the timeless appeal of sergio leone


Welcome to our first in a series of articles on current London happenings relating to food, music, film and going out – all stuff we believe naturally goes with wine. We hope you enjoy it.

To fire the starting shooter, this month we focus on Sergio Leone as the BFI hosted a retrospective from the early April.
To people less familiar with Leone and his work, Sergio Leone was an Italian director who spawned an entire genre of films called ‘spaghetti westerns’ (i.e. Italian-made westerns), which reimagined the American western myth. He cut his teeth at Cinecittà, the famous Rome based film studio graced by cinema greats like Fellini, Bertolucci, Scorsese and Coppola and is frequently name checked by modern directors like Tarantino as being hugely influential, not least for his distinctive use of close ups and panoramic shots.

Why are Leone’s films great?

The stunning vistas – particularly in Once upon a Time in the West where Sergio realised his ambition to film in Monument Valley – draw a tear from the most reluctant eye with their majestic scale and beauty.

The iconic performances, from Clint Eastwood’s breakout role in the 'man with no name’ trilogy, which since has entered in pop culture; to perennial, good guy Henry Fonda gloriously playing against type as ruthless bastard, Frank; and Claudia Cardinale as the breathtaking, worldly wise, Jill.

The joyfully, cynical reimagining of the Western myth, where themes of ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘manifest destiny’ are replaced by self interest, brutal individualism and callous amorality. No universal morality tales here (see Christopher Frayling seminal work Spaghetti Westerns if you want to go deep.

Or the beautiful scores by legendary Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. Ennio did some of his very best work with Sergio – among the greatest in cinema – offering an emotionally potent soundtrack to the latter’s uncompromising themes. The soaring accompaniment to Leone’s majestic crane shot over the town of Flagstone in the first act of Once upon a Time in the West and the superbly tense ’The Trio' scoring the epic 3-way showdown at the close of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly are exemplary in showing the power of combining moving image and music.

These factors undoubtedly enhance the greatness, but that which sets Leone’s films apart – and guarantees his legacy – is his masterly capturing of emotion. He was famous for very tight framing of the characters’ face, showing every twitch and miniature movement in moments of life or death, which built a live-wire connection between the audience and the emotions the characters were experiencing. And this was no showy directorly affectation to impress his peers. It was simply the best device – one which Kubrick used to great effect in The Shining and since lifted by Tarantino among others – to capture and amplify the pregnant drama, suspense and jeopardy of each scene.
It was this weapons grade, visualised emotion – enhanced with Ennio’s emotionally resonant music – that burrows deep into your subconsciousness to forge the shared memories that is cinema at its very best. Sergio, we love you!

Where should I start?

Two schools of thought here – if you’re in it for the long haul – we recommend starting with A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before A Fistful of Dynamite (though we prefer the French title, Once Upon a Time the Revolution) and then, arguably the greatest western of all time, Once Upon a Time in the West. This is the ‘correct’, if slightly longer route. Or if you’re impatient, go straight to Once Upon a Time in the West and prepare to be moved by pure cinematic combining panoramas, performance and pathos provided by Morricone’s incomparable score (in a completely different universe to his later work with Tarantino), which together pays powerful testament to Leone’s contribution to cinema.

If drinking in honour of the man himself, a northern Italian red like Barbaresco immediately comes to mind (La Licenziana Barbaresco Vicenziana is a good bet). Alternatively, if matching to geography, as the ‘man with no name' trilogy was filmed in Spain and not America, a balanced Spanish red like La Valona 4 Meses or Buro from Ribera del Duero would work perfectly. But if matching to the films, we'd recommend either a Rioja, an Equipo Navazos sherry or an American whiskey or bourbon like Blanton's to mirror the characters' drinking habits (Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly tucks into a bottle after a 70 mile walk through the desert!).

This is easy – spaghetti bolognese! A western adaptation of the staple Italian dish, ragu alla bolognese seems fitting as it mirrors Leone’s reinterpretation, combining western taste and Italian craft. Also because it’s delish, natch. Everyone has their own version but if you want any tips this isn’t a bad place to start.
Need more advice? Speak to wine guide, Martin at advice@ourglass.wine