Friday, July 25, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My memory of watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the first time was that it was long and good, but felt more like work than enjoyment. Fifteen years later my view is completely different. This is a masterful piece of filmmaking, a movie that plays with genre expectations and is humorous, violently playful, serious, and all-around entertaining. I’m not sure what didn’t strike me about it the first time.

I should start by mentioning the Spaghetti Western as a subset of western films. These were generally cheap films financed in Italy and mostly shot in Spain where the terrain closely resembles the American West. They used local and other European actors. Sergio Leone became the most famous of the Italian Spaghetti Western directors after the success of his two Clint Eastwood “Dollars” films. After that, Columbia put a relatively large amount of money toward Leone’s next film. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly starred three American actors in the title roles. Eastwood is Blondie, the man with no name, or “the Good” of the title. Eli Wallach Tucco, or the Ugly, and Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, also known as Angel Eyes. The rest of the actors are various Italian, Spanish, and German actors, all of whom spoke their native languages in the scenes. The dialogue was overdubbed with English-speaking actors later. Yes, it gives the movie a distracting and cheap feeling, but it somehow grows on you over the course of the movie, especially considering just how marvelous Leone’s style is.

He introduces the three main characters in an extended prologue. The first twenty minutes doesn’t even have any dialogue. Tucco is first, seen hurling himself out a window, turkey leg in hand, mouthful of meat after shooting several would-be assailants dead. Angel Eyes visits a man in his home. His face and his wife’s expression tell us this will not end well. Sure enough, Angel Eyes has shot the man and one of his sons dead before leaving. He kills in cold blood, without remorse, even wearing a sly grin while he does it. Blondie is the anti-hero. He wears the white hat and the title calls him “Good”, but he’s part of a partnership racket with Tucco. He collects reward money for capturing and turning him in, then shoots the rope of the noose just as the townspeople are about to hang him. Later he decides to end their partnership by leaving Tucco bound and without a horse in the middle of the desert. Apart from a comment about the ransom never increasing on Tucco’s head, he has no real motivation for doing this or leaving him in such manner. Except that Blondie is not entirely good. He’s taciturn and has a great poker face that conceals how clever he is. Though there are key moments that reveal his heart and humanity, he has very little regard for Tucco, who is something like a nuisance of a pet dog.

There is a minor plot to speak of. All three men are after a large stash of gold buried in a cemetery. Tucco knows the cemetery and Blondie knows the name on the grave. Financial opportunism drives these characters. This is a movie that de-mythologizes the West. There’s no honorable hero in a quest for justice. Heck, the characters don’t even really change or learn anything. It’s just an adventure with a MacGuffin that Blondie and Tucco are trying to survive through the end. Leone, a foreigner, was just the man to make a western divorced from the typical Hollywood tropes. The only recognizable standard is the presence of the military, the Civil War serving as the backdrop to the action and often hindering their progress.

Leone didn’t do much research apparently. Or if he did, he ignored what he learned because in Texas there were no significant battles or encounters between the two sides in the Civil War. But that doesn’t matter. The war provides a sense of time and place and, more importantly, makes it clear that the three main characters have no true allegiances. They are willing to ally themselves to whatever side is most convenient in the moment.

Any talk of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that fails to mention Ennio Morricone’s iconic and much repeated and oft imitated score probably isn’t worth reading. That memorable theme, so often whistled as a means of calling to mind a showdown or impending gunfight, plays out again and again through various iterations. Morricone uses whistles, brass instruments, woodwinds, and what sounds like screeching voices until it has become so engrained and embedded in the mind that by the midway point is clearly signals sinister deeds or mishaps. But even taking away that one musical theme, the movie is still left with wonderful themes that underscore the danger and bad luck that confront Blondie and Tucco. It’s not music in the style of Elmer Bernstein’s triumphant Magnificent Seven score or countless other western scores, both memorable and forgettable. It’s a new take on the sounds that convey the idea of lawlessness and the open west.

It’s a movie of great style and even grander ambition. Leone’s camera alternates between long shots that take in either wide landscape or characters swallowed up by their surroundings and tight close-ups on his characters. Those close-ups tell little stories of their own. Leone chose actors with interesting faces. Every background face, every bit part, every secondary character has a map of the world on his face. There is so much texture to be found in such simplicities that you just don’t get from the homogeneity of Hollywood faces. Leone often favors holding shots for extended periods of time. He creates small operatic moments by drawing out time through editing. The final gunfight showdown between the three main characters is shot first from great distance showing the men slowly moving to their respective positions in the landscape. Leone then progressively cuts close and close, faster and faster, showing their faces, their hands, their eyes until a brief explosion of violence. The violence is another stylistic hallmark of Leone’s. Unlike the incredible violence of Peckinpah’s westerns (contemporaneous with Leone), Leone’s violence is fast, explosive, and over before you know what happened. He retains that element of realism in a film otherwise doing so much to defy reality that it winds up adhering to a certain kind of movie magic.

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