Wednesday, October 11, 2017

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: Blu-ray (UA/PEA 1966) Kino Lorber

In the summer of 1966, director Sergio Leone was about to embark upon his most ambitious project to date. With a budget of $1.3 million, nearly ten times the allotment afforded him for A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – half of it coming from distributor, United Artists (the rest from private investments culled together by its producer, Alberto Grimaldi) – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966 – aka: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) would become the beneficiary of not only Leone’s expertise behind the camera but three American talents; one, well on his way to super stardom. It may seem extraordinary now, but in 1966, Leone’s seminal ‘spaghetti western’ was just one of seventy being made throughout Europe; pictures, mostly, of a more than questionable artistic merit competitively ratcheting up their levels of permissible screen violence.  The craze for Euro-made ‘American-themed’ westerns had become something of an obsession with the Italians. There were knock-off actors and directors (Clint Westwood and John Fordson among them), and the pilfering of ‘has been’ U.S. talent poured into these ‘homages’, made primarily by those who had never actually been to the American west, much less capable of capturing its unique and flavorful ambience. In lieu of this dearth the creators of these shoestring ‘shoot ‘em ups’ relied upon the tropes and clichés gleaned and then reconstituted from Hollywood-ized impressions of the American west.   
It’s a bit much to label Sergio Leone the godfather of the spaghetti western. But at least Leone’s had actually seen the west in all its’ full flourish and further the point, absolutely adored both it and Hollywood’s reasonable facsimile.  There is little to deny Leone’s influence. He reshaped, arguably improved, and definitely matured the western beyond its otherwise foreign-made cowboy sagas.  Indeed, Leone aspired to create a western epic and in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly he heartily achieves this dream; the penultimate Civil War bridge sequence, as large scale and exhilarating as anything yet put on the screen, and, with the added bonus of possessing Leone’s own clear-eyed judgment on how to counterbalance the romantic spirit with all the carnage and bloodshed so neither dominates this sequence. For the record, blowing up the stone and wood constructed bridge proved something of a misfire – literally – as the man responsible for its detonation misunderstood Leone’s directive and prematurely blew the structure to smithereens before cameras were rolling. It must have left Leone a little white-knuckled until he was informed his Spanish crew could have an entirely new bridge built in just two days.
Leone had invested quite a lot in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For beginners, he hired award-winning writers, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli (professionally renowned for their lithe construction of mostly light-hearted comedies and thrillers as Age and Scarpelli) to iron out the speed bumps in a story initially fleshed out by Luciano Vincenzoni and himself. According to Leone, not a word of this draft survived the final rewrite; a notion confirmed by Sergio Donati, who Leone brought into pre-production at the eleventh hour to do a virtual rewrite. And this is where the screenwriting credits get muddled; Vincenzoni, insisting he wrote the final shooting script pretty much alone and in just eleven days. Whatever the ‘reel to real’ circumstances, there is little to deny Leone did his best work under such pressures. He also made the fortuitous decision to employ Tonino Delli Colli as his cinematographer and Carlo Simi as his production designer. Both men would become a part of his reoccurring entourage from this point forward. Initially, Leone had been a little less than impressed with Simi’s choice of location for the opening sequence; a high plateau in the mountains of Almería, so isolated and inhospitable it caused several of the caravan trucks carrying supplies to overturn en route. Forced to get out and walk the remainder to the location Leone, quietly observing the magnificent set design of this desolate ghost town, a strong wind whipping up its sun-pulverized white earth into magnificent dust clouds, declared Simi’s choice masterful.
