Once Upon a Time in America

Four poor Jewish kids in 1920

“I’d have put everything I ever had on you.”

The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Three hired guns face off against a mysterious stranger in Once Upon a Time in the West

“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”

Even after the “spaghetti” Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly established Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) as a master of the genre, he still had a lot to offer. Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, is another great epic Western on the same level as Leone’s previous masterpiece, and that’s no small feat. Unlike Leone’s original Dollars trilogy, which were mostly about the adventures of wandering gunslingers, this one is a revenge tale that focuses on more stable parts of civilization like a young wife and a railroad tycoon. But even with a home to go back to, there’s plenty of turmoil for the characters here. And Leone is still a master at crafting suspense and general moodiness, so this is a very entertaining Western as well.

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For a Few Dollars More

Manco and Colonel Douglas Mortimer look dapper in For a Few Dollars More

“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

For a very long time, America loved classic Westerns. In 1964, an Italian director shook things up with A Fistful of Dollars, an amazing Western that actually got noticed in America. In 1965, director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) followed up on his smash hit with another amazing Western: For a Few Dollars More. Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volante (two of whom starred in the previous movie), this showed the world that Leone was more than a one-hit wonder and was one of the masters of this American genre. The first film of the trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, had an excellent plot, and the third film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, had superior atmosphere. For a Few Dollars More was right in-between. This sadly means it wasn’t quite as good at either of these things, making it something of a weak link in the trilogy. But the mixture of elements was excellent and this is, in many ways, the quintessential classic Western. It holds up very well today.

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A Fistful of Dollars

Clint Eastwood, looking cool in A Fistful of Dollars

“When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.”

By the 1960s, the Western was becoming a tired genre. In 1964, an Italian director, Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) set out to change the genre. And, to some degree, he did. A Fistful of Dollars was different than the classic Westerns: it was darker, grittier, and more morally gray. Revisionist Westerns had been produced in America, but this is the first time a European Western got America’s attention and went on to be a worldwide success. It spawned a whole sub-genre, the “spaghetti Western” (named for its Italian roots), and it showed that it really was time to evolve the Western genre. The plot is clever (although it basically rips off Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo), the dialogue is as cool as any vintage movie ever was, and it introduced the world to Clint Eastwood as a leading man. There’s lots to love here.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig.”

I’ll admit, until recently, I had never watched a legitimate western movie—they just didn’t really appeal to me. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars) and starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef, changed my mind. It tells a great quintessential western story while turning many of the tired tropes, like the good guy in the white hat, on their heads. The story draws you in and the characters are fascinating. The tone is fun with just the right amount of camp. After watching this, I actually want to go and check out some more classic westerns, and that’s saying a lot.

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