Monday, December 31, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966)

Is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" really a sequel to "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More?" After having experienced the entire "Man with No Name" trilogy in short order, I think "The Good" is more a continuation of an ethos and a filmmaking style than a literal expansion of the same character's travels.

As I noted in last week's classic film column, "A Few Dollars" seems to be a pretty straightforward extension of the "Joe" character from "Fistful," now referring to himself as "Manco." (The Man with No Name actually has a name in every movie, it just changes from one to the other.) He still bore the wounds of his severe beating in the first film, most notably a leather brace on his shooting hand after having it crushed.

In the last film Blondie -- the moniker Clint Eastwood bears in "The Good," despite having dark brown hair -- has no issues with his right hand. It's also interesting that he favors a long duster coat instead of the Mexican blanket poncho he had worn so memorably in the first two films. (The rest of his get-up -- sheepskin vest, jeans, hat, gun belt -- remain pretty consistent throughout.) He does eventually don one for the final showdown, the three-way "Mexican standoff" that remains one of the most iconic film scenes of all time.

My other hesitation in calling the final pairing of Eastwood and Italian director Sergio Leone a literal sequel is the timeline. The first two films appeared to take place in the hallowed Old West days of the 1870s to the 1890s. But "The Good" is quite consciously set during the Civil War, which would seem to be going backward in time.

The weaponry certainly doesn't seem to fit. Blondie and his fellow gunslingers all use revolvers with fully jacketed metallic cartridges -- not the ball-and-cap varieties employed during the War, which were much more difficult to reload. I'm not sure cartridge revolvers were even available until after the war. I own a pair of .36 caliber Navy Colts handed down from a relative who was in the war, and I can tell you they're a completely different animal.

The mythology of "The Good" is a bit uncertain, though, so one could read it as Blondie & Co. picked up and dropped into the middle of the nation's bloodiest conflict. Perhaps it was Leone's way of retorting to those who criticized his Spaghetti Westerns for being too violent -- placed against the backdrop of wholesale slaughter, the few dead men who litter his films seem like a meager trickle.

"I've never seen so many men wasted so badly," Blondie comments upon witnessing a battle between North and South over a meaningless bridge.

The first two films featured effective villains, but "The Good" really ratcheted things up with the presence of Angel Eyes, a remorseless assassin played by Lee Van Cleef, and Tuco "The Rat" Ramirez, a slithery scoundrel that Eli Wallach made into one of his finest roles. Van Cleef, of course, played Eastwood's erstwhile partner in the last movie, but Leone was known to re-use favored actors again and again.

I would make a bold argument that Tuco is actually the hero, or at least the protagonist, of "The Good." He's the only one gifted with any kind of backstory or emotional motivation, and if you count up screen time and lines of dialogue, Wallach probably comes out ahead of Eastwood.

Tuco is a thief and a liar, more than happy to double-cross or sacrifice his partners in crime, but operating by an internal -- though deeply hidden -- sense of honor. He and Blondie start out the movie employing a neat scam: Blondie rides into town with Tuco as his prisoner, collects the reward money, then saves his life by shooting out the hangman's noose when the local lawmen go to execute him.

But then Blondie decides the partnership has gone its course and leaves Tuco in the desert, riding off with both halves of the loot. Tuco is incensed -- not so much that a double-cross has occurred, but that Blondie beat him to the punch. He spends much of the rest of the movie looking for his revenge, even as he pretends to be friendly again.

I found myself wondering why Blondie and Tuco know who Angel Eyes is, despite the fact that their paths never cross until midway through the movie. Purely by reputation, perhaps.

All three have gotten a line on $200,000 in stolen gold buried in a cemetery, and through a chain of happenstance Tuco knows only the name of the place and Blondie only knows the name on the grave. They've temporarily re-formed their partnership to find the loot, but are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a camp where Angel Eyes is hiding out as a sergeant. He tortures prisoners for their valuables and any information about the buried gold.

This brings us to another one of the film's most iconic scenes, where captured Confederates are made to play a song to cover up the sounds of their comrades getting beaten to a pulp. It's one of several instances where composer Ennio Morricone's score not only comments on the action but actually drives it.

Morricone's abilities had reached their height by the last of the "Man with No Name" trilogy, and few serious observers of movie music fail to count the score of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" as one of the greatest ever composed. Most remember the hyena-ish caterwaul theme repeated with both voices and instruments -- quite possibly the most effective use of two musical notes this side of John William's score for "Jaws."

But I would argue that Morricone's other themes from this film are just as terrific. There's that sad torture song, whose melody is used several more times during the more melancholy points of the story. And the martial march, punctuated by a harsh steel guitar, is the driving force of many scenes. My favorite is when Tuco and Blondie team up again to take on Angel Eyes' gang. Tuco looks over to his left, sees Blondie there to back him up, and it's game on. This same theme, slowed down and layered with a screeching trumpet solo on top, also plays during the final standoff.

At the end of my column on "Fistful," I stated that I like the idea of the "Man with No Name" more when he's a me-first mercenary, rather than a do-gooder wearing the proverbial black hat. I think that's also why I admire "The Good" the most, because despite the title affixed to Blondie he's a pretty heartless character in his final go-round.

Blondie was quite content to abandon Tuco to a suffering death in the desert and make off with all their ill-gotten gains. And it's worth pointing out that while "Manco" was a quasi-agent of the law in the second film, here Blondie is an out-and-out bandit twisting the Western code of justice for his own profit.

The reason the finale of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is so effective is because we -- and Tuco -- really believe Blondie is capable of leaving him hanging for his life, literally.

On a final note, the version I watched as part of the "Man with No Name" trilogy on Blu-ray is the restored film that's just a hair under three hours long. I have to say the new additions add nothing to the movie -- they're essentially connective scenes that show how, for example, Tuco finds his three henchmen and where Angel Eyes' gang comes into the story. One useless bit shows Tuco, having just rescued Blondie from a horrible death in the desert, stopping to get directions to his brother's monastery.

These new scenes don't advance the plot or add anything to the characterizations, and are just dead weight on a great film.

4 stars out of four

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