Virtually all of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was post-synced; Leone, commenting that 40% of his movies’ successes was achieved in the editing room. To the dialogue and SFX, Leone would add one final stroke of genius; a memorable score by Ennio Morricone whose central theme is reconstituted many times with subtle variances to denote each of the three central characters; Joe Blondie – ‘the good’ (Clint Eastwood), Sentenza ‘Angel Eyes’ – ‘the bad’ (Lee Van Cleef), and, Tuco – ‘the ugly’ (Eli Wallach).  Interestingly, Eastwood balked at first to partake of the exercise, perhaps aware that in the trilogy shaping up, his character had gone from starring (in a Fistful of Dollars), to co-starring (along with Lee Van Cleef in For A Few Dollars More, 1965) to supporting player, decidedly competing for screen time with Eli Wallach’s grandstanding performance as the disreputable and chronically cussing bandito with a decidedly offset humorous slant. Van Cleef joked, the only reason “I’m in it is because Leone forgot to kill off my character in the other movie.” For the record, Leone cast Wallach from having admired his performance as Charlie Gant in the Cinerama western colossus, How The West Was Won (1962): not, as is oft inferred, from Wallach’s similarly themed stint as the baddie in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Van Cleef, who had suffered a near fatal car wreck in 1957, and chronically plagued by severely arthritic knees thereafter, rode a service horse, ably trained to assist him in his mounts and dismounts, transparently distinguished by the horse’s gait – a posturing prance. 
UA’s involvement on the project was predicated on the unexpected success of For a Few Dollars More in both Europe and America. Executives first approached its screenwriter, Luciano Vincenzoni to sign a contract for the rights to both this movie and his next project. With Grimaldi and Leone’s blessing, Vincenzoni pitched UA the concept for a movie about three desperadoes looking for hidden Confederate treasure during the American Civil War. For his part, Leone sought to expose the absurdities of war as ‘useless’ and ‘stupid’. Hence, the Batterville Camp where Blondie and Tuco are imprisoned is based on Andersonville, a place of internment where 120,000 people died. “I was not ignorant of the fact there were camps in the North,” Leone would later point out, “You always hear about the shameful behavior of the losers – never the winners.” Leone’s clear-eyed history buff’s style was also heavily influenced by the archival photographs of Mathew Brady. Underway at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly moved its base of operation to Burgos and Almería, Spain where most of the outdoor prison camp and Civil War battle sequences were photographed; also, the elaborate cemetery finale, complete with several thousand grave markers laid in a giant circle, resembling Rome’s circus maximus.  
Clint Eastwood may not have been pleased with his participation on The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; indeed, his star had already risen to a point where it was necessary to demand ‘star billing’. But the deal was sweetened with a salary of $250,000, a new Ferrari (to match the one he already had), and, 10% profit-sharing states’ side. Alas, even these caveats were not enough to keep the mood between Eastwood and Leone on palpable terms. By now, Eastwood had tired of Leone’s perfectionist obsessiveness; shooting the same scene from multiple setups only to scrap two thirds of the exposed film in the editing room to achieve his final cut. To air his disgust Eastwood nicknamed Leone ‘Yosimite Sam’ on the set; the picking of this scab to backfire on both men in later years. Hence, when Leone offered Eastwood the part of Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Eastwood turned him down flat, incurring Leone’s wrath in an interview where the director ruthlessly savaged his ex-star’s reputation; referring to Eastwood as a ‘sleepwalker between explosions and hails of bullets’ and ‘a block of marble’. “Where Bobby (Robert DeNiro) is an actor,” Leone pressed on, “Clint, first of all, is a star. Bobby suffers. Clint yawns.”
But if anyone had something to gripe about it on the set of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, it was decidedly Eli Wallach; thrice, nearly killed during its shoot. In the first instance, Wallach was almost poisoned after drinking from a bottle of acid mistakenly laid by a technician next to his similarly placed water bottle. In the second mishap, a scene involving Tuco nearly hanged, but ultimately saved when the rope around his neck is shot off by Blondie’s rifle, the horse underneath Wallach, suddenly spooked by the resounding gunfire, wildly bolted. As Wallach’s hands were bound behind his back there was nothing he could do but clench his thighs tightly to the terrified animal’s sides as it ran for almost half a mile from the outdoor set, across the wide-open plains beyond. Finally, there was the sequence where Tuco, chained to another convict (Mario Brega) leaps from a moving train. In the movie this cohort, having broken his neck in the fall and now very much a dead weight, is placed on the tracks by Tuco so another train can roll over him and severe their bond for good.  As neither Wallach nor the crew were aware of the heavy iron steps jutting from the fast-approaching box cars, Wallach came within mere inches of being decapitated when the subsequent train passed by. “Sergio was not particularly concerned with safety on the set,” Wallach pointed out, “He just knew what he wanted to see on the screen. And he was going to get it, no matter what.” This assessment certainly rings true with regards to the bridge sequence: Leone urging Eastwood and Wallach to do their own stunt work as they take cover behind a narrow berm mere seconds before a titanic explosion decimates the structure. Perhaps recognizing the strength of the explosives yet to be detonated, Eastwood emphatically refused to partake; Wallach, following suit with his own objections, forcing Leone to use two stunt doubles to complete the shot. Due diligence paid off as the subsequent blast proved so thunderous it sent projectile debris flying in all directions, surely to have injured its unprepared actors. 
