Two Sergio Leone classics

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 8/14/17 (Mon)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West, 8/19/17 (Sat)

These films, said to be the pinnacle of the Italian “spaghetti Westerns” (known oddly in Japan as “macaroni Westerns”), had been strongly recommended by a European friend. I was skeptical. The Western is probably the most distinctive film genre of the American cinema given the phenomenon at its core: the vastness of the landscapes, the lure of uncultivated and unknown territories, the opportunity to create new societies from nothing but soil and daring – there is nothing remotely comparable in the European experience. The bulk of settlers were not running from persecution or war but, piqued by curiosity or ambition or boredom, toward the infinite possibilities of a new life that they themselves would have to build. The courage of those willing to plunge into the void on the basis of sheer hope is a situation that lends itself to broad archetypal characters, and the best of the Westerns reflect this sense of a land still coming together, fueled by an optimism built into the American psyche that anything is possible. I was curious how a non-American would approach this.

The results were fascinating. The films, both by the Italian director Sergio Leone, reminded me of 19th-century Kabuki writer Kawatake Mokuami, whose tales of dried-up samurai and low-life villains punctured the heroics of classic Kabuki drama.  

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly centers on three men out in the Wild West during the Civil War era looking for a hidden fortune. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) has received murder contracts from two sides to find who has stolen a huge amount of cash. He simply kills both parties (collecting rewards from each) and uses the info to seek the riches for himself. Meanwhile, the bandit Tuco (a wild Eli Wallach) is in the process of torturing his former savior, the mysterious cool stranger he knows only as “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), when a runaway stagecoach appears. In it is a dying man – the very one who has hidden the money. He reveals that the cash is buried in a certain graveyard. As it develops, Tuco learns the name of the graveyard, while Blondie gets the name of the grave – making each dependent on the other to find the stash. And the race is on.

The film takes its time to unroll but does so in great style, moving with ease from sweeping vistas to uncomfortable close-ups with an impressive attention to detail throughout. In a memorable opening, the camera is focused on a faraway scenic landscape when all of a sudden a head pops up in startling close-up – no fade in, no setup, just an abrupt intrusion of a worn would-be assassin. The film never rests. There are some questionable plot developments, like that runaway coach that so conveniently appears the moment that Tuco is about to kill his prey, or the fact that Angel Eyes has somehow become a Union officer at the very POW camp where the other two are imprisoned. But they’re carried out so baldly and boldly that resistance is futile. Standout sequences include the moving exchange between a shaken Tuco and his brother, a priest; the brutal torture sequence at the POW camp coordinated with music by the army orchestra plays designed to drown out the screams; and the sweeping battle between Union and Confederate soldiers over a meaningless bridge (Union captain: “Whoever has the most liquor to get the soldiers drunk and send them to be slaughtered – he’s the winner”). Best of all was the final showdown among the three characters vying for the treasure, a masterpiece on its own where none of the men can shoot another without leaving himself exposed to the third. Leone skillfully builds the tension (helped immensely by Ennio Morricone’s taut music) with ever closer and tighter shots on the gunmen, at one point showing only their eyes, to the satisfying climax. The film does not feel its nearly three-hour running time.

Eastwood’s supremely unflappable Blondie has no evident motive other than greed, no origin, not even a real name – a more accurate title would be The Relatively Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He is no paragon of virtue: when he no longer has use for Tuco after their initial partnership, for instance, he simply dumps him in the burning heat far from water or civilization to live or die. He also proves himself ruthless in dealing with anyone he perceives to be a threat. Still, he scrupulously takes only his fair share of any financial gains, and he does have an achingly beautiful moment when he comforts a dying soldier. When (at gunpoint) he is unable to save one man from hanging, he at least apologizes under his breath, showing some semblance of conscience. While Eastwood gets no points for acting, his Blondie is redolent of atmosphere, a fascinating creation. Van Cleef is splendid as well, albeit in a more standard villain role, with the most expressive eyes of the group.

The real creation here, though, is Wallach’s Tuco. Eastwood was supposedly wary of co-starring with others in fear of being upstaged, and it must be said that his fears were realized. Tuco, the Ugly one of the trio, is a Falstaffian creation of untrammeled appetite and emotion, short on brains but overstuffed with gall and gab. Society and human life are mere distractions for him as he moves to attain his goals, which are never savory. Still, his determination to survive at any cost is irresistibly appealing. Begging the ailing Blondie to reveal the name of the grave with the buried fortune:

“I’ll tell you one thing, Blondie. If I knew that my last hour had come, I swear, in my place… in your place I would do the same thing. I would tell about the gold. Yes, yes, I would. I would tell the name on the grave. What good is the money if you’re dead?…If I get my hands on the $200,000, I’ll always honor your memory. I swear.”

We don’t believe a word of this, but his outsized chutzpah makes him impossible to hate. On the other extreme, he uses bluster at the church to cover his shame when learning from his brother that their father died just two days earlier, hoping to the end that Tuco would show up:

“You think you’re better than I am. Where we came from, if one did not want to die in poverty, one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder. You talk about Mother and Father. You forget that when you left to become a priest, I stayed behind. I must have been ten, twelve, I don’t remember which, but I stayed. I tried, but it was no good. Now I’m going to tell you something. You became a priest because you were too much of a coward to do what I do!”

Wallach’s Tuco is a force of nature who runs away with the film. His scenes with the taciturn Blondie in particular are matchless. He elevates the film to another level.

