Sergio Leone

Henry Fonda as the cold-blooded killer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Henry Fonda as the cold-blooded killer Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

  • Born:  1929
  • Died:  1989
  • Rank:  73
  • Score:  529.70
  • Nominations:  BAFTA / GG
  • Feature Films:  7
  • Best:  Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Worst:  A Fistful of Dynamite

Films (in rank order):

  1. Once Upon a Time in the West – 1969
  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – 1966
  3. Once Upon a Time in America – 1984
  4. A Fistful of Dollars – 1964
  5. For a Few Dollars More – 1965
  6. The Colossus of Rhodes – 1961
  7. A Fistful of Dynamite – 1971

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awawrds):

  • 1967 – 10th – A Fistful of Dollars
  • 1968 – 4th – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  • 1969 – 2nd – Once Upon a Time in the West
  • 1984 – 5th – Once Upon a Time in America

Even if Sergio Leone had stopped making films after 1966 – had never made his best film or his epic masterpiece, cinema would still owe him a huge debt.  Because in a few short years, he made the Man With No Name Trilogy, the birth of the Spaghetti Western, the films that turned Clint Eastwood from a television actor into a worldwide star.

Leone worked in Italy for years as an assistant director and his first few directorial efforts are both uncredited and unconfirmed.  He finally made his own film with the sword and sandal The Colossus of Rhodes, which is fairly forgettable.  But then in a burst of energy in the mid’60’s, he made his three films with Eastwood (the inspiration for Stephen King’s masterful Dark Tower saga).  He finished off the 60’s with his best film, one of the best Westerns ever made – Once Upon a Time in the West.  He stopped in for one mediocre film before spending years putting together Once Upon a Time in America, a film that was badly cut when it was originally released in the U.S. but is a fantastic film that should be viewed in its entirety.  He died of a heart attack before he could start making his long planned film on the siege of Stalingrad.

Once Upon a Time in the West – #2 film of 1969

It is the single greatest years for Westerns.  The #1 film of the year is The Wild Bunch.  The #3 film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  And in between stands Leone’s masterpiece, the film he was finally able to get Henry Fonda for.

According to the stories, Fonda showed up on set prepared to play the cold blooded killer wearing brown contact lenses.  Leone ordered him to take them out, because he wanted a close up after Fonda slaughtered the family in the opening scenes and he wanted that close up to focus on Fonda’s famous blue eyes.  Fonda was the right choice and his portrayal of Frank is one of the best of his career, a stark difference from the two really good people he had played that defined his career (Tom Joad and Doug Roberts).  In all the talk about Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector, Fonda’s Frank is lost in the shuffle of all-time great movie villains, but his is one of the best.

Leone learned from his experiences from the Man With No Name Trilogy and expanded.  Instead of shooting in Spain, this time he went to John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley.  Instead of using Eastwood, he put Charles Bronson in the main role (again with no name, but this time with a back story).  But the link between the films is Ennio Morricone and his amazing score.  The score for Fistful had been brilliant and the score for Ugly has become iconic, but his best score is the recurring harmonica music, especially during the final closing fight.  This is Morricone’s best moment in a long, treasured career.