Revisiting Leone's vulgar masterpiece

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Age-Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Leone
171 minutes, Rated MA 15+

‘The Americans have always depicted the West in extremely romantic terms – with a horse that runs to his master’s whistle. They have never treated the West seriously, just as we have never treated ancient Rome seriously.’ – Sergio Leone

Just how seriously Leone was treating the West can be inferred from the fact that in the first hour of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), about eight men have their hats shot off their heads, including Clint Eastwood.

As the Man with No Name, Eastwood does most of the fancy shootin’. It’s part of a scam he’s pulling with Tuco Ramirez (Eli Wallach), a Tex-Mex badass who’s wanted in every spithole west of the Pecos (wherever that is). When he double crosses Tuco, Tuco tracks him down and turns the tables, which is when Clint’s own hat bites the dust.

Of course, the flying hats are meant to be funny; it’s part of the charm of TGTBATU that it is so innocently funny, with gags dating back to silent film comedy (Leone’s parents were both silent film actors). Eli Wallach is hilarious as ‘the ugly’, a man so governed by greed for gold that he will go through any hardship or humiliation to get it (he’s the Gollum of the spaghetti western). Lee Van Cleef is less funny as ‘the bad’, a hired gun who kills a father and boy in the second scene. Eastwood plays ‘the good’ but clearly, it’s relative. Early on, he leaves Tuco to die in the desert.

And yet, there is a degree of seriousness underneath TGTBATU that’s not there in the two earlier films in his spaghetti western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More). It’s because Leone is able to work on a bigger canvas, with the backdrop of the American Civil War. Having started directing in 1959 with B-grade sword and sandal flicks, Leone was becoming more confident and serious with each film. Some fans believe TGTBATU was the peak of his career. I prefer his next film, Once Upon A Time In The West, in which he lets women into his world, but TGTBATU is a mighty movie and a landmark in film history. Without Leone there would be no Tarantino and maybe no John Woo. Whether that’s a good thing is something one could argue about, but this is probably the film that best shows Leone’s style. It’s pure, in its very impure way. By which I mean it’s a picture about the worst that men can do, made lovingly by a man who loved his medium.

Once again, he uses a familiar structure – three violent men competing for a pile of gold – but the Civil War setting allows him to say a lot more. This restoration, which puts back about 20 minutes of material excised from the 3-hour Italian version before international release, makes clearer what Leone was trying to say. He had lived through Fascism and the Nazi occupation of Italy. He had seen the good, the bad and the ugly at first hand and this is partly a film about what war does to people. I say partly because the war doesn’t change the three main characters – they are unredeemable at the start of the picture and the same at the end (the two left standing anyway). They are all killers whose only interest is to find $200,000 in Confederate gold that’s buried in a cemetery. (The clever plot hook is that none of them knows all the details necessary to find it, so they have to keep each other alive).

The war does change everything around them, though. It’s a major inconvenience to their gold lust. In the 161-minute US release version, it never seemed to touch their hearts, but this new version shows that Leone intended something a little more nuanced. The restoration puts back a scene of Lee Van Cleef encountering the aftermath of a battle; even he is shocked at the rows and rows of dead and wounded men. It’s the only moment of humanity in his performance, but United Artists in 1968 felt we could do without it.
Leone’s style isn’t naturalism, more a kind of earthy pictorialism akin to silent films or the graphic design of comic books. His extreme close-ups, mannered use of hat rims to hide his characters’ eyes, behind-the-spurs low camera angles, and above all, his use of Ennio Morricone’s music, are all flagrantly self-conscious. They scream artificiality, and this has been very influential among contemporary film-makers. Leone is the padrone to a school of directors for whom high style and excess go together – but not many of them have his humour.

Funnily enough, spaghetti westerns did not start out to be stylish. They were a stop-gap strategy for Italian producers when American productions stopped coming to Cinecitta, the Roman studios, in the late 1950’s. Mostly shot in Spain, they were aimed at southern Italian audiences, where the Western had always been popular. It was peasant cinema, made for illiterate audiences – just like Hollywood westerns in the silent era. About 25 others had already been made before Leone made his first one in 1964, and the genre was on the way out. Leone revived it, largely through the force of his extraordinary visual imagination – what Bernardo Bertolucci called ‘a mixture of great vulgarity along with great sophistication’.

Seeing the new material is wonderful – hearing it, less so. Some English dialogue was not recorded at the time because of the 20 minutes cut for the US version. MGM/UA restorer John Kirk got Eastwood and Wallach to redub their missing lines, but the sound is very uneven. Some of the dialogue on this new print sounds like it was recorded over the telephone – which is inexplicable with today’s technology