Monday, 21 May 2018

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Off to the cinema to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a classic Spaghetti Western from 1966 that only has an Oxford comma if you watch it in Italian.

According to Empire magazine it's the twenty-seventh best film of all time. Twenty-five places better than Once Upon a Time in the West, which is wrong. Sight and Sound doesn't rate it so highly, putting it at joint fifty-nine, alongside Aguirre, but their list doesn't contain Flash Gordon or Where Eagles Dare so I think we can safely ignore their opinion. The fact is that the world's critics are mistaken. Ugly shouldn't be on any best film lists. It's good, but not that good. It feels like an expansion of a TV show for the big screen. A big frame housing a small picture.

Now, I love Spaghetti Westerns. They're basically Star Wars but with horses instead of spaceships. Spaghetti Westerns are Conan the Barbarian with six-shooters, or Lord of the Rings but everybody is normal-sized and a bastard. You know about Spaghetti Westerns already but I'll refresh your memory. They were financed by the Italian film industry back in the 1960s and early 1970s, with European locations doubling for the Old West. A Bullet for the General, Villa Rides, Shalako etc were filmed in Spain, but a few were shot in Italy itself (Django, My Name is Trinity) and a handful were even filmed in Yugoslavia, although that location was far more popular for East German "osterns".

The Good, The Bad and The Etc was mostly filmed on location in Spain. This scene however was filmed in Italy, on the same set as Django (bottom). Sergio Leone had more money for set dressing and extras than Sergio Corbucci.

European Westerns have been around forever but no-one cared much about them until Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars came along in 1964. Legal issues kept it from the international market until 1967, but despite the three-year delay it was a big hit abroad and established Clint Eastwood as a major screen presence. It was also very influential. During the 1960s Hollywood struggled with the problem of how to update the Western for the age of Vietnam and civil rights. John Wayne was still very popular but his time was passing, and although there were some strong Westerns in the 1970s the genre quickly lost its dominant position. Four of the most popular films of 1969 were Westerns, but from 1970 onwards the genre seemed to disappear into the same murky swamp as the WW2 film and the musical.

It's interesting to compare those four films. I like to think that they were all influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, if only negatively. Paint Your Wagon starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, in theory an awesome combination, in practice not. Wagon cost a fortune and ran for over two hours. Along with the likes of Hello Dolly! and Dr Dolittle it was a bloated mess that represented everything wrong with traditional Hollywood. In 1969 cinemagoers instead went to see Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, contemporary drama that made more money than Paint Your Wagon. They have aged in their own way but seem a lot more modern.

Clint Eastwood is The Good, Lee Van Cleef is The Bad, and Eli Wallach is The Ugly.

Of the other popular Westerns that year, John Wayne's True Grit was a conscious rejection of the cynicism and casual brutality of Spaghetti Westerns. It had relatively little violence and the heroes won out in the end. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the most popular film of 1969; it had some of the moral ambiguity of the Spaghetti Western via Bonnie and Clyde, but smoothed out and tidied up for a mainstream audience. I have always assumed that people flocked to it for the chance to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford in sharp duds rather than because it was a Western.

The fourth film was The Wild Bunch, which was neither smooth nor tidy. It was more violent than any Spaghetti Western, doubly so because the violence felt more consequential and the characters were less cartoonish. It had masses of bullets and bloody squibs with a body count in the hundreds, and when people were shot there was a splutch! of blood. The final shoot-out is still awesome today. I can't imagine what people in 1969 thought about it. Warren Oates gets plugged full of holes but it just makes him madder. Every time I watch that film I end up wanting to machine-gun hundreds of people but sadly here in the UK civilians are not allowed to own machine-guns so instead I can only dream. Every night when I try to get to sleep I imagine that I'm machine-gunning a huge crowd of people, and almost immediately five hours have passed and I have to get up to pee.

