THERE HE IS, smack in the middle of this book as fat as its subject: Sergio Leone, still in his 30s, bulgy-waisted and multichinned, with those trademark outsize glasses that recall Madmagazine's Dave Berg, screaming his Neapolitan head off. It's a photo of the recently jobbed-in Leone "directing" a Roman gladiator, played by the highly unlikely Rory Calhoun, veteran Hollywood cowboy. Leone is gesticulating up a storm as if this were the last act of Verdi's La Forza Del Destino. And by the time Leone was done, his tatty sword-and-sandal epics, and then flea-bitten "spaghetti Westerns," would take on the time-melding and emotion-amplifying qualities of grand opera. Though it may be hard for some people to believe, Sergio Leone was the Giuseppe Verdi of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death by Christopher Frayling goes at the central question of Leone's career with both barrels ablaze: Did Leone know he was a genius, and if so, what did he do about it? Through a Citizen Kane-like labyrinth of interviews with grips, production hangers-on, ex-wives, and a lot of disgruntled screenwriters, Frayling paints a picture of Leone as a Sammy Glick-style handy boy. Always ready in a pinch, Leone worked his way up the ladder of dreadful Italian muscleman pictures only to discover--who knew?--that he was a genius on a par with D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles.
Frayling depicts, often in Leone's own words, an artist paralyzed both by his success as a pop filmmaker (how could he venture beyond that lucrative terrain?) and by his insecurity--was he really as brilliant as everyone around him was saying? (A moment in which Charlie Bluhdorn, the notorious German shmatte merchant who briefly ran Paramount Pictures, gives Leone carte blanche is a hilarious head-swelling-to-the-bursting-point vignette.) There are some mirthful scenes in which Leone sits around brainstorming what would be Once Upon a Time in the West--in the eyes of many, the greatest Western ever made--with two young punks named Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. They want to make a John Ford movie; Leone wants to talk with them about Christian symbolism, and his new best friend, Karl Marx.
Frayling gets every psychological nuance of Leoneness: the insecurity puffing into Mussolinian pride, the pseudo-radical bull sessions that turned into genuinely radical ideas of form, the laziness and the mulish--almost geological--persistence of the man. (Frayling theorizes it was Leone's fear of failure, not his rejection by the industry, that made his output so small; Quentin Tarantino fans, take note.) And there is a keen overview of the genre Leone invented, the spaghetti Western.
As is often the case in bios of brilliant filmmakers, a lost masterpiece lies at the center of things: Leone's rendering of Harrison Salisbury's The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. Had Leone attempted a treatment of the century's atrocities there's no telling the heights of genius he might have hit. In his wake, we have six superb works of art--and now this scrupulous, masterly, compelling portrait of his life.