I remember when I was 15 or 16, I went to see Lethal Weapon 3 in the theater with a friend of mine who had just turned 17, and thus could get us into an R-rated film. One of the trailers before the movie started off a little dull: it was a Western about some angry-looking women. Then, a shot of a man emerging from shadow, revealing himself to be … Clint Eastwood. A ripple went through the crowd. By the end of the trailer for Unforgiven, the entire theater was abuzz. Clint Eastwood making a Western … yeah!
There are a lot of legendary movies which helped Eastwood develop that reputation. I haven’t seen nearly enough of them to judge which is best, so I will settle for crossing one of them off of the list at Movie Klub this week: Sergio Leone’s 1966 epic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
You know, “epic” doesn’t even seem like the right word. This movie is so epic that there should be another word to indicate its superlative epic-ness. The American West (actually Spain and some parts of Italy, which do a fine imitation) spills all across our field of vision. Leone’s camera turns men into titans. Every gunshot sounds like a cannon blast, and every cannon blast roars like thunder.
Into this setting step the titular three characters: Clint Eastwood as “the good,” Lee van Cleef is “Angel Eyes,” aka “the bad,” and Eli Wallach is Tuco, “the ugly.” In the waning days of the Civil War, they’re on the hunt for a box of stolen Confederate gold. The epic quality comes from the episodic nature of their trip, as Leone doesn’t mind in the least if the film takes a half-hour long detour into a prisoner-of-war camp or a massive battle over a strategically-valued bridge. The movie looks and feels like a fully lived-in world, despite the fact that Leone’s grasp of American geography is weak (listen to the dialogue: The film has no idea of the location of, for example, Santa Fe).
It’s a simplistic story, and these are simplistic characters, but it would be wrong to say that they’re stereotypes. In fact they’re archetypes, physical representations of the concepts Leone wants to have in his film. Wallach is not just physically ugly, he is a representative of the ugly things a man will do, even to people who might otherwise be his friends, in order to survive alone in the world. van Cleef is everything that was bad about the West, wholesale slaughter motivated purely by the search for personal wealth. Most of all, Eastwood demonstrates that there was precious little space between “good” and “bad” in the West.
It’s fairly impressive that, with a run time just two minutes short of three hours, this movie manages to keep its momentum. I didn’t really feel the length until there was about a half-hour left, when I wanted to see the three-way gunfight that we all knew was coming. The main helper with the pacing is Ennio Morricone’s fantastic music; when I suggested after the movie that a certain scene could be cut in half, another Movie Klubber vehemently disagreed. “The music was so good in that scene,” he said, “that I didn’t want it to end.”
The flip side of the great music is the awful dubbing. Like Hong Kong action films from the 1970s through the early 1990s, Leone saved money by filming without sound. (Eastwood and other actors have said Leone would play Morricone’s music at a high volume while shooting, and yell acting instructions at them.) Thus this film, just like most of those Hong Kong pictures, is cursed with atrocious dialogue dubbing. Eastwood and van Cleef almost look real while delivering their lines, and everyone else suffers. The end result is curiously like Conan the Barbarian: it’s at its very best when the lead characters aren’t speaking.
Regarding Eastwood as The Man With No Name: what do you even say? Just as those people watching the Unforgiven trailer understood, he simply is the Western. This is actually kind of a tough role to pull off, because he’s only “the good” in that he’s not as bad as Angel Eyes and less ugly than Tuco. If you’ve seen A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More, you already know that The Man With No Name is not opposed to cashing in on wholesale mayhem, and you have to be damn near angelic in order for him to care if you survive said mayhem. Also as in those earlier movies, I liked the way that Eastwood just radiates cool even when someone has the drop on him and he has no reason to be.
The other two leads are also great. I knew Wallach was going to be awesome because I am a big fan of The Magnificent Seven, in which he makes a stellar villain. My only prior experience with van Cleef was in the laughably bad Chuck Norris film The Octagon, by which point van Cleef had already become an old man, so it was interesting to see him young. He has that most important trait for a movie villain: indifference. He cares about the money, and about his own life, but he is utterly indifferent to all other aspects of life and death. Many movie villains play at indifference, but it’s much harder to actually be indifferent, and that’s what van Cleef pulls off here.
van Cleef gets more and more dangerous, the music builds and builds, and the movie reaches an amazing three-way showdown. That showdown seems to go on forever, each man trading glances with the other two. The three of them have created a situation in which each is certain that the others will kill him if he draws. It’s even more special when you consider what comes afterward; Leone creates a situation in which we are sure that Eastwood must kill the other two men, and then tests our belief of that theory. If “the good” is the only one of these three to walk away alive, is he still good? This is one of very few films which gives us an honest and sincere answer to that question.
Reviewed by Mark Young