43. Sergio Leone
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
Many directors on the list are children of cinema, but few are as specific, or as subtle, with their references to classic films as Sergio Leone. Having grown up around the cinema (he once said, “I was born in the cinema, almost.”), Leone loved American westerns and brought an Italian spin to the well-worn tropes of the films of John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Budd Boetticher, creating what are generally referred to as “Spaghetti Westerns.” A career spanning only seven films, Leone has become one of the most copied and referenced directors of all time. His “Dollars Trilogy” introduced the world to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a very different and amoral screen hero based on the commedia dell’arte trickster, and in the process created the modern action star. That series culminated in arguably his greatest film, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, a movie routinely put near the top of Best Movies lists. The films that follow suddenly became about the death of the romanticism of the Western, the end of the fun times of our youth. The “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which is cohesive only in theme, deals with the reality of what films often romanticize. In a short span of time, Leone grew up as a director. His final film, Once Upon a Time in America, dealing with Jewish gangsters during the prohibition, took up most of his adult life researching and developing and stands as a haunting elegy of the films that could have followed.
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To my mind, most everything remarkable about a filmmaker like Tarantino comes straight out of Leone. Tarantino himself would say that. It’s unfortunate that he’s considered a better filmmaker than the far more talented, original, and substantial Leone. I have yet to find a Tarantino work as game-changing, vital, or deeply affecting as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America, particularly the last. Perhaps some day film goers will come around and realize Leone’s undeniable genius.