Horse Opera
Fernando F. Croce on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I owe my love of widescreen—or, perhaps more accurately, my loathing of pan-and-scan—to Sergio Leone. It was some 20 years ago, when Once Upon a Time in the West played on TV and the network had the decency to keep the letterbox format for the opening credits, that I initially became aware of space itself as a salient component of cinema. The fly crawling on Jack Elam’s meaty, stubbly mug; Woody Strode sipping the water that’s been dripping on his hat; the railway diagonals at the train station stretching interminably into the distance . . . My shock arose as much from the images themselves as from how they were presented, in the way the sequence’s tension and humor felt like they were stemming from their sheer breadth. From elation to dismay: as soon as Leone’s credit flashed by, the meticulous rectangular compositions started being indifferently hacked to fit the TV’s boxy shape. By the time the camera slowly dollies in for a tight close-up of Charles Bronson’s eyes during the climactic duel, all you could see was the grainily magnified bridge of his nose. Such visual vandalism should be enough to make anybody howl.

Such diminution—the equivalent of peeking at a fresco through a keyhole—is especially damaging to Leone, a voluptuary for whom size is not just pictorial swagger but the key to his reconstructive approach to genre. Mishmashes of multinational elements and influences best summarized by the pedigree of Leone’s breakout hit A Fistful of Dollars (a remake of a Japanese film deeply influenced by American pictures, directed by an Italian and shot in Spain), his spaghetti Westerns both exalted and upended the oaters he grew up watching. At their most lyrical, these films could expand a familiar genre staple like a showdown into an incantatory aria, at times with an almost sacramental care curiously akin to the rough ecstasy that courses through Pier Paolo Pasolini’s early pictures. (Pasolini and Leone were both drawn to the iconic faces in the works of Old Masters; the difference is that where the former gravitated toward Masaccio, Giotto and Cimabue, the latter favored John Ford, Anthony Mann and André de Toth.) However, Leone amplified not only the myths, rituals, and vistas of his models but also their inner tensions, violence, and cruelty, blurring the line between full-bodied tribute and broken-mirror critique. To paraphrase Michael Caine’s comment about superheroes as national and international image-bearers, My Darling Clementine is how America sees the Old West, while The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is how the rest of the world sees the Old West.

The very title of Leone’s 1966 picture—the final panel of the Man With No Name trilogy that made Clint Eastwood an international star—subverts the usually Manichean moral conventions of the Western. Tuco (Eli Wallach), the first protagonist to be introduced, is “the Ugly,” a coarse outlaw whose homeliness is meant to be reflected both physically and in the lengthy list of crimes that’s repeatedly read aloud whenever he’s arrested. And yet, he possesses splendid animalistic vigor and humor, and is possibly the only one with hints of a spiritual struggle, expressed when he runs into his estranged priest brother and laments that in their village religion and banditry were the only escapes from poverty. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), “the Bad,” is no less savage than Tuco, though his sadism is more integrated—first as a bounty hunter and then as a military leader—into a society still suspended precariously between wilderness and civilization. As for Blondie, the ostensible hero (Eastwood), he’s “the Good” only in that he’s the one best suited to the dog-eat-dog lifestyle of the frontier. His taciturn demeanor, so familiar from the prairie knights played by Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd, is used not as a suggestion of inscrutable honor but as a wryly comic counterpoint to Tuco’s swarming, mugging hysteria; his moments of compassion (voicing outrage while witnessing a battlefield slaughter, briefly sharing a smoke with a dying soldier) are fleeting and practically surreptitious.

First and foremost, Blondie is a shrewd businessman in a land where killing people for money has become the trade of choice. The emphasis on death as transaction (fittingly, the MacGuffin that brings the three protagonists together is a stash of gold buried in a graveyard) posits the American West as erected on a particularly brutish brand of caveman capitalism, yet Leone could hardly be considered a Marxist commentator along the lines of explicitly political Italian filmmakers like Francesco Rosi or Elio Petri, or even left-leaning spaghetti Western auteurs like Sergio Corbucci or Damiano Damiani. There are plenty of disillusioned revolutionaries in the underrated Duck, You Sucker, but Leone’s vision in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of life as a continuous game of one-upmanship, filtered through such a jaundiced eye that even the Civil War tearing the nation asunder becomes just another backdrop for sardonic pyrotechnics. This is a barbaric world, as hard as the sun-cracked desert and inhabited almost exclusively by jackals situated somewhere between Robert Aldrich’s blithe mercenaries in Vera Cruz and Sam Peckinpah’s sagging ogres in The Wild Bunch. It’s this insistent cynicism that at times makes the film, for all its monumentality, feel narrow and comic strip-like, ultimately lacking the broader scope of human struggle that infuses Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably the director’s masterpiece, with a genuine fusion of celebration and tragedy.

Within those limits, however, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains an overpowering cinematic experience. From its first image, in which a vast landscape is suddenly blocked out as a cowboy’s crater-cheeked, beady-eyed visage fills the screen, it’s evident that we’re in an Old West closer to Mars than to Monument Valley. (Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s filming of the pale, sandy Andalusian expanses which stand in for America adds immensely to the alien effect.) Over and over, Leone seems to open up the frame via cunning camera movement, widening space by tracking back or tilting up and down to reveal previously unseen characters within a scene. The final cemetery standoff between Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes builds up as an orgasmic montage, with the actors shot in colossal close-ups like planets moving into place for a shuddering collision. And then there’s Ennio Morricone’s mad hyena of a score, cackling and piercing and swelling like a bestial physical outgrowth of the story. Above all an epic of visceral saturation, Leone’s feverish behemoth demands to be seen on a screen big enough to accommodate every inch of its bracing, luxuriant spectacle.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly played February 10 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of Reverse Shot's See It Big series.