Beeg, Blue-Eyed Fun
From the beginning, in the 1960s, Sergio Leone's justly famous "spaghetti Westerns" had about them both a whiff of excitement and an air of folly. Here was an extroverted Italian working in Spain, reinventing American history and American movie mythology with an abandon that bordered on craziness. Leone's style was grandiose, his budgets were tiny, and the moral ambiguity of his unscrupulous, ultra-violent characters was unsettling. For better or worse, his disturbed visions of the frontier -- the bloody views of a bold outsider -- were completely new. The swaggering, upright Western hero of old, John Wayne, had suddenly been sent off to the bunkhouse for a long nap, replaced by a lean, coldhearted executioner with a brown cheroot clamped in his teeth: the Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood. "Beeg blue eyes," Leone demanded, early on. "Give me close-ups of Clint's beeg blue eyes."
Viewed almost forty years later, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly will look to some a bit ridiculous. The hyper-masculine posing of Eastwood and his hawk-like co-star, Lee Van Cleef, as they casually mow down armies of Spanish extras has been so often imitated since 1967 that it now seems cartoonish, and Eastwood has become such a fixture in our collective imagination ("Go ahead -- make my day!" ) that to behold him again as a hungry young actor whose gifts were not yet polished comes as a minor shock. But for those eager for a reunion with old icons, the brand-new, beautifully restored, 162-minute director's cut of Ugly on view this week at the Starz FilmCenter retains all of Leone's original daring, while the film's oft-ignored comic elements -- not the least of which is some hideously asynchronous dubbing from Italian -- seem even more pronounced. And let's not forget that insistent Ennio Morricone theme music: the same whining refrain, over and over, whistled, sung, hummed and plucked on strings until it drives you nuts.
In the end, the sight of poor, frantic Eli Wallach (the "Ugly" character of the title) perched atop a gravestone with his hands bound behind him and a noose around his neck gives us an even bigger chuckle now than it did the year that Khe Sanh was under siege. Leone may have been more pop stylist than deep thinker, but he was no stranger to the theater of the absurd.
The two earlier movies in the "Man With No Name" series, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), both have their attractions, but Ugly is still the definitive one. The plot, cooked up by four Italian screenwriters who'd never seen sagebrush or drank corn liquor, follows the misdeeds of three soulless desperadoes pursuing a hidden box of Confederate gold, slaughtering every impediment along the way -- a family of ranchers, gangs of fellow thieves, and each other. In Leone's treacherous version of the Old West, black desert flies hover around every nasty, sun-scorched face, and nothing like camaraderie or moral purpose exists. The survivor of the trio's bloody confrontation will be the man who can kill with the greatest detachment, the one who has so submerged his human feelings in the skills of violence that they no longer exist.
Two years later, another master of the Western bloodbath, Sam Peckinpah, ran the body count even higher in The Wild Bunch, but no one killed with more cackling, cold-blooded zest than the Man With No Name, Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and Tuco (Wallach).
In retrospect, it's easy to see how the Italian view of things got inside Eastwood. Years after paying his dues in the Leone movies (for A Fistful of Dollars, he earned something less than a fistful -- just $15,000) and becoming a major Hollywood star, he played similarly cold-blooded anti-heroes in a series of Don Siegel Westerns and in the Dirty Harry films. When Eastwood came to direct his own Westerns, underrated gems like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, it was as though the Man With No Name had never hung up his serape and six-shooter. Meanwhile, Eastwood's best film as a director, the Oscar-winning1992 Unforgiven, can be seen as a latter-day reconsideration of the Leone ethic and, inevitably, as an elegy for the myths of the Western itself. Craggy and thoughtful thirty years after shooting it out with Angel Eyes in a cemetery, Eastwood portrays a weary old gunfighter, once a mad killer, who comes out of retirement to do one more job and, in the process, faces up to the corruption and hypocrisy of the Old West. John Wayne would probably have hated Unforgiven (moral ambiguity was never the Duke's long suit), but we can't escape the notion that, for Eastwood, it represented a coming to terms with the violent extremities in his earlier work.
Situated somewhere between cult relic and classic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains great fun steeped in high style, and any moviegoer who cherishes the genre -- the whole history, from Tom Mix to John Ford to Kevin Costner -- will take joy in another look at Leone's craziest, most sensual act of self-indulgence.
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