That's called nocturia, by the way. When you have to get up in the night to pee. It's normal unless you have to get up several times per night every night for days on end, in which case you need to cut down on caffeine and fizzy drinks. The Wild Bunch is grounded in reality but has a poetry of its own. It's a better film than anything Sergio Leone directed in the 1960s, but I don't particularly enjoy it. Ditto Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which tells a similar story - the passing of the Old West and the replacement of rugged individuals with institutions - but in a more low-key style. In the 1970s Hollywood revised the Western, stripping away the mythology and bringing in mud, pain, and futility; some of the films were great, but they were no longer the single dominant mainstream genre or indeed a mainstream genre any more.

But let's get back to demolishing The Good etc. It was Leone's You Only Live Twice. A self-conscious attempt to top its predecessors by putting more money on the screen. Fistful of Dollars took place in a small town; For a Few Dollars More spread the action out a bit, but still had a compact scale. Ugly on the other hand has a huge Civil War battle with hundreds of extras supplied by the Spanish army, plus an expansive prison camp, a ruined town, a massive outdoors cemetery with over 5,000 crosses also apparently constructed by Spanish soldiers, and a purpose-built rail line in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the explosions go off very close to the extras, probably drenching them with spray. Did Italy have health and safety regulations in the 1960s? I have no idea. The film also has at least one horse fall, but the horse gets up afterwards so that's okay.

The problem is that, as with You Only Live Twice, the film is big but flabby. It feels like a disjointed set of arbitrary scenes one after the other, but unlike Twice it doesn't have non-stop action on its side. It picks up the pace towards the end, but it's not enough, and the overall effect is numbing rather than exciting.

At heart Ugly is a manic action cartoon, a picaresque in which the main characters are moved from one scene to another as the plot demands. We're not supposed to care about the plot on a logical level. Clint Eastwood is twice saved from certain death by cannonball explosions that come from nowhere; Eli Walach escapes from his captors by leaping from a train in broad daylight, but no-one seems to notice.* Our heroes spend what appears to be hours fixing dynamite to a bridge in full view of an enemy trench system, but nobody on either side sees them or shoots at them, even though the camerawork implies that they're being observed. As Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2003 review, characters in Ugly can sneak up on each other in open countryside because they are invisible until they enter the camera frame. The film doesn't take place in our world.

* I wonder if this scene was supposed to take place at night, but Leone realised that it wouldn't look good. The characters are mostly asleep, as if it was night-time. After escaping from the train Wallach lurks next to the tracks until another train comes along, but no-one spots him. They're in the middle of nowhere but the landscape is flat and the train guards would surely notice him.

The opening shot is terrific. A weathered man we don't recognise abruptly swings his head into the frame in a way that's just artificial enough to make it clear that the film is a cartoon.
It's as if Leone wanted to point out from the very first shot that, although the natural world can be attractive, the human world gets in the way and is not pleasant.

Condensed down to ninety minutes The Good might have been fantastic, but the film can't sustain its energy over the course of three hours. Conversely it doesn't work as an epic melodrama either. It's not in the same league as Once Upon a Time in the West and suffers in comparison with that film. The characters of West had a certain amount of depth; the plot was simple but touched on larger themes, and the occasional profundity was modest and generally worked. In contrast the characterisation in Ugly is paper-thin. Lee Van Cleef is a suave bastard, Clint Eastwood is stoned, Eli Wallach is an amphetamine-crazed variation of the archetypal Mexican bandit. We learn a little about Wallach, nothing about the others.

Ugly has an appealingly direct unsentimentality about it. For the most part the writing is functional, which is a good thing because when it tries to be deep it doesn't work. Late in the film Eastwood hands a dying soldier a cigarette, which is played and scored for pathos but nowadays comes across as unintentional homoerotic. Wallach tries to reconcile with his brother, a priest, but the characterisation and drama are on the level of a soap opera, and after one brief scene it's never really explored. He immediately reverts back to being a bastard again.

