Saturday, July 6, 2024

The [Euro]western scenarios: on the centenary of Carlo Simi (1924-2000) [Part 1 of 4]

La Abadia de Berzano

By Rafael de España

June 20, 2024

Arts and crafts

Back in the 60s of the last century, some film theorists – led by the Parisian cahieristes – tried to convince us (and succeeded, it must be said) of the personal nature of the cinematographic product and that Welles, Bergman or Fellini were as auteurs as Walsh, Fuller or Cottafavi. First of all, I want to clarify that I do not reject this theory outright (at some point I even shared it), but I think it deserves certain qualifications. A fiction film (commercial, of course; the case of amateur cinema is very different) is always a collective work in which many more people participate than the signing director; and their contributions can play a very important role, especially in products that require a certain spectacular display[1].

The sacralization of the director has led historians to focus on his figure and forget about his collaborators completely: in exchange for countless monographs on filmmakers of greater or lesser merit, those dedicated to decorators, cinematographers or – despite their status as artists who can collect royalties – musicians, have a much smaller presence. When Sergio Leone's filmography is evoked, everyone assumes the importance of Ennio Morricone's musical backgrounds, who is granted – not without some reason – almost a category of "co-author", but until recently no one seemed to remember who was the real creator of those scenarios in which the heroes moved (... or anti-heroes) of the so-called Dollar Trilogy: Carlo [Gian Carlo] Simi (Viareggio, November 7, 1924 – Rome, November 26, 2000), an architect by profession with a visual sense as imaginative as the new concept of western proposed by Leone.

[On the left, Carlo Simi in his adventures in Burgos; on the right, in his cameo of "Death

Had a Price".]

From Sergio to Sergio

As we have said before, film set designers and costume designers have not been particularly favoured by historians and it is difficult to find publications that provide the same information and the same rigour as similar studies dedicated to filmmakers. As far as the European western is concerned, the only documented monograph with a good iconographic apparatus on a decorator linked to the genre is the one that Salvador Juan and this writer dedicated a few years ago to Juan Alberto from Barcelona, on the occasion of an exhibition in Esplugues de Llobregat[2].

[Juan Alberto's sketches for "Esplugas City", reproduced in the monograph that accompanied the exhibition at the Can Tinturé Museum in Esplugues.]

In the case of Carlo Simi there is a small bibliography also supported by some retrospective exhibitions[3], but we are still waiting for a work that is not only well illustrated, but also that illustrates (excuse the redundancy) his professional career, both in cinematographic and "traditional" architecture. His beginnings in cinema were with Sergio Corbucci, first as an air freshener[4] in Romulo and Remo (Romolo e Remo, 1961), a peplum of which precisely in one of my books on the genre I highlighted the attempt to give "verisimilitude to an era impossible to represent truthfully on the screen[5], and then with The Shortest Day (Il giorno più corto, 1963) —a parody of Darryl F. Zanuck's blockbuster The Longest Day (1963)[6]— where, already alone, he was able to make a stylized recreation of the environment of the Grande Guerre.

The following year was to be a turning point in Simi's career, with his triumphant entry into the world of (still not well defined) spaghetti westerns. In his meeting with Sergio Leone there are three supporting players to highlight: one is the "first Sergio" (Corbucci), another is Franco Palaggi (who had been production director at the aforementioned Rómulo y Remo) and the third is Arrigo Colombo[7], owner with Giorgio Papi of the companies Jolly Film (production) and Unidis (distribution). Corbucci has chosen him to design sets and costumes for his first western as absolute responsible[8], Minnesota Clay, but the project has been momentarily frozen due to financing problems.

As Simi himself later explained, one day he went to the offices of the Jolly to see his friend Palaggi, who was working there at the time, and he met Sergio Leone who was taking a look at some scenographic sketches that had been prepared for him for a western that he had managed to place in Colombo and Papi and whose provisional title was Il magnifico straniero[9]; the authorship of these designs could be attributed to the Cubero-Galicia tandem, at that time closely linked to the western "made in Spain"[10]. Simi found them downright mediocre, so Leone (who wasn't enthusiastic about them either) asked if he could offer her something better. His response was to show him the drawings he had composed for the postponed Minnesota Clay: Leone found them much more in line with the visual concept he had planned for his project and convinced Colombo to accept them. In this way, Simi not only managed to design one western but two, since Colombo and Papi commissioned another one that they had already prepared to co-produce in Spain almost at the same time as Il magnifico straniero and which would be entitled Las pistolas no discuten / Le pistole non discutono.

These two westerns of the Jolly are characterized by their splurge of "American" pseudonyms, something that was common currency in Italy at the time. And if Mario Caiano, director of Guns Don't Discuss, is going to appear in the titles as "Mike Perkins", a Sergio Leone who, at that time, was not in a position to discuss anything, agrees to sign Il magnifico straniero with the alias of "Bob Robertson"..., a private joke in homage to his father, Vincenzo Leone, a filmmaker of the silent era who used the same pseudonym but in Italian: Roberto Roberti. At this point, there is no need to remember that Il magnifico straniero ended up being released as Per un pugno di dollari / For a Fistful of Dollars.

     ["For a Fistful of Dollars": "Charles Simons" along with other equally colorful names.]

