04 January 2006

100 films: Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo

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starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, and Rada Rassimov
written by: Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli & Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone, from the story by Vincenzoni & Leone
directed by: Sergio Leone
NR, 161 min, 1966, Italy/Spain

Three gunmen--the good (Clint Eastwood), the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the ugly (Eli Wallach)--are in search of a fortune in Civil War gold buried in a cemetery. Problem is that none of them knows the exact location of the gold, the details being spread out among them, so they are required to either work together or come up with some way to find it alone. There's a sort of agreement to share the money equally, but none of them are exactly gentlemen. This isn't a great deal of plot to fill a three hour film, but when you're Sergio Leone, you don't need a great deal of plot.

Leone's Fistfull of Dollars trilogy, of which Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo is the final chapter[1], was one of the watershed events in the western genre, serving as the bridge between John Ford and, well, Clint Eastwood[2]. Whereas Ford worked with a sense of economy, employing large landscapes and minimal cuts, Leone has no such inclinations. He does nothing half-way, instead embracing excess where his predecessors might eschew it. This makes his choice of a lead actor a rather odd one. Eastwood was on the verge of being cast aside by Hollywood when he was cast as The Man With No Name. In that day actors did not segue easily from television to film and Eastwood, after starring in Rawhide[3], was having trouble finding film work and Leone was having trouble finding movie stars, so they sort of ended up together. It was an odd, although successful, marriage of a director who didn't have time for small measures with an actor who might spend an entire film doing nothing but squinting, if you gave him a chance[4]. Rather than being awkward, Clint serves as the film's ballast, the thing that keeps Leone from flying off into insanity. There's a similar effect in Eastwood's dealings with Eli Wallach, a man of many words prone to bold statements and large threats. Eastwood watches as Wallach goes through his antics, then quietly controls the situation.

Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review, observes that in Leone's world if something is not in the frame, then it is not visible to the characters who are. So if Tuco is digging for gold in a grave he does not see Eastwood approach, nor do he and Eastwood see Angel Eyes approach, even though it would be nearly impossible for them not to. Because to Leone the impossible is not nearly as important as the cinematic or, in some cases, the cool. A normal director would spend a long amount of time trying to justify, in one way or another, how Angel Eyes could have gotten that close, but to Leone that amount of plausibility is not nearly as important as the dramatic effect achieved when his characters are caught off guard. The shot works as a singular shot, so why bother to explain away it's impact? As with many uses of cinematic style, this stems from necessity. In his early films Leone didn't have the budget to worry about continuity, so he adapted a style that allowed him to throw caution to the wind and find ways to make the suspension of disbelief work for him.

Likewise, part of the reason for Ennio Morricone haunting score comes from the difficulties of shooting dialogue given the financial restraints the project was under. Large portions of the existing dialogue was dubbed, but it's even more effective to show long silent stretches filled with music. So, the more effective the score (and it's a great bit of music, evocatively modeled after a howling coyote), the less Leone has to dub, and the more effective the film is as a whole.

One of the marks of a great director is when he makes a film that few others could have made. There's no doubt in my mind that Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo is one of those films. Take, for example, the standoff in the cemetery. Few would have had the courage to extend that scene as long as he did, or to spend so much time building the suspense by inter-cutting between the various closeups, and fewer still would have made it work, but Leone turns it into perhaps the best scene in a film full of great ones. Leone may not be a great film craftsman and Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo may be cooler than it is good, but that's essential to what makes it great. Were it not so raw, it would not feel so alive and would have faded quickly into obscurity. With it we likely would have lost the legacy of Clint Eastwood and perhaps the Western as well. And for that we owe Sergio Leone more than we can imagine.

[1] I guess it's only fair to admit that I haven't seen the other two films, Per un pugno di dollari (1964) and Per qualche dollaro in più (1965). I did, however, buy them for my brother for Christmas in 2004 and fully intend to see them when I get some free time, but part of the curse of the 100 films project is that if a film is a sequel, I don't have the time to always watch what comes before it.

[2] There's also Kevin Costner, but honestly.

[3] And a memorable guest spot on Maverick, which can be found on the Unforgiven DVD.

[4] I've always thought it would be interesting to see a short film where Clint Eastwood had a conversation with Robert DeNiro. You could take bets on the number of total words spoken.


johanna said...

problem bypassed

lucas said...

there was a problem?

johanna said...

i thought so. gullible of me, i suppose

tho' i was referring to something i can't quite recall that really bothered me. i should never drink on an empty stomach. youch.

i liked the searchers, btw

Frankita said...

hey lucas. like the blog. it took me a while to read things, but then again i hardly have any time to write on my own! hope you are doing well.

lucas said...

thanks for reading and whatnot. it can take a while to get through it all.

i've been reading yours as you update it. good stuff.