Saturday, August 2, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (Il buono, il bruto, il cattivo, 1966)

In this world there are two kinds of antiwar movies: pacifist movies, and Sergio Leone's epic conclusion to his Clint Eastwood "Dollars" trilogy, which is no less antiwar for its reveling in man-to-man gunplay. There are moments in its three hours when each of the principal characters -- not just Eastwood's "Good" gunman and the late Eli Wallach's immortal Tuco, but also Lee Van Cleef's villain Angel Eyes -- registers dismay or disgust at the scale of destruction and carnage generated by the American Civil War. The U.S. advertising claimed that the War was just "practice" for these three, but the characters themselves might disagree. They are all violent, ruthless and greedy men, but war is beyond their comprehension. They see no point to it. Personal gain is the only justification for killing they can imagine. Tuco brags that he has a $3,000 price on his head and speculates that the Union Army "didn't even pay you a dollar" for a soldier's amputated arm. In this respect the Good (a con man who abandons his partner in the desert after calculating diminishing returns) isn't very different from the nearly amoral heroes of American westerns, not to mention some American war movies, but the typical American story has the hero redeem himself by making a larger cause his own. Joining the war completes a moral awakening in these cases. In the Leone film Tuco and Blondie (Eastwood) intervene in the war only to get it out of their way. If they can blow up a much fought-over bridge, the contending armies will disappear so they can cross the river unchallenged. On Blondie's part, if not on Tuco's, the gesture is also something of an act of compassion toward the drunken captain who had befriended them before getting mortally wounded and had fantasized about blowing the bridge despite orders to capture it intact. What makes Blondie the "Good," I suppose is this awakening of compassion, which extends to another mortally wounded soldier to whom he offers his coat and cheroot. Significantly, Blondie finds a serape near this victim and takes it for himself, transforming himself into the Man With No Name we remember from the previous Leone films. But Blondie's compassion extends only to those who have to fight for no good reason, as far as he can see. There is no sharing the treasure of the stolen payroll with Angel Eyes; Blondie will "earn" it by killing the Bad one -- who perhaps best displays his Badness through his easy infiltration of the Army as a prison officer waiting for the mysterious Bill Carson to fall into his lap. And while Blondie ultimately does share with Tuco, he can't resist teasing his sometime-partner in their typically vicious fashion, leaving him with only a wobbly tombstone standing between him and a hanging until the Good one reminds the Ugly of his marksmanship, shooting the rope apart in time for old time's sake. Maybe what makes the Good good is that he'll kill only with "good" reason -- the sort of reason a state can't have. The message to the rest of us might be: kill, or risk your life, only if you get something out of it.

This may be the ultimate statement of the amorality often thought to define spaghetti westerns. Leone himself would move on to a straightforward revenge story with an unambiguous hero, and then to a "Zapata" western with nearly the opposite message from GB&U, focusing on the radicalization of a Tuco-like bandit and his adoption of a higher cause. It may be significant that Duck You Sucker is easily Leone's worst western, that he was following the politicization of the genre (at least when set in Mexico) without really feeling it. He seems more comfortable with the scale of GB&U, in which the protagonists resist politicization and the petty feud between Blondie and Tuco so fascinates him that more than an hour goes by before the plot of the picture really gets going. This is where Leone begins messing with audiences by slowing things down. Angel Eyes's early visit with a doomed soldier, when he sits down to share the man's dinner and we see him devour every spoonful, is in the director's protracted "Once Upon a Time" mode. At other points, most notably Tuco's famous race through the cemetery, Leone seems to stretch the scene to suit Ennio Morricone's music. Either way, length creates atmosphere and manipulates mood. If there's an objective standard to apply, GB&U is really too long, especially with the restored scenes redubbed by an elderly Eastwood and Wallach and a bad Van Cleef impersonator. But maybe you can't cut footage (apart from what had been cut for the initial U.S. release) without cutting from the film's distinctive character.

More than Leone's masterpiece, this is Eli Wallach's monument. With Eastwood trapped in the Good role (and unable yet to act his way out of the trap) and Van Cleef much diminished from his star-making turn in Leone's previous film, GB&U is Tuco's show. What makes Tuco Ugly, apart from his obvious physical shortcomings? Why is he a Rat while Blondie is a Pig? It's hard to judge one man the moral superior of the other; they backstab one another with equal relish at every opportunity. We turn to Angel Eyes for some clarification: Tuco is no less tough, but less smart than Blondie. How smart is Tuco? On one hand, he can barely sound out the word "unknown" on a tombstone. Yet in the "Ecstasy of Gold" sequence he races through the cemetery at such speed that the audience registers the tombstones as a pure blur, yet Tuco is obviously processing all the names at some superhuman rate until he finds Arch Stanton. Both Blondie and Angel Eyes see Tuco as an idiot -- Angel sees both his antagonists that way, despite his compliment to Blondie's intelligence -- but Tuco has the film's most famous moment of common sense: "When you draw a gun, shoot, don't talk." Tuco bears the brunt of the film's slapstick, though he gets some revenge on Blondie in the desert, but he's also the nearest to a sympathetic character of the three principals, the one with the most backstory and a hint of pathos in his past. We can root for Blondie but Leone seems to want us to feel for Tuco. Yet Blondie is the character most capable of feeling for others, even if he's not very capable. Tuco lacks compassion; finding Blondie doing their old con with a new partner, he takes Blondie away at gunpoint and leaves Blondie's new partner to hang. Blondie himself doesn't seem too torn up about it, but he has his own problems at that moment and the partner was new. But Blondie seems to learn compassion along the way while Tuco doesn't. Even so, Blondie is probably always too cool (rather than good) for us to care much for, while to the end we empathize with Tuco and maybe echo his closing opinion that Blondie is still a no-good son of a AHHH-AHHHHH-AHHH!!! And maybe that's how Leone had come to feel about the Eastwood character after three films, and maybe Eastwood realized that and, seeing diminishing returns, abandoned Leone for Hollywood and ultimate auteurship in his own right. This may still be a "Man With No Name" movie, but above all it's the one with Tuco, and it was good to see it on a big screen at the Madison Theater in Albany this weekend, with Eli Wallach's performance appropriately larger than life.

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