Of special interest to fans of spaghetti westerns (and count Frank among the most avid) are a couple of recent developments regarding Sergio Leone, the maestro who directed Clint Eastwood (above) to international stardom and gave us at least one of the best westerns ever made — anywhere.
Leone, who died at 60 in Rome of heart failure in 1989, is revered by cineastes in America and abroad, but is less well known among younger generations of film goers.
After years of toiling in various production jobs at the Cinecitta studios (built, incidentally, by Benito Mussolini in 1937) outside Rome in the Fifties, Leone got his first directoral shot at a sword-and-sandal epic, The Colossus of Rhodes starring, of all people, Rory Calhoun.
The picture was a box office hit giving a needed boost to Calhoun’s career and providing Leone the chance to direct his first western, A Fistful of Dollars, inspired by the work of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and starring an American tv star by the name of Eastwood as a laconic “Man with No Name,” sporting a broad-brimmed hat and a poncho to conceal a mangled hand.
At the time (1964), Eastwood was taking a break from his costarring role in the American tv series Rawhide. He was hardly the major star he later became. Eastwood noticed that the movie he was making was far from the conventional script he read back in Hollywood. A Fistful of Dollars was not shaping up to be just another foreign ripoff of a Hollywood genre.
By the time the movie came out in Italy, Eastwood had long since flown back to Hollywood and had largely forgotten his overseas venture. But then over the next three years, word filtered back — as it invariably does in such cases — that A Fistful of Dollars was doing land office business in Rome and other Italian cities, and going gangbusters in other foreign markets. Finally, in 1967, United Artists stepped up to import the movie to the U.S.
No surprise that a sequel was arranged, and Eastwood was re-imported as “The Man with No Name,” augmented by the presence of over-the-hill American western star Lee Van Cleef. The sequel, A Fistful of Dollars, as well as a second sequel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Van Cleef and Eli Wallach were snapped up by United Artists, and became worldwide hits.
Frank believes that they also established Leone once and for all in the pantheon of great directors of westerns — with the exception of John Ford perhaps the best one ever. The Italian went on to expand in his audience in 1968 with the larger budget Once Upon A Time in the West with an A-list cast including Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.
Now (finally) to the good news. The Wall Street Journal reported in mid-December that Leone’s heirs, Andrea and Raffaella — who built his company, Leone Film Group, into a thriving independent distributor in Italy — were bringing forth an Initial Pubic Offering to raise capital in order to broaden the activities of the company.
On the agenda is an intensive effort to broaden awareness and interest in Leone’s westerns among younger audiences. Creation of spaghetti-western areas in U.S. theme parks, a videogame inspired by The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the development of Leone’s last un-produced screenplay are under consideration. We hope the venture pans out and thrives, especially since Frank regards The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as the best western ever made.
Now to the not-so-good news: In late September, Italian screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who worked on some 70 films in a lengthy career, died at 87 in Rome. Vincenzoni had a big hand in writing the screenplays for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but didn’t realize at the time how durable his contributions would become. He had higher literary ambitions than writing “lowbrow” westerns.
“I have written movies that won prizes at Cannes and Venice,” Vincenzoni told Leone biographer Christopher Frayling. “These were screenplays for which we suffered on paper for months. Do you know how long it took me to write For A Few Dollars More?