FILM REVIEW: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
By Michael Wilmington
Tribune Movie Critic
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the last of Sergio Leone's Italian-made Western trilogy with star Clint Eastwood, is an improbable masterpiece a bizarre mixture of grandly operatic visuals, grim brutality and sordid violence that keeps wrenching you from one extreme to the other.
The tale of three violent men (Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) searching for a fortune in gold during the carnage of the Civil War, it's a movie that mesmerized audiences but alienated many critics on its first American release before eventually becoming an often-revived classic on TV and video.
It was also, like Leone's later "Once Upon a Time in America," a mutilated film. The movie was shorn of 18 minutes from its original three-hour European running time when it premiered here in 1968, and those missing sections, dubbed into English for the first time by the surviving stars (Eastwood and Wallach, with a verbal stand-in for the late Van Cleef), have been restored to the print at The Music Box. That makes it both a major historical revival and, without question, the best and most entertaining "new" movie in town this week.
Even if you've seen "The Good, the Bad and The Ugly" many times, you have a treat in store. The iridescent colors of Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography have been refurbished; the great, sonorous Ennio Morricone score has been remixed to crystal clarity; and the restored 18 minutes add clarity and depth to the film's Jacobean scenario.
At the center, once again, are the three actors who play the title characters or title themes: Eastwood as bounty hunter Goldie or Joe ("The Good"), Van Cleef as the evil killer Setenza or Angel Eyes ("The Bad"), and Eli Wallach as the wild Mexican rapscallion Tuco ("The Ugly"). Good and evil, we see here, are relative. In many '40s Westerns, Eastwood's Joe would have been a bad guy, albeit a likable one. But the world Leone created is so lush and stunningly picturesque, so riddled and ravaged with amorality and death, we can accept his fantastic parameters.
The plot is as complex as an Elizabethan revenge drama, taken from a story by the famed Italian screenwriting team Age-Scarpelli ("Big Deal on Madonna Street"), scripted by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni. During the Civil War, near the Texas border, three grim outsiders meet and clash. Goldie and Tuco are partners in a bounty-hunting scam, with Goldie delivering wanted man Tuco to the law, collecting the bounty and then rescuing him by cutting the hangman's rope with a rifle shot at the last second in order to sell him again. But the partnership explodes, while elsewhere, hired killer Angel Eyes starts a quest for a treasure buried somewhere in a war cemetery.
Joining the hunt and the fray are a collection of scurrilous outlaws, border scum and the warring Blue and Gray armies, deadlocked in futility and destruction. The movie ends like all the spaghetti trilogy, with a relentlessly magnified and protracted duel (three-cornered), with Morricone's music crashing, soaring and chiming angelically behind them. In the film's most powerful scene, that music, played by an army band and sung by a choir, is used to cover the screams of a tortured war prisoner.
The acting is simple but unforgettable. Eastwood has never been as taciturn, grimly amused or supercool, and Van Cleef (whose heyday was brief) was never as serpentine and cruel. Wallach, expanding on his movie-stealing role as the bandit chief in the 1960 "The Magnificent Seven," burns up the screen as scruffy, insanely energetic Tuco, forever popping up like a berserk, evil toy.
Though it was a huge hit with audiences everywhere in 1968, many critics would have scoffed at the idea of this film as a classic in need of restoration. Renata Adler of The New York Times called it "repellent," a fair bellwether of snob sentiment. And indeed, much of the movie is absurd. The Civil War was never fought like this, the backgrounds are Spanish, most of the cast are dubbed Italians, and most of the scenes are Leone's grandiloquent pastiches of his favorite moments from Westerns by Ford, Fuller, Boetticher or Anthony Mann.
But the movie is magnificent anyway. It is a foreigner's dream of the West and his tribute to an American genre, with Leone's flair for Italianate spectacle, and Morricone's music elevating the genre to dizzy heights. It's a mix of Verdi and Ford, "Tosca" and "High Noon." As we watch the restored movie today, we can see young Eastwood's legend rising. But we can also see a movie classic emerging from the lists of once-reviled popular cinema, surviving taste and time. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," mad grand epic of another day, still can blow us away.
"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
Directed by Sergio Leone; written by Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni; photographed by Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Nino Baragli, Eugenio Alabiso; art direction by Carlo Simi; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Alberto Grimaldi. Original English adaptation by Mickey Knox. Restoration overseen by John Kirk. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theater. Running time: 3:00. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for violence).
Joe "Goldie," the Good Clint Eastwood
Setenza "Angel Eyes," the Bad Lee Van Cleef
Tuco, the Ugly Eli Wallach
Northern Officer Aldo Giuffre
Corporal Wallace Mario Brega
Padre Ramirez Luigi Pistilli