After last time, when it proved very difficult for me to rank my favorite John Carpenter films, I decided to follow that up with probably the easiest ranking I could possibly do. Sergio Leone is without a doubt, and has been for some time, my favorite director. He directed what is legitimately my favorite movie of all time and others that are way up the list too. It’s also particularly easy for me because, well, he didn’t do that many films. Leone only solo-directed (he did a few uncredited or second-unit-but-still-actually-directed) seven films; the first of which was The Colossus of Rhodes, and the last was Once Upon a Time in America, neither of which I really care for, so making a top 5 here is more or less a breeze. The fact that they’re all westerns of the spaghetti variety means the films are that much easier to compare.
5) Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
Leone’s final western was certainly not intended to be. He’d already decided not to direct any more westerns in order to focus on Once Upon a Time in America, which still didn’t get released for 13 more years, and was merely going to write and produce this film. Securing another director proved difficult as both Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich were brought on board but eventually left, ultimately forcing Leone to direct it himself. It’s a much more melancholy, and even angrier, film than any he’d done before. It concerns a brutal Mexican bandito (Rod Steiger) and his gang who try to wrangle an Irish munitions expert (James Coburn) into helping them rob the bank of Mesa Verde. Coburn turns the tables, though, and Steiger ends up becoming an unwilling freedom fighter in the Mexican Revolution. The movie’s Italian and international cut begins with a quote by Mao Tse-tung about the danger and power of revolution itself, which seemed to have scared off the American distributors who were expecting another Leone rip-snorting adventure and not a thinly-veiled allusion to Mussolini’s fascist regime.
The film’s Italian title is Giu la Testa, which translates to “Get Your Head Down”, a good way to think about many during revolution as well as referring to all the dynamite. The English translation became Duck, You Sucker!, a line spoken by Coburn many times in the film and something Leone thought Americans said all the time (what????). The French title translated to Once Upon a Time…the Revolution, which is actually a perfect title, and when it a heavily cut version was released in America, it was called A Fistful of Dynamite, which is a terribly exploitative name meant to evoke the fun of Leone’s first western.
4) A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Now, if Duck, You Sucker! is a good not great Leone film, from here on out we have absolutely fantastic ones. His very first western, the one that truly changed the game for European westerns, which up to this point had just been American westerns made in Europe, is A Fistful of Dollars, a.k.a Per un pugno di dollari. It legitimately revolutionized the Western by making the hero an amoral death-dealer who is only in it for money, something which pretty much every Spaghetti Western would ape from here on out. It introduced Clint Eastwood not as “The Man with No Name”, which was an American marketing label, but as Joe, the fastest gun in the west.
Our hero walks into a nearly deserted little town run by two warring families, the gun-running Baxters and the liquor-selling Rojos. Joe decides he’s going to play one against the other and be the last man standing, but it’s never as easy as all that. Leone got in trouble after the fact for basically taking the plot to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo et al, though it can be argued that Leone added the flair of Roman theatre to it, which makes this version stand out on its own. This is also Leone’s first collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone, who would do all of his subsequent scores, and ushered in the age of rock music in film scoring.
3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Now, these next three could basically all be tied, but since I have to rank them, I’m putting this one at number 3 simply because it makes me feel kind of sad when I watch it. Not at all a bad thing; just a thing. This was meant to be Leone’s farewell to the western genre and the American West as a setting. As such, he and his co-writers (including future big-time directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento) threw in references to basically every American horse opera they could. There’s a really great quote about Leone that says, “Sergio Leone’s films are operas in which the arias aren’t sung; they’re stared.” This is especially true here. This is a movie that takes its time, withholding vital information until the last possible second, and obscuring characters’ intentions until the very end.
The film follows Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute from New Orleans who comes to the desert town of Sweet Water (ha ha) because of her new husband, an idealistic man who proposed to turn his land into a train station/boom town. Unfortunately, he and his children are killed by Frank (Henry Fonda), an aging gun for hire who wants to become a railroad tycoon just like his boss. A mysterious man playing a harmonica (Charles Bronson) also comes to town with some kind of unfinished business with Frank, and Jason Robards basically steals the movie as Cheyenne, the romantic outlaw and gang leader who is being framed for the murders of the family. This is Leone at his most wistful and the film’s nostalgic goodbye to the American West is echoed in his farewell to the genre that gave him a name. It’s got some of the most indelible images and haunting music in any of his films. Just an utter masterpiece.
2) For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Now, if Leone revolutionized the Western with A Fistful of Dollars, then he fully established what HIS westerns were with his second outing, For a Few Dollars More, or Per qualche dollaro in più. Not based on any preexisting film or source material, this is where Leone really got into his passion for triangular narratives, the idea of settling accounts in a manmade or makeshift arena, and the massive building-up of tension before explosions of violence, coupled with big close-ups and that amazing Morricone music. This film has Eastwood, this time playing a bounty killer named Manco (or “Lefty”) on the hunt for a recently-escaped gang leader named El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) who is absolutely out of his mind and smokes dope pretty much constantly. Unfortunately for Manco, Indio is also being pursued by Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), a very different kind of bounty killer, one who uses gadgetry and intellect to get his man. After what basically amounts to a pissing contest, Mortimer and Manco decide to work together to stop Indio, with Manco joining up with the gang and Mortimer on the outside. Of course, there’s always more than meets the eye. This was and remains the most successful of Leone’s films in his native Italy and is often considered the perfect example of what the Spaghetti Western could be.
1) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
This is number one with a bullet, if you’ll forgive the pun. My absolute favorite Leone movie is also my absolute favorite movie of all time. I adore this film from start to finish, even if it is close to 3 hours long in its restored cut. Leone got bigger and more ambitious with each subsequent film, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (in Italian Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) represents the biggest film he’d make, as well as the last time his westerns were fun. There was certainly much more pathos in this one than before, and the context of the adventure happening in and around the Civil War makes the characters at least privy to the hell of war. That said, the ultimate story is just about three men trying to find buried treasure, and needing each other to do it.
While Eastwood is still the star, this time called Blondie, the actual main character is Tuco Ramirez, played by the fantastic Eli Wallach. Tuco is a slovenly, brutal bandit who is wanted all over the Southwest for a number of pretty unspeakable crimes. He is “The Ugly”, and easily has the most lines and screentime of any of the characters. We learn a lot about Tuco as the movie goes along and even, weirdly, grow to love him in spite of the fact that he is a greedy, duplicitous murderer. Lee Van Cleef plays Angel Eyes, a hired gun who will kill anyone if he’s paid to, or even if he isn’t. He’s “The Bad” and the one who gets the information that initially gets the ball rolling on the search for the buried treasure. He pops in and out of the story, and is never not evil. And Eastwood is, of course, “The Good”, even though he’s kind of an asshole too, but he’s the one who’s smarter than the other two and the one without whom no one can find the gold. There are massive war battles, amazing landscapes (all shot in Spain), and a final three-way duel in a cemetery that is still one of the best finales in all of film history. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough, and I think if anyone gives this movie half a chance, they’ll love it too.
NOTE: The trailer makes it seem like Wallach is “The Bad” and Van Cleef is “The Ugly.” That’s because the original Italian title translates to “The Good, the Ugly, the Bad,” so the trailer is cut to that and then just re-dubbed in English. It always bugs me.