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FILM: tectac's Sergio Leone, Ranked

One of my favorite directors (constantly appearing in my ever-rotating Top Three at various positions), even given the relatively small-scope of his relatively too-short career. Whether or not Westerns were “your thing,” it’s impossible to deny both Leone’s raw talent as a director and the cultural impact his films - most specifically, his “Dollars Trilogy” - had on a suffocating, all-but-forgotten genre. The man was a genius and his collaborative efforts with the likes of Eastwood and Morricone over the years allowed for such a tightly-knit, personal canon that I cherish very deeply. For those interested (or purely masochistic), I wrote an extended piece on his Dollars Trilogy, which can be found here: https://blog.eiga.me/western
7Colossus (SD)
Time and Eternal


Not great, but not remotely the train wreck others would have you believe. When appraised in the shadow of Leone’s subsequent, more self-assured pictures, it’s bound to look paltry and infinitesimal—Sergio hadn’t acquired a sense of his own style yet, and you can tell this wasn’t material he was eager to work with in the first place. Assessed in a complete vacuum, though, it’s truly not a bad film, except for some dodgy choreography (which I attribute mostly to the inexpensive, second-rate actors i.e., common budgetary woes) and lack of procedural tightness. Leone’s spatial cognizance is absent (as it hadn’t yet existed), but there’s a metered precision to the camera’s movements such that you can feel the originative gamesmanship teeming below the surface, waiting to burst free in a realm of complete creative control. Stormy battle climax showcases his eye for grime and clashing testosterone: Themes that would eventually define his too-short career.
6Ennio Morricone
Duck, You Sucker!

>> DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971)

Take this second-to-last position not as a slam against the film itself, but a testament to how great Leone’s oeuvre is—I love this movie, which means he made five others I somehow love *even more*. His first (and only) film with a Zapata spin, enriched in the Mexican Revolution and conjoining two unlikely partners—a Mexican outlaw and an Irish-Republican demolitions expert. Lacks the steely nebulosity of Eastwood’s “Man With Several Names,” but the complementary whimsy between Steiger and Coburn does a decent job of patching the gaps, and the legitimate bond that forms from the dual-pretenses of using the other merely for self-benefit is my favorite kind of microwavable heart-rending among two male leads. (That, or the assured baddie who casually “looks the other way” e.g. the end of CASABLANCA.) Leone’s rawest film to date, and while Morricone’s score wouldn’t retain the same notoriety as his other pieces, the main theme is exquisitely unique. Lovely film.
5Ennio Morricone
A Fistful of Dollars


My deepest cinephile skeleton: I prefer this to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO by a walk. Maybe I’m not being fair by refusing to discredit Leone for the blatant plagiarism—it occasionally resembles a shot-for-shot remake—but, plainly and simply, I prefer the old Western milieu to the samurai backdrop (just personal preference), and while YOJIMBO marked yet another healthy stepping stone in Kurosawa’s catalog, FISTFUL represented the grand cataclysm of three careers erupting at once: Leone’s, Eastwood’s, and Morricone’s. Rough around the edges when compared to the follow-ups of the unofficial trilogy, but part of the superficial grit is what makes FISTFUL so blithely endearing. It’s truncated runtime still manages to pack in a hardened anti-heroic persona that would define an era, a score that would burst open the floodgates, and a directorial confidence that would continue to hone. The POV shot from behind the gun at Eastwood’s hip is the “kill cam” of the 60s.
4Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West


This is one step shy of a masterpiece: My only real complaint is that it relies too heavily on signposted Big Moments, threatening to sweep the deck awash with non-stop grandiosity. But badass machismo and gunky human amorality of this degree is so goddamn entertaining that bellyaching about “too much” sounds a bit silly. (Coda drags just a teensy, too, once Frank’s fate is forced upon him…but that’s for another time.) This is probably the most ingenious use of deliberate plodding I can think of—that opening sequence encapsulates the meditative, slowly accruing tension that swallows the entire film. It’s Leone’s most sprawling work, but it never feels like a deliberate mare’s nest, all coalesced by a throughline of sweltering testosterone at the hands of land, money, and one fine dame. The most brilliant thing about this was the decision to cast Fonda—a stereotypical “good guy”—as the villain. The slow pan up to him holding the gun is chilling.
3Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America


Leone’s final film, his longest film, his dirtiest film, his most uncompromising film, and ample proof that the man could do more than direct Spaghetti westerns—hard to think of a more perfect swan song. Employs an entwined timelines like e.g. THE GODFATHER PART II, but to an undeniably greater effect, not merely telling multiple stories in parallel but amassing a logical anthology of one man’s battered will and bruised psyche, an endgame that begun nearly half a century prior. Includes one of the most uncomfortable scenes I can call to mind, but that’s Leone’s specialty. He never worried about shrouding characters in justifiable pretext, he showed them baldly: Inaccessible monsters with traces of conscience and misaligned emotions. The remarkable aplomb of his Spaghetti westerns transposed to the climate of 20th Century New York City makes for a bracing and surprisingly heady experience. Final ambiguous shot for the ages (Nolan, take notes).
2Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More


Hard to think we live in a world where a director created this and it’s somehow *not* my favorite film of theirs. Such a gargantuanly assured improvement over FISTFUL (which was already great) from nearly every facet: A wholly original story with commandeering personalities (now with an equally adept gunslinger to work alongside Clint), more anxiety-ridden passages of increasingly cyclic edits, stronger absorption into the dauntingly molten atmosphere, and for my money, Morricone’s single most arresting piece of work—name a better audible cue than Mortimer’s pocket watch chime, I dare you. It often gets overlooked, but the climax of this film is the boldest decision Leone ever made. Eastwood had been established as the poster boy for this film based on his success in FISTFUL—the reinvigorated antihero—and Sergio has him sitting on the goddamn sidelines during the culminating stand-off, watching while Van Cleef takes the reins. Subversive and genius.
1Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


To explain why this film is an unequivocal masterpiece and so near and dear to me would take far more space than Sputnik’s 1,000-character max allows, so I will whittle down my praise to something more specific: The final twenty minutes of this film are quite possibly my favorite twenty minutes ever put to celluloid. All of Leone’s handiwork and steadily-growing trademarks—the uncomfortably warm, juxtaposing facial close ups; the towering apparition brought on by the searing topography; the pot-boiling hotbox of seedy, self-serving rectitude and blatant disregard for human life; the unwavering and pitiless personalities; the unbearable tension that can be derived from a simple glace; the dense, cyclic, and impossibly taught editing—are culminated, polished, and succinctly packed into the film’s grand finale, beginning with the discovery of a graveyard and rupturing with the medium’s most celebrated Mexican stand-off. A revolutionary picture.
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