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is set during the American Civil War. Leone introduces us to the three desperadoes who will dominate the plot in reverse order: the ugly, first as a trio of bounty hunters (fronted by Canadian actor, Al Mulloch) descend on a lonely town, forcing Tuco Ramirez to flee in a hailstorm of bullets. We shift to a pastoral hacienda. Mercenary, Angel Eyes – the bad – arrives unassumingly to interrogate ex-Confederate soldier, Stevens (Antonio Casas), about Bill Carson (Antonio Casale), a fugitive having made off with a sizable loot of gold. Knowing well Angel Eyes has come for him, Stevens instead offers the hired gun a thousand dollars to kill his boss, Baker (Livio Lorenzon). Accepting the contract, Angel Eyes nevertheless murders Stevens first and then his eldest son, come to defend his father, leaving his youngest (Antoñito Ruiz) and Spanish wife (Chelo Alonso) to discover their bodies. Returning to Baker, Angel Eyes gleefully fulfils Stevens’ contract, shooting his former employer in the head through a smothering pillow. Moving on: Tuco is about to be taken captive by three bounty hunters. He is spared this fate by Joe Blondie, who elects instead to take the bandito hostage for the $2000 reward. However, upon collecting the fee, Blondie takes dead aim at the noose the leering townsfolk have affixed to Tuco’s neck, shooting him free with his rifle and allowing Tuco his awkward escape on horseback, followed by Blondie as the bewildered continue to look on. 
Blondie and Tuco split the bounty in a lucrative money-making scheme, repeating the ruse in another town to collect even more reward. But before long, Tuco wears out his welcome with Blondie. He decides to leave Tuco penniless in the desert. Vowing revenge, Tuco tracks Blondie down. Fate intervenes again as the town is shelled by the Northern army, allowing Blondie to once again slip through Tuco’s fingers. Relentlessly pursued across the stark desert, Tuco recaptures Blondie and force-marches him to the point of exhaustion from dehydration. As Tuco prepares to execute Blondie he sees a runaway carriage rapidly approaching them. Inside, a delirious Bill Carson promises $200,000 in Confederate gold; a king’s ransom he has buried in a grave in Sad Hill Cemetery. Tuco demands to know the name on the tombstone. Alas, Carson collapses before answering. Hurrying for some water to revive the man, Tuco returns only to discover Carson has since died and Blondie, slumped against him, confesses the old codger whispered to him the name on the grave. Blondie strikes a bargain to split the loot fifty-fifty in exchange for his life. As Tuco has no choice he quickly hurries Blondie into a frontier mission to restore him to good health.
Alas, Blondie’s plot to don Confederate uniforms from Carson's carriage backfires when both he and Tuco are mistakenly captured by Union soldiers and remanded to Batterville’s POW camp. Unbeknownst to Blondie or Tuco, Angel Eyes has disguised himself as a Union sergeant. At roll call, Tuco answers to the name ‘Bill Carson’ gaining Angel Eyes’ interest. The mercenary tortures Tuco, but is only half successful at learning the name of the cemetery – not the grave.  Wisely assessing Blondie will not yield to these same methods, Angel Eyes instead offers him a partnership in the recovery of the gold. Eager to rid himself of Tuco, Blondie rides out with Angel Eyes’ gang, leaving Tuco on a northbound train to be executed. Once again, the wily bandito manages his escape. This trio of desperate men descends on an evacuated town; Tuco, ambushed by another bounty hunter whom he dispatches with haste, drawing Blondie’s attentions to investigate.  Discovering Tuco very much alive Blondie agrees to resume their partnership against Angel Eyes and his men. Tuco and Blondie assassinate the mercenary’s entire posse. But Angel Eyes escapes.
