Focus Friday #3 – Carlo Simi

September 10, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features with 0 Comments
My continuing series celebrating my unsung heroes of the movies…

Think of Sergio Leone’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ and chances are the first things you’ll remember are Clint Eastwood, gambolling along in his poncho with a cheroot dangling from his mouth. Or Ennio Morricone’s wry, witty scores, soaring over dust-bowl terrain and evocative ghost towns.

But who dressed Eastwood, and created that parched, tactile look? Carlo Simi, the hidden genius of the Sergio Leone Westerns looked after sets and costumes. In that combination, he has more claim than anybody to be the originator of the look and feel of the Spaghetti Western.

For A Fistful of Dollars, Leone had little more than a hunch that Kurosawa’s Samurai yarn Yojimbo would translate into a great Western. With minimal funds, he had to ignore the Hollywood stars he wanted in favour of TV actor Eastwood, and had to use whatever resources he could find to put even him on screen. Carlo Simi – an architect by trade, and one of the hundreds of artisans Leone knew from the production-line movie-making at Cinecitta studios – was hired.

Simi discovered an abandoned, decrepit set – it had once been used to make Zorro films – in Spain’s Almerian desert. The set was redressed, if anything, to make it look even more inhospitable. It’s scarcely plausible that one town could be shared by two rival families, intent on spilling blood,  but Simi’s work, at once ethereal and abstract and pulsating with vivid, grimy detail, sells the illusion.

And it was Simi who devised the distinctive hippie-chic look of The Man With No Name. Even if Eastwood, according to legend, chose the actual serape he wore in the films, it was Simi’s idea to include one, with its laidback, couldn’t-care-less sense of style and subliminal hints of a superhero’s cape.

The result?  An overnight transformation in the fortunes of Leone and Eastwood (in Italy, at least: American success was still a few years away) and the budget to go one better.  So in For A Few Dollars More, Simi had money – and by god did he spend it.  The film is a vision of adults misbehaving amidst the playground of Leone’s imaginary West, and Simi’s work is that of a boy (albeit an amazingly talented) one with a real-life Lego set.  Simi created the astonishing town of El Paso from scratch in the Spanish desert, a hyperreal world with its grid-like streets and timber & stone buildings. It’s still there, a tourist attraction known as “Mini-Hollywood,” and a fantasy of what a Western town should look like.

Again: more success, more money for next time, with Hollywood getting involved in a lucrative co-production deal.  It’s hard to recall The Good, The Bad and The Ugly without concentrating on Simi’s stylised costumes, the triangulation of Eastwood’s shabby-chic with Lee Van Cleef’s monkish, black-clad angel of death and Eli Wallach’s putrid, unshaven fiflth.  But it might be his finest work as an art decorator, building yet another Western town – as well as a fully-functional bridge over a river – only to destroy them.  Suiting the film’s Civil War backdrops, the final hour is a tangible hell of scorched earth and rubble.

By Leone’s first ‘proper’ American film, albeit mostly still produced in Almeria, with just a few strategic shots filmed in Monument Valley so that the film can nestle in the shadow of the Hollywood classics. In contrast to the quirkier, more ironic Dollars trilogy, Leone wanted pictorial realism to buttress his revisionist take on John Ford’s creation myth, and so there’s extraordinary historical detail to Simi’s exteriors. If it’s not the heart-stopping sight of Leone’s camera rising over a tiled roof to showcase the town of Flagstone, it’s the intricate detail of the interiors, their solid timber constructions filled out with all manner of pioneer bric-a-brac. Check out the lanterns in the bar scene, hanging from the ceiling via a series of pulleys that allows them to be swung across the room – at once a practical, economical lighting solution and a genius dramatic prop used to (ahem) illuminating effect.

In contrast to the realism of the the sets, the costumes are pared down to symbolic value – Claudia Cardinale’s elegant white dresses contrasting with Henry Fonda’s ultimate ‘man in black’ ensemble, with Jason Robards’ impractical-but-visually astounding long duster coat in between.

Simi wasn’t just Leone’s man, also working as art director for the other Sergio, Corbucci, whose Django is the film that, more than any other, proved the durability of the Italian Western beyond Clint. Where Leone was getting increasingly bold and operatic, Corbucci’s film scrabbles around in the mud, and Simi’s hellish town, painted in splashy blood-red hues, carries as much personality as the increasingly elaborate, near-fairytale constructions he built for Leone.

I don’t know what happened to Simi after Once Upon a Time in the West.  His credits over the subsequent three decades (he died in 200) are sporadic at best, and compared to the lavish attention accorded his 1960s Westerns his later work is significantly under-documented.  It can’t have helped that Leone struggled to get his projects to screen after the commercial failure of Once Upon a Time in The West, but Simi’s creativity and resourcefulness should have made him as prolific as Morricone was to become.

So while he’s only listed on IMDb as working on around 30 films…he has nearly twice as many credits, for the simple reason he doubled up sets-and-costumes duties on most of his projects.  He even acted in For A Few Dollars More, in a brief but memorable cameo as El Paso’s bank manager.  Such a brief but intenstive creative burst has rarely been matched, before or since, and certainly not to such effect.  Simi left a mark on a genre that’s never really been been changed.  Nine times out of ten, you can guess the age of a Western immediately depending on whether or not it looks like it was made before or after Simi met Leone.

I’ll leave you with my favourite scene from Once Upon a Time in the West – hell, one of my favourite scenes ever.  It’s the arrival of Claudia Cardinale’s Jill in Flagstone, expecting to meet her husband off the train but little realising he’s just been murdered.  The meticulously choregraphed shot beginning at 2:57 is, for me, amongst the finest 75 seconds of footage ever put on film.  As she wanders along the platform and into the station house, Morricone’s plaintive score loses the melancholy, ups the epic romance until music and camera combine to deliver that first, spine-tingling appearance of the town itself.

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