Thursday, May 10, 2007

 

For a Few Decades More: The Leone Trilogy Turns 40

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The first film in Sergio Leone's famed No Name trilogy was made in 1964, but amazingly all three parts opened in the U.S. in the same year, 1967, so today Odienator commemorates the 40th anniversary of the films on these shores.



By Odienator
My Mom loved Westerns. It was a trait she inherited from my grandfather. Sadly, that gene wasn't passed down to me, though she tried to get it into my system by visual osmosis. Whenever a Western was on, she'd sit me in front of the TV and make me watch it, no matter what it was. I watched reruns of The Big Valley (no complaints — Stanwyck was on that), Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel and The Rifleman. Since she had a thing for Dennis Weaver, I had to watch Gunsmoke too. Despite all the force-feeding, I grew to enjoy some of the Western movies and shows I watched. High Noon was a favorite, as was Red River despite my dislike of John Wayne.

Back in the '70s and early '80s, the movies that make up The Man With No Name trilogy were heavily rotated on the independent stations in New York City. These were Mom's favorite Westerns, but I couldn't stand them. Watching them gave me a headache. It felt like they were crammed into the screen as sloppily as possible. Everybody's head looked elongated and sometimes you couldn't tell what was going on due to cuts or people being cropped off the screen. People were clearly dubbed. Clint Eastwood, whom I loved as Dirty Harry, just seemed to stare at the screen and shoot people which, truth be told, was the same thing he did in Dirty Harry. I didn't know what the big deal about Leone's trilogy was.

In the late '80s, one of the revival houses ran a screening of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I was invited by my (at the time) fiancee and went solely because I didn't want to be cut off from sex. Of the three films in the trilogy, this was the one I thought most tolerable as a kid, so I was sure watching — it wouldn't be as painful as blue balls. As the film unspooled, I suddenly realized that my problem with the trilogy didn't come from its construction, the story, the acting or Sergio Leone's direction; my problem came from my television. These movies looked like shit on TV, with the pan and scan and the editor's butchering for content and time. I saw an entirely different movie in the theater.


When I volunteered to provide this piece on the 40th anniversary of the release of The Man With No Name Trilogy, I did so with the knowledge that I had no idea how I would feel about the first two films. I hadn't seen them in about 25 years, and only on television. With the knowledge that letterboxing might change my opinion, as the cinematic experience had done, I hoped for the best.

A Fistful of Kurosawa


First up was Leone's take on Kurosawa's Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Kurosawa borrowed heavily from the Western genre, so remaking a movie that was technically an homage to the remake's genre seemed a little too meta. Years later, Walter Hill would do a Prohibition-era remake with Bruce Willis that played like Die Hard meets Scarface, so Leone is to be commended for at least sticking close to the feel of the source material. The plot and situations are so similar that calling Fistful a ripoff would not be hyperbole. A hired gun (or sword) finds himself between two warring gangs, works both sides and pits one against each other. Both sides destroy each other, and hired gun goes "HAAAAAA-HA!" like Nelson on The Simpsons. What makes Yojimbo the better feature is Kurosawa's surefootedness and Toshiro Mifune's familiarity with the character he plays, one he could do in his sleep.

Fistful feels like a trial run for Leone's latter parts of the trilogy. All the trademarks are there, the quick cuts and close-ups of faces, the brutal violence, the oppressive desert heat that almost burns a hole in the screen, the music by Dan Savio (more on him in a second) but something is off. It's as if the song is in the wrong tempo. Eastwood commits himself to his character, but has not yet mastered how to play it. Fistful features some of his lightest, most amusing work in the trilogy (the way he says his first word in the film, "hello," is intentionally hilarious), but Yojimbo's humor is darker and better paced.

