniversary of Fistful of Dollars . . .

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. . . has led to considerable recognition for the accomplishments of director Sergio Leone. The American Film Institute had an event showing Leone’s westerns this July:

Sergio Leone
July 3–27

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which launched Sergio Leone to international stardom (the film’s young star, Clint Eastwood, made out okay, too), AFI Silver presents this selection of the filmmaker’s finest films. Look for a new restoration of Leone’s magnum opus, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, out later this year.

The Cinémathèque in Paris is currently showing a retrospective of his work now:

Epic gunfights. Epic running times. Sweeping panoramas of the Wild West (often, in fact, Spain). Harmonicas on the soundtrack. Extreme close-ups and huge depth of field. Trains. Horses. Scowling hitmen with beards. Few cinematic languages are as distinct as that of Sergio Leone, the late Italian maestro of the Spaghetti Western.

Like Stanley Kubrick or David Lean, Leone was a perfectionist who obsessed over style in the manner of a master artisan. Consequently, like those two, he didn’t complete many films in his career. The seven movies that he helmed in his forty-year career form a coherent set: centred as it is on the Spaghetti Western genre, an homage to the Hollywood Western which is itself founded on the shaky fables of the Wild West, his oeuvre is preoccupied with nostalgia and myth. Many of his works, such as the Eastwood-starring ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy, pay tribute to the tropes of early Hollywood cinema while subtly subverting them; his best film, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘, threw its audience by casting erstwhile heartthrob Henry Fonda as a sadistic baddie.

Most interesting were the outtakes from Fistful of Dollars (1964) that surface this summer courtesy of the Cineteca Bologna:

 

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Sergio Leone on America, WWII, and Cinema

In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life – in jeeps – and upset all my dreams.

Sergio Leone

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