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Posts Tagged ‘Lee Van Cleef’

There are, as they say, two kinds of people in this world: those who can think of a witty and original gag for the opening line of a review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the rest of us. But hey ho. The conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (working title apparently River of Dollars, though I also like Garth Ennis’ quasi-suggestion of A Coffinful of Dollars) made its first appearance in 1966, when Clint Eastwood was just on the threshhold of proper major stardom, a state which he has managed to maintain without too much effort for the nearly fifty years since the film came out. There’s nothing like getting off to a good start, is there, and it is somewhat ironic that Eastwood himself was deeply reluctant to do yet another spaghetti western (and indeed refused to take part in further Leone projects like Once upon a Time in the West). Critics were initially fairly sniffy about the film, but its reputation as one of the greatest westerns ever made has grown down the years, which is no doubt why it is still receiving swanky restorations and revivals nearly five decades on.

gbuThe plot of Leone’s epic tale is somewhat convoluted, unfolds at a fairly languid pace, and is not entirely essential to the success of the venture. As the American civil war rages in the background, the film follows three drifters as they go about their business: Blondie (Eastwood), Angel-Eyes (Lee van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach). Blondie and Tuco initially have a deal where Blondie repeatedly turns Tuco in for the bounty on his head, gets the money, and then rescues him from the hangman so they can both do a runner, but this not entirely surprisingly turns sour and leaves Tuco questing for a brutal revenge. Angel-Eyes, meanwhile, has business of his own, trying to track down a huge treasure which has gone missing in the fog of war.

Their paths cross when Blondie and Tuco meet the only man who knows the location of the gold, shortly before he dies. Both of them end up knowing half of the treasure’s location, which makes them potentially very rich men, provided they can put their mutual antipathy on hold long enough to track it down. However, this also puts them squarely in Angel-Eyes’ sights, and he is even less noted for his sweet and reasonable nature than they are…

Time and its own influence have probably robbed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of much of its impact: Eastwood may have been ambivalent about his association with Leone, but it’s a connection which fundamentally informs his own work in the western genre. Seriously bright people such as Rich Hall scorn Leone’s westerns as empty jokes, and in a way it’s easy to see why: if you look at the classic American western, it is all about the classic values of the country. The west is a place for principled and heroic self-realisation, a place of freedom and potential. The west in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on the other hand, is a desolate wasteland where the only certainty is violent death, and moral alignments are just labels on empty bottles.

This film works on some level as a very black comedy, and one of the main ironies is in the title. Blondie may be tagged on-screen as good, Angel-Eyes as bad, and Tuco as ugly, but realistically there is very little to choose between them: they all three share a high degree of moral flexibility and a staggeringly lethal level of skill at gunfighting, and they are all only really motivated by the desire for money. Everything else is really just a grace note in their characterisation – Blondie occasionally expresses a little compassion for the men caught up in the war, and Angel-Eyes seems to rather enjoy killing and torturing people, but there really isn’t much to choose between them. They are both detached, rather emblematic figures, in any case: compared to them, Tuco may come across as a sort of oafish, demented rodent, but he is still by far the most humanised of the trio. We learn much more of his background and character, mainly because he probably talks more than the other two put together. If he is ugly, it is because of his very humanity and frailty compared to the others.

This could be taken for evidence of the cynicism of Leone’s film, which seems to be dismissive of conventional morality – this is a story about three very greedy, very violent men, after all. The civil war is presented stripped of any moral context, any sense of it being a struggle between good and evil: it is just pointless, bloody chaos through which the leads move – they treat it more as an inconvenience than anything else. But it seems to me that this is not a wholly cynical film: there are repeated scenes where the camera tracks along great numbers of wounded men from the war, usually accompanied by some of the most soaring and emotive sections of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The film may scorn morality, but it is not entirely without compassion: even Eastwood’s character comments on the pointless waste of life he observes in the war. In the end I would say the film is profoundly cynical rather than totally amoral.

Leone’s conception of the film is distinctive – especially by 1960s standards, when John Wayne was still making westerns – and it is matched by his realisation of it. There is a curious convention at work where anything not actually on the screen is totally invisible to any of the characters (Blondie and Tuco saunter along at one point, completely oblivious – it would seem – to the vast military encampment just to their left, until the camera pans onto it, anyway) and the rest of the film shares this non-naturalistic sensibility. Much of the time people are either tiny specks off in the distance, or enormous sweaty faces overfilling the entire screen, and Leone seems very comfortable just telling a story with images and music rather than dialogue. He is, of course, more than ably assisted by Ennio Morricone, whose legendary operatic score is central to the success of the movie. It’s true that at times the music sounds like full-scale war has broken out between Hank Marvin and a mariachi band, but this is still an incredible score – many people who’ve never even seen the movie will know the central theme within a few seconds of hearing the first note.

Pictures and music come together to extraordinary effect in the film’s set pieces, mainly towards the end of the story. The climactic three-way gunfight largely consists of extreme close-ups of people’s hands and eyes not really doing very much, while Morricone’s music goes berserk over the top of it, but even better – if you ask me – is a sequence a little earlier in which Tuco searches a graveyard for the treasure. As his excitement builds, so does the music, and as the music builds so the cutting of the picture and the movement of the camera both accelerate, to an almost frenzied level. Conventional storytelling it isn’t, but it is still hugely impressive film-making.

