Epic & Improved
1966. Blu-ray 2009.
The plot concerns a search for buried Confederate treasure by the ‘Good’ “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), the ‘Ugly’ Tuco (Eli Wallach), and the ‘Bad’ “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef). They battle each other and their surroundings in the hunt for 200,000 in stolen gold, set along the background of the Civil War, its prison camps and battles, in the West.
With this film, director Sergio Leone completes his “Dollars Trilogy” of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Clint Eastwood returns as “The Man with No Name.” Set in the West but filmed in Italy, this classic is thoroughly a Spaghetti Western—perhaps the epitome of the genre, with the original release dubbed into Italian.
But its similarities are beside the point: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is fantastic on its own. In fact, it is simply epic. Compared to the previous “Dollars” films, Leone is much more relaxed in this movie, and it shows. The film has a remarkably slow pace to it, with takes often exceeding 30 seconds—undoubtedly not a film for those with a short attention span. The moments of action are definitely present, and often exaggerated, but the lulls are heavy and make up most of the movie. In the Blu-ray extended edition in particular, one experiences Leone just relishing in these long takes, allowing the absence of action to heighten the other emotional experiences in the viewer.
This laid-back directing allows others to shine: namely the often lauded cinematographer for the film, Tonino Delli Colli, and the composer of the film’s score, Ennio Morricone. The soundtrack is simply awesome, and its pop culture presence is a testament to its memorability. It is unlike most other Westerns in it use of gun shots, whips, and yodeling (?!), but somehow the bizarre and less orchestral nature of the score makes it more fitting than the typical. The cinematography, similarly, is absolutely superb throughout. Leone’s wide, simple shots really highlight the landscape and Tonino Delli Colli allows for the majestic views of the American West via Italy and Spain. These shots, like the crisp audio, also shine in re-mastered Blu-ray edition. And, even in Blu-ray and on a widescreen television, these shots are still damn wide—expect a few inch thick black bars to accommodate it. The constant wide angled, long shots are but one reason why this film is best enjoyed in theaters, if not only to get the full experience of the Morricone score. I would say, though, that the Blu-ray experience is the closest one can get.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is still a thoroughly Leone film, though, and this is highlighted in the extended edition. Particularly, the film’s loose plot—really more a series of scenes—allows Leone enough latitude to exercise his style. For instance, gypsies are all over the place; Leone gets all his unique faces in the frame, seemingly choosing characters more on their inimitable look than their acting ability. Nevertheless, this leads to some memorable moments, particularly one scene with a the legless alcoholic, and it works perfectly in sync with Leone’s near constant close-up shots.
These close-ups are essential to the balletic action of the film—and, yes, however rare the action, it is fair to call it balletic. The climax of the film, a stand-off in a cemetery, is long. Really long. Leone’s cuts to close-ups to extreme close-ups literally cut the tension and create a striking finale. Otherwise, Leone utilizes the Civil War and an expanded budget to display some large-scale sets, explosions, and (fictitious) war scenes with startling realism despite their hyperbole.
Now the Blu-ray version, released in 2009 but just getting into my hands Christmas 2011, offers the best chance yet to experience arguably the greatest Western of all time. It is restored well, with only moment of graininess among others that are just as fine as Blu-ray copies of modern Westerns There Will Be Blood (2007) or No Country for Old Men (2007). It is good enough, even, that one feels their television is still inadequately capturing all its cinematic glory (the disc comes with a manufacturer’s sheet recommending the viewer upgrade to the best hardware and firmware). The primary downside was a noticeably delayed audio track—possibly a hang-over from the redubbing process, but something that I’d expect to be fixed by now.
Some will criticize the film as too long. With the extended Blu-ray edition, featuring eighteen extra minutes of footage to clock in at 178 minutes total, this critique is more relevant than ever. Ultimately it is a simple and elegant film that requires one to sit back to appreciate it. If that’s something that sounds like you can do, you’ll also enjoy the excellent bonus features. Full disclosure: I haven’t gotten through all the film commentary, but the deleted scenes and interviews, with stars (Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood) as well as people involved in production, are quite good. Particularly enjoyable were the foreign, domestic, and original (Italian) trailers which all seemed confused which characters were “The Good,” “The Bad,” and “The Ugly.” If you can’t stand a lengthened film, the Blu-ray set comes with a standard definition, original cut DVD in English—slightly shorter and more compatible.
If you have a Blu-ray collection, this ought to be there. If you don’t have a Blu-ray collection, this would be a good film to start.