Blondie and Tuco’s arrival at Sad Hill is held up by Union troops defending a strategic bridge against the advancing Confederate troops. Blondie elects to blow up the bridge, thus dispersing the armies and allowing him a clear-cut access to the cemetery just beyond. As he and Tuco frantically wire the bridge for demolition, Tuco enterprisingly suggests they exchange information in case one of them should die without ever revealing the truth to the other. Tuco willingly gives up the name of the cemetery and Blondie suggests the gold will be unearthed under the marker bearing the name ‘Arch Stanton’.  After the epic demolition Blondie witnesses Tuco steal a horse and ride off in the direction of the cemetery. Unnerved, Blondie arrives while Tuco is still digging up the casket, forcing him to continue his efforts at gunpoint.  To both men’s surprise, Angel Eyes reappears, holding them hostage. The work continues. But when Stanton’s casket is opened it reveals only skeletal remains.  Blondie confesses he lied about the name on the grave. He now writes the real name on a rock, turning it face down and challenging both Tuco and Angel Eyes to a three-way duel. Simultaneously drawing firing, Blondie nevertheless manages to kill Angel Eyes. Tuco realizes Blondie has unloaded his gun. Now, Blondie reveals to Tuco the gold is actually buried in the unknown grave adjacent Stanton’s. Tuco is at first elated to discover the gold. But Blondie orders Tuco into a hangman's noose beneath a nearby tree. Appearing to ride off, leaving Tuco surely to die, Blondie instead returns a single rifle shot to free his old nemesis from the rope; hardly a magnanimous gesture, as Blondie now casually departs, leaving Tuco and his share of the gold sprawled in the dirt as he rides into the sunset.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is such an understated masterwork it was rather easily dismissed by the critics in 1966 as merely ‘another’ spaghetti western in the seemingly endless cycle. But Sergio Leone is in top form here; the visuals constantly shifting from epic vistas to extreme close-ups, generating a sense of claustrophobia on these windswept and wide-open plains. Leone, who spoke very little English had a bit of an uphill climb communicating what he wanted to his cast. As example: during the opening confrontation between Angel Eyes and Stevens, Leone passionately instructed Lee Van Cleef to “eat the minister”; the actor, a tad unsettled by this direction until he realized Leone simply wanted him to indulge in the soup on the table – minestrone! As the cast assembled hailed from all points on the map, actors spoke their lines in the language of their origin. Hence, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef delivered their dialogue in English – heard in an English re-dub for the North American release, but re-dubbed in Italian for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’s world premiere in Italy.  Conversely, the same logic was applied to supporting cast members, dubbed into English for the North American release, but left to their own devices for the Euro prints.
The logic behind Leone’s ‘dubbing’ – invariably out of sync with actor’s lips throughout – appears to have derived from the director’s passion on the set: playing Ennio Morricone’s score at full tilt while shouting directions to his actors from a megaphone to inspire their mood and performance. Even under the best circumstances, most of the location shoot would have needed to be post-sync to eliminate the shortcomings of vintage microphones picking up extemporaneous sounds. Curiously, the Italian tradition in film-making was very much more interesting in perfecting the quality of the image; sound, employed almost as an afterthought to augment the visuals. And Leone, in fact, treats whole portions of the story as though they were ripped directly from a silent movie; long stretches of pensively staged vista shots, sporadically interpolated with one or two syllables of dialogue. Hence, when Joe Blondie speaks anything more, the dialogue acquires far more ballast than it actually has as words on a script page. Today, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is justly celebrated for its revolutionary style – invariably referenced as ‘baroque manipulation’ of the American western mythology. Replacing the heroic figure at the crux of American-made westerns with morally shady antiheroes adds depth to Leone’s character-driven storytelling. Indeed, Tuco is strangely empathetic while Joe Blondie is perceived as something of an ambivalent, cold-hearted bastard.
