The Original Tarantino
How Sergio Leone ushered in our borderless pop culture.
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Leone conceived of his movies as operas of violence, the standoff his aria. By the time it gets to the impossibly distended climax, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly reaches a delirium that borders on self-parody. With Ennio Morricone's score building to a crescendo, Leone ratchets up the suspense with an accelerating montage of ever-tighter close-ups, unleashing the expressive potential of a timeworn movie ritual, the gunfight.
Coming after that, Duck, You Sucker can't help but be a letdown. Set during the Mexican Revolution, Leone's most explicitly political movie plays like a relic of its time (it even opens with a Chairman Mao epigraph). Although the leftist Leone had always meant his movies as critiques of capitalist America, the politics were submerged in visceral pleasures. With its chic radicalism and sober violence, Duck, You Sucker is much too mired in the real world. Gone is the intoxicating, movie-mad artifice of the "Dollars" trilogy.
It figures that Duck, You Sucker is a failure. Leone's best movies, be it the Westerns (his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, deserves mention here) or his gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, were pastiches that elevated sensation over substance. Working on the premise of movies as a lingua franca, Leone appropriated the icons and idioms of Hollywood and used them as raw material for his febrile art.
Though the "Dollars" movies are now justly regarded as classics—they were critically dismissed at the time as sadistic trash—Leone has never quite received his due as the progenitor of a new kind of movie. In speaking of 1960s European cinema, critics sing the praises of Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, and Bergman—and yet Leone, whose influence matches any of those filmmakers', barely gets a mention. Introducing a cinephilic sensibility to mass audiences, his movies prefigured our borderless pop culture and served as a key text for future filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to John Woo to Quentin Tarantino. To watch the "Dollars" movies now isn't just to behold the reinvention of a genre—it's to be transported to the birth of a pop aesthetic.
Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.