Sergio Leone

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone (born January 3, 1929 in Rome , Italy , †  April 30, 1989 ibid) was an Italian film director . He gained particular fame through his work in the field of spaghetti westerns . With the epic western films Two Glorious Scoundrels and Spiel mir das Lied von Tod , he was able to record his greatest successes in the late 1960s.

life and work

Childhood and youth

Sergio Leone was the son of the film pioneer Vincenzo Leone (" Roberto Roberti ") and the actress Edvige Valcarenghi ("Bice Valerian"). His father worked in the film business from 1911 and was best known in Italy for his collaboration with the silent film star Francesca Bertini . He sympathized with the communists and largely withdrew from the outside world under the impression of fascism .

In his youth, Leone himself was not only influenced by the rule of the Duce , but also by the occupation of Rome and the last years of the war in 1943/45. It was during this time that he came into contact with American popular culture , for which he was enthusiastic. The young Leone was particularly fascinated by Hollywood cinema :

“Our world was truly the street and the cinema. Mainly the films that came from Hollywood! Never the French productions or the Italian ' telefoni bianchi '. "

- Sergio Leone

Leone's father began making films again in 1939. Since Vincenzo Leone regularly took little Sergio with him to his work, he was familiar with all aspects of film production from childhood.

First steps in the film business

From the mid-1940s, Leone worked in a wide variety of positions in the Italian studio system . As an extra , assistant director , director of the second camera team or writer of scripts, Leone has worked in a large number of Italian films. Most of them were artistically rather undemanding films in the style of the then very popular sandal film (Peplum) .

However, Leone was also involved as an extra and assistant director in the classic film Bicycle Thieves (1948). In the American monumental film Quo Vadis (1951), which was shot in Rome, he acted as one of the directors of the second recording team. In 1959 he held the same position for Ben Hur , the most elaborate film project of the 1950s, under the pseudonym Bob Robertson. This Hollywood epic was also shot in Italy. As a director, Leone was later heavily influenced by American cinema and especially interested in epic, high-profile films.

In 1959 Sergio Leone worked as an (unnamed) co-director on The Last Days of Pompeii , a sandal film directed by Mario Bonnard , typical of the time. At that time, strips of this type were produced in large numbers in Italy. Remarkably, Leone had several employees on The Last Days of Pompeii who later became the leading directors of the Spaghetti Western: Duccio Tessari was assistant director, Sergio Corbucci and Enzo Barboni acted as director and cameraman of the second camera team. Even though The Last Days of Pompeii was a cheap production, Leone learned a lot about film funding while making the film.

In 1961, the 32-year-old Sergio Leone made his actual directorial debut with The Colossus of Rhodes , another sandal film with Italian characteristics. Compared to the director's later works, this film is of little importance in the general tenor. Leone himself admitted that he only shot the film to finance his honeymoon. As a result, this film is treated only rudimentary or even omitted in the overall presentation of Sergio Leone's work. Nevertheless, some characteristics of his later work can already be recognized.

Dollar trilogy

While the demand for sandal films slowly ebbed in the early 1960s, Leone was already busy preparing his next film. This time he oriented himself in a completely different direction and prepared the production of a western. Leone was enthusiastic about this genre and believed that European western films can also be successful, although all major westerns to date had come from the USA. From 1962, however, the films in the Karl May series ran with great success in German-speaking countries.

Westerns had been produced in Italy before Leone (around 25), but these were insignificant in commercial and artistic terms. It was Leone who, with For a Handful of Dollars (1964), founded the genre of the spaghetti western in the form we know today. When developing the script, he and his co-authors were based on Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo - The Bodyguard (1961). The main character of Kurosawa's film, a samurai warrior, transformed Leone into a western hero. Kurosawa and his co-writer initiated a copyright lawsuit and received, among other things, 15% of the worldwide revenues of the Leone film.

