Sunday, April 20, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Clint Eastwood's role as Rowdy Yates on the long-running western series 'Rawhide' made him a TV star.

It was Sergio Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy that made him a movie star.

'A Fistful of Dollars' established Eastwood's laconic, minimalistic big-screen persona ("get three coffins ready") and, building on his 'Rawhide' fanbase, inextricably linked him with the western. 'For a Few Dollars More' sealed the deal.

Then Leone made 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. Now don't get me wrong: Clint Eastwood is cool in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (or 'Il Buono, Il Bruto, Il Cattivo' to quote its indigenous title). Let's go even further: Clint Eastwood is fucking iconic. Clint Eastwood has always been one of my favourite actors, and his career behind the camera has been equally impressive.

I just wanted to make that clear. I don't want any misunderstandings. The next paragraph should in no way be interpreted as dissing Clint Eastwood. Okay? Right; here goes:

Eli Wallach owns 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. He rules it. He defines it. Eli Wallach as Tuco, the splendidly amoral Mexican bandido, acts as a perfect foil to both Eastwood's Man With No Name* and Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes and steals the film from both of them. He also gets all the best dialogue**, as well as providing a masterclass on how to turn profanity into high art. For instance:

To No Name, riding him into town trussed to a saddle, to collect $2,000 in reward money: "You'll pay for this. I hope you end up in the graveyard, with the cholera and the rabies and the plague ... You filthy bastard. I hope your mother ends up in a two-dollar whorehouse."

On No Name entering the sheriff's office only to be replaced in Tuco's line of sight by the sheriff himself: "Who the hell is this? One bastard go in and another one come out."

To No Name, as he collects the reward money: "You know what you are? You're the son of a thousand fathers, every one of them a bastard like you. And your mother, it is better that we do not speak of her."

To a particularly locquacious would-be assassion: "If you need to shoot, shoot - don't talk."

Wallach's performance is bigger than life - in a good way. He attacks the role with relish, tearing into it, a whirling dervish on the screen, full-blooded and going for it big style. It's a performance completely suited to Leone's style of film-making. At his best (and 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is Leone's best, with 'Once Upon a Time in the West' coming a close second), Leone's filmic landscapes, his characters, their dialogue and conflicts are bigger than life. But never exaggerated. Hyper-real would be a better description.

The Man With No Name isn't just a gunslinger: he's the gunslinger - he draws so fast it's a blur; the shots from his pistol seem louder than explosions; every bullet finds its target. Angel Eyes isn't just a mercenary killer: he's demonically driven, knocking around women and shooting men and children in pursuit of the information that will take him closer to the location of a horde of buried loot.

And Tuco isn't just a bandido: he's a one-man testament to amorality - listen out for his list of crimes the first time No Name saves him from the hangman's noose. Or how about his self-justification during a debate with his brother, a man who turned to the church: "You think you're better than me. I tell you something: where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder ... You became a priest because you are too much of a coward to do what I do."

'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' - a film where the Ugly grungily fits the description, the Bad is even badder than bad, and the Good is only the good because (a) he's marginally less of a bastard than the other two, and (b) Clint Eastwood's playing him - is a melting pot of amorality, antagonism and naked greed. It's for no small reason that one of the highlights of Ennio Morricone's score (surely the most instantly recognisable soundtrack in cinema history) is titled 'The Ecstacy of Gold'. With all of which played out against a backdrop of the civil war, Leone fashioned a film that, despite its violence and cynicism, is perversely beautiful. The script is dime-store poetry not just writ large, but writ to fill cinemascope! The visuals go from extreme close-ups to panoramic vistas within the blink of an eye. The whole thing is, to quote Quentin Tarantino, "cinematically perfect".

Films of this genre helmed by Italian directors were often cheap knock-offs of popular American titles, and were generally referred to, part-affectionately part-mockingly, as spaghetti westerns or horse operas. Leone bucked the trend and fashioned both a film and a unique directorial style that would inspire generations of film-makers down the decades, and remains just as influential today. But maybe those terms aren't necessarily derogatory. Let's reclaim them. 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is a spaghetti western in that it's as rich and filling and spicy as the best Italian meal you've ever eaten; a horse opera in that its director was the Giuseppe Verdi of cinema, bold and brilliant and dramatic, the pistol shots of his final showdown ringing out like the Anvil Chorus.

*A bit of a misnomer: in the credits to 'A Fistful of Dollars' he's called Joe, in 'For a Few Dollars More' he's called Monco, while Tuco in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' gives him the nickname Blondie.

**Same deal with 'The Magnificent Seven', in which Wallach again plays a bandit - best line (justifying his wholesale theft and terrorisation of the peasant villagers) "If God had not meant them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep." Ouch!

No comments: