Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco
Some people blame Spaghetti Westerns for the death of the genre and others for keeping it alive. I’m very much in the second camp. There is a continuum from John Ford through to Quentin Tarantino and Spaghetti Westerns fit in nicely. They are deeply influenced by what came before and they, in turn, deeply influenced what came after. There were hundreds of them but only four made it big in the county of the western and only four have survived the vicissitudes of history. All four are by the same director and all four are very good indeed.
My first problem was in choosing which one to focus on. My dilemma reduced by the fact that this is an open-ended blog purely devoted to films of my own choosing: I can always include the others later on. I could have chosen A Fistful of Dollars. In some ways a film more typical of the spaghetti tradition. Very low budget, brilliant soundtrack, quite short, single strand narrative, one hero played by one (at the time) mid range American star and based on a Kurosawa movie. Tempted!
I was even more tempted by For a Few Dollars More. Again we have Clint Eastwood in more or less the same role (the more or less is important) but now we have a second protagonist in Lee Van Cleef. We have a double threaded storyline that comes together in a way that is more consistent with the American tradition, another hauntingly appropriate soundtrack from Ennio Morricone; an almost perfectly directed film. The budget is twice that of the first film and it is put to good use.
I’ve chosen the third of the trilogy because it includes everything I’ve got to say about the other two; it absorbs them both and supersedes them. It is magnificent. My memory told me it was and my memory was nearly forty years old. Watching it again told me it was one of the most magnificent films I’ve ever seen, and watching it again for the second time (in two days) leaves me in the same ball park as Quentin Tarantino who described it as “my absolute favourite movie and the greatest achievement in the history of cinema.” I have a few diamonds that I would put above The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but nothing I would say was very far ahead of it. It is very special.
The first two films had found a way of sneaking into American cinemas. And they did well at the box-office. So well that they elevated Eastwood to the first rank of Western actors and encouraged United Artists to pump fat wads of cash into film number three. The first, and most important, thing the extra money allowed was a third great actor in Eli Wallach. This led to a huge increase in scope. The narrative moved from threads to a full tapestry, the quality and range of the acting got a massive boost, Leone was able to paint on an epic canvas, combining his take on the role of The American Civil War in the birth of the nation as well as reflecting on more recent conflagrations in Europe. In Blondie (Eastwood was never known as the Man with No name until PR people entered the fray), Angel Eyes and Tuco, Leone had three characters with which he could evoke storytelling from a dozen cultures and a dozen periods of history. If you are looking for the literary forebears of this film you will take in John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher but you will also take in Kurosawa, the Brothers Grimm, Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Aesop, Ovid, and medieval popular culture.
To combine all of that seamlessly would be close to impossible and Leone gets very close to the impossible with this movie. There are clunks and judders and the entire journey is a bumpy ride but what a ride. I wanted to watch it in sections to make notes. I’ve watched it three times in the last fortnight and I haven’t pressed the pause button yet. My note taking may have suffered but my cinematic enjoyment didn’t. It is a wonderful film when you don’t know what is going to happen and an even better film when you do.
And did I mention that it is also one of the funniest films I’ve watched? Lee Van Cleef is denied humour, almost denied humanity but Clint Eastwood gets a good number of first class one-liners. Eli Wallach’s Tuco is a comic masterpiece from beginning to end but so much more than a great comic character. In many ways Tuco is the crowning glory of the film. It takes a great writer, a great director and a great actor to achieve this. The Good the Bad and the Ugly had all three (two of them being Sergio Leone). Wallach doesn’t dominate the film but you can see why Eastwood called it a day with spaghetti westerns after this film. He had the same problem with Wallach as Tony Hancock had with Sidney James and Kenneth Williams. They made him better but they were so good themselves that he felt he was being over-shadowed.
A little digression. I’m a child of the sixties, peace loving, anti-war baby boomer. What am I doing not only watching, but loving, films that portray war and violence? First I love art for the quality of the art. Second I live in a violent world and I refuse to cut myself off from things I find unpleasant and third every good war film ever made has been an anti-war film. Every good violent film has been anti-violence. Fourthly, Leone doesn’t glorify the violence in any way. He takes a long time leading up to any moments of horror and when they eventually arrive, they pass very quickly. In contrast with contemporary director Sam Peckinpah whose violence arrives suddenly and is lingered over. (I’ve set myself up there. I love Sam Peckilnpah’s films as well. What would this life be without contradiction?)
Leone may be making a very important point. All three of his protagonists are violent men and they punctuate their stories with killings. But their stories are played out against the backdrop of the American Civil War: the first war where the casualty figures were so large as to lose true meaning. Leone never lets you lose sight of the carnage that is being done in the name of political ends. The horror, the violence, the tragedies that are lost in statistics, in names of battles and campaigns, in the “heroic” deeds of victorious generals, and the heroic failures of others. Leone is saying yes, this is horrible but there are reasons why these three are acting as they do. The reasons may be questionable and Leone allows us to question them; insists on it in fact. He also insists on our questioning why and how 360,222 union soldiers were killed and 258,000 from the Confederate army (figures that have been accepted for 100 years but are now regarded as being on the low side). Leone’s characters are but three cobs in a cornfield.
Second digression. What is a spaghetti western? Basically a western made in Italy and Spain during the 1960s. Self-contained but referential. A tendency towards the operatic rather than pure naturalism. Multi-cultural cast with all actors speaking their lines of dialogue in their native tongue. These are later dubbed to appear, or almost appear to be in the language of the audience. Westerns were inexplicably popular in Italy during this period. There are waves like this: Punk Rock remaining big in Huddersfield, Peter Noone being a star in America. They defy history, geography and logic, but they happen. Sometimes it takes an outsider to be able to paint an accurate picture. There were plenty of good American westerns from this same period but they didn’t capture the genre in the way the spaghetti western did. And in Sergio Leone they had a true film-making genius. That is if you define genius as someone who changes the paradigm. The Good the Bad and The Ugly feels modern. Everything that came before it suddenly becomes old.