Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death

Thick enough to stop a bullet, Christopher Frayling’s massive biography of Sergio Leone remains as epic and entertaining as any of its subject’s films. This 2012 reissue features a new preface by the author, who received a knighthood a year after the book’s original 2000 publication. In his preface, Sir Frayling describes how “the original draft was well over half a million words in length,” prompting a friend to note, “It is all very fascinating, but do we really need to know the blood-group of the horses?”

He managed to get the book down to around 500 pages. Add in the prefaces, notes, index and photos, and you’re holding something I estimate to be close in size to the telephone book for Leone’s hometown of Rome. Tracing the maestro’s life and career from his birth in 1929 to his death 60 years later, Frayling combines invaluable insights into Leone’s films, as well as his contemporaries and the Italian film industry in general, with a compelling portrait of an incredible artist, often volatile but endlessly fascinating.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Leone’s influence, just as it’s difficult to overstate how strange his films must have seemed at the time. His most famous works include the ‘Dollars’ trilogy — Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) — along with perhaps the world’s greatest western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and one of the strangest crime epics, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). These films not only created the template for the Spaghetti Western genre of the ’60s, they’re also responsible in many ways for the careers of artists like the composer Ennio Morricone and actor/director Clint Eastwood.

Additionally, Leone’s work went on to influence auteurs like Sam Peckinpah and more recently, Quentin Taratino (who called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly “the best directed movie of all time”) and Robert Rodriguez (who called that same film, “pure cinema”). Sir Frayling makes a convincing argument that the entire trope of the stylish vigilante anti-hero with the killer one-liners owes a debt (if not its entire existence) to Leone.

So who was Sergio Leone? A few key details of his early life include being the child of film-industry people (his father was a director, his mother an actor), and growing up in Rome at the end of WWII. Much is made throughout Frayling’s biography of Leone’s childlike love of film and its effects (as well as his occasionally childish behaviour):

“Sergio Leone once said, ‘I was born in a cinema, almost. Both my parents worked there. My life, everything about me revolves around cinema. So for me, cinema is life, and vice-versa.’ He first wandered onto a sound stage at Cinecitta in 1941, at the age of twelve, to watch his father shooting a film. And he died watching a film on television, in Rome, at the age of sixty. As we will see, for Leone, the passionate experience of movie-going, the ideas and sensations it unleashed in him, informed all of his work in cinema. Leone was the first modern cineaste to make really popular films: films which nevertheless remained personal to him. In the words of philosopher Jean Baudrillard, he was ‘the first postmodernist director’.”

Frayling observes the significance of “men with toys” of one sort or another appearing throughout Leone’s films, alongside images where children observe stirring action scenes. In her 1985 review of Once Upon a Time in America that appeared in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael offered an interesting insight along these lines: “Leone, who grew up in the Italian studio world (his father, Vincenzo Leone, was a pioneer director), isn’t interested in observing the actual world–it probably seems too small and confining,” she wrote. “He’s involved in his childhood fixations about movies — stories enlarged, simplified, mythicized. (He only makes epics.)” She added: “Leone wants the characters to be as big as the characters he saw on the screen when he was a child, and he tries to produce that effect with looming closeups and heroic gestures; the key thing for his actors is to have the right look.”

That emphasis on the “look” jibes with an insight of Frayling’s: “Leone was drawn, throughout his film-making career, to artificial, faraway worlds where realistic surface details were carefully researched, so as to chime with the audience’s suspension of disbelief,” he writes. “But the stories belonged to the realm of myth, where the characters were not bourgeois Romans but giants where theatre mattered more than the mundane. These were his fairy-tales for grown-ups.”

Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias

This isn’t Frayling’s first go at Leone. The noted cultural figure has also penned possibly the definitive interpretation of the genre for which Leone is famous, 1998’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, along with books about Clint Eastwood, vampires, mad scientists in film, and even King Tut.

He chaired the Arts Council of England for several years, and as mentioned earlier, received a knighthood, the process for which includes choosing a motto and coat of arms. Frayling’s includes a dodo bird holding a flaming goblet, an indication of his odd sense of humour, but the most incredible detail here must be his choice of motto: “Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias.” The phrase translates as “Proceed, varlet, and let the day be rendered perfect for my benefit,” or more informally as, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.” Best. Knightly motto. Ever.

Frayling clearly loves his pop culture, and he brings mind-boggling erudition to all of his work. While lovingly written, the books is not hagiographic. For example, in the index, listed under “Leone, Sergio” one finds a subsection labelled “Character”, which contains the terms:

  • argumentative
  • bitterness
  • careful with money
  • family man
  • impracticality
  • melancholy
  • nervousness
  • sense of humour
  • sense of the ridiculous
  • sharp business sense
  • socialism

(Of these, the three with the most page references are careful with money, family man and sense of humour.)

Frayling’s subject comes across as a driven genius of film, who had a problem with problem with gender roles and a tendency to self-mythologize to an almost outrageous degree. For instance, Frayling notes how, beginning at a certain point of his celebrity, Leone enjoyed making references to the famed French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline, particularly his novel Journey to the End of the Night. “Celine’s mixture of knowing literary references, colourful language, chance encounters, absurd incidents, a epic sweep and a belly laugh amid all the gloom would seem to have strong affinities with Sergio Leone’s view of the world,” he writes, adding that Leone screenwriter Sergio Donati “denies that Leone ever in fact read the book.”

