Cumartesi, Eylül 02, 2006

Sergio Leone's Man with No Name Trilogy

Roger Ebert points out, in his "Great Movies" review of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that the famed "Man with No Name Trilogy" by Sergio Leone isn't really about a man with no name, and could possibly be about 3 different characters; Eastwood is "Joe" in the first film, A Fistful of Dollars, "Monco" in For a Few Dollars More, and "Blondie" in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Well, yes. But Blondie is clearly just a nickname because the guy has no other name to go by. Furthermore, we can assume by the titles that Few Dollars More is a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, so the always-poncho'd Eastwood is playing the same fella; the fact that he uses a different name in each film implies they're only aliases. He is, after all, a cold-blooded killer.

The fact that he is a cold-blooded killer, yet by default the hero, is just what makes the Dollars/No Name trilogy so much fun. He frequently shoots people in dishonorable ways simply because they'd kill him first. Sure, he kills for the money, but he is hunting down the grimiest, sweatiest, black-toothed villains in screen history.

I saw Fistful of Dollars many years ago, on TV, cropped, and with commercials, I'm sure. I found it exciting at first, and then sort of dull. I always wanted to return to Leone, but thought I'd grown out of it before I got a chance. Like most folks these days, I didn't think I had much time for Westerns, not with all the great novels to read and the acquired pretensions of college. It was only when I started my "Primer" project of watching first 100, then 500 films, that I came to love the genre. I even loved John Wayne movies, something that seemed as likely as suddenly coming to love Elvis. But it wasn't Wayne that I loved so much as his directors and the vehicles in which they placed him: Stagecoach, the iconic and prototypical Western, is thrilling thanks not just to Wayne, John Carradine, and the other players, but because John Ford knew how to pace the action with the nostalgic prairie scenes, just as he does with The Searchers; Red River, which I will always think of as "my favorite Western except for the last, terrible ten minutes," glows with Howard Hawks' striking use of characterization, which he applies to more sardonic effect in Rio Bravo. All of these films I adore, in addition to the non-Waynes Destry Rides Again, Seven Men from Now, Winchester '73, and The Gunfighter. Now I'm more of a typical film buff, in that I'm always open to watching a Western when it comes on TV.

The Leones work much better with all that preface of film history. He subverts every Western trope, strips them (mostly) of their nostalgia, and gets right down to the nitty-gritty. When you see Eastwood, his unshaven face that seems to be chiseled, the squint, the teeth chomping down on the cigar (always), you're amazed at how iconic and original the image is, like a moment out of one of Kubrick's 60's films, instant film history. It arrives out of nowhere. Yes, James Stewart was playing some cold-blooded folks in Anthony Mann films, but at least he had a stuttering, soft-spoken history in films with which audiences could identify; Eastwood, inexplicable, is capable of anything.

A Fistful of Dollars--like all the "spaghetti Westerns" (a genre that began here)--was an Italian production set in the American West, filmed in Spain and Italy, and entirely dubbed. The dubbing was a thing of necessity for Italian productions: low-flying planes near Rome's Cinecitta studios made live recording virtually impossible. Regardless, Eastwood provides his own voice on the English track, and his words match his lips, so it's not too distracting. (It helps that his lips don't move much, with that cigar perpetually in his mouth.) The film, like The Magnificent Seven, is a Western remake of a Kurosawa samurai film. While The Magnificent Seven borrowed just the outline of The Seven Samurai, Leone's film copies Kurosawa's Yojimbo very closely--so much so that if you'd only read the screenplay, and didn't bear witness to Eastwood, Leone, and composer Ennio Morricone, you'd think the film unremarkable. A man whose only talent is killing arrives in an isolated town run by two rival gangs; essentially, a powderkeg. The killer, desperate for cash, decides to maximize his profits by working for both sides, playing one against the other. Eventually, the plan backfires, and he's beaten and tortured to death's door, only to recover just enough strength to enact a revenge. The reason Kurosawa's films were among the first Japanese films to become popular in America is that his characters, setting, and style were not so foreign; films such as The Hidden Fortress deliberately transposed American genre trappings into Eastern culture, so naturally they can easily be adapted back into a Western culture. Leone's love of American genres rivalled Kurosawa's, and so A Fistful of Dollars, this bizarre Euro-American-Japanese hybrid works like a charm.

But let's get to the point: it's Leone's show, and his distinctive over-stylization, defined by its quick and detailed cutting, so that every action scene is dissected into pieces like the shower scene in Psycho, is matched only by Morricone's score, which deliberately imitated the form of pop music. Morricone's music, when heard in full on a soundtrack CD, is actually just a really solid Western score, with plenty of harmonica, fiddle, and even a square dance number. Of course, no one remembers that. It's the opening titles that Morricone made so iconic; animated--showing gunslingers blowing each other away--they're set to Morricone's whistling Western pop song with no lyrics except for the occasional shout of...something, I'm not sure ("Whip that flag?" "Wave that bat?"). Originally conceived as a lullaby, Morricone transformed it into one of the most famous pieces of Western film music of all time, only surpassed by his theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

