Music by: Luis Bacalov – Theme song sung: by Rocky Roberts
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
As the crooning voice of Rocky Roberts soars on the soundtrack, a lone figure adorned in dark clothes appears, saddle on his back, dragging a coffin across thick sand. Is he a hero or a criminal or a personification of death? Well, he is all three and his name is Django – the ‘D’ is silent. The opening credits and imagery of Sergio Corbucci’s cult Western, DJANGO (1966), is morbidly iconic, perfectly introducing us to the darkness, intensity and sardonic humour of what is to come.
The narrative of Django (1966) takes the tropes of a singular, tough, uncompromising anti-heroic ex-soldier, who has returned from the American Civil War, moving from town to town searching for the next payday. In the process he plots and wreaks havoc and death to all who stands against him. In his breakthrough role, the cool, handsome and blue-eyed, Franco Nero, is brilliantly cast in a similar part that would make a star of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The similarities do not stop there as Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western was, like Django (1966), heavily influenced by Akiro Kurosawa’s famous Samurai film, Yojimbo (1961). Yet while the stories owe much to Kurosawa’s seminal classic — as the Ronin character sets two opposing gangs against each other — both Leone and Corbucci instil their own distinctive style into their respective films.
Corbucci’s vision is even more cynical and violent than Leone. While Nero’s striking good looks glow like a silent matinee idol, he seemingly kills more soldiers, bandits and assorted bad guys than the Civil war itself. Django is a one-man killing machine and he never flinches at the sight of vermillion carnage. In fact, as a hollow and bitter man who has tasted the tragedy of senseless war, one can assume that killing is the only thing Django is good at now. It’s a barren muddy wasteland Django, and such adversaries as Major Jackson and General Hugo Rodriguez, exist within and nobody comes out of it clean. Mud and bullets and blood and burning crosses stain the land as the body count goes up and up as the film progresses. Redemption and hope are rarely even suggested in the hearts of the characters.
Corbucci presents chaos with style. There are a number of fantastic shoot-outs and set-pieces all directed with vibrant energy; all zooms, whip-pans and rapid cross cutting. You want to immediately know what is in THAT coffin at the start. You WILL find out and revel in the mayhem which ensues. Indeed, Django (1966) is not for the faint-hearted. Of course, when watching it now, it is nowhere near as shocking as many contemporary films, however, at the time of release the British Board of Censors saw fit to ban Django (1966). It did not get an official release until 1993. That’s a shame as Bacalov’s score alone provides glorious support to the brutal visuals. Finally, Django (1966), Corbucci and Nero’s cult legacy was secured when Quentin Tarantino delivered the incredible, DjangoUnchained(2012), an altogether different, but equally violent and memorable Western classic.
SIX OF THE BEST #26 – ENNIO MORRICONE – (R.I.P – 1928-2020)
“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So, in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”Ennio Morricone
As if 2020 couldn’t get any more dramatic, one of the greatest musical composers and dramatists ever known has passed away. Ennio Morricone, rather incredibly, wrote the scores for over four hundred films and television works. He also managed to write well over one hundred classical pieces. To say Ennio Morricone was a prolific genius is somewhat of an understatement.
Morricone won six BAFTAs, eleven Nastro d’Argento, three Grammy Awards, three Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, ten David di Donatello, two European Film Awards, the Golden Lion Honorary Award and the Polar Music Prize. In 2007, he received the Academy Honorary Award for his outstanding commitment to cinema. Moreover, he was also nominated for a further six Oscars. Lastly, Morricone had to wait until 2016 to receive his only competitive Academy Award for the haunting score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2016). For Morricone to receive only one Oscar for musical composition is astounding and proves once again there is no justice in the world.
A meagre blog piece from a London-based hack will never be enough of a tribute to a composer who worked in every cinematic genre and with an incredible array of famous and infamous filmmakers. Notables include: Sergio Leone, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, Duccio Tessari, Sergio Sollima, Henri Verneuil, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mauro Bolognini, Giuliano Montaldo, Roland Joffé, Don Siegel, Mike Nichols, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson and many more companies including advertisers, singers, recording artists and fashion designers. Morricone even found time to compose the 1978 World Cup theme song.
Thus, as a tribute to one of the greatest cinematic artists I have selected six of Morricone’s best film orchestrations. Although given his brilliance and spectacular output, one could certainly pick many more; even sixty of the best!! Riposa in pace, Ennio, il maestro!
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***
If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.
With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.
Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.
For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.
The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.
Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.
Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.
As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).
Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.
CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #2 – ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984) – “THE CAKE SCENE”
Sergio Leone’s sprawling, violent, elegiac and epic gangster film is rarely on television but always deserves a re-watch every few years. It revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in 1920s Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It contains majestic story-telling of the highest quality as the story is structured around past, present and possible future, with Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminiscing and projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of opium den. The film acts as a history of childhood friendships and includes themes relating to: love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.
As a father myself it is a very noticeable trajectory seeing one’s son grow up from a small child to an adult and witnessing the changes in character as he becomes a man. The single most significant thing for me is that loss of innocence, not so much in regard to a child becoming a bad person, but that light which seems to drift away from a young person when they become a teenager. Once Upon A Time in America is a brilliant film in dealing with the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by external society and natural changes.
One such scene which perfectly encapsulates such a loss of innocence occurs when young Patsy (Brian Bloom) buys a cream cake with the desire to lose his virginity to a local girl. He buys the cake, sits on the stairs waiting for her to get ready and looks at the cake. Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score resonates as Patsy is tempted by the cake. He fingers at the cream just once, then again and then all thought of sexual temptation is removed by the desire for cake. In the end he eats the whole cake and scrams when the girl opens the door. Such a classic scene stands as a beautiful and touching moment amidst all the death and violence throughout. For that moment Patsy’s innocence remains intact yet we know that, in this violent, ugly world of: men, gangsters, guns, crime, crooked cops and prohibition it will not last forever.