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THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffre, Mario Brega
Director:  Sergio Leone
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  179 Minutes
Release Date:  May 12, 2009

“Such ingratitude after all the times I saved your life.”

Film ****

The western has been called a uniquely American film genre, in that no other country can draw on tales of wild frontiers, untamed wilderness, expansion and manifest destiny.  But Western films played well not only for audiences in the United States, but for fans around the world.  It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to see other nations begin to craft their own versions of these pictures.

The so-named “spaghetti westerns” began appearing in the 60s.  Produced by Italian film companies for little money and not really designed to be exhibited beyond their native borders, they made use of the beautifully strained landscapes of Italy and Spain to replicate the American west.  They carved out their own niche by discarding the traditional white-hat black-hat morality plays of Hollywood offerings, instead creating characters that all had darker elements, be they generally good or bad.  And they also turned up the violence a tad, rejected the sterility of American gun play for a grittier, more realistic depiction.

If these filmmakers were lucky, they were sometimes able to land an American star who was either on the way up or down.  Sergio Leone had such luck:  while Clint Eastwood had gotten some recognition on television for Rawhide, he had found difficulty parlaying his success into big screen fame.  As fortune would have it, he accepted Leone’s invitation and a very small paycheck to go to Europe and make one of those foreign westerns that would probably never been seen in his homeland.

That film was A Fistful of Dollars, a tight reconstruction of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale Yojimbo.  And unlike other “spaghetti westerns”, this one became a hit, both in Europe and eventually the United States as well, largely for two reasons:  Leone’s ability to craft grand spectacle out of simple material, and Eastwood’s star making turn as the so-called “man with no name”.  His gritty expressiveness, minimal dialogue, and costume complete with the famed thin black cigars made his character into an instantly recognizable figure around the world.  And though Eastwood spoke no Italian and Leone no English, these artists found ways to bring about movie magic working together.

The film would be followed by For a Few Dollars More, then finally, with the participation of American studio United Artists, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  This final installment brought two more American stars into the mix:  Lee Van Cleef (who also had a role in Few Dollars) and Eli Wallach.  But the major factors remained Clint Eastwood’s strong, silent performance and Sergio Leone’s brilliant sense of direction.

This film has always been, in my opinion, the greatest western ever made.  Which is saying a lot, since the “spaghetti westerns” started out mimicking the films of Hollywood…now, it was their turn to lead the way.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a landmark in the genre, forever changing the landscape and making possible the rise of some of the darker later works of John Ford as well as giving rise to the likes of Sam Peckinpah and others.

The three hour film is epic in almost every way.  Though the plotline is easily sketched, it was more than story at play on the screen.  It was Leone’s sense of landscape and portrait compositions, of editing and timing, and of humor, drama and suspense that blended together to create a unique and unforgettable new staple of the genre.

A villainous killer known as Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) is working his way toward a soldier who holds the key to a stash of $200,000 in gold hidden in some Confederate cemetery during the Civil War.  In the meantime, a strange partnership between a man nicknamed ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) and a Mexican bandito called Tuco (Wallach) is coming to an end.  Blondie had been turning in Tuco for the reward money and rescuing him from the noose at the last minute so they could split the earnings, but there seems to be no more future in that racket.

Tuco vows revenge and hunts Blondie down, leading to a grueling romp through the desert.  But what starts out as a revenge plot takes a turn when the men come across Angel Eyes’ pursuee dying in a runaway wagon.  Tuco ends up with the name of the cemetery, and Blondie with the name on the grave.  Like it or not, they will have to be partners once again.  But once Angel Eyes figures out they have the information he needs, both men will be marked.

Everything leads towards a legendary climax in the cemetery, with the three men encircling each other on a stage that seems like an old Greek theatre, where the headstones are the audience.  It’s a masterful use of widescreen, and an almost unbearably suspenseful rhythm of long and short cuts, close-ups and distant shots, and of course, the music by Ennio Morricone.  But before we ever get there, there are plenty of other memorable sequences, including how Tuco and Blondie end up in a Union prison, blowing up a bridge to move the fighting out of the way of their destination, trekking through the desert and more.

Leone fills the three hour running time (finally restored for the English language version) with attention to detail and a frequent leisurely pace that some find a bit off-putting.  It’s not slow, but deliberate in the way it moves forward, and certainly never boring.  The three central characters and the story provide the skeleton, but Leone’s unique visual style is the paint that fills in the lines.  His famed use of both extremely wide landscape shots and extremely tight close-up portraits created a new vocabulary for the widescreen format; frankly, I don’t think any director was as masterful with it as he.

Eastwood’s star continued to rise high with this movie, but for my money, the memorable performance belongs to Eli Wallach, who injects the dastardly Tuco with equal parts clown and villain.  His ever-running mouth is a nice contrast to the rarely speaking Blondie.  Best line:  “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”

This restored version gives American audiences the chance to experience Leone’s epic vision the way he had always intended it, and I think fans will find there was even more gold to pan for there than they knew.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly proved that not only could American films influence European ones, but they could turn around and serve it back to us equally as well.

Video *** 1/2

It keeps getting better and better...in high definition, Leone's vision comes to a new vivid life of color and detail.  The expansive landscapes mixed with tight, tight close-ups give his movie a unique look, and it has never been presented more cleanly.  There is less noticeable grain and image flicker than ever before, and even darker scenes come through with more clarity than you'll remember.  A terrific job!

Audio ***1/2

The DTS HD track offers plenty of dynamic range, from Ennio Morricone's unforgettable score to the thundering of cannons and gunshots in the duels and battle sequences.  Dialogue was all post-dubbed, but there is even clever use of multi-channel audio there, as characters off screen actually speak through the channel where they would be in relation to the scene. 

Features ****

This Blu-ray features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, but I have to say, this wasn’t one of his finer outings.  He seemed a bit hesitant from time to time, and even made a couple of obvious mistakes like mispronouncing “Tuco”, or getting “the bad” and the “ugly” mixed up (but in all fairness, the trailer does the same).  He even mistakenly identifies A Fistful of Dollars as For a Few Dollars.  There’s still some good information to be had over the course of his talk, so it might be best to pick and choose which scenes you want to hear analyzed…chances are, there’ll be plenty.  For the Blu-ray issue, there is also a second commentary track from cultural historian Christopher Frayling.

The disc also includes deleted scenes, two documentaries on Leone (featuring interviews with Schickel, Eastwood, Wallach and many other of his collaborators), one on “The Man Who Lost the Civil War” (which chronicles the “Sibley Campaign” that provided the Civil War backdrop for this film), a featurette on the reconstruction of the English language version back to its original length (a terrific treat for film buffs), and one on the legendary composer Ennio Morricone.  Rounding out is the original trailer.

Summary:

Arguably the greatest western ever made as well as one of the best movies of any genre, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is quite a revelation on Blu-ray.  Leone's landscapes and tight close-ups have never looked better.

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