For all this, Fistful does drag a bit, even to these adult eyes. (To be fair, so did Yojimbo.) The sequel, For a Few Dollars More, has nothing to do with the sequel to Yojimbo, which is probably a wise choice, as Sanjuro would not have made for great Leone; instead, it slightly improves on the original by keeping one's interest held throughout. Lee Van Cleef plays a bounty hunting rival to Eastwood's returning gunfighter--they're so well-matched that in the film's most memorable sequence, they face off in a deserted townsquare at night by simply shooting at each other's hats, like two animals snapping their jaws to prove their ferocity without actually inflicting harm. They're both pursuing "El Indio" (Gian Maria Volonte), a psychotic killer recently escaped from prison, and plotting a major bank heist. (For some reason, the biggest bank in the Old West, and his intended target, is in a deserted village with no discernable commerce.) After a long courtship, Eastwood and Van Cleef reluctantly team up and hatch a plan: Eastwood will infiltrate El Indio's gang as one of their own, while Van Cleef will wait in ambush near the bank. How their plan unfolds--and unravels--is one of the real joys of Fistful, so I won't spoil it. Needless to say, it all comes down to another shootout in the street, but this time it's between Van Cleef and El Indio, who will both draw when a tiny music box winds down. With For a Few Dollars More, you can sense Leone attempting something slightly greater, with deeper characterization and more emotional impact. For one thing, the villain has a crippling anguish over something in his own history, which is gradually revealed through the course of the film--a technique that will be repeated, to better effect, in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Eastwood pretty much sits the climax out, though he has a great final scene.

When Leone made the final film in what was now a "trilogy," the first two films had been such an international success that he had a much larger budget with which to work. Appropriately, the scope of the film is expanded: at almost three hours in its recently-restored "director's cut," it's a veritable epic. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are defined on-screen in the opening twenty minutes of the film (a really long opening credits sequence, really). Surprisingly, Van Cleef here returns as "the Bad," and it took me a space to realize he's not playing the same character as in the last film; a relief, really, as that character would have had to take a pretty tragic turn to become this bad--on the trail of a treasure, he kills innocents in cold blood in the opening minutes of the film. "The Ugly" is, unflatteringly, Eli Wallach, the character actor who had played the villain in The Magnificent Seven. A scoundrel with a preposterous criminal record, he works with Eastwood to perform a scam on one town, then the next: get arrested so that Eastwood collects the reward, prepare to get hanged, and get freed by Eastwood at the last second, so they can split the cash. The problem, as Wallach belatedly realizes, is that too much of the scam depends upon Eastwood following through on his side of the bargain, and as Eastwood leaves Wallach high and dry in the middle of the desert, the words "The Good" brand Eastwood as he prepares to ride off, a devilish grin on his face. This is Leone's world, where there is no purity to be found, but shades of gray at best.

One of the reasons that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is my favorite of the trilogy is that it's a quest narrative, and I'm nothing if not a big sucker for those. Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef are all after some stolen gold buried in a Confederate grave. Eastwood and Wallach both stumble across the gold's location, although because of (improbable) circumstances, neither can find it entirely on his own, forcing them into an awkward partnership, each ready to betray the other should the opportunity arise. Van Cleef has been hunting the gold from the start, and smugly attempts to manipulate the two killers to reach it. That's all there is to the plot. What's left is an episodic journey in which positions of power shift among the three, and we see a Wild West torn to tatters by the Civil War. Long stretches pass without shootouts, but when they come, they're exciting as hell. The final showdown is stylized--and drawn out--to such an extent that you think Leone wanted to make this the Last Spaghetti Western Ever. It wasn't, but it's still the best.

The keen interest in amorality gives the Leone Westerns a direct connection to the heritage of American Westerns, despite the fact that his use of amorality is meant to subvert that heritage. After all, the best Hollywood Westerns were existential dramas, in which the "right thing to do" isn't always so obvious, particular when the Law is so often in a helpless position, if not completely absent. On one end of the spectrum, there's a B-movie like Tin Star, with Anthony Perkins as a spineless sheriff who needs to learn from Henry Fonda to be a bully, if not a killer, in order to save the town from bandits and act as a force of good. On the other, there's the John Wayne of Red River, a good guy who becomes the villain when his ideology and anger conquer his reason and his morality. More distinctly existential is The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck as a wanted man who's reformed his gunslingin' ways, but can't return home to the girl he loves, since every would-be Billy the Kid wants to be known as the one who finally shot him: dread drapes this film even more effectively than in High Noon.

But yeah, the heroes of Leone's Westerns might be wounded by a trauma in their past, as Charles Bronson's character is in Once Upon a Time in the West, but they don't anguish over whether or not to shoot somebody. In that sense, Leone's films belong to the second stage of Westerns, dominated not just by his films but by Sam Peckinpah's. In this stage, the life of violence is the issue to be explored. (I see a third stage to be vaguely defined by McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the recently-cancelled HBO masterpiece, Deadwood.)

My wife was quick to point out that there's no prominent female characters in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the women are relegated to roles as extras; for this reason, she prefers Once Upon a Time in the West to this film, though she enjoyed both greatly. I think Leone thought women would complicate the already stripped-down motivations of the characters: these guys are after money, and women would give them something else to fight over. At three hours, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is astoundingly simple--as all Westerns are. Nothing Dickensian about the Old West. In the vast, uncluttered landscape that Leone imagined, men stand in silhouette in clouds of dust, wait for the hyena-like Morricone music to suddenly silence, draw, take the cash, and ride off. Amazing how many playful permutations Leone could find in these three films, or that he could turn it all into something resembling profundity! There's no shame in loving these films.

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