December 5, 2016

7 Cinematic Trademarks of the Master of the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone

Gripping suspense and economic storytelling are just some of the elements that made the Father of the Spaghetti Western great.

Italian director Sergio Leone's cinematic style was so powerful and influential that it paved the way for a whole new Western subgenre, the Spaghetti Western. Films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly put Leone's work on the map in the mid-1960s, but his 1968 epic Once Upon a Time in the West is considered his masterpiece. In this video essay, Sareesh Sudhakaran breaks down the tavern scene from this film, which he considers to be the best representation of Leone's stylistic approach to visual storytelling.

Sudhakaran lists seven cinematic elements that are quintessentially Leone, all of which are present in the tavern scene.

  • Actors popping into scenes
  • Close ups and long shots
  • The element of surprise
  • Suspense
  • Great music
  • Great dialogue
  • Economy of storytelling - pure cinema

There's quite a lot to say about Leone's approach to filmmaking, but perhaps the most noteworthy element in his work is his ability to create an immense amount of tension with very little. This economic filmmaking includes sweeping long takes with camera movement, elaborate blocking, and choreography—characters that walk into frame, pop up from obscurity, or turn to reveal their faces. Not only does this create depth in the scene, but it also creates incredibly tense moments when the camera and characters are still, where we're introduced to shifty outlaws who stand and stare people down.

But it wasn't Leone alone who managed to craft these thrilling moments. Editor Nino Baragli's work is damn near mathematical. The innovative scores of composer Ennio Morricone also help add complexity, tension, and emotion. Just take a look at the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, the suspense is almost palpable.

There are plenty of other elements of Leone's work that are worthy of discussion, so feel free to add your own analysis down in the comments.     

Your Comment


Easily the greatest western ever. Sorry, The Searchers.

December 6, 2016 at 5:26AM, Edited December 6, 5:26AM

Henry Barnill
Director of Photography

I once heard that Leone originally wanted James Coburn as first choice for his Dollar Westerns, otherwise Charles Bronson as second choice, but both turned him down flat. But after that Trilogy, Leone's very next film starred Bronson, then the one after starred Coburn.

December 6, 2016 at 12:36PM

Saied M.

Due to copyright I cannot watch the video in my country (Spain)

January 10, 2017 at 6:02AM, Edited January 10, 6:02AM