By César Wonenburger
May 16, 2023
[Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, in an interview on Italian television in the 60s]
A new documentary recovers the figure of the director who for Spielberg made films "like nobody else", together with the influence of the composer without whose music would not be understood For a Fistful of Dollars or Once Upon a Time in America.
When Clint Eastwood agreed to dedicate the vacation left by his job on television in his country to shoot, between Rome and Almeria, Death had a price, second installment of the so-called Dollar Trilogy, in exchange for fifty thousand dollars, only had one request. He wanted his laconic character, with those dry and ironic drops of humor, a kind of James Bond of the Far West, to give up tobacco. But Sergio Leone, the director who had first recruited him for his previous film, For a Fistful of Dollars, while the actor was just an unknown who made a living working on a modest series, was adamant. That cylinder of nicotine eternally perched between his lips had come to acquire a prominence of its own, essential. So he stayed. For something in Italy, Eastwood, one of the most popular personalities among the clients of the glamorous terraces of the Via Veneto of the 60s, was known as "Il Cigarrillo".
[Clint Eastwood with his famous cigarillo between his lips in the movie ‘For a Fistful of Dollars’]
Leone always had very clear ideas, despite his nervous tics typical of the insecurities of genius. He knew perfectly well that in Art commitments, however small, often lead to enormous disappointments. After having reached maximum glory with his personal and risky turn of the screw to the western, allowing himself to reject juicy commissions such as The Godfather in the meantime, it took him almost three decades to set up his definitive work, Once upon a time in America. And once he finally managed to capture it true to his vision, shooting almost for twelve intense months of repeated shots until exhaustion to fix his daydreams as the imagination, and the experience of a lifetime, had dictated it, the bosses of the Hollywood studio decided to massacre it to make it “more accessible”.
They cut his assembly in more than an hour until it was unrecognizable to him, who never wanted to get personally involved with that pickle. He never recovered from the blow. He would not shoot again, not even that Leningrad for which Gorbachev had promised to give him all the troops of the Soviet army, including tanks, and whose opening scene began with Shostakovich’s hands on the keyboard of a piano composing the symphony that would serve as the soundtrack of hope against the Nazi siege of the city. In one of the most epic and bloody episodes of World War II. Leone would live even a little longer, he said goodbye in 1989, but who knows if that upset precipitated his early end with 60 years.
Leone, true to his principles
His widow later confessed sometime later that the producers had never been too conducive to them. Loyal to his principles, that Neapolitan Grimaldi – famous surname of a lineage of pirates who settled among the rocks of Monaco, until today – had tried to fleece him several times on the occasion of the filming of his "spaghetti-westerns". Be that as it may, Leone achieved his purpose, the one that gives meaning and fullness to a life: against all odds he succeeded in making several of his childhood dreams come true, prolonging those of his father, Vincenzo, an actor and director retired before his time.
He conceived a handful of films like those that had fed his main happy hours in those years spent in Roman Trastevere, but enriched with his personal touch, fruit of that style that began to be forged through the viewing of the great titles of Walsh, Hawks or Ford, to which surely we should add a very solid knowledge of the expressive ways of silent cinema. of masters such as Griffith or Murnau, and even of his own father, who signed his contributions as Roberto Roberti.
The cinema is a choral, collective endeavor, but in the end the one who signs is god, as the figure of the director is known in the shootings. Some of the collaborators who worked with him, especially a couple of screenwriters, were never very happy with the fact that the glory fell almost entirely on his oronda figure, attributing a kind of narcissism and egomania consubstantial to every creator, however minor he may be, much more when it comes to someone who has managed to taste the honeys of that multitudinous success, with clear influence on the current account, which in the case of Leone was also reflected in several succulent episodes.
[The film 'Once Upon a Time in America', by Sergio Leone]
Like the time in which in a Florentine cinema they had to warn the police because a large group of exalted spectators tried to enter the room, already occupied to the very brim, because they refused to stop attending one of their best known films, in which both doubting and melancholy heroes and unscrupulous ruffians exhibited a mutant morality that brought them closer to their audience in a way rarely shown.
The modernity of the director born in 1929, so suggestive, consisted in not establishing simple distinctions between the just and sinners: both could constitute the reverse of the same worn coin according to the circumstances. As in life itself, in that dusty and sweaty universe of urgent passions gray predominated. But served not with the crudeness of a neorealism that aspired to capture and serve a crude picture of existence without attachments, with the right means. The sense of spectacle was non-negotiable, the basis of its communion with the public for a filmmaker raised in the Eternal City, where in each new walk the greatest pleasures destined to one of the essential senses for artistic delight, sight, are offered without reservation.
