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Sergio Leone

Blu-ray: A pair of ‘Ringo’s and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)

Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.

Arrow Films

In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.

Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.

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Review: My Name Is Nobody

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Most people have been writing about My Name Is Nobody as though it were as unequivocally a Sergio Leone film as Once upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, et al.; some reviewers haven’t troubled to mention the existence of Tonino Valerii (who is emphatically given directorial credit twice in the opening titles) while more scrupulous commentators have nodded toward Valerii while acclaiming My Name Is Nobody as “the most producer-directed movie since The Thing.” There’s no mistaking the Leone manner, the Leone themes, and the frequent instances of Leone power and feeling; the protégé has learned the master’s lessons well, and one feels certain he was largely executing Leone’s own detailed plan of the film. I’m sorry I muffed my chance to see Valerii’s own A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die a month or so ago (I loathe drive-ins) because I might have been better prepared to wade in and sort out the fine points of auteurship in the mise-en-scène. There are lapses in the film that mightn’t have occurred—or might have been more decisively compensated for—if Leone’s hand had been at the throttle. But there are also shots, sequences, and literally timeless moments in the movie that do no disservice to the memory of previous Leones—which is to say that My Name Is Nobody contains some of the most extravagantly exciting footage that’s going to appear on movie screens this year.

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Cemetery Without Crosses’

CemetaryCrossA spaghetti western with French seasonings, Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) is a Franco-Italian co-production shot in Almeria, Spain, the definitive badlands landscape of the Euro-western. The director, screenwriters, two stars, and even composer are French and the supporting cast largely Italian. And while this is not shot in the widescreen dimension of CinemaScope, de rigueur for genre, is features the familiar conventions: taciturn anti-hero, bleak desert setting, spare style, mercenary characters, and a culture so steeped in corruption that the closest we get to justice is justified vengeance.

French movie star turned filmmaker Robert Hossein helms the film and casts Michèle Mercier, with whom he starred in a successful series of historical romances in France, as a frontier wife widowed in the first scene. The Rogers clan, the ruthless land barons of the territory, have been trying to drive them out of. When Maria’s husband and his two brothers rob the Rogers, they have all the excuse they need to execute him right in front of her eyes. Hungry for vengeance, she seeks out Manuel (Hossein), who lives in the saloon of a ghost town that looks like the abandoned set of some earlier western, not just empty but being reclaimed by the wind and the sand. He says that he’s hung up the gun but is coaxed into taking her job, in part by her husband’s share of the robbery, in part by whatever unspoken past is churned up in their long, lingering glances.

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Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Videophiled: ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ restored

OnceUponAmericanBDOnce Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.

The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.

It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”

More new releases on disc, digital, and streaming at Cinephiled

Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]

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A Fistful of Dollars

Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was American—what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwood—true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the Cinecittà interiors. And the faces of the supporting cast—swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selections—became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.

A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categories—director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.

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