There are plenty of other intriguing characters along the way, nearly all men. The film has been called operatic in scope, a reasonable description given its Italian director and the power of Morricone’s magnificent score. Nevertheless, for all its diversions, the plot never loses sight of the treasure hunt that propels the drama and closes that out expertly. It is a superbly crafted story wonderfully executed. Highly recommended.

Once Upon a Time…, boasting its own good, bad and ugly trio, is more complex in story and theme. A man has been ridiculed for buying a large plot of empty land in the middle of nowhere. Then it becomes clear that as this is the only point within miles with a source of water, the new steam locomotives will have to be routed through here – instantly making the property invaluable. Now the railroad tycoon wants it for himself and hires the thuggish Frank (Henry Fonda, playing against type) to scare the owner away. Frank slays the owner and his entire family instead (“People scare better when they’re dying”) while framing the hapless bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the deed. Unfortunately, just when he thinks he’s cleared all obstacles, he discovers that there is an heir: it transpires that the landowner had married just a few months earlier, and the bride, the former prostitute Jill (a ravishing Claudia Cardinale), shows up fresh off the train from New Orleans to find herself both a widow and the center of a none-too-subtle push to relieve her of her inheritance.

At the same time, an enigmatic stranger (Charles Bronson as the ultra-cool Eastwood character) nicknamed Harmonica for his ever-present instrument shows up looking for Frank. It’s not clear what he’s looking for, but someone seems to be looking for him – he is welcomed to town by three would-be assassins, who he makes quick work of. The deed has again been pinned on Cheyenne, but the stranger comes to realize that the real villain is the murderous Frank. He also learns that the widow needs to build the station by the time the railroad reaches the town in order to retain her claim on the land.

Frank has a falling out with the tycoon, who wants to use money rather than guns as a way to secure the land, and seeks to take the property for himself. Wedded to his Wild West ways, he strong-arms the widow into auctioning her property, hoping to gain it for a pittance. Harmonica outwits him, however, by turning in Cheyenne to the authorities for a large reward that he uses to win the bid himself. (He later helps the bandit escape in what we realize is a setup, reminiscent of a similar ruse between Blondie and Tuco in the earlier film.) Further complications leave a large trail of death, and it is only at the very end that Frank (and we) learn why the stranger has been pursuing him and the significance of the harmonica.

The film has more on its mind than the story at hand. It is a picture of a world in transition, the end of a society being overtaken by modernity (the Italian title is something like “once upon a time there was a West”). Frank’s reliance on brute force is no match for the tycoon’s money in this new world, and the ending scene, where Jill is bringing water to the railway workers as Harmonica and the dying Cheyenne ride off, signals that civilization is quickly taking root, bringing stability and predictability to the once untamed land. Meaning, among other things, the end of Westerns. The most telling exchange was between Frank and Harmonica after the former has failed to dislodge Jill from the land.

Harmonica: “So, you found out you’re not a businessman after all.”

Frank: “Just a man.”

Harmonica: “An ancient race.”

For all its lofty vision, the film is tedious in part. I had the feeling it could be cut by at least half an hour. The extended opening at the train station as the hired killers wait for Harmonica, with sharply observed details like the pesky fly and the dripping water (and subtle sound effects with no music, a brave choice), was an outstanding piece of filmmaking but seemed rather too big for the moment. (It was very similar in tone to the opening of Good/Bad/Ugly.) Similarly, the long scene in the bar after Jill arrives felt self-indulgent. (Though I loved the exchange when Harmonica is wrongly accusing the unsuspecting Cheyenne of stalking him: “Inside the dusters, there were three men.” “So?” “Inside the men, there were three bullets.”) Later, Frank’s rape of Jill – if that’s what it was – came jarringly out of the blue and wasn’t properly set up. Leone seemed willing to let things linger longer than strictly necessary for the sake of individual moments, fine as they were.

Nevertheless, the overall effect was impressive. The key scene from the introduction of the family to its execution was beautifully wrought, including a genuine shock when the murderer executes the small boy, since the circumstances had led us to expect otherwise – and yet another when we see that the killer is Henry Fonda, a former Abe Lincoln. Jill’s approach to the house in the stagecoach as the dead bodies slowly come into view, both to her and us, was perfectly honed. In another superb scene later in the film, Frank has turned from hunter to hunted, realizing that his men have betrayed him for money, a sign of the times.

The film was lifted by excellent performances by Charles Bronson, who, like Eastwood (clearly the model here), was low on acting but high on charisma in the reticent man-with-no-name role; Gabriele Ferzetti as the crippled railway owner; and Jason Robards in the semi-comic role, though he didn’t have nearly as much fun with it as Wallach did in the earlier film. (Loved his compliment to the widow: “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was – for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.”) Henry Fonda was a wonderfully offbeat choice as an assassin, enlivening what in other hands could have been a stereotypical role, and played the part with relish. Claudia Cardinale gave a solid portrayal as the civilizing force in the male-dominated world, in fact the only one of the main characters to remain in the town at the end. Her presence was itself a symbol of the transition from an anything-goes hodgepodge of outsiders to the beginnings of a rule-based society.

I prefer Good/Bad/Ugly for its drive, memorable characters and lucid plot. But Once, for all its sprawl, is probably the greater film in its theme and ambitions. Well worth watching.


UPDATE: Both these films feature in a recent article in the NY Post about a survey of movie-going habits among millennials and those over 50. Apparently only 16% of the former have seen Once Upon a Time in the West, and while the report offers no comparable percentage for that film for the over-50s crowd, it notes that The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is that group’s ninth-most-watched film. The survey sounds pretty bogus to me — The Wizard of Oz doesn’t rank at all, which seems odd — but I’m glad to see Good/Bad/Ugly get its due.


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