“The shooting technique was more or less the same. There was a substantial change in the concept of things that had originally been considered secondary, such as set design, set decoration and costumes. Everything took on a different importance and a different value. There’s no question that cinema has gained something through the advent of color, but I also think it has lost a lot. Black-and-white made it possible to create unique and irreproducible atmospheres.”
In 1961, Delli Colli went to Africa to work on an American production called The Wonders of Aladdin. “Flavio Mogherini, an architect on the production, told me he had been contacted by Alfredo Bini for a new project directed by Pasolini,” he recalls. “I told him I would be happy to work with a new director and asked him to mention my name to Bini. Mogherini said I was too expensive, so I asked them to tell Bini to give me whatever he could. I believe that was fate, because that day completely changed my career.
“It wasn’t hard, though. Pasolini was smart enough to ask me what to do. What he had in mind was something intangible but very clear. He gave me specific suggestions, and I implemented them. With color, however, he became more analytical because he had pictorial references, such as the painting by Mantegna that he used in La Ricotta [The Curd Cheese]. He tried to work with the costumes, selecting the colors. Over time, Pasolini assembled a great group of artists, including Dante Ferretti and Danilo Donati.”
Pasolini and Delli Colli collaborated for the next 15 years, making world-cinema landmarks such as Accattone, Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom), The Canterbury Tales, Hawks and Sparrows and The Decameron. These were visually radical films even by the rule-breaking standards of the French New Wave. Delli Colli photographed 11 of Pasolini’s 14 films, and only scheduling conflicts prevented him from shooting them all. In 1964, they made The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which earned the cinematographer his first prize, a Silver Ribbon the first of seven.
“Pasolini was something else,” says Delli Colli. “Our relations were perfect. He was an incredibly sweet and kind person, and he had respect for everyone on the set. I knew he was good, even if he didn’t have a technical knowledge of cinematography at the start. When we started Accattone, I had to explain to him what lenses were. But after three weeks and I do mean three weeks he understood it all.
“He was happy right away with the 50mm lens because the performers could be seen clearly, even though the backgrounds were closer and [looked] a little squashed. He said that was all right with him because everything was more concentrated. Ultimately, he came to the set in the morning with his apertures, which were fairly poorly specified but were the right ones, and he worked quickly. He had planned everything the night before; he knew whether he wanted a full shot or something else. He did that for the first two films. Then things took off from there.”
In the 1960s, Delli Colli began his working relationship with Sergio Leone, a collaboration that would bring him his greatest fame in the United States. Leone and Delli Colli reimagined the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, taking genre films to the level of art through glacial but tense pacing; innovative sound design; fresh, minimalist dialogue; and, above all, obsessive and almost exclusive use of extreme close-ups and very wide shots. The results were dubbed “spaghetti Westerns.” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) was reportedly made for $250,000 and was a box-office blockbuster. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) had a bigger budget, and Henry Fonda was cast against type as a ruthless villain.
“Sergio was a skinny kid who was working as an assistant to Bonnard,” recalls Delli Colli. “After Bonnard died, Sergio finished the shooting of The Last Days of Pompeii, and then directed The Colossus of Rhodes. Sergio came to Spain, where I was making a [Luis García] Berlanga film called El Verdugo [The Executioner, also known as Not on Your Life] with Nino Manfredi. It was 1963, and he was looking for money from our producer, the former goalie of the Real Madrid [soccer team], who in turn was being financed by a pharmaceutical company. He had the idea of making a film about the eagles of Rome, but there wasn’t a cent to be had.
“Back in Rome one night, Sergio took me to see Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. He told me it was a good idea for a low-budget Western. That was true, because all the action took place in one little town, and little towns like that were still around in Spain. So I helped him find the producer, but I had no plans to make the film myself because I couldn’t work for nothing.”
Later, Delli Colli heard that there were near riots at Rome’s Supercinema because crowds were trying to get in to see A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The surprise international hit kick-started Leone’s career. “Sergio was a real go-getter, a very meticulous artist who paid attention to everything he did, right down to the smallest details,” says Delli Colli. “For the images, he asked for things that were truly effective: full light for long shots because he wanted the details to be visible on screens of all sizes, and close-ups with the individual hairs of the characters’ beards visible. It was impossible in Spain he wanted deep, long shadows, the deepest and longest we could get, and the [sun went] down late. On the set, we prepared in the morning, and then we just died waiting for the right light. I did everything I could to accommodate him within the limits of what was possible. And then there were the details! He wanted to shoot the actors’ eyes in every scene. I told him we could shoot 100 meters of eyes looking here, looking there and then use them whenever he wanted. But he wasn’t having any of that. And that’s how it went for the entire shoot. But his three-hour films pass quickly [when you watch them]. A three-hour film made today is a chore to sit through.”