I’ve been on a western kick lately, which has led me to revisit two of Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti westerns. Leone’s movies were, for my teenage self, some of the coolest things I’d ever seen, and in retrospect did double duty as an introduction to the western genre and to Italian genre films. But that was some time ago.
The first was also the most famous – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the third entry in the so-called Dollars trilogy (only a trilogy in the vague sense that Clint Eastwood is kinda sorta playing the same character, and that the aesthetic M.O. is similar. Variations on a theme is more appropriate).
Set during the American Civil War, Eastwood here is Blondie, aka the Good, who knows the name on a fake tombstone where a lot of money is buried, but not the cemetery. Eli Wallach is Tuco, aka the Ugly, who knows the location of the cemetery but not the tombstone. Lee Van Cleef is Angel Eyes, aka the Bad, and knows neither. All three seek the treasure and form dubious alliances with each other in pursuit of it.
All three are pretty selfish, and it’s only relative to each other that their nicknames kinda make sense, particularly with regard to how they interact with the civil war: Blondie is moved to some degree of pity, Tuco remains aloof and Angel Eyes sees it as another opportunity to exploit.
I have to wonder why I still like the movie, since it does some things here that I’ve grown to find a little tiresome. The gritty anti-hero may have seemed hot and fresh in 1966, but pop culture in subsequent decades has done the thing to death, and as I’ve mentioned before, equating venal characters with sophisticated writing strikes me as boring and lazy.
But for all the movie’s iconic, influential status, in spite of Eastwood in a poncho with a revolver being one of the most familiar images ever, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly still feels remarkably sui generis and unique among action movies.
For one, the movie never feels like an outright deconstruction of the mythic wild west in the way that, say, The Wild Bunch is. Rather, it switches out the fantasy of the Hollywood western for something equally (if not more) fantastical, recasting it as an outlandish, barbarian world dominated by ritualized violence and populated by larger than life figures. Out of the three main characters, only Tuco (who is, in spite of Eastwood’s presence, the real protagonist here) feels relatable on a normal level, and inasmuch as he does, he’s a tragic figure: a corrupted soul who turned to crime as an escape from poverty.
It is a myth, albeit not a terribly uplifting one. And it’s abetted by a peculiar, operatic style with a heavy emphasis on the stylization when it comes to action. Not even the lightsaber duels in Star Wars achieve the almost fetishistic sense of ritual and self-importance that the standoffs in Leone’s westerns do. Leonne builds up what amounts to a brief flash of barely-registered gunplay with long stretches of preparation, anticipation and waiting that become thrilling in their own right. I can’t think of another filmmaker who manages to make “nothing happening” as exciting as Leone does, and it strikes me as a uniquely cinematic achievement, relying entirely upon the photography, editing and sound to push the scene forward. This approach to action is reflected in the movie’s approach to its storytelling in general, extending what amounts to a very barebones plot to almost impossible lengths (It takes over an hour just to set up the treasure hunt) so that the tone, atmosphere and incidental detail are allowed to overwhelm everything else. It’s a long movie, but never wastefully so.
Again, it’s iconic and frequently parodied, but not imitated much: perhaps because to take such an ascetically severe approach to your movie requires a level of faith in the power of your craftsmanship that an imitator isn’t likely to have.
Once Upon a Time in the West puts that faith to the test. It’s a deeply flawed but interesting work that takes the aesthetic of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and stretches it to the point of breaking. Sequences which would already be long in that movie are now slow to the point of having a dreamlike, surreal quality to them.
Everyone always mentions the opening credits sequence, and indeed, it’s the coolest opening credits ever made by anyone, ever. If the rest of the movie kept up that degree of quality it’d be the greatest movie ever made. But what we’re actually given is something a lot more uneven, ranging from great to bad depending on which aspect you’re zeroing in on.
A young widower and his family are brutally murdered by hired killer Frank (Henry Fonda, perfectly cast against type) at the behest of ailing railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who needs to build his rails through the man’s property. A local bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is framed for the job.
Adding a wrinkle to the situation is the revelation that said widower secretly remarried, and so his wife, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town and takes charge of his estate. Also causing problems is a lone gunslinger nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson), who has some serious beef with Frank.
The movie takes about half its runtime to set all this up, which should indicate something of its priorities. But it doesn’t feel as elegant in its length as The Good The Bad and the Ugly, with a structure that at times feels self-indulgent or just outright bad: there’s a particular stretch in the middle where the editing gets so scrappy that it threatens the coherence of the story. I remember that the first time I watched it, I legitimately wondered if the DVD accidentally skipped over a couple of scenes.
Everything centered around Harmonica and Frank is amazing. Frank himself is one of the great movie villains, like Darth Vader but more unsettling because he wears Fonda’s rather affable likeness. We never find out what the deal with Harmonica is until the very end of the movie, which gives their relationship a fatalistic, archetypal quality: we know that these two are going to eventually duel because they’re the two epic gunslingers dressed in white and black respectively, a spirit of chaos and a spirit of vengeance colliding. Underlining this is an elegiac sense of encroaching modernity and the recognition that these archetypes are already beginning to fade into history.
But there’s also all the stuff with Cheyenne, who is a bit interesting as a portrait of a thoroughly disillusioned man, but his character arc feels amorphous and fulfilling, as if there are key scenes with him that we don’t have. Jill is even worse in that she’s just kinda…there. More of a plot device than an actual character, which isn’t helped by the kinda misogynistic way the movie treats her.
Those two characters take up a lot of screentime and always feel like a missed opportunity. It’s, again, a deeply flawed movie, but one where its high points are so high that it’s a worthwhile affair. Certainly it’s not flawed through any lack of ambition.
I’ve gone all this way, and I haven’t even managed to touch on Ennio Morricone’s iconic movie scores. Oh well.