Essays (book reviews)

Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death
by Christopher Frayling
(Faber and Faber, 2000)


Sergio Leone: producer-director, showman supreme, a “spectacularist” (according to his collaborator Fulvio Morsella) in cinema as in everyday and professional life, an artist always striving for the grandest effect. Not just (as he was perceived by the public at large) the inventor, populariser and maestro of the hideously named Spaghetti Western, but an auteur who truly revolutionised the modern cinema, beginning with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.


A filmmaker who – in his all-consuming, highly creative obsession with Hollywood Westerns and gangster movies – helped several generations in his wake to negotiate their at once fascinated and troubled relationship to classical (and especially American) cinema. Leone, who devoted his life to making “fairy tales for adults”, mixing a boisterous childlike vulgarity and innocence with a no less keen sense of disenchantment, loss and the brutality of history.


Christopher Frayling’s mammoth Sergio Leone [since translated into Italian, Spanish and French] is, incredibly, the first biography of the director in any language. Sir Frayling (born 1946) long ago staked Leone as “his” turf, and he guards it zealously in all fora yet devoted to this Master, from international conference keynotes and cinémathèque retrospectives to DVD audio commentaries, from documentaries and museum exhibitions to “expert talking head” clips on TV. Only Tim Lucas has managed to muscle in a little on this Frayling field! But at least Frayling mentions my 1998 book on Once Upon a Time in America (1984) along the way, and credits me with some unique research into the contribution of Stuart Kaminsky [1934-2009] as one of its many screenwriters. (I still have that immaculately typed and movingly eloquent letter from Kaminsky in my files.)


The Leone we come to know from this book is revealed almost solely in his relation to filmmaking. This is Frayling’s postmodern biographical conceit: that there is little distance between the man and the images he beheld or invented for the cinema screen. Among the great directors, he was – unlike Orson Welles or John Cassavetes, and before Martin Scorsese – both cineaste and cinephile, artist and ideal spectator. Leone said it himself: “For me, cinema is life and vice versa”. And certainly, his films – especially Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America – spin giddy interchanges between the simulacra emanating from the big screen and the fragile worlds inhabited by the characters.


All the same, it is disconcerting to read a biography that leaves the reader in suspense for over 100 pages as to whether its subject ever went on a date. Frayling exhibits a peculiarly British form of tact and restraint here. We learn precious little about Leone as a husband or father – beyond a charming account from his wife, Carla, of her first meeting with this “great storyteller”.


More than a reportage on an individual life, however, this is a project dedicated to the burgeoning mode of critical research known as production history. Frayling carefully traces the often troubled development of each Leone film, from first idea to final cut. The wealth of detail, in each case, is dependent on which crew and cast members Frayling is able to access (which, in turn, is dependent on whether they are alive or dead!). The book is especially strong, for example, on Carlo Simi’s contributions as art director, and the intricate stages of Ennio Morricone’s musical scoring. But it is less revealing about Nino Baragli’s editing process, or the material ways in which Leone staged and shaped his mise en scène for the camera.


Frayling draws us away from the usual –­ and thoroughly hackneyed ­– characterisations of Leone’s style as Pop Art-inspired or operatic, into a better appreciation of theatrical sources of inspiration such as the Pupi Siciliani shows viewed by the director in his childhood. And he puts his finger on an essential element of the Leone magic: how the grand, mythic flights are counterbalanced at every moment by an extraordinary (almost neo-real, or at least hyperreal) attention to the authentic, nitty-gritty detail of costumes, props and sets. But Leone connoisseurs may still find themselves longing for a finer-grain demonstration of his formal genius.


Frayling tells us that this book began life as a critical study and then, upon the director’s death in 1989, evolved into a biography. This no doubt explains its unevenness: it ends up providing neither an exhaustive analysis of the texts nor a comprehensive reconstruction of the life and times. A third, somewhat polemical strand adds to his unevenly mowed terrain: Frayling also offers a “history of Italian popular cinema since the 1920s … the sort of cinema that is rarely mentioned in the standard works”. As is certainly true in so much discussion of select “national auteurs”: Swedish cinema beyond Ingmar Bergman, Iranian cinema beyond Abbas Kiarostami


With so much material to convey, it’s little wonder that Frayling got a little lost, structurally, along the way. But the book is, first and last, a homage to Leone, a passionate, informed and informative attempt to write him into the annals of cinema history once and for all. All the same, I am not so sure that Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death will change the attitudes of those who are sceptical or indifferent about the director’s cult status. That’s a war over aesthetic and cultural value which requires an even bigger and more cannily argued strategy. (I know this well, because I’ve spent virtually my whole life on it, with varying degrees of success.)


Frayling never really bothers to argue out the terms of Leone’s ultimate worth (which is immense) as a 20th century artist, beyond insisting that he was among those rare figures who “managed to bridge ‘popular cinema’ and ‘art cinema’ … while at the same time achieving international success”. But that, alas, is not to say enough. Sadly, in our world, it takes more than evidence of niche-straddling and box-office receipts to turn around those who proudly and eternally assume normative, middle-class standards of artistic achievement (the Brian McFarlane types), and refuse to consider a “spectacularist” cinema of effects and surfaces (but only superficially superficial surfaces!) – whether committed by Leone or anybody else – as anything more than a possibly entertaining but trivial and ephemeral form of pop culture, with no hold on history’s canons: just junk, in the long run.


So Frayling ends up preaching to the converted – that’s OK for me because, where Leone is concerned, I’m among them. Happily, however, the ranks of those converts seem to be swelling ever greater with each passing year. It is for that legion of fans, yesterday, today and tomorrow, that this biography has been so respectfully and fastidiously fashioned.


© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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