|Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The - Extended Cut (2-Disc Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 May 2004|
Quentin Tarantino has declared The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to be “the best-directed movie of all time,” which begs a whole wagonload of questions. But it really is superbly directed in Leone’s signature style: lots of very wide shots of tiny characters off in the receding distance (Leone was a David Lean fan) alternating with intense, screen-filling closeups. Scenes run very long—the climactic shootout lasts almost five minutes before the first one draws his gun—and the pace is deliberate. Characters are very strongly delineated, but they’re not complex—what you first see is what you always get. His movies are so intensely stylized that they constantly verge on self-parody, but never topple over, partly because Leone has a sense of humor. A sardonic, wry, even cruel sense of humor, but it’s there nonetheless.
This is the third of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, the first two being A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. All three starred Clint Eastwood as the laconic, squint-eyed gunman roaming the west in a ratty serape, smoking tiny, ugly cigars. United Artists, the American distributor, declared Eastwood to be playing “The Man With No Name,” the same character in each movie. But in each movie, Eastwood’s character does have a name, and it’s not always the same one—here, he’s Blondie, though he’s not really blond. He might and might not be playing the same character; it matters little.
The first thing you notice about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is Ennio Morricone’s astonishing score. He blends elements of Mexican mariachi music with contemporary jazz, sweeping orchestral passages, choral voices, and an overall vividly distinctive approach. He incorporates the howl of a coyote—the first thing we hear in the movie itself—into the themes he creates for each title character, though the wail is orchestrated very differently each time. This excellent DVD set includes a fascinating little documentary on Morricone, “Il Maestro.” There’s also an audio-only section which would benefit greatly from samples of the score, but it’s only the voice of film music expert John Burlingame.
Leone didn’t worry too much about story; the subjects of his movies were the characters and the landscapes they pass through. He introduces us first to The Ugly, wandering Mexican outlaw Tuco (Eli Wallach), who kills three would-be assassins and flees town. Then we meet The Bad, hired killer Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef); he is indeed thoroughly bad, though he has a cracked code of his own, amusing if cruelly demonstrated in the opening scene. We finally meet The Good, roaming gunslinger Blondie (Eastwood), who forms a potentially hazardous scam with Tuco: he turns the Mexican in for the reward then, as Tuco is hanged, cuts the rope with a rifle shot. They ride off together and share the loot.
Angel Eyes is seeking a quarter million in gold, buried in a graveyard—but which one? Tuco finds out which one—Sad Hill cemetery (which is in a valley), but which grave? Blondie has managed to find that crucial information. But before that, he abandons his erstwhile partner in the desert, and rides off. As soon as he gets the chance, Tuco returns the favor. But from the sole but dying survivor in a horse-drawn Confederate ambulance (this is set during the Civil War), Blondie learns the name under which the gold is buried.
All three work their way toward the cemetery. Leone follows each of them alone as well as when the paths of teamed-up Tuco and Blondie cross that of opportunistic Angel Eyes. The climax takes place in the impossibly huge Sad Hill cemetery. (No town nearby, but what looks like a thousand graves.)
Leone gradually introduces us and his trio to the Civil War. Our first hint that the War is going on is when Angel Eyes gets crucial information from a legless Rebel vet. Then Tuco and Blondie, in the ambulance, encounter a troupe of gray soldiers. Tuco enthusiastically cheers Lee and denounces Grant, but oops—that gray was dust. Underneath it all, the troopers are Union. We get a glimpse of Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley, a real-life character.
Tuco and Blondie are thrown into a brutal war prison camp, modeled on the South’s Andersonville, but this is a Union prison in Texas. Angel Eyes has Tuco brutally tortured—the movie’s most violent scene—while a weeping Rebel prison band plays music to hide the sounds of Tuco’s torture. Later, Tuco and Blondie help a sardonic but courageous Union officer plant explosives in a crucial bridge, and watch a horrible battle from afar.
In a scene restored for this edition, even the heartless Angel Eyes comes close to being moved when he happens upon a ruined building, the aftermath of a fierce battle. Most movies about the Civil War definitely take the Union side, though Confederates are usually presented as gallant defenders of a lost cause. Slavery is only rarely mentioned; it’s not mentioned at all in this film, though we do see some slaves.
