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Posts Tagged ‘Sergio Leone’

In the early 1960s the American actor Richard Harrison was living in Italy and had carved out a bit of a niche for himself starring in movies there, including the very first of what are now known as spaghetti westerns. The makers of a new movie in that genre approached Harrison with a view to his appearing in it, but not having enjoyed his previous experience, the actor declined. So the director asked him to recommend another actor who could conceivably carry a new kind of western. Harrison, a veteran performer with over 120 films to his credit, nowadays wryly comments that his response may have constituted his single greatest contribution to cinema, both as an industry and an art form.

The director was Sergio Leone, the film was A Fistful of Dollars (Italian title Per un pugno di dollari, while – somewhat curiously – the on-screen title card omits the indefinite article), and the eventual star was Clint Eastwood, at that point best-known as the star of TV western Rawhide. These days A Fistful of Dollars is famous as the film which brought both Leone and the spaghetti western subgenre to international attention, while Eastwood has gone on to have the most distinguished of careers as a film-maker – even to the point where his fame and success as a director surpasses that of his acting work. It all started here, in an unauthorised and uncredited remake of the Japanese jidaigeki movie Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa and Toho duly sued, to which Leone’s response was that Yojimbo itself was a derivative work, ultimately drawn from an Italian commedia dell’arte play. But he still settled out of court in the end, with Kurosawa claiming he earned more from Fistful than he did from his own film).

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars will certainly seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the Kurosawa film. A taciturn stranger (famously known as the Man with No Name, but a minor character in this film repeatedly calls him ‘Joe’) arrives in a desolate town in Mexico to find it moribund, paralysed by a struggle between rival gangs of smugglers and bandits – the Rojos and the Baxters. The local cantina is almost deserted, and the only person doing good business is the man who makes the coffins.

But the stranger sees an opportunity to maybe make a little money, for he is a lethally skilled gunfighter and quite prepared to play both sides off against each other in pursuit of a bigger payday. But Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), one of the Rojo brothers, is also a dangerously intelligent killer, and the stranger may not find his scheme as straightforward to implement as he first thinks…

I have to say that Sergio Leone was really trying it on when he tried to assert that A Fistful of Dollars is not a fairly obvious remake of Yojimbo. There are a few tweaks to the storyline early on – a visit from a government inspector is replaced by a double-cross involving some stolen gold – but in many places this is very nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the Japanese film, dramatically at least.

Looking slightly beneath the surface, things are somewhat different. A Fistful of Dollars is a much ‘straighter’ movie than its precursor, which – in its early stages at least – functions as a kind of black comedy. Fistful is by no means po-faced, but it is a particularly cynical kind of humour, articulated many in terms of one-liners from Eastwood’s character. But then the film as whole feels like it is operating on a more limited, superficial level.

It has many of the same strengths as the Kurosawa film, most notably the pairing of Eastwood and Volonte as protagonist and antagonist. (In an attempt to pitch the movie to xenophobic American markets, many of those involved are credited under somewhat unlikely American pseudonyms – Leone’s original credit was as ‘Bob Robertson’, Volonte ‘John Wells’, Mario Brega ‘Richard Stuysevant’, and so on. I’m not sure how convincing this would have been, even at the time.) It doesn’t quite manage the beautiful simplicity of Yojimbo‘s swordsman-versus-gunfighter finale, but negotiates around this with reasonable elegance.

However, Yojimbo, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is a study of character and the world, as well as being an entertaining narrative. Kurosawa loved working with Toshiro Mifune because, the director said, he was the most expressive actor he had ever come across. It seems Leone loved working with Eastwood in the same way, but for diametrically opposite reasons – he saw the actor as an inscrutable mask, observing that he had two basic expressions: hat on or hat off. (Leone was, of course, joking: he was the first, after all, to recognise Eastwood’s ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, from neutral-featured juvenile lead to flinty-eyed spectre of annihilation, as he does most famously in the ‘My mule don’t like people laughing at him’ sequence.)

A Fistful of Dollars seems largely to have been conceived in visual terms. Most of the dialogue doesn’t go far beyond ‘Ey, gringo’ cliches, and the plot is, as we have discussed, obviously derivative. What makes it distinctive is the big set piece moments: rapid intercutting between wide shots and huge close-ups of silent actors, their faces filling the screen as the trumpets of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack soar above the action. This is a director’s movie, a cinematographer’s movie, perhaps above all an editor’s movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the film feels a little superficial as a result (although the constraints of the production – it was filmed ‘as silent’ with dialogue and sound added later – may also have had an effect). Leone doesn’t seem particularly interested in making any specific point, with the result that the film just feels like a very violent melodrama, about and punctuated by acts of cruelty and murder, populated by thin (maybe ‘archetypal’ would be a better way of putting it) characters. A key moment in the plot comes when the stranger risks himself to help a family torn apart by the Rojos – in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance effectively foreshadows this moment of hazard, but here it just seems rather out-of-character for Eastwood.

Nevertheless, on its own terms this is a highly accomplished film, and very entertaining too. All the intelligence and charisma that Eastwood would show throughout his acting career is on display; the same is true of the artistry and skill of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Opinion may still be somewhat divided as to the place of A Fistful of Dollars in the history of the western – is it a bold new take on, or perversion of the genre? – but it is still a great movie.

 

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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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