|Sir Christopher Frayling,
Sergio Leone Something To Do With Death (reprint edition)
University of Minnesota Press, 2012
US $24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)
Twelve years after its initial English publication Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death by Sir Christopher Frayling has been granted a second edition by the University of Minnesota Press. This edition is its first print run in America, but aside from the addition of an author’s note it remains identical to the original. As a work of exceptional detail this volume still stands as the only significant examination of Leone and his work. The text is structured around Leone’s filmography, beginning with his early work as an assistant on set, including his decade as a producer, and concluding with his masterpiece Once Upon A Time in America (1984).
Something To Do With Death, in its own way, provides a comprehensive study of the Western that has strong parallels to Richard Stolkin’s Gunslinger Nation (1992). Frayling’s study is comprised of interviews, research and detailed critical analysis. He documents the genesis of Leone’s characters from myth to screen and back to myth. Frayling also provides a detailed look into Italian cinema between 1920 and 1960 and the key figures therein at the time. While presenting Leone as a biographical subject we also learn much about all those concerned with his work, from a young Dario Argento or Bernado Bertolucci, with whom he collaborated on Once upon a Time in The West (1968), to Ennio Morricone, who scored all of Leone’s films. Frayling’s passion for his subject matter is as obvious as his attention to detail. And his enjoyment is demonstrable within his engaging and witty writing style. Suited to the academic or the fanatic, this volume is pleasantly littered with puns and shibboleths.
Frayling examines in detail the techniques and motifs in Leone’s work. “The detail of the spur” (a recurring myth about Leone’s attention to detail), for example, is representative of a wider argument that Frayling presents about Leone’s use and appropriation of artistic techniques; influences that range from sources as disparate as Caravaggio, Dali, and Bosch. Similarly, there is an in depth discussion of the presence, and often brutal treatment, of the feminine in Leone’s films that contributes to the debate about his presentation of women. And, as could be expected, Something to do with Death includes a detailed analysis, and history, of Leone’s collaboration with Morricone.
While Frayling might freely admit to an almost sycophantic fascination with Leone’s work and myth, what is presented includes Leone’s notorious arrogance. The mythical view of him is interspersed and undercut with vignettes of his outbursts and insecurities. Frayling presents Leone not just as a cinematic legend, but also as a man quick to anger that “wears both belt and suspenders” (255) as a manifestation of his own anxieties. This is reflected in his volatile relationships with figures such as Clint Eastwood, Rod Steiger, Sergio Donati, and even his close friend Morricone. Relations that are all documented through excerpts of Frayling’s interviews with most of the parties involved.
Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death is not only a thorough and exhaustive examination of Leone and the ‘Spaghetti Western’ but also a mediation on the myth of America and its frontier as a whole. Leone’s concern with myths becomes Frayling’s central fascination. This concern with myth is evidently the motivation for Frayling’s exhaustive research as evidenced by his initial desire to include notes on the blood types of the horses. The ideals and archetypes within the Western are examined in detail, so that what Leone, Donati, and Vincenzoni do with them obtains greater clarity. In studying Leone and the ‘Spaghetti Western,’ Frayling is examining the difference between America’s perceptions of itself and Italy’s understanding of America through its cinematic output. It is an intriguing topos for study and one that Frayling tackles in an engaging manner. What comes through is the image not of a great philosopher and intellectual in the figure of Leone, but of an auteur obsessed with mythologies. In fact we gather that Leone is only certain of myths, their presentation, history, deconstruction, and ultimately their presentation as his visual essays. And this is captured palpably.
Leone is, more often than not, decried in interviews by his former colleagues and actors, as the heathen amongst the cultured. Frayling does not shy away from this view of Leone; openly alluding to when he feels that the ‘maestro’ was embellishing or bending the truth. As a result of this, the image of Leone that is presented is both touchingly insecure and bracingly arrogant, and ultimately explains the single mindedness of his endeavours. Leone may be shown to be a miser, a bully, and a surprisingly uncharitable man who appropriates ideas shamelessly and without sharing a scrap of credit, but he gets the adulation he deserves as a savant of myth and director of spectacle.