The arrival of Morricone
Hegel restricted the sensibility of art to "the theoretical senses", sight, of course, but also hearing. Both would shake hands in an almost unexpected way when Leone began working with one of his former classmates, who had lost track, the composer Ennio Morricone. "Leone had the eyes and Morricone the sound," summarizes Steven Spielberg in the documentary Sergio Leone: the Italian who invented America, presented last summer at the Venice Film Festival and incorporated into the SkyShowtime platform offer these days. The most outstanding pupil of the Italian director, Quentin Tarantino, insists on the same idea: "Morricone is the co-author of Leone's films, to the point that you cannot imagine them without his soundtrack."
In this joint work both restored to the cinema values that were believed to have already been overcome through a literary conception that held it tightly to the novel, such as in most current series. As in those films of the silent era to which his father had contributed so much, from Italy, the author of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly restored to the pure image, in absolute connivance with the sound (Morricone, connoisseur of musique concrète, former student of Cage, gave it an essential value), a mode of expression clearly superior to the mere illustration of a text. Beyond serving as a complement that elevates emotion, the music of his films informs, dialogues, suggests and discovers.
[Poster of the documentary 'Sergio Leone: the Italian who invented America', by Steven Spielberg]
The conception of work that Morricone had begun to develop in other film works, but also in the skillful transformation of the popular music of his time, arranging melodies sweetened with subtle dressings of ironic distancing directly related to the resources proposed by the musical avant-garde, acquired its full meaning in the collaborations he developed together with Leone. That surprising onomatopoeic parade, the bold mixture, not without wisdom, of the howl of a coyote with the ringing of a bell, a guitar riff and the impossible vocalizations of a soprano, the penetrating sound of the harmonica or a whistle to the fullness of a symphonic ensemble at the service of a melodic discovery constituted no longer a simple accompaniment, A filler with which to put the emphasis on this or that emotion.
All this fascinating hybrid and synthetic fabric managed to overlap in the development of the story and the characters, sometimes promoting unexpected meanings, associations, nuances. As in Wagner's operas, beneath the mask, music could serve to reveal the real thought, the hidden intentions of the protagonist or any of the secondary, beyond the surface of the actions. In this way, what Morricone himself defined as "the abstract interpretation of words", their opaque meaning, was verified.
Such was the importance that Sergio Leone attached to the work of his old friend that in his last collaborations he established a method that Herbert von Karajan would adapt, in some way, for several of his operatic productions in Salzburg. Karajan first recorded the music with the same performers who months later would bring it to the stage. In this way, at the time of rehearsals, the sound previously recorded with their own vocal cords was heard through speakers, allowing the artists to concentrate during that moment only on the acting movements, at least until the last tests.
For the filming of that immense ode to the Seventh Art that is Until its time came, Leone led the composer to previously record the entire soundtrack, so that it was always heard on the set, during each scene. Beyond Karajan's perfectionism, which also sought the greatest concentration of efforts, Leone intended to convey to his interpreters the overall dramatic sense of his intentions, to capture the full atmosphere, something that for him was only possible if they managed to impregnate themselves with the music. A unique method that gave Morricone's work its absolute letter of nature.
['Once Upon a Time in the West', by Sergio Leone]
That co-authorship claimed by Tarantino was undeniable despite the modesty of the musician, who did not consider himself at the height of a screenwriter, at best, a privileged interpreter of the author's true intentions, of the psychology of the characters. The now deceased composer told a wonderful anecdote, revealing his discreet personality, of Until his time came. During filming, Leone decided to dispense with the music that the composer had created, and recorded, for the opening scene, one of the most iconic in the history of cinema. Far from being enraged, Morricone agreed with him without reservation. Those characteristic sounds, such as the noise of the mill, constituted in their eloquent nakedness the best possible symphony to communicate the anguish of waiting, "an unparalleled music"
Leone and Morricone stayed together until the end, rendering a last joint service to the cinema in that Once Upon a Time America that, according to Robert De Niro, the director almost refused to conclude as if he wanted to stay to live eternally hung in the evocation of some of the memories of his childhood, the time of innocence and discovery, in that first-time kiss that actress Jennifer Connelly, a debutante of just 11 years, had to play in one of her most captivating scenes. La Connelly, who would have loved to be able to treat him as an adult, has never forgotten the experience or the affection with which the director knew how to wrap her in such a delicate moment for her. He still gets excited to evoke it.
According to Spielberg, this testamentary work, crepuscular like the Velazquez tones of the sunsets of those westerns that he wanted to evoke from the distance of his European tradition, impregnating them with thin layers of humor that would file their roughest and most complex contours, but always faithful to a way of fabular that privileges above all the dazzle, The astonishment that fights boredom, is "his best conceived film". A statement that acquires greater emphaticness, meaning and thickness because for the author of Jaws "nobody made films like him, before or after. He found a way to tell stories that no one even came close to."