Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.
First Jack Sparrow, then Danny Ocean, and this week John McClane. The summer movie season is upon us, dominated by heroes defined by the poses they strike and the zingers they sling. For the action hero, style and gesture are paramount. Sure, we all know that Johnny Depp, George Clooney, and Bruce Willis will beat the bad guys. But how cool will they look and sound while doing it? On such an ineffable quality are Hollywood franchises built.
Essentially a compendium of flourishes, the action hero is rooted less in the movie he or she inhabits than in our collective pop consciousness. But the notion of the action hero as a pop icon isn't entirely a Hollywood invention. It can be partly credited to an Italian director working in an American genre on Spanish soil. In the 1960s, Sergio Leone made a string of Westerns that introduced to audiences a new sensibility—gloriously baroque, self-consciously iconic, and steeped in movies. The release this month of "The Sergio Leone Anthology," a box set composed of remastered versions of the "Dollars" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and the little-seen Duck, You Sucker, gives us the chance to reacquaint ourselves with a blockbuster director who pioneered that now-familiar archetype: the film buff as artistic savant.
The source of Leone's outsized art is easily traced: Movies were his life. Sir Christopher Frayling, Leone's biographer, describes Leone as a passionate film buff who could quote line by line movies he'd seen years earlier. As a lonely child in 1930s Rome, Leone was mesmerized by Hollywood pictures. In particular, John Ford's Westerns and James Cagney's gangster films—movies whose protagonists were larger than life—captivated him. By the '50s and '60s, Leone found that the magic had seeped out of the Western, as exposition and psychology replaced action and mythmaking. In that context, Leone's movies can be seen as an attempt to recapture the bigness and wonder of the movies of his childhood.
As it turned out, Leone's impulse was in keeping with the times. After an apprenticeship working on dozens of productions in the Italian film industry, Leone began directing in the mid-'60s, a period when filmmakers were discovering the possibilities of the cinema itself as a subject. In France, the auteurs of the New Wave made films whose source text was not life or experience but the movies. Leone did the same thing but did them one better: He made hits. Dubbed by Jean Baudrillard as the first postmodernist director, Leone was actually more than that—he was a populist Postmodernist, making movies about movies that resonated with an audience that had grown up, like him, sitting in the dark.
Leone uprooted the Western from America—that is, from the clutches of nostalgia and romanticism—and created a new kind of Western, rooted in the iconography of the movies he grew up on while exploding that very iconography in the process. Whereas Leone's beloved Westerns were classical, restrained, and moral, his own were operatic, brutal, and cynical.
The 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars set the template. Leone poached the plot from Kurosawa's samurai tale Yojimbo: A stranger rides into a town torn apart by a mob war, hires himself out to both camps, and proceeds to unleash holy hell. Fistful introduced one of the decade's defining antiheroes, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name (a misleading publicity tagline—Eastwood's character actually has a different moniker in all three). The laconic gunfighter, clad in a poncho, with cigarillo in mouth, embodied the new nihilistic vibe. At once minimalist and larger than life, the Man With No Name gave that epitome of squareness—the cowboy—a nasty streak. Not for him the agonies of Gary Cooper in High Noon or the probity of Alan Ladd's Shane.
In the sequel, For a Few Dollars More (1965), Leone expanded his canvas. Eastwood returns as a brash young bounty hunter who reluctantly teams up with old pro Lee Van Cleef to bring in an outlaw gang. The movie departs from its predecessor by wading into the psychology and motivation for Van Cleef's character. But it wisely leaves our hero opaque. The Man With No Name never has to explain anything—he simply is. His taciturnity doesn't just enhance his coolness, but also gets at a crucial idea in Leone's movies: that these gunfighter myths are so familiar, so common to us, that no exposition is necessary. As Pauline Kael wrote, "Leone doesn't bother to develop characters—to him, they're mythic as soon as he puts them on the screen."
The two Dollars movies, which were not released in the United States until 1967, made stars of Eastwood and Leone. For their final act, they made The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), an epic that's eager to top everything that came before it. The plot sends the titular threesome (Eastwood, Van Cleef, and a riotous Eli Wallach) on a picaresque chase for gold amid the Civil War. Envisioning an American landscape populated by stylish demigods and sweaty grotesques, the movie lives deep in its own dream logic. The result is the apotheosis of Leone's rule-bending cinema. Space expands, time slows, and details are magnified, all for effect.
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.