by Christopher Frayling
570 pages, Faber & Faber
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Christopher Frayling’s biography of Italian director Sergio Leone is a cumbersome tome. Weighing in at over five hundred large pages, the book provides an exhaustive look at Leone’s cinematic career and meticulously dissects each of his films.
Frayling opens the book by highlighting how Leone was immersed in the world of theatre and cinema from an early age. His mother was an actress and his father directed a number of silent films. The young Leone was not so interested in home grown Italian movies but was obsessed with the American westerns and gangster films that the young Italians flocked to see.
Leone worked within the Italian movie industry for some time before directing his first feature and Frayling does not neglect to cover this period of his life. Whilst interesting to see how Leone made his connections within the industry (such as production designer Carlo Simi and the crew at Cinesitta studios), it does mean that the book takes a long time before covering Leone’s more famous works. I mean, in all honesty, who wants to read about his directorial debut “The Colossus of Rhodes” when the subsequent chapters deal with the now legendary “Dollars Trilogy”?
Most Leone fans will read this book wanting to learn more about Leone’s Westerns and his subsequent American films. Fortunately, just as he did with the lengthy preamble of Leone’s early career, Frayling does not skimp on the details. There is a vast amount of information on these classic films. We learn how “A Fistful of Dollars” was made on the back of another Western and how nobody (not even the cast) expected it to be a success. Though not the first Italian Western, “A Fistful of Dollars” was the first to achieve popular acclaim and led to a slew of imitators that became known as “Spaghetti Westerns”. Despite being derided by critics, Leone’s film was popular enough to warrant two sequels (“For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”) and went on to take become a worldwide phenomenon. Whole chapters within the book are devoted to these films, charting their development from the initial concepts to the lost footage on the cutting room floor.
Frayling relies on accounts not just from Leone himself but from actors who worked with him and regular collaborators such as screenwriter Sergio Donati. Interestingly, such accounts of working with Leone do not portray the director in the best light. It seems he was demanding and cavalier towards his cast and crew, working them for fifteen to seventeen hours a day. He also had a rather bad habit of not crediting people who had contributed to his films. According to one former colleague, Leone would not even tip waiters after dining at a restaurant. These negative points aside, Frayling effectively conveys just how passionate Leone was about his work. His epic “Once Upon a Time in the West” contains thirty (count ‘em!) references to other classic Western films. His partnership with composer Ennio Morricone led to the creation of some of the most famous film scores of all time and his belief in the close relationship between soundtrack and the film itself has gone on to influence countless modern directors.
The final chapters of the book highlight how Leone spent fifteen years planning and preparing his gangster drama “Once Upon a Time in America” and though the resulting film was by no means his best work, Frayling spares no details when showing how this labour of love came to be conceived. Indeed, the book is so well researched and laden with facts that it can be slightly off-putting. A casual reader could easily find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Unless you are really keen Sergio Leone (and I mean really keen, like having his face tattooed on your chest kind of keen), this is not a book to be read cover to cover.
Like his films, “Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death” has a grand scope whilst retaining its focus on the small details. This huge biography and critical analysis of his career is a fascinating insight into the great director and his films.
Hereward L. M. Proops