Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mmmm, that’s good spaghetti (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

So as it happened I ended up watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly last week, after I had finished re-reading The Drawing of the Three. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m embarrassingly deficient in my prior consumption of westerns (the grand total number of movies in the genre I’ve seen now is four, adding this one to Unforgiven, The Magnificent Seven and Blazing Saddles) so it was instructive to see a full-length feature with young Clint Eastwood in full cowboy regalia, which is supposed to be the visual template for Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger. Of course, as a Stephen King character, Roland is a lot more talkative in both dialogue and internal monologue than Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but that’s a separate issue altogether.

I watched the fullest of full-length versions of the movie, too, the three-hour 2004 Special Edition DVD. This on the heels of having watched La Dolce Vita, so it’s getting to the point where three hours is starting to feel like the standard running time for a film. But unlike La Dolce Vita, not once did I think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly could have improved the end result with a less-is-more approach. Even the meandering beginning, which seems to move like molasses toward getting the central plot established and underway, ends up being critically important to the final resolution of the story, and even before that all becomes apparent it’s still a cinematic feast with badass characters doing badass things against badass backdrops. And then things start to pick up speed.

It really is an amazing movie. I’d heard people say that it’s one of the greats in the genre (if not one of the greats of all time, bar none) but I have a lamentable tendency to be disappointed by overhyping like that. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly lives up to its own hype. Eastwood is iconic, but Lee Van Cleef (as “the Bad”, who gets called “Angel Eyes” in English translation but was “Sentenza” in the original Italian script, which is so much cooler) and Eli Wallach (playing Tuco, aka “the Ugly”) more than hold their own against him as well. And the story of shifting alliances and treasure hunting weaving through the monstrous senselessness of some mythic alternate version of the American Civil War is pretty gripping, too.

And then there’s the ending. As you might expect given the title and the genre, the climax of the tale comes in the form of a three-way shoot-out between the main characters. But rather than a wild free-for-all, it takes the form of an agreed-upon tripartite duel (a treyel?) in the middle of the cemetery where the treasure is hidden. THIS SCENE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST THINGS I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. And much of the reason for me being blown away by it is that it should not work. Objectively, the scene is way too long, with three desperate men ever so slowly taking up positions around a stone circle, then standing in place sizing each other up, trying to decide when to draw and whom to shoot first. It is inherently ridiculous. But everything the audience has gotten to know about the characters over the past few hours builds to this moment. And the body language of the actors is perfect. And the camerawork, the cinematography and editing, is perfect. And the music is phenomenal. And after an excruciating amount of tension has built up, when the bullets finally fly, the resolution is dead-on. I don’t want to give away what happens if you’ve never seen it, but it pretty much rules. And then every beat of the denouement afterwards was everything I wanted it to be.

So just when I had convinced myself that westerns would be fun to dig into, I seem to have gone ahead and spoiled myself by watching a masterpiece of the genre first. The problem with legendary works of art that actually do live up to the hype is that very little else will ever live up to them in comparison. But, as I strive to keep in mind, those are the good kinds of problems to have.

1 comment:

  1. OOooweeOOooweeeOOOO
    wah wah wah
    wah wah WAH!

    The Spaghetti Western is an amazing subgenre. And Leone is its god. Italy had its own movie industry that cranked out grindhouse crap by the ton. When America stopped exporting so many westerns, the Italians started making their own, on the cheap. They shot in Spain, which kinda-sorta looks like Mexico if you squint. Given that Italian history is different than American, the core message of the films were different. American westerns tended to be about the imposition of order on a chaotic world; Italian westerns were...not.

    Goddamn, I love Leone movies. The other two "Man With No Name" movies ("Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More") are good but not as good. The other Leone western that stands as tall as GBO is "Once Upon a Time in the West," which is amazing. (The fifth Leone western is "A Fistful of Dynamite," also titled "Duck, You Sucker," an outlier.)

    The best American westerns feel very different, but they can be excellent. I recommend "The Searchers," "Stagecoach," "Red River," and a great smaller movie, "Ride Lonesome." "Shane" and "High Noon" have excellent moments. The recent remake of "3:10 to Yuma" is well worth your time.