On the good, the bard and the copies

Sergio Leone
January 13, 2006

This is Christopher Frayling's third foray into the world of Sergio Leone, which follows a book on spaghetti westerns and his admirable biography. His magnificent obsession has been very rewarding, and this latest volume is no exception. Crucially, Frayling's work is an outstanding exemplar of the irreplaceable value of using primary sources for the study of cinema. This latest publication allows us to examine the extent of his meticulous pursuit of those sources, in that we are given the texts of interviews, not only with Leone and his collaborators, but also with notable admirers such as Martin Scorsese.

Film-makers vary in their appetite to talk about their work, and some are prickly customers. Clint Eastwood, whose career took off only after he had been plucked from routine television by Leone, is decidedly edgy in some of his responses, seemingly reluctant to give Leone credit for his own subsequent development, first as actor, later as a director. Eastwood has been far more generous to Don Siegel as a mentor, perhaps because he was more in tune with the latter's style.

The most reluctant to talk here is Leone's cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli. Frayling amusingly quotes to him a line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it is clear that he is less than comfortable: "If you're going to shoot, shoot: don't talk!" There are many cinematographers who have given me the same impression. Missing altogether from the interviews is Leone's editor, Nino Baragli, but then I know from personal experience how impossible it is to get this man - who cut nearly 400 features - to talk about cinema now that he is retired.

The most fascinating interview is with Leone himself. He is quickly into his stride, not at all like the slow burn of his movies. In response to Frayling's first question about the critical response to his films, his answer in part is: "Reviewers always accused me of trying to copy the American western... later the critics wrote that I was trying to create a 'critical cinema'. Both were missing the point... because in fact I brought to the western some strict conventions of my own, which did not include imitations of the American ones. And obviously there is a culture behind me that I can't just push away... For example we live and breathe Roman Catholicism, even if we don't believe all of it."

Leone rather grandiosely claims that he felt like Shakespeare when he was preparing his first western, A Fistful of Dollars , "because Shakespeare wrote some great Italian romances without ever having been to Italy - far better than the Italians did". Without drawing breath he goes on to say: "I am convinced that by far the greatest writer of westerns was Homer, for he wrote fabulous stories about the feats of individual heroes... who are all prototypes for the characters played by Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne."

The young Leone, who was given $200,000 (£115,000) and some leftover film stock to make a western, had observed well in his role as an assistant director and had probably concluded that he could do a better job than those he was assisting. However, he might not have had Shakespeare and Homer in mind at the time. Certainly, when Frayling compares the memories of Leone with his co-writers on Once upon a Time in the West , Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, there is considerable discrepancy, even about where the ideas came from.

Most fascinating are the so-called citations from other westerns. Frayling provides a chart of nearly 60 such examples of moments, which are consciously and explicitly based on individual westerns. These include names of characters and places; details of action; design and props; even precise dialogue. Cinema is full of such citations, which in academic terms would be called plagiarism, while for film-makers they are only a problem if you do not "steal from the best".

It is also clear that Leone's American West is in many respects more authentic than the standard Hollywood representation. Even down to the "duster coats": those long heavy canvas garments worn by his characters.

There is ample evidence that they were standard dress for men coping with exposure to the dust and rain.

The book includes revealing testimony from other Leone collaborators including composer Ennio Morricone, and there is a plethora of visual memorabilia. It is a sumptuous book full of the qualities traditionally associated with Thames and Hudson.

Now all that remains is for Frayling to develop another magnificent obsession with a neglected film-maker, and we can expect another trilogy of revealing texts. I for one can't wait.

Roger Crittenden is currently devising a course for fiction directors at the National Film and Television School. His latest book is Fine Cuts: The Art of European Film Editing.

Sergio Leone: Once upon a Time in Italy

Author - Christopher Frayling
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 240
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 500 51228 0

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