Both films have a scene with the protagonist talking to a coffin maker about how many coffins he'll need before a showdown. Both have scenes where the lead character does a nice deed for a couple. Both films have a character who constantly has an arm hidden under his clothing. And both films are quite amoral about the actions of their characters. Watching the two side by side is fascinating, as you can judge which has the better version of the same scene. Even though I liked Fistful more than I did before, I still found it, the shortest of the trilogy, to be the one that dragged the most. Leone's next film with Eastwood would do a better job of pulling all the aspects of the "spaghetti Western" together.

The Eyes Have It


Like his fellow Italian director, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Leone loves eyes. If you played a drinking game where you took a shot every time the director's camera went for an actor's eyes, you'd die of alcohol poisoning. Fistful contains the least amount of shots like this, but you could tell Leone realized how effective these shots were by the amount of times he used them in the latter films of the trilogy. The constant back and forth on the eyes during a showdown is like a Mexican standoff with stares instead of drawn guns. Leone lets these scenes go on too long, purposefully pushing the suspense to the point where the action stops being anticipatory and escalates into a near parody of machismo. How long can you hold out before shooting your load, the director seems to be asking us.

Leone also loves faces, but his compositions are far from glamorous. These men look like they've been outside a long time, and they smell as funky as you imagine. Leone's close-ups fill the screen with the visage of his male characters in various states of decay, after beatings by human beings, tooth decay and the Sun. The rare female character — always gorgeous — is rarely allowed that type of intimacy. At the beginning of Fistful, Eastwood stares down Marisol, the married object of affection of one of the gang leaders. Leone gives us a moderately tight close-up of her face behind a window, then she slams the shutter closed. Conversely, at the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a panoramic view is rudely interrupted by a rugged looking cowboy; so close to us is he that we can see right up his nose.

Clint, the Bounty Hunter



Though Clint's name may be the first one onscreen, and the trilogy is named for his character, Lee Van Cleef owns For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef plays General Mortimer, a bounty hunter whom we see plying his trade at the beginning of the film. Van Cleef has a bad ass gun and a face that, compared to the others that populate this series, is the nicest one Leone thrusts at you. Van Cleef is such a bad ass that he strikes a match on the hump of Klaus Kinski's hare-trigger hunchback. Kinski reacts the way you'd expect. So does Van Cleef.

Van Cleef has more on his mind than just bounty hunting; he's after bandit El Indio for personal reasons of revenge. Said vengeance has something to do with a watch that plays an eerie chime melody whenever El Indio opens it. When the watch chime stops playing, El Indio starts shooting. Think of the watch as El Indio's Ezekiel 25:17.

Meanwhile, that guy with no name shows up in town looking to ply his bounty hunting trade. He forms an alliance with Mortimer to split the money for El Indio's gang after a pissing contest of such absurdity that it reminded me of Keith David and Roddy Piper's fight in They Live. The duel consists of both characters shooting each other's hats repeatedly. Leone loves scenes where his marksmen are so good with guns that their bullets can clip a man's cigar or remove his hat without causing his head to explode in the process. This is a trick that never gets tired, but I wouldn't want to try this William Tell shit at home.

Clint joins El Indio's gang at Mortimer's infiltration request and attempts to double cross Mortimer several times, but Mortimer's too smart for him, and a great source of amusement is waiting for Van Cleef to spoil Clint's fun.

For a Few Dollars More ups the violence quotient — women and children are not spared in this one — and features fleeting glimpses of nudity. It also pulls together what makes a Leone Western work. The editing, music and story are top notch, and Leone has finally found a way for his operatic notions to co-exist with quieter moments in the story. They aren't called horse operas for nothing. Van Cleef is more memorable than any character in Fistful, and the type of role he played in this film is in stark contrast to how Leone would use him next.

Who the Hell is Dan Savio?

The best thing about the Man With No Name trilogy is the music by...Dan Savio? During the credits for A Fistful of Dollars, as Ennio Morricone's memorable whistling score plays, a screen credit says "Score by Dan Savio." Who the hell is that? While watching the trailer for For a Few Dollars More, the announcer calls the first film "For a Fistful of Dollars" and says the second one is "directed by Sergio Leone, better known as Bob Robertson." He is?! I can only assume that the names were changed because they sound too foreign, though Dan Savio still sounds like some Italian guy to me. Perhaps it's easier to say than Ennio Morricone.