What comes next is known to all. Leone can shoot a new western —Per qualche dollaro in più— with a much larger budget and he has Simi to build in Tabernas what is undoubtedly the best town in the West of all those that were built when the spaghetti western fever, both technically and aesthetically, and that gave luster to many later films of lesser substance. For many years it was known as Poblado Fraile, but not because of an eventual ecclesiastical intercession but in honor of Alfredo Fraile, a renowned cameraman who at that time was the production director for Arturo González P.C., the co-production company of La muerte had a price.

                                ["For a Few Dollars More": Carlo Simi.]

Leone's third western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, can be considered the climax of his filmography, a spectacle of rare perfection in all aspects, starting precisely with the work of Carlo Simi, who achieves a tremendously realistic recreation of the atmosphere of the American Civil War, of course far above what Hollywood had accustomed us to. where it seemed that no one had seen any of Mathew Brady's famous photos.

At the same time that he works for Leone, Simi continues to give prominence to many westerns that will later become cult movies, such as the mythical Django of the other Sergio already mentioned (Corbucci), the most politicized of Sergio (too!) Sollima —The Falcon and the Prey, Face to Face— or the almost circus-like amusement of the Sabata by Gianfranco Parolini alias Frank Kramer[11].

[Western Fashion according to Carlo Simi: the neorealist overalls of "Until His Time Came", with dirt accumulated over the years. Below, some Hollywood ancestors, pristine as if they had just come out of the dry cleaners: "The True Story of Jesse James" (Nicholas Ray, 1957).]

In 1968 Leone released Once Upon a Time in the West, which, financed by Paramount and with "real" American actors, was supposed to be the culmination of his cycle of reinterpretation of the western but, paradoxically, meant a drastic pause in his promising filmography[12]. Being conceived as a blockbuster once again gave Carlo Simi great possibilities to shine, this time on both Spanish and American stages. And returning to the Leone-Simi relationship, it is significant that Sergio's worst film, Giù la testa / Fistful of Dynamite (1971), is the only one that did not have the services of his trusted set designer... with which he was reunited, fortunately, in what would put a great end to his filmography, the misunderstood Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Although he did not lavish himself excessively, Simi participated in projects of other prestigious Italian filmmakers and, in fact, was active until shortly before his death, which took place on November 26, 2000, at the age of 76. His most fruitful relationship is the one he had with Pupi Avati (another Sergio would have already seemed an irony of fate!) in three films: Bix (1991), Fratelli e sorelle (1992) and La via degli angeli (1999)[13]; for the former, who evoked the world of jazz in the America of the Roaring Twenties through the tragic figure of the trumpeter Leon Bix Bierderbeke, he achieved an elaborate period recreation that finally gave him a long-deserved David di Donatello.


[1] I'm not referring exclusively to Hollywood blockbusters, almost always alien to the auteur concept (unless we consider the producer that way, of course), but also to expensive productions by authors as indisputable as Visconti, Fellini or Bertolucci.

[2] Salvador Juan i Babot, Rafael de España: Juan Alberto, artistic director. Creator of Esplugas City (Esplugues de Llobregat: Ajuntament, 2009).

[3] For the one held in Montpellier in 1998, a mini-catalogue of about 40 pages but with very good illustrations was published, coordinated by Hubert Corbin: Carlo Simi: l'Amérique de Sergio Leone (Montpellier: XX Festival International du Cinéma Méditerranéen).

[4] The principal set designer was Saverio D'Eugenio.

[5] Rafael de España, La pantalla épica. The Heroes of Antiquity through Cinema (Madrid: T&B, 2009), p. 220-221.

[6] The main purpose of this film was to lend a hand to the hard-working producer Goffredo Lombardo, who at that time was in serious financial trouble due to the expenditures of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962, Robert Aldrich) and The Leopard (Il gattopardo, 1963, Luchino Visconti). A large group of performers linked to the Titanus offered to play small roles without pay.

[7] In Eastwood. Since My Name Defends Me (José Manuel Lara Foundation, 2017), Francisco Reyero argues that Simi would have had a non-film working relationship with Colombo, specifically some renovations in his home. What he does not clarify is whether they were before or after his stage performances in the two westerns of the Jolly

[8] He had appeared as assistant director of Massacro to Albert Band's Grande Canyon, but all indications are that his presence in the credits was to meet union dues. About this somewhat enigmatic character that was Band, vid. Rafael de España, Sin dollars no hay ataúdes. 50 examples of Mediterranean western (Barcelona: Oberta Publishing, 2019), p. 23.

[9] The Spanish version of the script was entitled Ray the Magnificent and, as in the Italian version, the authors were Víctor A. Catena and Jaime Comas.

[10] In the exhibition Madrid territorio Far West (Hoyo de Manzanares Cultural Centre, 19/04-14/05/2021) some of his watercolours could be seen (apparently) intended for Las pistolas no discuten.,_Territorio_Far_West

[11] Ehi amico... c'è Sabata, hai chiuso! (1969, Frank Kramer), distributed in Spain under the anodyne title Blood Gold.

[12] Although he has staunch defenders, his attempt to pay homage to the "classic" western (Ford, to put it simply) and, at the same time, demystify it crudely, could create a sense of bewilderment in viewers and, among Americans, even a clear rejection. In case any reader wants to know my opinion about this and Leone's other westerns, I refer you to No Dollars There Are No Coffins, cit., passim.

[13] None of them were commercially released in Spain, like almost all of their director's films.

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