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Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death

Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Britain’s pop culture knight, Christopher Frayling, offers the definitive biography and interpretation of the Spaghetti Western maestro, Sergio Leone.

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.”

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