This aspect of Leone’s personality — creating an image, a myth, and placing the importance of it above everything else — resonates strongly with other traits that Frayling explores, such as Leone’s desire to create “fairy-tales for grown-ups.” Frayling quotes Leone:

“I began in the business during the neo-realist period. I love the authentic when it is filtered through imagination, myth, mystery and poetry. But it is essential that, at base, all the details seem right. Never invented. I think a fairy-tale captures the imagination when the story is a fairy-tale but the setting is extremely realistic. This fusion of reality and fantasy takes us into a different dimension–of myth, of legend.”

High-minded and ambitious stuff. Of course, Frayling follows this with a telling commentary by Clint Eastwood, who says:

“Sergio doesn’t really know anything about the West. He’s just a good director. I mean he has his own ideas, and I think the fact that he doesn’t know too much about the West is what works for him… He did things at the time that American directors would have been afraid of in a Western.”

Indeed, the entire genre of Spaghetti Westerns carries this trait at its core. These films were based on the traditional Hollywood western, which as Frayling notes was entirely a myth. Leone and the other spaghetti western filmmakers were creating a myth of a myth, and incorporating mythological elements tied to their geographical and sociological histories. In his invaluable survey, Spaghetti Westerns, Frayling captures neatly “the basis of Leone’s strange form of critical cinema”:

“The emphasis, in the ‘Dollars’ trilogy, on amoral familism; families, clans and camarilla; Latin conceptions of chivalry (more conspicuous leisure than moral law); campanilismo; plots involving crosses and double-crosses (often taken from Sicilian puppet plays); and, perhaps most important of all, the profanation of Catholic icons — the emphasis on all this firmly locates Leone’s rearrangement of the ‘codes’ of the Western within the context of Southern Italian society, and shows exactly the terms on which he has chosen to address the ‘cultural force’ of ‘Catholicism (and its penumbra)’.”

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind also touches on the way that Leone’s films, in particular their startling (for the time) violence, related to larger sociological themes. He does so by comparing three types of violence being legitimized by films of the time: “If the Bond films legitimized government violence, and the Leone films legitimized vigilante violence, Bonnie and Clyde legitimized violence against the establishment.”

Frayling’s biography offers an overwhelming amount of insight an trivia about Leone and his films, far too much to do justice here, but two in particular stick with me. One involves a detail about the violence in Leone’s films, one of the “things that American directors would have been afraid of,” mentioned earlier. At the time, Hollywood rules dictated that “a character being struck by a bullet from a gun could not be in the same frame as that gun when it was fired.” The infamous Hays Code deemed the effect to be too violent otherwise. Frayling quotes Eastwood:

“You had to shoot separately, and then show the person fall. And that was always thought sort of stupid, but on television we always did it that way… And you see, Sergio never knew that, and so he was tying it up… You see the bullet go off, you see the gun fire, you see the guy fall, and it had never been done this way before.”

(A short digression: Frayling also notes how Leone would often clash with his collaborators, one of the most famous instances being an apparent feud with Eastwood, which the two cleared up shortly before Leone’s death in 1989. Director Alex Cox mentions this aspect of Leone’s personality in his excellent 2009 survey of spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die: “Some directors love talking to actors,” he writes. “Others do not. Like actors, directors can be complex characters. Leone included.”

Along these lines, Cox also nails a trait for which Frayling provides ample evidence: “I get the impression Leone wasn’t obsessive about directing,” Cox writes. “He liked setting up projects, and planning them, and he was passionate about the costumes, and the sets, and the ‘historical’ detail. He loved talking about these things, in grand and impressively allusive terms. But I suspect he wasn’t entirely happy on the set. Perhaps he was in later films, when he was an internationally respected auteur… But Leone would still try to avoid directorial details, handing entire films over to his assistants.”)

Another insight I loved was Frayling’s connection of Leone’s work to surrealism. “Since the early 1950s, Leone had been ‘devoted’ to the work of some Surrealist painters,” he writes, and points to the work of Giorgio De Chirico as a particularly strong influence. “When describing his admiration, [Leone] tended to emphasize their games with perception, their use of illusion and trompe l’oeil, their bizarre juxtapositions, the fact that ‘things are never what they seem.’”

As Frayling describes, this influence resonates strongly with the perception of space in Leone’s films. For instance, in The Good, the Bad, “Leone explores shapes and spatial relationships in expansive ways”. “For much of the film, the camera will simply not keep still,” he writes. “In classic Hollywood terms, these camera movements are entirely unmotivated, redundant… Cinematic space in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is full of surreal juxtapositions of this kind, to trick the eye and keep the audience intrigued.”

It’s surprising that there aren’t more books about Leone, but it seems impossible that anyone will ever outdo Frayling, whose achievement here seems to parallel his own assessment of Leone. “What [Leone] was trying to do was to re-enchant the cinema, while expressing his own disenchantment with the contemporary world and conveying the exhilaration he personally felt while watching and making movies,” he writes.

Frayling’s work here (and throughout his writing career) stands alongside other brilliant academics (see for example Roland Barthes’ take on professional wrestling in the ’50s in his book, Mythologies) who, like Leone, bridge ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art. Along with the DVDs of Leone’s work, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death is a must-have. I’m looking forward to a “director’s cut” that includes the details about the horses’ blood-group.


Related videos:

Researchers’ Tales: Sir Christopher Frayling on Spaghetti Westerns

History of Westerns with Christopher Frayling

Very Rare Interview with Sergio Leone in 1984

Once Upon A Time: Sergio Leone (Part 1 of 7) A documentary commission by FilmFour that was first broadcast in 2000


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