easy come easy go
Sergio Leone's Jazz Western
By ELVIS MITCHELL
Tis with vastness and stillness that Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" excites an audience, and those qualities are gloriously, thrillingly evident in the newly restored version opening at Film Forum on Friday, 35 years after its initial New York run.
This apocalyptic, three-hour western, which will eventually play for fortunate audiences at a handful of theaters around the country, is a boys' book of adventure with extraordinarily bloody consequences. Its three main characters, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef), scramble around the West during the Civil War seeking a lost treasure of $200,000. As narrative, it's as slipshod and rambling as a campfire ghost story for kids, but the monocular focus on blood sport as one-upmanship is essential to its momentum. And, as in those childhood stories, physical recklessness and danger are paramount.
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" shoehorns Leone's European sensibility into a genre for which he had enormous appreciation and a peculiar understanding. The western was the perfect outlet for his fascination with alienation and paranoia — a fascination that resonates as profoundly in his films as it does in those of other Italian filmmakers of the era, like Bernardo Bertolucci and Michelangelo Antonioni.
The newly restored version of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" has three scenes not included in the American release; they were dubbed into English for the first time last year, after Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Wallach made time to record them. These additions give each of the characters a bit more screen time, but overall serve only to increase the dazed lunacy of the chase for the gold, which becomes a slapstick comedy with a gun permit. Still, after seeing this version in a movie theater, which is where it should be seen, what remains pre-eminent is the elongated immensity of the melodrama — as luridly intoxicating as anything in Puccini. Leone builds suspense by fixating on the ticking seconds and the haphazard incidents that punctuate the intervals before violence erupts; it's the gift of an intuitive filmmaker. It's impossible to view the mayhem in "Saving Private Ryan," for example, without being reminded of Leone's propensity for masculine Guignol. A single scene from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," in which Blondie and Tuco happen on a battlefield littered with the dismembered corpses of Union soldiers, is as accomplished a piece of broad-stroke storytelling as Steven Spielberg's sequence following a young G.I. (Jeremy Davies) across the ruins of a French village in "Saving Private Ryan": it's intense narrative boiled down to the fewest possible shots.
Leone's approach grows out of an innate understanding of how to use large spaces — particularly the outdoors — to create tension. Open-air scenes often defeat directors' attempts to communicate dread; sunlight splashes away the shadows of anxiety. But Leone generates tremendous fear in the outdoors, in expanses of Spanish countryside meant to pass for the United States. Each vista, interior or exterior, is a foreign land to be crossed, with safe passage far from certain.
In fact, one of the most fearsome scenes takes place in a ramshackle settler's home, where Sentenza shows up to collect a debt. (The house is the size of a Spanish province — the rooms in Leone's films are ludicrously large.) Sentenza sits, deliberately finishing a bowl of soup graciously offered by his host, while deciding what to do about the slight he feels. Van Cleef's refusal to be rushed is like a tenor's warm-up before a solo. (Christopher Frayling exactingly recounts Leone's rescue of Van Cleef from oblivion in his book "Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death," explaining that the actor's slowed movement was due to arthritis, a disability the director used to his advantage.)
The men of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" have a perverse need to cling to a show of honor. This applies even to the unevolved Mexican outlaw, Tuco, who is also, unfortunately, a vicious stereotype. Mr. Frayling outlines Leone's own obsession with status and propriety, which seems to be largely invested in Tuco. The character is a schemer and cheater who, though sentimentalized a bit by Mr. Wallach's portrayal, is still a malicious warthog of a survivor whose ambition is to steal and then brag about it. Leone seemed to be satirizing himself.
Of course, Leone's inspiration was Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo." But merciless as Kurosawa's hero was, he understood his obligation to the samurai code. In Leone's film, Blondie's cynicism and brutality were the common-sense responses to the irrational West. Those responses have become so ingrained that one of the most memorable moments of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could have been lifted right out of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly": after a mountain-sized swordsman spins his blade around to demonstrate his plan for filleting Indiana Jones, Jones whips out his gun and shoots him. Mr. Eastwood noted that it was his character's lack of honor that enthralled audiences: the Man With No Name, as Blondie was also called, was the first protagonist to shoot first, in violation of the ethical code that had previously governed Westerns.
But it was Mr. Eastwood's idea to play against his outsized presence by giving Blondie (who wasn't blond) the dazzling, delayed narcissism and commanding pauses of Thelonious Monk. Mr. Eastwood used a tight, simmering cool, setting his own rhythms in what had become the worn-to-transparency cliché of the western. It was like Monk's mesmerizing expansion and contraction of time in his version of "Body and Soul." In both instances, an artist took something familiar and made it his own. Leone did the same with "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," despite its occasional incoherence. It nearly finished off the western forever. As with Monk, no one could effectively follow such an act.