Since Sergio Leone was on a tight budget ($ 200,000), he couldn't hire an established American star like Henry Fonda or James Coburn to star in For a Fistful of Dollars . While searching for an affordable US actor, Leone came across the then relatively unknown TV actor Clint Eastwood , who was eventually hired for $ 15,000. The 34-year-old Eastwood appeared in the role of a mysterious gunslinger who pits two warring clans against each other in a remote village in New Mexico and is characterized by his phenomenal shooting skills.

“The 'stranger' is a variation of familiar hero characters, the plot a modification of familiar conflicts [...]. Leone's approach to western myth provides the cliché components of the genre with a more cynical view of the characters, their actions and motives. The hero no longer has a personal or historical identity, but is an anonymous, lonely man with no past and no future, who only gains his uniqueness from his behavior. "

For a handful of dollars it was initially considered obscure and was either panned out by critics or ignored at all. However, the film turned into a sensational box office hit. Clint Eastwood became an international star in the role of the cynical “stranger without a name” (in fact he was called “Joe”), who approaches his opponents in a poncho with provocative casualness. Countless western actors oriented themselves in the following years to the character type created by Eastwood and Leone. Leone himself didn't think too much of the acting skills of his main character: "He has two facial expressions: one with and one without a hat."

In order to create the impression that a handful of dollars is an American film, Leone and his co-workers acquired English pseudonyms (Leone acted as "Bob Robertson", for example - a tribute to his father, who was known as Roberto Roberti ). In For a Few Dollars More (1965) in the opening credits, however, the real name of the filmmakers were called. Leone had a much higher budget (600,000 dollars) available for this second film in what was later known as the “Dollar Trilogy”. Lee Marvin , Charles Bronson or Henry Fonda were supposed to play the second leading role alongside Clint Eastwood, but could not be signed, which is why Leone hired the 40-year-old Lee van Cleef , who had been in numerous Hollywood westerns ( twelve noon ) in smaller supporting roles occurred.

Eastwood appeared again as an unshaven gunslinger and played a bounty hunter who brings down a gang of crooks with his "colleague" (Van Cleef). Like the previous film, For a Few Dollars More was shot mainly in the Almería area of ​​Spain, and like For a Fistful of Dollars it became a huge box office hit.

Leone was now so established as a director that he was granted a budget of 1.2 million dollars for the last part of the "Dollar Trilogy", which enabled the production of an epic western film with elaborate set-ups and a large number of extras. (All films Leone made from then on were over-length of at least 2 ½ hours.) In Two Glorious Scoundrels (1966), Clint Eastwood was seen again as a bounty hunter in a poncho and hunted alongside Lee van Cleef (as the sadistic villain) and Eli Wallach (as a Mexican bandit) chases a pot of gold that was lost in the turmoil of the civil war. Leone's third western was a huge box office hit and became a popular cult film over the decades. In the Internet Movie Database , it ranks 9th on the list of the best films and is considered the best western of all time (July 2019).

Importance of the Dollar Trilogy

The huge financial success of the relatively cheap produced "dollars" movies sparked the spaghetti westerns -wave, which reached its peak in the second half of the 1960s and spawned hundreds of movies unterschiedlichster quality. Almost all spaghetti westerns were cheap productions, which were based on the works of Leone, which shaped the genre stylistically and thematically.

Typically, cynical, unshaven gunslingers appeared in the Spaghetti Westerns fighting sadistic villains in the American / Mexican border area. Explicit depictions of violence and scenes of torture shaped the genre, the protagonists were often severely mistreated (also with Leone). The common themes of American westerns (land settlement, war against the Indians, etc.) were hardly dealt with in the spaghetti westerns. In keeping with the zeitgeist of the late 1960s, numerous films were conceived as “revolutionary westerns” and showed the struggle of the Mexican rural population against their oppressors. Since many of the films were shot in Spain, the Mediterranean-looking Spanish extras could easily be passed off as Mexicans.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the enormously successful slam westerns with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill , in which the clichés of this sub-genre were satirized, heralded the end of the spaghetti westerns. Until the mid-1970s, a few serious films were made, such as Keoma - The Song of Death (1976) with Franco Nero , probably the most prominent Italian star in this genre. Although directors such as Sergio Corbucci ( Django ) or Duccio Tessari ( A Pistol for Ringo ) also made a name for themselves in the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone remained the defining figure in commercial and artistic terms.