You could probably have a go at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for its violence, its cynicism, and its near-total lack of female characters, but I think this is all to some extent a matter of taste. For me, it isn’t really a contender for the title of best film ever made, or even the best western, but it is still the product of a singular and coherent vision, as well as more than satisfying the requirements of its genre. While you’re watching it, you’re always aware you’re watching a piece of art, but you’re also being thoroughly entertained – and that’s what I call a good time.

 

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Writing about Dracula AD 1972 a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the slightly odd phenomenon of good films being made to cash in on the success of bad ones. I’m not sure this necessarily applies in the case of the film under discussion now, but – well, you’ll see what I mean as we go on.

I find I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm to complete our recent run of Christopher Lee-and-Hammer-themed reviews by revisiting To the Devil a Daughter – especially not when there’s a stack of classic 50s B-movies sitting demanding my attention. So let us begin with Eugene Lourie’s (fairly) seminal 1953 monster movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Our story opens in the arctic north, where a team of US scientists and military personnel are engaged in a experimental operation with the codename Operation: Experiment. If nothing else this suggests that US government code-name writers of the 1950s were not quite up to scratch. However, everything else is working just fine and the plan to drop an atom bomb on the north pole goes like a dream. Quite what the benefit of doing this is to anyone involved is never made clear, but this is a film operating in a different, rather more innocent world.

This is not to say that all is cheerful. The tone is distinctly ominous: ‘every time I see one of those things go off, I feel like I’m writing a chapter in a new book of Genesis!’ says one character. Atomic energy still carries a dreadful mystique for these people. This turns out to be entirely warranted as it transpires Operation: Experiment has defrosted a giant reptile that was frozen under the ice cap. The creature slips into the Arctic Ocean and heads south for its ancestral stamping grounds, which just happen to be in the vicinity of New York City (yes, this film predates current thinking on continental drift as well as radiological theory).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the only witness of the creature’s first appearance has no evidence and is (not unreasonably) shipped off back to New York in a rubber plane when he persists in talking about monsters. He is Tom Nesbitt (a slightly odd name for someone who’s clearly of mittel-European origin, but then he is played by Swiss actor Paul Christian) and he spends most of the next half hour trying to get evidence that the beast is real before a genuine catastrophe occurs. In the meantime the beast is swimming merrily south, chowing down on fishing boats and lighthouses on the way.

With the aid of a genial and cuddly old paleontologist, who keeps reminding everyone he’s just about to take his first holiday in thirty years, and who might as well have DOOMED tattooed across his forehead, Nesbitt persuades his old army buddy (Kenneth Tobey, who we’ll be meeting again when we look at the original Thing From Another World) that the danger is real. However, this is just too late as the beast is already on the verge of attacking New York itself…

It’s hard to be really objective about a film so old and influential. The plot, by modern standards, is rather creaky and cliched, but this is the film that coined many of the cliches, writing much of the grammar of the monster movie genre. One notable deviation from this, however, is the way that the beast puts in a full appearance very early on. This appears to be a trademark of producer Hal Chester: the same thing happens near the beginning of Night of the Demon, another of his films.

That said, it’s not really around very much until the final act, when it runs amok in the streets of New York and we get a proper look at Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent animation. Harryhausen opts to invent his own kind of dinosaur, the rhedosaurus, and as you might have guessed it’s unlikely to get the seal of approval from genuine paleontologists for all sorts of reasons, the great man animating his own preferences rather than attempting something properly realistic. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff compared to some of the stunning work Harryhausen was to do in the sixties, but it does the job, in a film which is markedly less campy in tone than you’d expect from the subject matter.

There’s a lot of atom-age terror going on here, as you could probably have guessed, although none of it quite as hysterical (and unintentionally funny) as in the trailer – ‘Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers?’ yells a caption, while talking heads of average people give measured opinions such as ‘Who knows what waits for us in nature’s no-man’s-land?‘ and ‘Impossible? Unbelievable? Fantastic? But I tell you – it could happen!‘ One almost gets the impression of modern civilisation being crushed between the primeval threat of the beast and the ominous new menace of the atomic age.

However, the movie doesn’t quite succumb to techno-fear, and in the process neatly answers the ‘why don’t they just use heavy artillery to kill the monster?’ problem which routinely bedevils this kind of film. The beast, you see, is loaded with prehistoric viruses to which modern life has no resistance. Blowing it up would just scatter infectious material everywhere. The solution is to shoot the creature with a radioactive bullet (the sharpshooter recruited is a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef, who seems slightly disgruntled to be appearing in this kind of film), the implication being that while science may spawn the odd monster, it’s also full of ideas for getting rid of them too.

This movie, though by no means a masterpiece, essentially stakes out the territory for most of the classic monster movies that followed (director Lourie went on to direct one of my personal favourites, the 1961 British suitamation movie Gorgo, which is basically a rehash-with-a-twist of this film). But perhaps its greatest legacy lies in the fact that it was a smash hit in Japan, inspiring Toho Studios to make their own film about a rampaging prehistoric creature unleashed by a nuclear blast, the result being a legendary icon of which the world has not yet heard the last. (Rather appropriately, there are some startling similarities between the first section of the American Godzilla and Beast, as the idea comes full circle.) On its own terms, though, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a fun and competent movie which takes itself just seriously enough, and knows better than to outstay its welcome.

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