Morricone's spaghetti Western scores rank as some of the most memorable in film history. Full of strange instruments, whips, gunfire and voices grunting out unintelligible lyrics, Morricone's scores burst out of the speakers with an originality that's impossible to ignore. They also make for great road trip music, especially when you're driving down dark highways at night.

The Trilogy Ends with a Triad


The Italian name for the epic that closes out the Man With No Name Trilogy is il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo. Clint plays the Good, whom we meet last. Eli Wallach plays The Ugly, whom we meet first. And in a shocking departure from his good guy role in Few Dollars, Lee Van Cleef plays The Bad, whom we hope we'd never meet. Van Cleef coldly puts a pillow over a guy's head and shoots him multiple times. (Walter Hill would rob this too — see The Driver.) Van Cleef beats a woman so brutally that I was surprised she had the strength to say "Enough!" to stop the violence. People call his character Angel Eyes, but there's nothing angelic about them. Any glimmer of goodness in his close-ups from the last film have been replaced with a stone malevolence.

While I think For A Few Dollars More has a tighter screenplay, this is the best film in the series thanks to the director and the performance by Eli Wallach. Clint's character says very little, but Wallach's Tuco won't shut up. Some of Wallach's dialogue is hilarious and profane in ways I didn't think you could get away with in 1967. Wallach runs off with the picture, even though his character is at times quite reprehensible. Wallach also gives us a shot of his bare ass, something they graciously cut out of the TV print.

Wallach and Clint have a racket going where they have Wallach imprisoned so the reward money can be collected. When Wallach's about to be hanged, Clint shoots the noose (and the hats off several people) and Wallach rides away scot free. Wallach and Clint share the money until Clint doublecrosses him in the first of a series of doublecrosses.

Clint, Van Cleef and Wallach have to get together not just because the title puts them there; they all have a piece of the "treasure map" that will lead them to $200,000. Wallach knows the name of the cemetery where it's buried (something he shares with Van Cleef) and Eastwood heard the name of the person whose grave contains it, a fact gleaned from a dying soldier named Bill Carlson. This is all quite melodramatic well before the Civil War shows up. Clint dons a Confederate uniform — he'd later don the opposite for Don Siegel's The Beguiled — and Van Cleef impersonates a violent Union army general. It's a diversion that technically isn't really necessary but only adds to the epic nature of the film.


Leone is on all cylinders here. His direction adds some great visual humor with ghoulish flourishes, gives us the ne plus ultra of Mexican eye showdowns, and allows Wallach to spiral out of control without overacting. The screenplay is frequently hilarious and compelling, though it missteps by dropping the Van Cleef character for far too long. Morricone, listed as himself here, contributes the best theme of the trilogy (wah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhh! Wah-wah-wah!). Where was Wallach's Oscar nomination? People have won for far less than the performance he gives here.

From M to R, and Other Last Minute Thoughts


The cinematography and the sound mix deserve mention here. The cin-tog really gives off how hot it must have been out there on the desert. The sound mix is fascinating for the sound the bullets make when they are fired. A lot of bullets get fired, and each one of them is loud as hell.

Speaking of violence, the MPAA changed the original rating of M (which was PG's first incarnation) to R presumably for the violence. While the films are quite violent, I'm not sure if the R's are justified — at worst, they're soft R's. This is reminiscent of the MPAA's decision to bump The Wild Bunch from its original R to an NC-17.

Clint's character is referred to in ads (and the box which bears the name of the trilogy) as "The Man With No Name." This isn't technically true. He gives his name in the second film, and in the third, he answers when Wallach's Tuco calls him Deborah Harry, I mean Blondie.

