Monday, 28 July 2008

The Films of Sergio Leone

This 2008 volume from Scarecrow Press presents a revised, expanded and corrected edition of author Robert Cumbow's long unavailable 1987 original, made at a point when, as he notes, information on the auteur and his work was in relatively short supply.

The first chapter, the only one in the introductory section, provides an overview of Leone's life and career. Thought really given little more than the bare minimum – Leone was born in 1929, died in 1989 and made only a few films during his life, which tended to be more successful with audiences than critics – this is all that is needed insofar as Cumbow points the reader more interested in the man than the films to Christopher Frayling's exhaustive biography Something to do with Death whilst setting out his own approach as different yet complementary to Frayling's in his emphasis on the text.

The second chapter, beginning the second section of the book, on the films, also quite brief, is again new and discusses Leone's pre-western work and the continuities between the peplum and the western in terms of narrative conventions and character types, particularly in the mythic dimensions that they tended to assume. There is the odd factual error, like identifying the origin of the term peplum in lying with a type of sandal, and one might have liked to see a more thoroughgoing analysis of Leone's debut film, The Colossus of Rhodes, but the overall analysis is sound and establishes a solid basis for considering the director's better known, 'mature' films.

The third chapter discusses A Fistful of Dollars in more detail and begins to really establish Cumbow's way of working and its distinctive strengths, as he works his way through the film in an almost image by image and scene by scene way to bring out their underlying possibilities. What we see on screen and hear on the soundtrack is, that is to say, what really matters. Though clearly not averse to theory, insofar as he brings out the structural oppositions undergirding the film, thus establishing certain patterns whose continuities, discontinuities and developments he will chart across Leone's subsequent films, Cumbow refuses to put the cart before the horse in the way that most academic studies would by identifying their standpoint as explictly marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic or whatever.

What he ultimately emerges as is thus an old school Cahiers du Cinema / Sarris / Movie type humanistic, auteurist, mise en scène critic, the kind who is well versed in cinema, culture and ideas in general and who uses his erudition in the first instance to help illuminate the films themselves and only then turns to wider questions; as the book goes on we get references to Nietzsche, Bergson, Jansenism, Bettelheim, Eliade and others, all justified rather than show-offish.

One key reference point in this regard are Chabrol and Rohmer's seminal early study of Hitchcock– a connection made explicit in the 16th and final chapter, where Cumbow concludes with an analysis of Leone as a specifically Catholic filmmaker whose work expressed and advanced a distinctive morality.

Another, more implicit than explicit, seems to be Wollen's influential Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, as one of the few more theoretical works mentioned in the bibliography and as a text which, according to the postscript interview in third edition between Wollen and his one-time alter-ego Lee Russell, questions of art and aesthetics are paramount. (This is something which Wollen's discussion of the usefulness of structural linguistics to the study of film in the main body of the text itself can all too easily make us forget by giving the work a more scientific seeming cast.)

I had the occasional difference of opinion when Cumbow moved away from the details of the films to the wider context, as with his analysis of how different Fistful really was, but found his analysis of the film itself enormously rich in ideas. (Cumbow argues, correctly in my opinion, that Leone's work has come to represent the entirety of the spaghetti western to the general audience for better or worse but I am less certain of his contention that Leone's work was less innovative and more conventional than is commonly thought. I would contend that what's needed here is a finer distinction between the pre-Leone Italian western, with its more imitative approach to the Hollywood western, and the large number of post-Leone westerns which took on board and attempted to imitate his distinctively Italian innovations.)

The remaining six chapters of this section subject For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck you Sucker, My Name is Nobody and Once Upon a Time in America to similar close readings and are again highly impressive and compelling in the main. A recurring theme here, helping account for the inclusion of the Valerii directed / Leone scripted and supervised My Name is Nobody, itself an elegy for the end of the Leone-style western, is the gradual shift from myth to history.

Of the analyses here, I felt that of Once Upon a Time in America to be the weakest, perhaps because Cumbow does not subject the film's mythic images of the gangster film to the same depth of analysis as the westerns and instead tends to subsume them into their more general framework. It may be, of course, that the film is not a meta-gangster movie in the same way as Once Upon a Time in the West is a meta-western, but the importance of film cliché within Harry Grey's source novel The Hoods – which Cumbow is too quick in my opinion to dismiss as bearing almost no relation to the finished film, as per one of Leone's remarks – may suggest otherwise.

Certainly, I would have liked to have seen more of a discussion of the film and its intertexts, particularly given the strength of Cumbow's discussions of the relationship between Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars or the traces of past roles carried by the likes of Van Cleef and Fonda or by image after image in Once Upon a Time in the West. (Then again, maybe this gives other Leone scholars something to do ;-))

The third section of the book, titled The Company gives consideration to Leone's casts and crew and their importance in realising his vision. Though there are perhaps some omissions here – Once Upon a Time in the West comes across as a writing collaboration between Leone and Bertolucci, for example – the two chapters also serve to show that Cumbow is no crude auteurist unawares of the difference that a cinematographer, production designer or editor can make to their director.

The fourth section, entitled The Vision, recapitulates and recontextualises some of the key points made in the film-by-film analyses by presenting them in a more thematic form.

Chapter 12 explores what Cumbow identifies as “the moral geometry of Sergio Leone,” or the way in which his compositions, camera movements and editing are in the final analysis as much moral as aesthetic choices, much as per Godard's oft-cited remark that “Morality is a question of tracking shots.”

Chapter 13 provides a comprehensive lexicon of Leone themes and images from A (anonymity) through to V (violence), providing a useful checklist of key moments to rewatch for anyone interested in his use of and / or attitudes towards – to give a few other examples – musical instruments, timepieces and rape.

Chapter 14 discusses Leone's most important collaborative partnership, that with Morricone, on a theme-by-theme and motif-by-motif basis but without using or relying upon any familiarity with music theory. (There is a book by Charles Leinberger on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly's score for anyone who is interested in something more specific / specialised here, although I haven't read it myself.)

The following brief chapter discusses the issue of the operatic in relation to Leone's cinema beyond the Morricone leitmofit, making the provocative suggestions that had Leone lived 100 years earlier he might have worked in the opera, as the spectacular art form of that era, and that had Verdi lived 100 years later he might have been a filmmaker for the same reasons.

As already mentioned, the last chapter returns us to the moral by bringing out the conscious and accidental Christian iconography of Leone's films to conclude that, once upon a time, he was the redeemer of the western genre.

Appendices provide complete credits and synopses for the films, a bibliography and details of DVD and CD releases.

All told, a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating read that, like all the best film books, leaves one wanting to watch the films again and, more importantly, anew.

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