Sergio Leone's first three westerns revolutionized the staging style of the entire genre and not only shaped the style of the spaghetti westerns. The American western film, which had frozen in its conventions in the mid-1960s, was clearly oriented towards the much more contemporary Italian westerns from the second half of the 1960s. Films like The Fearful Four (1966), Hang Him Higher (1968), The Lullaby from Manslaughter (1970) or Chatos Land (1971 - this was an English production) were based on the harsh, cynical tone of the Spaghetti Western.

Employees and performers

Sergio Leone worked from the mid-1960s with a permanent staff that was involved in most of his films. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (1922–2005) ensured the special look of the Leone films, which was characterized, among other things, by the alternation between opulent landscape panoramas and unusual close-ups of the actors' faces. Delli Colli and Leone also specialized in arranging complex camera movements (tracking shots over the roof of the station building in Spiel mir das Lied von Tod ).

The film editor for all Leone films from Two Glorious Scoundrels was Nino Baragli (1925-2013), who together with Leone was responsible for the complex montages of scenes (“Triello” at the end of Two Glorious Scoundrels ). As a production designer and costume designer, Carlo Simi (1924–2000) was responsible for setting the Leone films, which were mostly characterized by a particular opulence.

The music of Ennio Morricone (1928–2020) was of fundamental importance for Sergio Leone's films . As a composer, he was responsible for the music for every Leone film from 1964 onwards. At the recommendation of the producer of For a Fistful of Dollars , Leone reluctantly went to Morricone, who told the perplexed Leone that they had both gone to the same school and that they had an old photo to prove it - they were even sitting in the same row. After some back and forth, they agreed on a nine-year-old composition by Morricone, for whose reinterpretation a piper was still being sought who would give the title song its characteristic sound. Morricone, who worked as a film composer since 1961, created for Leone soundtracks that fundamentally different from the traditional symphonic Western soundtracks and through the use of unconventional instruments ( jew's harp stood out) and sound effects (coyotes howl). Morricone usually finished his music before filming and Leone often fine-tuned scenes or camera movements to match the finished music. So it becomes understandable that Leone said of Morricone: "He is not my composer. He is my scenarioist!"

Ennio Morricone rose to become one of the most famous and internationally sought-after film composers and created melodies that became part of popular culture beyond the cinema ( song of death , nobody theme ). To date (as of 2012) he is responsible for more than 500 soundtracks; his music became so popular that he has been performing it live with a large orchestra for years. Numerous composers such as Bruno Nicolai based their spaghetti western soundtracks on Morricone's work.

Sergio Leone, who was strongly influenced by American cinema, hired mainly US actors for his films. An exception was the Italian Gian Maria Volonté (1933-1994), who appeared as a villain in the first two dollar films. The leading actor in the dollar trilogy was Clint Eastwood (* 1930), who became an icon of pop culture as a cigarillo-smoking gunslinger and made it from TV cowboy ( Rawhide ) to international film star. As an actor, director and producer, Eastwood has been one of Hollywood's leading personalities for decades. Lee van Cleef (1925–1989) advanced to become one of the most popular spaghetti western stars through the Leone films and often played mellow bounty hunters and similar characters. Charles Bronson (1921–2003) became an international action star in 1968 through Spiel mir das Lied von Tod .

After Sergio Leone had earned a good reputation with his first film successes and his budget had grown, he was also able to take on renowned American character actors such as Eli Wallach (1915-2014), Henry Fonda (1905-1982), Jason Robards (1922-2000) or Rod Steiger (1925–2002). In the 1980s he worked with Robert De Niro (* 1943).