Clint also utters more dialogue than I remembered. He's downright talkative in Fistful.

In all three of these movies, Leone has a scene where guns are fired and you see and/or hear a cat go "MEYOWWWWW" and run away. It seemed like a throwaway comic effect, but it's used in all three films. What are cats doing in the desert anyway?

After my screenings, I concluded that these films still hold up as exercises of style, even in today's Deadwood age. More importantly, I was reminded that the venue in which a movie is watched can alter the way one feels about a movie. Some things just need to be seen in a theater or in their original aspect ratio.



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Comments:
Well said, Odie. :)

I've long been a fan of the "Man With No Name" trilogy. I vividly remember the night I finally decided to take Fistfull of Dollars home from the video store and (no pun intended) "give it a shot." At the time all I knew about it was that it inspired a scene out of Back to the Future III.

Well, I so thoroughly enjoyed it that I immediately went back and picked up the other two. Afterwards, I was more or less of the opinion that the third movie was the best of the bunch, but now (after having seen the 180-minute extended cut) I am absolutely CERTAIN of it. As far as I'm concerned The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is Leone's masterpiece. I actually prefer it to Once Upon a Time in the West.

Generally speaking, I am (like you) not particularly fond of Westerns, but some of them are just so damned good (High Noon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, Unforgiven) that one simply must like them... that is, if one intends to like good films. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not only one of my favorite Westerns, it's one of my favorite movies. Period. I never tire of watching it.
 
Damian, I'm with you on the Westerns you cite. Unforgiven is an excellent film, heavily influenced by Boetticher's brilliant Seven Men From Now (if you haven't seen this, go rent it RIGHT NOW), and one of the most haunting Westerns ever made.

When Westerns are good, they are very good. Some of the other Westerns I've enjoyed include The Naked Spur, Rio Bravo, The Wild Bunch and Forty Guns. I even thought Costner's Open Range was underrated. But I never seek Westerns out.

Once Upon A Time In The West's best trick was turning Henry Fonda into a ruthless killer. That's the kind of stunt casting that works! (Are you listening, Kenneth Branagh?)
 
I rewatched all three a couple of years ago, letterboxed the way God intended, and it's true that each one is better than the one that preceded it and Wallach was robbed. I'm glad you also praise Cleef in For a Few Dollars More. I actually do like Westerns, at least good ones anyways. My favorites are The Wild Bunch, High Noon, Red River and The Searchers.
 
I did a paper on Leone, Spaghetti Westerns, and the impact on Italian Film in college 15 years ago. Can't remember what I wrote about them now.

But, yeah, they are great films. Especially in widescreen. I think I wrote it based on just standard VHS screenings, before letterboxed copies were widely available.

As for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I always thought it suffered since Charles Bronson wasn't up to Clint Eastwood (who the role was written for). I missed Eastwood too much. I've been meaning to rewatch it though.
 
I grew up with these movies and love them all. I even liked them when they were shown on TV in bad, washed out 16mm prints. It made the locations and closeups look even more hellish. Few directors did closeups as well and I heard that Leone's method required massive amounts of makeup. I think each movie gets better than the last. Eastwood and Van Cleef have never been better. Eli Wallach is my nominee for performance of the 20th century. Is there any culture anywhere or at anytime on the planet that wouldn't instantly relate to Tuco? Homer's audience would have no trouble recognizing the character. And he blends in with the background so perfectly. The scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly where Wallach is consumed with greed and runs around and around the grave markers is filmmaking at it's greatest; a complete fusion of music, sound, acting, editing, and camerawork. Everytime I see it, I hope that the sequence is as long as I remember it, and everytime it is, thank heavens.
 
I usually don't like Kevin Costner, but I have to give him his due. He's dedicated to the western and like Odie said, Open Range is underrated.
 
Is there any redneck two-bit peckerwood trash around these parts who thinks that A Fistfull of Dollars is superior to Yojimbo? If so, I'd like to hear why.
 