About the only clever piece of writing that works is a scene in which our heroes try to flag down a column of Confederate soldiers only to realise, too late, that they're Union men whose blue uniforms have been turned grey by dust. The film immediately cuts to our heroes bring taken to a prison camp. On the surface it's a neat gag, but in an economical way it implies that, whatever the moral imperatives driving the two sides in the Civil War, the reality for people caught up in the fighting was grim; and furthermore that for all their notoriety the three bandits at the heart of the film are specks of nothingness compared to the orchestrated machinery of war, and that in a brutal world you should "get out of the road if you want to grow old".

Actor-wise it's dominated by Eli Wallach. Off the top of my head he has more dialogue by himself than everybody else in the film put together. A little of him goes a long way, but nonetheless I enjoyed his performance. His character is a complete bastard who comes close to murdering Clint Eastwood twice, but he has charisma and would probably be fun to get drunk with provided money wasn't involved. Lee Van Cleef has very little to do and mostly just glares albeit that he's good at glaring. He only has a few minutes of screen time and doesn't say a lot. Clint Eastwood is also surprisingly underutilised. He's on the poster, but his character just drifts through the film, spending most of his time as a captive of either Wallach or Van Cleef. The other notable speaking roles are Aldo Giuffrè, who is a drunk army captain, and Luigi Pistilli as Wallach's priest brother. They have distinctive faces and I wonder if they were popular in Italy. It's hard to evaluate the film's acting because it's dubbed in post-production; you get used to it but the dubbing creates a distancing effect.

On a purely technical level it's not as good as Once Upon a Time either. With the exception of the graveyard scene at the very end the cinematography doesn't have the same visual pizzazz. The drawn-out gunfights that worked so well in Time feel unnecessarily extended in Ugly and I kept wishing Leone would just get on with it.

The two films begin in almost exactly the same way and it's interesting to compare them. Ugly starts with a suspenseful sequence in which some gunmen approach each other in the middle of nowhere. At first it seems they're going to fight - perhaps these people are the main characters - but they're actually teaming up to kill Eli Wallach. After two minutes of close-ups they launch their attack but are immediately shot dead. It's neat but visually ordinary and feels like a throwaway gag. Time tops it with an opening scene that runs for thirteen minutes - one-tenth of the entire film - during which almost nothing happens, but it's far more assured. The editing, framing, and particularly the use of sound is mesmerising. In its own way it's also a throwaway gag, but it's a breathtakingly well-executed throwaway gag.

Shortly after that the two films introduce the chief villain doing what he loves best, killing farmers and their children. In Time we don't see Henry Fonda's posse until after most of the killing is over. We know they're there, because birds take flight and everything goes quiet; after the initial volley of gunfire they emerge onto the screen like ghosts. It's classy as heck. In contrast Lee Van Cleef's entrance is undramatic. His intimidation feels like petty bullying, and despite being the film's personification of badness he's surprisingly reasonable. Whereas Henry Fonda straight-up murders a defenceless child in cold blood Van Cleef only shoots his first two victims after they pull guns on him.

Watching the film afresh it struck me that Van Cleef's character isn't really all that bad. He beats a woman, but the film takes place at a time when society didn't much care, and once she spills the beans he throws her aside and walks out. He doesn't shoot her, and unlike the villain in Few Dollars More he doesn't force himself on her either. He tortures prisoners, but again the film is set during a time and place when that wasn't unusual. Judging the characters purely by their actions on the screen Eli Wallach is actually more bad - he tortures Clint Eastwood's character and twice almost kills him, and is just as ruthless when he stumbles upon a dying soldier, pumping him for the location of hidden gold rather than immediately trying to help. The film gives him a pass because he's a comic figure, and there's an implication that most of the crimes he is accused of are flim-flam, but he's the most vicious of them all.

I'm willing to throw the world's film critics a bone. Back in 1966 the original Italian version of Bad was just shy of three hours long, but for international audiences it was cut by a quarter of a hour. This is the version that became a hit abroad. The original DVD releases of the film included the cut scenes as extras. They were in Italian because they had never been dubbed into English. In 2003 the film studio decided to add the cut scenes back into the film, with Eastwood and Wallach returning to dub new English dialogue (Van Cleef, who died in the 1980s, was dubbed by someone else). This is the version I saw at the BFI. Unfortunately the extra scenes just slow the film down and if I had seen the film when it was new I might have liked it more.

