In the realism, the set pieces, the operatic music, Sergio Leone was pointing the way towards modern filmmaking
This is an edited extract from the Foreword to Christopher Frayling’s Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press), based on a long conversation between Frayling and Tarantino from January 2018.
The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West. It was almost like a film school in a movie. It really illustrated how to make an impact as a filmmaker. How to give your work a signature. I found myself completely fascinated, thinking: ‘That’s how you do it.’ It ended up creating an aesthetic in my mind.
There have only been a few filmmakers who have gone into an old genre and created a new universe out of it. I really like the idea of creating something new out of an old genre. To some degree, Jean-Pierre Melville did it with the French gangster films. But those Italian guys — Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari and Franco Giraldi — did it best. They mostly started off as critics and worked their way up to screenwriters. And then they became the second unit guys, the guys that deliver the action. You have to go to the French New Wave to find a group of men who loved cinema as much as they did — except Leone and the others had a thriving film industry they could work their way into.
Leone’s movies weren’t just influenced by style. There was also a realism to them: those shitty Mexican towns, the little shacks — a bit bigger to accommodate the camera — all the plates they put the beans on, the big wooden spoons. The films were so realistic, which had always seemed to be missing in the westerns of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the brutality and the different shades of grey and black. Leone found an even darker black and off-white. There is realism in his presentation of the Civil War in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that was missing from all the Civil War movies that happened before him. Wild and grandiose as it was, there was never a sentimental streak. Every once in a while he would do a sentimental thing like when the Man with No Name would hand a smoke to a dying soldier in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but that’s just about as close to sentimentality as he got.
In the late 1960s, American westerns let the Italians take over because Italian movies weren’t tired. They seemed like a response to the westerns that we’d been seeing for ever. The combination of the surreality and the violence. They don’t seem that violent now, but they seemed very violent then, because they didn’t take it that seriously: Italians laugh at violence, that special type of gallows humour. And there was the youth and energy. And, by the way, in the Spaghetti westerns, they weren’t old and bloated stars. A lot of the heroes were young guys from earlier American western TV series. But they dressed cooler, they acted cooler. They were the perfect thing for the 1960s revolution that was happening at the time.
Designer Carlo Simi is one of the unsung geniuses — Leone’s secret weapon, as much as Ennio Morricone. There was nothing special about the sets and costumes in the American western movies of the late 1960s: the costumes were always from the costume department of whatever studio they were shooting at. Carlo Simi, on the other hand, was creating outfits that have a comic-book panache, sometimes literally — like one of the three Sergios actually saw a comic book: ‘Hey, give them a cape like this.’ These crazy costumes can do half the work for the characters, whether that be the bad guys or the heroes or the adventurers. Leone once said they were like suits of armour. They have this pop-cultural zeitgeist to them. The dusters in Once Upon a Time in the West, like the trenchcoats in Melville’s films, are timeless. With Leone’s westerns, you are literally talking about the best production design, the best costume design, and the movies with the best props of all time. There’s no equivalent to it.
People sometimes think that Leone was the first Italian to make spaghetti westerns. But of course he wasn’t. Sergio Corbucci was doing a spaghetti western in 1964, the same time Leone was doing Fistful of Dollars. But he wasn’t trying to do something different at that time — he was actually trying to be more like the American westerns, and this is reflected in the music, which isn’t operatic at all. It was Leone who put the music to task and turned it to opera. I know there are examples that will be contrary to what I am saying, but it feels as if Leone is the first guy ever to cut picture to music in that way. Before him it just happened by accident where somebody thought it would be cool for a little sequence, but didn’t think they should do it for the rest of the movie. But the way we cut to music now: you pick some rock song and you cut your scene to that song. That all started with Leone and Morricone, and particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Morricone and Leone affected my films in every way, shape and form. First off, the surf music, Dick Dale, ‘Misirlou’. I never understood what surf music had to do with surfing. To me, it always sounded like rock’n’roll spaghetti western music: Morricone music with a guitar-driven beat. I’ve always said that Pulp Fiction was a modern-day spaghetti western. Then I started using bits of music Morricone had written for other movies. Then I worked with him as my composer — which I’d never done before with anyone. It went from him not getting it, and then him getting it — him literally seeing my way — and then to me working with him on The Hateful Eight.
There was very little place for Sergio Leone to go after Once Upon a Time in the West, which is why he did this kind of weird disappearing act. But when it comes to Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s both the end of something and the beginning of something. It is the end of the spaghetti western as we know it. It’s the end of this magnificent genre which wasn’t given any respect in its time for the most part, even in America and especially Italy. Look at Roger Ebert’s and Pauline Kael’s reviews of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and forget about looking up someone like Sergio Corbucci in the New York Times, I mean they’re so completely disrespectful it’s not even funny. Yet this fantastic genre employed all these technicians and all these actors, made over 300 movies in a period of four or five years, and Once Upon a Time in the West ended it.
When it comes to the filmmakers of the 1960s that mean the most to filmmakers of the 1990s and 2000s, I believe that Leone is pointing the way towards modern filmmaking. There is the excitement and the action scenes that you would see developed later in films like The Terminator. There is a sizzle to the action scenes. When Elvis Mitchell [the critic, scholar and broadcaster] shows a film to his young students — this movie from the 1950s, this movie from the 1960s, this movie from the 1940s — it’s only when he shows them a Sergio Leone, if they haven’t seen it before, that they pick up. That’s when they start recognising the elements. That’s when they’re not just ‘I’m looking at an older movie now.’ It’s the use of music, the use of the set piece, the ironic sense of humour. They appreciate the surrealism, the craziness, and they appreciate the cutting to music. So it is the true beginning of what filmmaking had evolved to by the 1990s. You don’t go past Leone, you start with Leone.
For my money I think he is the greatest of all Italy’s filmmakers. I would go even as far as to say that he is the greatest combination of a complete film stylist, where he creates his own world, and storyteller. Those two are almost never married. To be as great a stylist as he is and create this operatic world, and to do this inside a genre, and to pay attention to the rules of the genre, while breaking the rules all the time — he is delivering you a wonderful western.