They were "ersatz Westerns" to American critics. Umberto Eco compared them to the "godless nostalgia" of Renaissance writing, and the director himself described them as about "picaresque people placed in epic situations". The films of Sergio Leone have inspired generations of directors, from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas (whose film Star Wars
was effectively a Western in space) and John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino. Christopher Frayling certainly needs no convincing of the man's talent. Already the author of Spaghetti Westerns
, his first full-length biography is a cinéaste's delight, a detailed and rewarding survey of the career of the man of whom Bernardo Bertolucci said, "I like the way he filmed horses' arses".
Leone was born into film: his father directed the first Italian Western in 1913 and his mother was an actress. Beset by a formative tangle of influences, such as Neapolitan marionette shows and a love of John Ford and Charlie Chaplin, he moved from "toga flicks" to the landscape of his dreams, the American mid-West (actually Almeria in Spain). The 1960s Dollars trilogy, with their fledgling star Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name (actually Joe in the first, then Blondie) and their lingering camerawork allied to Ennio Morricone's haunting scores, defined a genre from which he fought to escape. Once Upon the Time in the West followed, with its dizzying stillness but there would be a decade of relative inertia before the epic Once Upon a Time in America, the gangster film he reputedly turned down The Godfather to direct. The film is a mosaic of reference to film noir and America, the genre and country that continued to inform and delight him. Frayling's cultured prose focuses less on the man than the movie-maker, yet his study, which also doubles as a general history of Italian cinema, splendidly feeds off the numerous legends and bitching that sprung up around the history of Leone's productions. Drawing on conversations with the director himself before his death in 1989, as well as dialogues with old acquaintances--and, most essentially, a first-class knowledge of the films themselves--Frayling has written a comprehensive homage to one of the trademark directors of 20th-century cinema. --David Vincent
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"Luxuriously illustrated...Sir Christopher Frayling is an expert in the genre" -- The Sunday Telegraph