America Trilogy (or "Once Upon a Time Trilogy")

After Two Glorious Scoundrels became a huge success, Leone became an international star director and got the chance to work in Hollywood. Initially, however, he didn't want to shoot westerns anymore, but instead planned to produce an epic gangster film. Since the studios considered this genre to be out of date, Leone agreed to stage another Western.

With his scriptwriters Bernardo Bertolucci , Dario Argento (both of whom later became known as directors) and Sergio Donati , he developed the epic, operatic story of Spiel mir das Lied von Tod ( C'era una volta il West / Once Upon A Time In The West ) (1968), a prestigious production for which he was granted a budget of five million dollars. It was the first of Leone's only two US productions.

Play me the song of death originated in America, Spain and Italy and was cast with American actors such as Henry Fonda , Charles Bronson and Jason Robards . The Italian star actress Claudia Cardinale completed the leading actor quartet. Since the film was produced by the American company Paramount and three American stars were to be seen in the lead roles, this film can, strictly speaking, hardly be called a spaghetti western. However, all key creative positions (script, camera, equipment, music, editing) were occupied by Leone's Italian team.

Play me the song of death showed Charles Bronson in the role of a harmonica-playing gunslinger who brings down a sadistic villain (Henry Fonda), became a huge success and went down in film history as a classic and cult film. In the US, the film was shown in a heavily abridged version, which severely impaired Leone's artistic vision, and failed at the box office. (Even with his next films, Leone could no longer assert himself in the USA.)

Above all in Europe, however, the director was able to celebrate great success with Spiel mir das Lied von Tod , in Germany the western advanced to one of the most successful films with 13 million viewers and some of it was shown in cinemas for years. Ennio Morricone wrote one of the most famous film scores in cinema history for Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod .

Sergio Leone had reached the peak of his career with Spiel mir das Lied von Tod . Until his death in 1989, he only directed two films, both of which did not get much response at the box office. In his death melody project ( Giù La Testa ; working title of the screenplay was Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution ) (1971) Leone initially only wanted to act as a producer in the background; the directors were Peter Bogdanovich or Sam Peckinpah . After the direction was finally taken over by his former assistant Gian Carlo Santi , differences arose with the actors during the shooting, which is why Leone himself switched to the director's chair.

Half-relief on the grave of Sergio Leone

Death Melody was in the tradition of numerous "revolutionary westerns" that had emerged in the late 1960s. Rod Steiger (as a Mexican bandit) and James Coburn (as an Irish explosives specialist) carry out a bank robbery here and involuntarily become heroes of the Mexican Revolution. Compared to the other Western Leones, this film - the second part of the so-called "America Trilogy" - was not commercially successful and was soon forgotten.

After Death Melody , Leone only worked as a film producer for years, including the 1973 western comedy Mein Name ist Nobody , for which he also served as a source of ideas and co-author. Terence Hill in the title role of Nobody played a very similar figure here as in his successful fun westerns with Bud Spencer - the likeable adventurer who pulls faster than others. He was supported by Henry Fonda in the role of Jack Beauregard, a legendary gunslinger of advanced age whom the nameless nobody admires as a fan. Although Leone's former assistant director Tonino Valerii was officially named as the film's director, it appears that numerous scenes were directed by Sergio Leone. As always, Ennio Morricone acted as the composer, who created one of his most famous pieces of music with the theme melody.

From 1972 Sergio Leone prepared his gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America , which was based on Harry Grey's book The Hoods and was the third part of his America trilogy. After extensive preparatory work, the almost four-hour gangster saga finally came to the cinema in 1984. The film tells the life of the Jewish gangster Noodles ( Robert De Niro ) on three time levels (1922/1932/1968) , who made a career at the side of his friend Max ( James Woods ) during the prohibition period , but then betrayed him to the police. The highly budgeted epic ($ 30 million) with its complex narrative structure did not find an audience in the cinema and was unsuccessfully recut and shortened.

