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West of Italy

By David Luhrssen
Shepherd Express/Milwaukee

frayling_sergio coverThe western was already slipping from the commanding heights it held over the world's imagination when A Fistful of Dollars startled moviegoers with a new vision of the Old West. The 1964 film by Sergio Leone stripped away the Norman Rockwell sheen by staging the American frontier as a surreal battleground where violence and corruption were checked only by a phlegmatic, unnamed stranger more annoyed than appalled by the denizens of this blighted land. The Man with No Name turned out to be a little-known bit player stateside, a fellow called Clint Eastwood. Leone is responsible for launching the actor toward stardom and for clearing the trail for Sam Peckinpah and other American directors whose westerns revealed a more brutal range than the one John Wayne once rode. Alas, within 10 years of Fistful of Dollars, the western, once the most reliable Hollywood product, had become as rare as the musical. Little has changed since.

Sir Christopher Frayling was already writing insightfully about Leone in the '60s, a time when many critics derided the director for filming “spaghetti westerns.” Frayling understood that Leone wasn't making poor imitations of Stage Coach or Shane but was reinventing the genre for a more questioning epoch. Frayling's Sergio Leone: Something to Die For (published by University of Minnesota Press) is everything a bio should be but is seldom: critically astute, well documented and written in a style as pleasurable and invigorating as its subject. Fun to read, Something to Die For locates Leone within the context of the Italian culture that produced him and the global culture that embraced his work.

Leone grew up in the movie business. His father Vincenzo was a pioneering Italian filmmaker who probably directed his country's first western (in 1913). Like many European kids growing up between the world wars, his imagination was colonized by American popular culture. At least until the U.S. and Italy went to war in 1942, he was able to devour Hollywood movies and American comic books. Some critics claim to see operatic influences in Leone's westerns, but the director denies this, telling Frayling that traditional Southern Italian culture shaped his movies only through puppet shows and their Punch-and-Judy street dramas. As a Roman, fatalism came to him almost with mother's milk in a city filled with the ruins of fallen emperors.

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