The appeal, the greatness, of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is so intensely visual that it’s difficult to review it in a brief space. It’s a long, long film, but it has an involving, hypnotic power. The story is that of a B western (exactly what Leone intended), so it’s not rich in incident or character. But the sheer look of the film is awesome; the characters are studied and stylized—there’s hardly a spontaneous movement anywhere in the movie. The greatest Western directors are so vividly themselves, they’re so focused on what the director wants to show that the greatest are inimitable. Only John Ford could make a John Ford-like Western, only Peckinpah could make his Westerns, and only Leone made Leone Westerns. There were, to be sure, a huge number of spaghetti Westerns; Leone’s weren’t the first, but his were the most influential. But the combination of camera style, acting, landscape and studied pace remain his alone.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly isn’t just the best of the Dollars trilogy it’s possibly even better than Leone’s magnificent Once Upon a Time in the West. Eastwood and Van Cleef are outstanding—this may very well feature the latter’s best performance. He adds layers to Angel Eyes that aren’t necessarily present in the script. The movie was adapted from a story by Luciana Vincenzoni and Leone, and a screenplay by those two and Age (Agenore Incrocci) and Scarpelli (Furio Scarpelli), though producer Alberto Grimaldi reveals that Age & Scarpelli (a very prominent writing team) actually contributed little that was usable.
Eastwood is very Eastwood; it’s more of a pose than a performance, but is exactly what the movie needs. The documentaries explain that he was a bit reluctant to make the film; he wasn’t getting along with Leone (making the film ended their friendship), and was worried that Wallach had the best role.
He’s right. Although he was definitely a New York method actor from the Actors’ School, here he is in (another) Western, looking like he’s having a great time. He’s certainly giving one: Wallach is hilarious as this scruffy little force-of-life bandito, the most alive character in the movie. Someone had a great time adding details: each time before he’s hung, a list of the charges against him is read. He seems to have done everything from burglary to impersonating a Mexican general. Isn’t a bit sorry, either. There’s a great little scene where he examines a slew of pistols, checking each one in a professional manner. In the documentaries, Wallach reveals he knows nothing at all about pistols, and simply improvised every gesture. As with Van Cleef, this may be Wallach’s best movie performance; if not his best, it’s certainly one of his most entertaining.
The restoration did more than add 18 minutes never shown in the United States: the movie actually looks better on video than it did in theaters. The colors are rich and saturated, the focus is perfectly sharp. This is not easy with Techniscope. That process (explained thoroughly in one of the documentaries) was a two-perf pulldown; that is, a standard 35mm frame was divided across the middle, using half the normal area. This gave an image of nearly CinemaScope proportions, and after printing these images anamorphically, with a four-perf pulldown, a ‘Scope lens was used to widen it out again. Naturally, this resulted in a somewhat degraded image, but you sure the hell can’t tell it from the great images on this DVD.
The sound is another matter. The movie was recorded monaurally but in the English-language track, it’s been converted to 5.1 stereo, and the futzing around with the voices (primarily) reveals itself. Voices coming from the side speakers are hollow, lacking tonal richness. This “improvement’ was unneeded and at times is intrusive. The Italian track actually sounds better at times. There is a choice of several languages for the subtitles.
The two documentaries, “Leone’s West” and “The Leone Style,” should have been just one, as the “West” doesn’t explain anything significant about the late director’s view of the American West. But they’re excellent documentaries, taken together. Richard Schickel, who provides the commentary track as well, appears, as does Alberto Grimaldi, who produced the film. Mickey Knox, the actor who handled the American dubbing (and who gets an on-screen credit), talks about his work; there is also a great deal of Wallach and Eastwood (you get to see Clint smile!), who clearly are fond of the film. The actors did new dubbing for the additional 18 minutes.
All three of the documentaries (including the one on the restoration), make very clear Leone’s visual style and his love of movies. We slowly realize that he was something of a tyrant and an egotist, but ultimately all interviewed reveal their great fondness for the man and what he did. There’s also a TV documentary called “The Man Who Lost the Civil War,” about the real-life Texas Civil War battle that Leone, who thoroughly researched his movies, incorporates in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
MGM Home Video has put together a splendid package here; surely all Leone and Eastwood fans won’t need any encouragement to seek it out, but anyone who’s fond of Westerns, or of moviemaking in general, is also encouraged to find this DVD.