“When the Chimes End, Pick Up Your Gun.”

Objects, Memory, and Revenge in the Films of Sergio Leone

We can often confuse grandiosity of style with absence of purpose. It has become a cliché at this point to denigrate artists with the phrase “style over substance” while praising convoluted narratives and bland filmmakers who do everything in their power to avoid creating images that we can immerse ourselves in. Alternately, Sergio Leone trades in very simple, often borrowed, or archetypal stories alongside incredibly complex schemes of editing and cinematography. Despite his unceasing popularity amongst film fans, we have perhaps forgotten how to talk about his work. We could at least talk about it in more ways than we do.

What is wide and epic is not necessarily broad, and Leone is precise. In spite of their scope and extraordinary widescreen compositions (the iconic setting of Monument Valley or the vast railway lines of Once Upon a Time in the West spring to mind), the smaller things are often the most meaningful in Leone’s movies: the faces, the guns – or, particularly, the tiny, ambiguous mementos that become indelibly linked to his protagonists in their pursuit of revenge. 

The iconic figure of his universe is obviously Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, an opportunistic and skilled gunslinger who roams the West in search of gold. He is a man almost entirely abstracted from our moral and political world, and yet those who surround him drag him into a place where he must consider the implications of moral ills and abuses of power.

Outside of this figure, the Dollars trilogy and the (sort of) Once Upon a Time trilogy explore broken characters. Their leads are often traumatised, mysterious men seeking revenge or retribution for societal and personal grievances. The villains become indelibly tied to them due to their guilt in hurting these men, and they themselves are consequently made vulnerable through this great secret that contradicts their steely or malevolent demeanours. In this universe, only the death of one of these figures will vanquish this imbalance of emotions.

Outbursts of revenge in these films often follow a similar formula – one that distorts and conflates the memory of trauma only to release it in a burst of real-time violence. In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), we get a famous Leone stare-off as well as the long shots that give these personal duels a rather mythical status, accompanied by a full and blisteringly epic score which subsides into silence. Arguably the most famous trope of these movies is the contrast between long-shots and extreme close-ups, so it is fitting that Leone’s themes (land ownership, industrialisation, the construction of the railroads) provide a similar blend of the political and the personal.

We see a slow zoom into Charles Bronson’s characteristically stoic, weathered face, cutting to a shot that follows an oppositional movement: Henry Fonda’s gleeful killer Frank walking towards a camera in slow-motion, a wide shot that zooms out, becoming something more intimate and uncomfortable. The trailing, ethereal, and harsh harmonica melody that Bronson plays throughout the film is used to reinforce the interconnectivity of these gestures; it is the leitmotif that signals Bronson’s trauma.
Our understanding of this object and of the conflict at the heart of the film is provided so late that it is almost an experimental structure; certainly, Leone’s editing is uniquely jarring and provocative within the Spaghetti Western genre. In this sequence, it is revealed that Bronson’s harmonica was placed in his mouth (as a child) by Frank as he hanged Bronson’s brother, his legs propped up only by the child’s crying, sweat-drenched face. Thus, the act that holds the key to the film’s meaning is a sadistic, exploitative one. Through this structure, however, acts of sadism are backgrounded in relation to the emotions that they cause: a pervading sense of silence and melancholy.

In For a Few Dollars More (1965) also, Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Douglas Mortimer finally manages to kill the wanted bandit El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), similarly confounding the audience by surprisingly letting Eastwood’s bounty hunter take all the reward money. Appeasing Eastwood’s confusion, Mortimer reveals that the woman pictured in Indio’s pocket-watch – a woman that he raped and who committed suicide during the act – was Mortimer’s sister. What has previously been assumed to be a continuation of the opportunistic, cynical moneymaking of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is given far greater import. The all-consuming and enticing present of the revenge film is retrospectively provided with a pastness – the violence of history.

The use of this musical pocket-watch as a timer in the final duel of the film cements the role of past trauma as a catalyst for violence in the present. The sequence literally counts down until Mortimer can finally kill the man who has haunted him all these years. As with Leone, much is said of the overtly stylised and jarring grandiosity of Ennio Morricone’s work, but his use of the pocket-watch’s high-pitched chimes in the climactic score is immensely striking, reinforcing our sense of the past hauntingly encroaching upon the present.


What we see in these narratives is ostensibly a foregrounded reiteration of what Karl Marx would describe as “commodity fetishism”. As he explains, objects in a capitalist economy transcend the value of their use and the labour that produced them; instead, they are given a value associated with the object itself. The objects in Leone’s films are so exaggeratively detached from their function as manufactured items that the camera cannot bear the weight of the knowledge that they contain. They become symbolic to such a degree that the representation of them as items within cinematic space often fractures and divulges into flashbacks of the time in which they gained their centrally codified meaning.

This kind of fetishized object is crucial to Leone’s mythos of the West, a place where both the American, traditionalist aesthetic of American Westerns (itself a politicised form of representation) and realism are rejected. Spaghetti Westerns are of course known for their stylistic excess: the operatic, expressive scores; the brutal, often absurdly distinct acts of violence; the extreme close-ups and breakneck editing. Yet, we must remember that realism as a movement is also, particularly in its literary form, about representation. (Dostoyevsky was as much a writer of poverty and of prostitution as he was a writer of psychological complexity.) Leone’s exaggerative objects, through the sudden reveals of the trauma that they carry, gesture towards a reality that has been fractured to give way to the generic conventions of the revenge film.

Though it is dangerous to suggest a complete opposition between Italian and American westerns, you need only watch a few Leone or Sergio Corbucci films to discover a certain focus on societal qualms and often a more Left-leaning approach that deals with abuses of capital, racism, and – importantly for our next film – imperialism and the suppression of revolutions. This was certainly endemic to the genre, which produced a vast number of Zapata, revolutionary Westerns but also other explicitly political works such as The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1966), The Specialists (Corbucci, 1969), and The Great Silence (Corbucci, 1968).


For a movie that opens by juxtaposing a violently revolutionary Mao Zedong epigraph with a shot of a Mexican bandit pissing by a tree, A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is remarkably earnest in many ways. It concerns the unlikely partnership of the opportunistic bandit, Juan (played by Rod Steiger) and an ex-IRA member and explosives specialist named John (James Coburn), tracing their competing motives and fluctuating, chaotic bond. John agrees to help Juan rob a bank at Mesa Verde, only revealing afterwards that he knew all along that the bank’s vault actually holds political prisoners. From then on, the film more sombrely considers the violent regime of the Mexican government in the early 20th century.

The trajectory of Juan’s character is fairly neatly surmised by a long tracking shot in which he opens each individual bank vault, expressing a huge disappointment at what he finds while also amassing a wealth of followers who believe him to be a great member of their cause. He gives an impassioned speech to John about how the failure of revolutions and the bourgeois nature of those who produce them: it is always the poor who must fight. A dimly lit and tensely evocative firing squad scene explicates this fact; they must die too.

Appropriately, the act of vengeance on the corrupt Governor Don Jaime in A Fistful of Dynamite is framed in a way that is explicitly political. The salient objects in this scene are the banknotes and the diamond necklace that Governor offers Juan. Bargaining for his life with this opportunistic and morally dubious bandit, the Governor inadvertently reminds his inferior of the gross inequality that has led to his poverty-stricken condition. For this, he must die. Juan’s moment of realisation triggers through a zoom into his eyes, wherein we see rapidly cut footage of his family’s murder at the hands of the government.

For Marx, money is ‘the universal representative of material wealth, because it is directly convertible into any other commodity’. It is fitting then that for Juan it becomes a ‘universal representative’ of suffering and of gross inequality. More so than the pocket-watch or the harmonica of Leone’s previous films, the banknotes of Dynamite are directly applicable to viewers’ own lives: they signal a shift away from the realm of grandiose Western tropes into something more allegorical and melancholic.

Uniquely for these otherwise similarly staged moments of revenge, Juan shoots Jaime not in a ritualistic way but rather in reaction to the Governor attempting to escape. There is a sense of desperation on both sides; the revenge is disconnected from Juan’s pain and from the objects that represent it. This is of course a common feature of capitalism and a kind of malaise that the film explores: what if the machinations of what oppresses you are so distant and abstract that you can never truly overcome them?

El Indio’s condition to Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More – “When the chimes end, pick up your gun” – is summative of how revenge works in these films. The object holds the key to the protagonist’s grievance and is often discarded alongside the cause. The villain’s recognition of their guilt is hardly relevant aside for a more satisfactory conclusion; they are simply fated to die by these eerie and compelling memento mori.  Within the diegesis of the movies, the stakes are even – though, taken as a whole, it is obvious that good always prevails. The original transgression is punished. Contrary to something like Shakespearean tragedy, revenge is often not. There is, then, a kind of unexpected moralism in Leone’s films, though this is overridden by a heightened, extreme drive of vengefulness and righteous indignation.

Where does this leave us in terms of his style, which seems so overanalysed that it is hard to expand upon in any productive way? Sometimes it is best to return to these clearer things. After all, Leone’s iconic extreme close-ups reinforce the extreme signifying status of his objects. His themes are, as with all great artists, integral to his style. The objects that trail his protagonists are an extension of this, but they are also an aspect that is only crucial to around half of his major works. In these films, they are something solid that gives the hero a defined purpose as well as an identity – and, in their fetishistic, codified excess of meaning, they are the self-destructive, singular moral arbiters of his world.


Popular Posts