Despite some condescending – and thoroughly unwarranted reviews at the time – accusing Leone of creating a ‘curious amalgam of the visually striking, the dramatically feeble and the offensively sadistic,’ the extended cut of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly remains 179 minutes of exhilaration par excellence; vibrant proof to the absolute and bracing distinctiveness of Leone’s clear-eyed re-envisioning of the American west. At times, Leone’s particular brand of chest-thumping machismo teeters dangerously close to parody but never entirely crosses that line, instead resonating with an intensity rarely seen, much less absorbed into every fiber of his expansive canvas. Leone’s juxtaposition of awe-inspiring wide shots with extreme close-ups achieves an unprecedented breadth, infusing the action sequences with scope and the mere inference of male-bonding brutality with an even more ingeniously wrought and lithe undercurrent of intimate character study.  The titanic reversal of fortunes Leone only suggested in A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, herein fills the screen with such brittle, hyperactive potency it can scarcely be considered as limp-noodled ‘spaghetti’. Although Leone’s greatest ‘retribution drama’ lay ahead of him – 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the WestThe Good, The Bad and the Ugly nevertheless points the way to that movie’s sustained viciousness and pseudo-fantastic ruminations, shattering once and for all the gallant mythology of the western’s greatest poet – John Ford.  
For better or worse, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has enjoyed multiple home video releases; the penultimate, a 4K remaster on Blu-ray from Italian company L'Immagine Ritrovata virtually condemned by fans for its jaundice hue. The new Kino Lorber 50th Anniversary Edition is a step in the right direction, not only for offering fans both the ‘restored’ 179 minute cut (readily available since MGM/Fox first began releasing the movie to disc) and the 162 minute theatrical cut – never before afforded a hi-def release. A word about the 179 min. cut: Leone trimmed his masterpiece down at UA’s behest to 162 min. and this is really how most fans first experienced the movie in North America. Leone was rather circumspect about the excised footage. Did he prefer the shorter version or would he have preferred the longer edit? A bit of both, I suspect, although Leone always leaned towards bigger/longer pictures. Both versions work. The 179 min. restores some crucial exposition. Leone might have hated that. He preferred to let his images do the talking – not the actors. 
Kino has mercifully given us 2-Blu-rays instead of trying to cram both versions on a single disc.  Comparatively, Kino’s renderings of both cuts are cooler with a more subdued color palette. Leone might have preferred a more robust spectrum but it’s difficult to say how much closer this disc represents what audiences on both sides of the Atlantic saw back in 1966. The Techniscope image is very clean and crisp throughout with a light smattering of grain and good solid detail with both Leone’s close-ups, and panoramic vistas maintaining their depth and clarity. Black levels are suspect, seemingly brightened to the point where compression issues are often glaringly revealed.  We get 5.1 DTS English and 2.0 DTS English and Italian audio tracks. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was only ever released theatrically in mono. So the 2.0 sounds, if more heavy-handed, is thoroughly in keeping with Leone’s original sound field.  SFX are predictably harsh sounding. Let us be clear here: this is exactly the way the movie probably sounded in 1966.
Extras are mostly ported over from MGM/Fox’s previous Blu-ray releases. There are three audio commentaries: two on the extended cut – the first, a rather meandering one from critic, Richard Schickel and the far more comprehensive and fascinating listen by Leone biographer, Christopher Frayling. We also get historian, Tim Lucas weighing in on the virtues of the theatrical cut. I rather liked Lucas’ commentary – not as much as Frayling’s but infinitely better than Schickel’s.  The rest of the extras are brief and truncated: Leone’s West (20 min.) – with Richard Schickel, English translator, Mickey Knox, producer Alberto Grimaldi, and co-stars Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach; The Leone Style (23 min.) with more stories from the set; The Man Who Lost the Civil War (14 ½ min.) with historian, Peter Spiner; Reconstructing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (11 ¼-min.) comparative analysis of the theatrical vs. extended cuts; Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone (split into two tributes with music historian, John Burlingame (7 ¾ min. and 12 ½ min respectively). There’s also roughly 10 min. of deleted scenes and a pair of theatrical trailers. Virtually all of these extras are presented in abysmal 480p quality with a barrage of edge effects. They look awful! Bottom line: while I would have preferred the extras to at least have had some image stabilization applied, the transfer quality of both the theatrical and extended cuts of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is fairly impressive with minor caveats. Kino’s release is definitely the way to go for fans of this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

3.5 

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