Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Film Appreciation - Those with Loaded Guns

Cody Hamman rounds out the Sergio Leone / Clint Eastwood trilogy with 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Film Appreciation.

The scope of director Sergio Leone's "man with no name" trilogy broadened with each film. For a Few Dollars More was bigger and longer than Fistful of Dollars, and the trilogy capper The Good, the Bad and the Ugly goes full-blown epic with a running time of 162 minutes. Fistful star Clint Eastwood had picked up a co-lead in Lee Van Cleef with the first sequel, and in this one they're joined by another co-lead, Eli Wallach. Together they are the three title characters, and throughout the opening stretch the film will freeze on each one, with text informing us which man has been given which description.

There is some debate as to whether or not Eastwood's Manco in For a Few Dollas More is the same character as Joe in Fistful of Dollars, and there's even more debate over whether or not his character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, who is nicknamed "Blondie", is the same guy. Joe had definitely been a good guy - sure, he killed a lot of people, but he was doing so with noble intentions. In this film, "good" is a relative term that Blondie earns by being, maybe, a little less slimy than his co-leads. He's still a thief who has aligned himself with a murdering rapist who likes underage girls. That would be Wallach's character Tuco, the ugly.

Tuco has a bounty on his head, and he and Blondie have this deal worked out where Blondie "captures" him, turns him over to the authorities, and collects the bounty. When Tuco is subsequently sentenced to hang for his crimes, Blondie is nearby to shoot the rope in half before it snaps his buddy's neck. Then they ride off together, on to a different area where they can pull the same trick all over again.

Whether or not Eastwood is the same character is up to you to deduce, but Van Cleef is definitely not playing the same person he was in For a Few Dollars More. Here he's a man named Sentenza and called "Angel Eyes". A gun-for-hire, Angel Eyes will kill anyone for anyone, as long as he gets some money out of the deal.

When things go south between Blondie and Tuco, Tuco attempts to kill his former partner. But when they both receive information on the location of a cash box containing $200,000 in Confederate gold coins - Tuco knows which cemetery the box has been hidden in, Blondie knows the name on the grave plot - they decide to continue working together. Angel Eyes happens to be searching for this cash box himself, so the three end up helping each other, in one way or another, on the trek to the cemetery. But do these three really sound like people who are going to be willing to split that gold once it has been retrieved from the ground?

This sounds pretty simple when described in broad strokes, but things are complicated by double cross after double cross, and the fact that the path to the gold takes the trio right through the midst of the American Civil War - at one point, Angel Eyes is even disguised as a Union soldier, and at another they have to try to disrupt a battle so it won't interfere with their plans.

The Civil War setting brings up the fact that if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly truly is connected to Fistful of Dollars and/or For a Few Dollars More, it could only be a prequel. The Civil War ended in 1865, while the other films appeared to be set in the 1870s... And Blondie does acquire a poncho by the end.

There's plenty of story to tell here, but Leone really reached the 162 minute mark by taking his time letting things play out. It might take the better part of 3 minutes for a group of men to silently assemble and walk through a town, going to a door with purpose. That can be followed by 4 minutes of a man riding into a different town, entering a location, and silently sitting down to share a meal with a man who hasn't invited him to. Such things are contained within this film's first 10 minutes, and there's more like that to follow. This exact same story could have been told in a much shorter amount of time, but Leone was quite content to let scenes breathe. And they got plenty of oxygen.

The pacing makes me restless at times, and I would enjoy the film much more than I already do if it were substantially shorter. It sounds like Eastwood would have advocated for a shorter running time as well, as apparently he would go on to describe the film as being "bloated". Even so, the characters and the performances keep me interested. Tuco is an appalling scumbag, but Wallach is captivating in the role. Similar to the way that For a Few Dollars More feels like Van Cleef told over from Eastwood, it's Wallach who owns The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, stealing the film out from under Eastwood and Van Cleef both. It's amazing how he can be so repellent and yet you can't take your eyes off of him.

Leone's trilogy is widely considered to be made up of three of the best westerns ever made, and that's an assessment I would agree with, even though for me it never again reached the heights achieved by Fistful of Dollars. While many lean toward the epic finale as the best film in the series, I prefer the smaller and simpler beginning, when Eastwood's "magnificent stranger" was carrying the film on his own shoulders. The story, pace, and style of Fistful is the most appealing to me. But that's not to take anything away from its sequels - they are all great films that I return to every few years or so.

No comments:

Post a Comment