THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: 50 Years Later

29 Dec

Today, December 29th, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the New York City premiere of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the third film in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy of Italian westerns starring Clint Eastwood (whose character actually has names in the first two films but is only called “Blondie” in the third). In honor of the occasion, I pulled out my old 1998 MGM DVD edition, mercifully unrestored and just like it was when it played in New York theaters back then, and watched it. (I paid several visits to see it on the big screen in 1969-72 and again, years later, when it played the Film Forum.) I even recently found the original Elgin Theater schedule that announced the triple bill of this film with two films by Sam Peckinpah, THE WILD BUNCH and THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, a seven-and-a-half-hour program which I attended on Saturday, January 29, 1972 with two friends from the Bronx.

I first saw the film at the Victoria Theater on Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square on a weekday afternoon in October 1969 after school had let out. (My school, the High School of Performing Arts, was half-a-block away). I would see the first two films in the trilogy,  A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, for the first time a few months later at the theater next door, the Astor. I would eventually see all three films, along with Eastwood’s first post-Leone Hollywood starring western, HANG ‘EM HIGH, at the Astor in a memorable quadruple feature in 1971. Here are shots of those theaters as seen in the 1971 film, SHAFT.

For the record, I am not a fan of the 2003 “restoration” of this film which added unnecessary “deleted” scenes that completely destroyed the carefully constructed rhythm of the film and added redubbed dialogue by the 36-years-older voices of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, plus someone dubbing the late Lee Van Cleef. Took me right out of the film. I saw the “restoration” once and have no plans to ever see it again.

Aside from the issue of the restoration, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is the only Leone film I’ve never had misgivings about. It was just as good this viewing as it was when I first saw it and on every umpteenth viewing since—on the big screen, television, VHS and DVD. Every shot, every camera move, every edit, and every note of music in Ennio Morricone’s score is just right.

I was especially impressed with two things this time. Eli Wallach gives a very sensuous performance, i.e. one marked by constant use of all five senses as he interacts with his environment and other characters, looking, listening, touching, tasting, and smelling. Watch the way he sniffs and examines the items he plucks from the pockets of dead soldiers he finds in a wagon. Or the way he looks over the different pistols at a gunshop he’s about to rob, taking them apart, putting different pieces together, looking through the barrels, sniffing the cylinder and listening to the sound it makes when he turns it. Or the way he enters a bath chamber in an abandoned hotel and decides to use the full tub for himself, looking at each of the bath powders on top of a dresser, sniffing and deciding to add them to the water, and then the way he plays with the suds in the bath. He is constantly engaging with his environment, all of his senses ever alert, even hearing a would-be assassin making his way stealthily through the debris to the bath chamber. His Tuco dominates the film and is clearly its central character, even providing the film’s most significant emotional core in the scene where he reunites with his brother, Father Ramirez (Luigi Pistilli), a priest at a remote mission church who treats him with scorn. Tuco lashes back and even slaps him, calling him a coward for taking the easy way out of poverty and not having the guts to do what Tuco did. Blondie (Eastwood) witnesses all this from hiding and says nothing when Tuco later gives a much rosier account of the reception his brother gave him.

Wallach also gives a very physical performance in which he’s doubled only for the major stunts, like falling off a horse after a cannon blast. He and Eastwood are in the thick of a lot of rugged action including a Civil War battle where the two decide to blow up the bridge that the two sides are fighting over, all so they can get across the river without interference and find the cemetery where the money that they’re seeking is hidden. Tuco gets hung by a rope a couple of times (invariably getting freed when Blondie shoots the rope as part of a scheme to collect the reward money for Tuco over and over again) and it’s Wallach, not a stunt man, who gets trussed up each time. Eastwood and Wallach spend a lot of time under the hot sun in the Spanish desert where those scenes were shot and, later, when they get to the cemetery, Wallach runs frantically around the entire expanse desperately searching for the grave marker that’s supposed to be housing the stolen loot. Tuco also gets horribly beaten (by Mario Brega as a sadistic Union Army guard) in the Union Army prison camp, on the orders of Angel Eyes (Van Cleef).

I was also awed by the massive sets built for the film and the sheer number of them. In each case, I got a sense of the place and the living conditions, or lack thereof, that its occupants had to deal with in the 1862 Southwest, whether the sprawling prison camp, the battlefield, the various towns the characters pass through, or the bombed-out town where Blondie and Tuco reunite and take on the gunmen sent by Angel Eyes. At one point, Tuco enters the ruins of a hotel that had been blasted by artillery and prowls through the rooms and up the stairs till he finds a standing tub of water and decides to take a bath, complete with soap powder. He was followed into the building and silently stalked by a one-armed man (Al Mulock) whom Tuco had shot and left for dead in the film’s opening scene. There are numerous obstacles in the way caused by the debris and destruction and it’s all built on a soundstage, yet it looks real and the camera follows the men through it all.

Just out of curiosity, I went to the IMDB page for this film and looked in the Goofs section, which lists inaccuracies, bloopers, blunders and errors. Aside from all the trivia from gun buffs complaining about the anachronistic pistols and rifles on display throughout the film, I was struck by all the reports of cars, parked or in motion, and passing crewmen in the backgrounds of certain shots. I re-checked the film and while I did see moving figures in the distance of a couple of the shots indicated, I never saw a motor vehicle, moving or stationary. I imagine there’s some high-definition transfer of this film released since my copy that allows much more information from the original image to show up on screen, all of which would have been matted out or blocked in theatrical showings or previous transfers.

Here are some of the entries in the “Goofs” section and corresponding shots:

You can see a car passing by in the background when Tuco is balancing on the cross in the graveyard in the end of the movie.

When Tuco is balancing himself on the cross at the end of the movie, a motor vehicle is visible on the right. It is moving right to left.

When Blondie is lifting the heavy bags of gold to load them on his horse, you can see a parked car on the far left.

Right after the scene where Blondie places the rock in the middle of the courtyard, (presumably containing the name of the grave), there is a close-up shot of Angel Eyes’ face lasting about one second. To the right of Angel Eyes’ head, you can see a person running in the far background. They are moving right to left.

Blondie is seen shooting Tuco’s rope with a Sharps 1874, 12 years too late for the film’s setting.

When Angel Eyes first enters Stevens’ house, an electrical tower can be seen in the background over his left shoulder.

I saw movement in some of the shots, but only because I was looking for it. It’s certainly not a “goof,” since it’s not at all inconceivable that some stray soldier wasn’t wandering the hills in the aftermath of the battle. And although that “electrical tower” may be visible in the shot mentioned in the last entry, I never would have recognized it as such, nor would I have noticed it. Maybe it’s much clearer in a high-def viewing, but we certainly didn’t see these “goofs” in our big-screen viewings. In any event, I’m glad I’ve stuck with my 1998 “unrestored” DVD edition. Sometimes not everything needs to be seen so clearly.

There’s one more thing I noticed on this viewing. The film identifies the “Good” as Eastwood, the “Bad” as Van Cleef, and the “Ugly” as Wallach. The theatrical trailer, however, labels Wallach the “Bad” and Van Cleef the “Ugly,” both in the narration accompanying the trailer and in the text over their images. Sounds like a miscommunication between the U.S. post-production team and the United Artists marketing department at the time.

From the film:

From the trailer:

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