‘Photographing unreal people in unreal settings at real moments’: Unpublished photos form Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ ~ The Washington Post

Photo Editor

May 22 at 6:00 AM


Production manager Claudio Mancini, as Harmonica’s older brother, filming the flashback in early August 1968, between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat, Utah. (Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press)

Portrait of Jason Robards, who plays the bandit Cheyenne. (Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press)

There’s a new book out this month by Reel Art Press called “Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece” that will tell you just about everything you want to know about the Italian director Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western.

If you’re like me and are a fan of Leone’s movies, which also include “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” that fact alone might entice you to pry open the pages of the book, which is 9.5 inches by 11 inches and 336 pages. But beyond the ample information detailing the making of the movie — including texts by Leone himself, Quentin Tarantino and the world’s foremost expert on Leone, Christopher Frayling — the book appeals to me for other reasons.

Leone’s movies have been favorites among photographers (both still and moving) for many years. They are known for the complexity of their shots and the beauty of the color panoramas, among other things. One of my former bosses in the photo industry in New York even had a Leone poster on the wall of his office. To top it off, this book takes us behind the scenes of the construction of the movie’s legendary scenes. And many of the photos, unpublished until now, were made by Italian photographer Angelo Novi.

In the book’s preface, Frayling notes that before working on movie sets, Novi had worked as a photojournalist for several Italian news agencies since 1952. Leone and Novi first started working together in 1966 in Spain on the set of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Frayling goes on to say that Novi’s “specialty became capturing the working atmosphere of actors and film crews on location, through close attention to detail. In particular, he enjoyed photographing Sergio Leone in action — miming for the benefit of his actors, lining up complex shots, boosting morale on the set, wearing a cowboy hat in the hot sun. Novi liked to say that having specialized up until then with photographing real people, he was now concentrating on photographing unreal people in unreal settings at real moments.”

After working on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Novi would go on to photograph the rest of Leone’s films. And according to Frayling, Novi even picked up some on-screen time — “he acted the part of a Franciscan friar in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and had a small role in ‘My Name is Nobody.’”

Novi’s work photographing movie productions was not limited to Leone’s sets. He also documented the making of films by other Italian directors, including Roberto Rosselini and Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci. According to Frayling, Novi’s “huge collection of on-set photographs is now housed … by the Photographic Archive of the Cineteca di Bologna.”


Filming the construction in Monument Valley, an iconic location for Westerns, at the side of the track between East Mitten and Merrick Butte. (Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press

Henry Fonda, playing against type as the vicious killer Frank, has downtime on the set of “Once Upon a Time in the West.” (Angelo Novi/Reel Art Press)

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