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Belkin
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Can my character have a poncho, Sergio? Please!


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« on: January 16, 2005, 01:48:07 PM »

  TORONTO STAR

Jan. 14, 2005. 01:00 AM
 

Last western stand was Sergio Leone's
Made mark with Fistful of Dollars Also revived career of Clint Eastwood


GEOFF PEVERE
MOVIE CRITIC

In more than one sense, the western crossed its final frontier in the 1960s.

Eight of the 10 top-rated prime time American network programs were westerns at the time John F. Kennedy proclaimed his New Frontier" in 1960, and no movie star rode that bronco of a decade taller than the middle-aged and red-necked cowboy superstar, John Wayne.

But that was pretty much over by the time Sam Peckinpah's bloody sunset western The Wild Bunch splattered screens in 1969. Within the next decade, western iconic would disperse like blown tumbleweeds through other forms: Urban cop movies, outer space movies, existential road movies and most successfully and self-destructively of all blockbuster parody takedowns like Blazing Saddles.

But influential as Vietnam, civil rights, TV, counterculture politics and aging cowboy stars were to the western's demise, there was also Sergio Leone. Arguably the form's last essential director (along with Peckinpah), this son of an Italian silent-movie pioneer (who had directed a western, called La Vampira Indiana, as far back as 1913) was also one of its most skilled assassins.

By the time Leone had had his way with the west, there was little left save dust, wind, corpses and the lonesome wail of an Ennio Morricone harmonica.

Leone came to westerns after an apprenticeship working on pepla, the cycle of Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics that thrived through the late 1950s.

From these, one assumes he learned the lessons of epic scale, international marketing, creative violence and elementary mythical storytelling all things that would stand him in good stead when he finally convinced reluctant backers to support an uncredited remake of Akira Kurosawa's amoral samurai story Yojimbo (itself inspired by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest) as an Italian movie to be shot in Spain starring a nearly unknown American TV-western star named Clint Eastwood. (Leone had wanted Henry Fonda, James Coburn and Charles Bronson, in that order, but Eastwood was the only American he could afford. By the end, he'd have them all.)

He called it A Fistful of Dollars. In the next decade, Leone would make only four more so-called spaghetti westerns For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker (a.k..a A Fistful of Dynamite) but their pop cultural impact had the ballistic force of the arsenal hidden under Eastwood's greasy poncho.

They also re-invigorated the then-flaccid TV career of Rawhide's Eastwood, who became the century's last born-on-a-saddle movie star.

Bearing traces of opera, comic books, the director's beloved childhood puppet shows and echoes of contemporary radical politics, Leone's westerns re-imagined the frontier as a desert of scorched morality, corporate rapaciousness and anti-heroic individualism.

Even Morricone's soundtracks, which were every bit as abstract as the movies themselves, described a landscape of hard-edged basic elements: harmonicas, chants, grunts, whistles and jangling guitar chords.

If this was the west, it was not the west of possibilities, conquest or possibilities as vast and immutable as John Ford's Monument Valley (where Leone shot Once Upon a Time in the West). This was the end of the line; the train stopped for good.

Cinematheque Ontario's Sergio Leone retrospective begins tonight with a screening of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

Once Upon a Time in the West screens tomorrow evening following a lecture by Bart Testa of the University of Toronto Cinema Studies department.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly will be shown on January 18, Duck, You Sucker on the 19th, and Once Upon a Time in America on Jan. 27.

« Last Edit: January 16, 2005, 01:50:09 PM by Belkin » Logged

You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets...
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