On a tangent, there's a fascinating blog post here about the various edits that have been made to the film over the years. It's part of a series of posts that document tiny little cuts and musical edits that began even before it went on wide release in Italy.

A note on the screening. I saw the film at the BFI. I don't know if it was a film print or a digital projection. The soundtrack appeared to be in mono, or at least I perceived all the music and sound effects coming from behind the screen, and only behind the screen. It was odd at first. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of surround-ness the theatre pumped the volume up so that Ennio Morricone's music was almost distorted. During the screening a woman decided to laugh very loudly whenever Eli Wallach appeared. I secretly wished that the security guards would put a noose around her neck and force her to balance on the back of the chair for the remainder of the screening. It would have been a suitably cinematic gesture and furthermore it would have sent a message to the other people in the audience.

When the guards actually did escort her out I felt a moral pang for a brief moment. I had wished ill on that woman, and my wish had come true. But my moral pang quickly passed. If there's one thing I've learned from Spaghetti Westerns, it's that human life is not sacred, and that over time you get used to anything, even if it's revolting or morally repugnant. When I lived in London I got used to the London Underground. People in Mexico are used to mass killing by drugs cartels. People in Northern Ireland have got used to untouchable IRA members gloating about Hyde Park. You get used to it. The lady's removal caused something of a ruckus in the cinema, presumably from people who had not yet got used to ignoring the suffering of others. They will!

They will. I've seen Full Metal Jacket. They will resist; then they will join in. I'm digressing here. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly doesn't work no matter how you pigeonhole it. The world's film critics are wrong. As an action cartoon its manic energy is spread out too thinly. As an exercise in pure style it's not as assured as Once Upon a Time in the West. It had a bigger impact on pop culture than Time but that was probably because the latter film was a relative flop. As a melodrama it's not as satisfying as Few Dollars More. As a meaningful epic it's inferior to, again, Once Upon a Time in the West, but also The Wild Bunch and any number of other late-60s Westerns; at the same time it has just enough pathos to imply that Leone didn't intend it to be a subversion of epic cinema. As sheer spectacle, as a visual feast to wallow in, the cinematography and editing get the job done but don't really stand out. The violence and brutality seem tame nowadays. It doesn't even have very much of Clint Eastwood. Eli Wallach is fabulous but one-note. Ennio Morricone's score is however wonderful.

Why is it so fêted? Twenty-seventh or fifty-ninth best film of all time. I have several theories. Good isn't a patch on Once but Once was a flop whereas Good embedded itself in the popular consciousness, so in the 1970s and 1980s it was the most prominent Spaghetti Western. Even nowadays Once has a faint air of Heaven's Gate about it, e.g. loved by The Europeans but unpopular in the home of English-language film criticism e.g. the United States. Obviously nowadays Once has been thoroughly rehabilitated but some of its former obscurity remains.

Secondly there's a more prosaic reason. Imagine you've been asked to make a list of great films. You feel the need to include a Spaghetti Western, because it's an important genre and you have a hundred spaces to fill, but you already have Once Upon a Time in the West on your list, in the "great films" section. So you need a second choice. Django is hip but it's not that good. As far as you're concerned Fistful and Few Dollars More are just prototypes for The Good etc. You can't pick both Fistful and Good because then you would have four Sergio Leone films on your list (along with Once Upon a Time in America) and that's too many. You can't just pick Fistful of Dollars by itself because people will wonder why you ignored The Good etc.

So you pick The Good etc even though you don't like it and never watch it. It's the same process that results in the deadly dull Goldfinger being selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the best James Bond film of all time, when it's not even the best James Bond film of the 1960s. Over time films accumulate a mass of baggage, and eventually critics start rating the baggage instead of the film, goodbye.