Despite not being that big of a Costner fan myself, I'd also have to agree with everyone else here who says that Open Range is an underrated film.

You know, it's kind of funny, but all of this talk about Westerns actually sort of puts me in the mood to watch one. I haven't seen Fistfull of Dollars in a while so perhaps I'll take that very one home tonight... and just for fun maybe The Magnificent Seven and Silverado too.
 
Wagstaff just knocked the battery off my shoulder! I prefer Fistful over the other two, as well as over Yojimbo. Regarding the latter, I thought Fistful had the most interesting set of bad guys with the Rojos, specifically Ramone. I love Tatsuya Nakadai as an actor, but he's still not as memorable as his counterpart Gian Maria Volontè in this performance. The massacre scene in Fistful is particularly gruesome and unnerving. And the ending - with the contest between a man with a rifle and a man with a pistol - and the ingenuity of the iron plate – climaxes do not get better than that! And I have to say, even though Mifune is the greatest actor ever, Eastwood takes a better beating in this one. And his opening exchange with the Baxters – where he asks for an apology for his mule - is one the most riveting of such confrontations that I’ve ever seen.

And compared with the two after it – I thought Fistful was the most purely mythic in its cinematography. It played out like it could have been a Herculean labor. The Red Harvest storyline is very durable and yet, more original than the basic stories of the latter two. For a Few Dollars More had the most human character of the three, in Mortimer, which made it the most romantic. The Good was obviously the biggest production and the smoothest of the three - and, as Wagstaff said, had the most universal character with Wallach. But I’m drawn to the smaller budget of Fistful, which made it more like other spaghetti westerns. In a sense, it is the purest, if roughest, example of the spaghetti western. And Eastwood was great, damn it! I routinely find myself quoting his lines all the time. I thought it was one of his cleverest performances. He may have been more comfortable by that latter two, but he was a fresh face that changed westerns forever in Fistful. A real dynamo. And as much as I love The Good – it is admittedly a long movie. A few years ago I saw the restored version with extra scenes (including a Gone with the Wind hospital type scene with Van Cleef, which may have answered some of Odie's concerns about his absence) – some which had to be newly dubbed by Eastwood and Wallach because they only existed in Italian (I assume that’s in the current DVD) – but ultimately, I felt it was better that those 20 minutes of scenes were cut. The movie, of course, was gorgeous on the big screen

Great post Odie. All three films are masterpieces in my eye (and Yojimbo - though Last Man Standing was criminally bad). I laughed out loud when you mentioned the cats, because that’s a running gag with some of my friends. However, you are the first man that I ever knew that had to watch a spaghetti western to get into a girl's pants. I would love that challenge - kind of like having your cake and eating it too. It usually is quite the opposite. The girl is forced role her eyes through a spaghetti western to pacify the guy. I’ve ruined a few dates with an ill-chosen spaghetti western.
 
Jeffrey: I laughed out loud when you mentioned the cats, because that’s a running gag with some of my friends.

I thought I was crazy, but then I rewound it and sure enough:

Guns: BANG! BANG!
Cats: MEEEWROOOOOW!
Me: What da eff?!

It happens in all three pictures too. I wonder if it happens in any other spaghetti westerns.

Jeffrey: However, you are the first man that I ever knew that had to watch a spaghetti western to get into a girl's pants.

Someday I'll have a normal date, I tell you.

Wagstaff: The scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly where Wallach is consumed with greed and runs around and around the grave markers is filmmaking at it's greatest

That's a fantastic, long as hell sequence, and I should have mentioned it. I love how it abruptly stops on that grave.
 
Excellent piece, Odie.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West are both masterpieces. So is Leone's Duck, You Sucker aka A Fistful of Dynamite aka Once Upon a Time There Was a Revolution, which nobody here has mentioned yet.

All of the above gave me chills when I first saw them in a theater (and that doesn't happen to me very often).
 
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