Part of Sergio Leone's tomb

However, the film was rehabilitated by the critics and has long been considered one of the great classics of the 1980s. Sergio Leone was never able to create the cut version of the film that he planned. Under the direction of Martin Scorsese, the film was restored and presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 in a version extended by 25 minutes.

Sergio Leone was married to Carla Leone and had three children. He died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60 while working on a film about the siege of Leningrad in World War II. The overweight director had previously suffered heart attacks. Leone was buried on the Cimitero Napoleonico in Pratica di Mare , a district of Pomezia and about 30 km south of Rome.

Influence on other filmmakers

Even today, many directors describe Leone as their great idol. In an interview, James Woods said that working with Sergio Leone was the high point of his film career. Quentin Tarantino is an avowed fan of his films and also incorporates many of Sergio Leone's typical camera angles into his own films. Clint Eastwood dedicated his Oscar to Leone for Best Director of Merciless ( Unforgiven , 1992), despite having had a few arguments with him.

Filmography (excerpt)


Films in the top 250 of the IMDb
space Movie
9 Two glorious scoundrels
47 Once Upon a Time in the West
72 Once Upon a Time in America
113 For a few more dollars

Second unit director or assistant director



  • Oreste De Fornari: Sergio Leone. Bahia Verlag, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-922699-26-X .
  • Christopher Frayling: Spaghetti Westerns. Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. IBTauris, London / New York 1998, ISBN 978-1-84511-207-3 .
  • Christopher Frayling: Sergio Leone. Something To Do With Death. Faber & Faber, London / New York 2000, ISBN 978-0-571-16438-7 .
  • Harald Steinwender: Sergio Leone. Once upon a time in Europe. Bertz + Fischer Verlag, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-86505-308-4 .
  • Michael Striss: Grace speaks God - Amen my Colt. Motifs, symbolism and religious references in the Spaghetti Western. Büchner-Verlag, Marburg 2018, ISBN 978-3-96317-123-9 .

Web links

Commons : Sergio Leone  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Harald Steinwender: Sergio Leone. Once upon a time in Europe. Bertz + Fischer Verlag, Berlin 2009, p. 30.
  2. Steinwender: Sergio Leone. P. 29 (quoted and translated from: Noël Simsolo: Conversations avec Sergio Leone. Paris 1987, p. 22) For many post-war Italian directors, the “cinema of white telephones” embodied the unrealistic style of fascist cinema. For more information, see Morando Morandini: Italy. From fascism to neo-realism. In: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Ed.): History of the international film. JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2006, p. 321 f.
  3. Sergio Leone himself speaks of an "unofficial professional ban" from 1929 to 1939, while Frayling interprets this as a "family legend". Frayling: Sergio Leone. P. 38 f.
  4. However, the information about this differs greatly from one another. Christopher Frayling speaks of participation in 28 productions before The Colossus of Rhodes in 1961, the Companion to Italian Cinema of 56 works, other sources of "over 50" films.
  5. Michael Carlson: Sergio Leone. Harpenden / Herts 2001, p. 31.
  6. Steinwender: Sergio Leone. P. 32.
  7. Film review by Christoph Huber at
  8. The last of its kind - Clint Eastwood in Lexicon of International Films , p. W 38.
  9. Top Rated Movies
  10. ^ Noël Simsolo: Conversation with Sergio Leone . In: Cahiers du Cinéma . 1999, ISBN 978-2-86642-209-7 , pp. 207 .
  11. The grave of Sergio Leone. In: Klaus Nerger, accessed on July 23, 2019 .
  12. ^ Gavin Smith: James Woods: The Actor as Terrorist. In: Film Comment. 33, 1-2 / 1997, p. 58 f.
  13. Michael Ciment, Hubert Niogret: Interview at Cannes. In: Gerald Peary (ed.): Quentin Tarantino. Interviews. Jackson (Mississippi) 1998, pp. 9-26.
  14. Steinwender: Sergio Leone. P. 347 ff.
  15. The Top 250 of the IMDb (as of April 26, 2020)