The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Original art for the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 January

 

 

Lee Van Cleef born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr was born, in New Jersey, USA.

Best known for his portrayal of baddies, Van Cleef served on submarine chasers in the Second World War before becoming a time and motion man after the war ended.

Not looking enough like a traditional penpusher to satisfy his colleagues, Lee was persuaded by them, and his friends, to give the stage and film world the benefit of his hawk nose and eyes, each of which was a different colour, thanks to the heterochromia iridium mutation.

Van Cleef’s career hit a high note early on when he was cast in 1952’s High Noon (he was taught to ride horses by Ron Howard’s father, Rance), after which he would regularly play black hats in a variety of film and TV offerings, generally of decreasing quality.

Whether this was down to poor choices, or Cleef’s serious drinking is moot, but by the time Sergio Leone came looking for him (Lee Marvin having turned Leone down) for A Few Dollars More, Van Cleef had become a carpenter/decorator and occasional artist; his face wasn’t even listed in the actors’ directories.

Leone cast him again in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Van Cleef cashed in with a run of back-to-back productions that paid him handsomely. Once again the quality began to slide, though Van Cleef could always be relied on to deliver a “fresh from hell” performance, the distinctive eyes burning with intelligence and passion.

His last great role came in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, in 1981, as the appropriately named Hauk (hawk, geddit?), with Kurt Russell deliberately aping Clint Eastwood as the badass Snake Plissken in what is essentially a futuristic western.

After which another slide. He died in 1989, aged only 64. Who knows what great role might have come along in another few years, and then again a few years after that.

 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, dir: Sergio Leone)

As I write this, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the number 5 film on the IMDb’s top 250 list. Not bad for a western, hardly the hippest of genres right now.

It’s one of Sergio Leone’s best remembered spaghetti westerns, thanks in no small part to its title, and the fact that it refers to its three leads – the good being Clint Eastwood, the bad being Lee Van Cleef, the ugly being Eli Wallach.

Actually, the good/bad relative righteousness of those first two is partly what the film is about (but Wallach, we can all agree, is the Ugly). Told in great big operatic slabs, with faces treated in close-up as if they were something out of Monument Valley, it’s all about three men hunting for a vast amount of Civil War gold against the backdrop of a war that’s sputtering out. Each of the three needs the other two to stay alive to find the gold – each one has a fragment of the location – but once all three are in the cemetery where the gold is hidden, the power dynamic shifts, and we are treated to one of the most gloriously drawn out Mexican stand-offs in cinema history, a sequence of narrowed eyes, sweat, stubble and one of Ennio Morricone’s most recognisable soundtracks.

This remarkable score, which spent a year on the Billboard charts, comprises standard western fare (orchestra, choir), plus Morricone’s usual unusual instrumentation (ocarina, twangy guitar, jew’s harp) along with yodelling, shouting, whistling and gunshots. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the last of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. As far as Leone was concerned this was the last western he was ever going to make (he was strongarmed into Once Upon a Time in the West). So he’s going full tilt, especially towards the end, telling a story in pictures and sounds, using few words (the incessant babbling of Eli Wallach’s Tuco delivers very little information).

And the message? Greed, guns, they don’t mix.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the greatest westerns ever made
  • One of Ennio Morricone’s greatest soundtracks
  • Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful deep focus cinematography
  • The typical Leone long, dialogue-free opening sequence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda is the baddie in Once Upon A Time In The West

 

 

 

By 1967, after countless Italian sword and sandal epics and three astonishingly successful spaghetti  Westerns (A Fistful Of Dollars, A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), director Sergio Leone was tired of men in period costume and was eager to try his hand at something more contemporary.

It wasn’t to be. Paramount studios prevailed upon Leone to make one more western for them. In return they promised to fund his four-hour, four-decade overview of organised crime, Once Upon a Time in America. Leone’s fourth Western could easily have turned out to be a 90-minute contractual obligation, with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and whoever was available squinting hard into the sun and doing little else. Instead he delivered C’Era Una Volta Il West (its Italian title), a Western that went beyond anything Paramount had any right to expect. Put simply, he gave them one of the best films ever made.

To do it, Leone sat down with two other pillars of Italian cinema – Bernardo Bertolucci (yet to make Last Tango In Paris) and Dario Argento (the one-man Italian horror industry) and came up with a simple plot about how the railroad brought about the end of the Old West. They then spent months obsessively watching and dissecting scores of classic American Westerns – films like The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, Shane and High Noon. It’s a working method that is now familiar but was then revolutionary. The result is not a film about the West, but a film about films about the West.

Not for nothing has Once Upon a Time in the West been dubbed “the world’s first postmodern movie”. But the Italian trio weren’t trying to get themselves into cultural studies courses of the future; they were trying to make the most audacious Western ever.

This audacity manifests itself in every fibre of the movie’s being, starting with the movie’s intensely slow pace, exemplified by the opening credit sequence which introduces us to what must surely be the movie’s main characters, only for those main characters to be mercilessly, shockingly, killed off almost immediately. We are then treated to the sight of the noblest American actor of them all, Henry Fonda, playing a deeply unpleasant baddie. Equally revisionist is the placing of a woman (Claudia Cardinale) at the centre of the story.

The rest is Leone as obsessive craftsman.  No Western ever looked better –Tonino Delli Colli used a deep-focus technique and exquisite Technicolor to make the most of locations like Monument Valley, John Ford’s Arizona stomping ground of decades before (a devil to colour-match when shooting shifted to Almeria, Spain). Nor are many Westerns lucky enough to have a score by Ennio Morricone – the man who had reinvented the sound of the Western in A Fistful Of Dollars. And on top of all that there’s a typical Italian obsession with clothes – the boots, coats, shirts and hats worn in this film are as carefully thought through as any other aspect of the production.

What it all adds up to is the most ornery, most stylish Western ever made.

When Leone delivered his elegy to the last days of the West, the studio did what studios often do when presented with a masterpiece – they freaked out. After getting a mixed reception at preview screenings and on a limited first run, the film eventually went on wide release in the USA with 30 minutes cut from its 165 minutes length (40 minutes if you take the 175-minute Italian version as your starting point).  It totally bombed.

Nowadays on DVD and theatrically you’re most likely to see a 159 minute version of the film, not perhaps exactly as the master film-maker intended. But it’s near enough in nearly all respects to appreciate the film’s true majesty.

© Steve Morrissey 2003

 

Once Upon a Time in the West – at Amazon