The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile, bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) turns in the bandit Tuco (Wallach) for reward money. Tuco is wanted for a laundry list of nefarious deeds and sentenced to hang. But at the hanging, Blondie shoots the rope, freeing Tuco, and the two escape, forming an alliance to scam the law with their rope trick.

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Blondie gets sick of Tuco’s bitching and ends their partnership by abandoning him in the desert. Tuco survives, and reunites with his former gang members to kill Blondie. The pistoleros are no match for Blondie and all wind up dead, but Tuco sneaks in from behind. The bandit forces Blondie to wear a noose and stand on a chair, just when the Union Army decides to bomb the town, sending the rooming house crashing in a heap. Blondie escapes, but Tuco catches up with him and forces the bounty hunter to walk across the scorching desert without food or water as he sadistically lords over him.

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Just when Blondie’s about had it, a six-horse coach comes careening across the desert landscape. Curious Tuco stops the runaway horse and finds the coach full of dead Confederate soldiers. Not one to waste an opportunity, he lifts the corpses’ wallets and watches, only to discover one of them’s still alive. It’s “Bill Carson”, who tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco goes to get “Carson” some water, but when he returns the man is dead. However, Blondie has managed to crawl over, and now is the only person alive who knows the name of the grave where the gold is hidden.

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The two mortal enemies are now partners again. Donning the Confederate uniforms, they make their way to a mission run by Tuco’s brother, where Blondie can convalesce. The pair then hit the road, but are captured by Union forces and sent to a POW camp. Tuco has taken the identity of “Bill Carson”, which sparks the interest of the camp’s sergeant…. Angel Eyes!

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Eli Wallach totally steals the show as Tuco. A foul-mouthed, feral animal who’s not as dumb as he looks, Tuco is alternately funny and cruel, sly as a fox and twice as dangerous. Wallach has a field day in the role, and the character is more fully fleshed out than either Eastwood or Van Cleef’s archetypes. The scene where Tuco is bathing when a bounty hunter tries to take him by surprise, delivering the line “When you have to shoot, shoot- don’t talk!”, is a classic, as is the one with Tuco in the gun shop. Wallach wasn’t even nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar (Walter Matthau won for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. That year George Kennedy won for COOL HAND LUKE, but Wallach should’ve been a shoe-in either year.

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There are so many big set-pieces in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEN UGLY, none more famous than the three-way showdown between Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach. Leone’s wide-angle shots and deep close-ups are interspersed with a spinning camera effect, edited to perfection, all while Ennio Morricone’s music builds to a crescendo. Speaking of the maestro, this is my favorite of his scores, a musical masterpiece on its own that was turned into a hit record by Hugo Montenegro in 1968, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts:

And yes, I still have the 45 lying around somewhere in the basement!

Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE UGLY never gets old. I watch it a least once a year, and always marvel at something I didn’t quite pick up on before. Even if you’re not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, the film transcends the genre into cinematic art by one of the screen’s true masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go downstairs and look for that 45….

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 2: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (United Artists 1965)

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After the huge international success of his A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , Sergio Leone was red hot. Another Spaghetti Western was hastily written by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni (and an uncredited assist from Sergio Donati), but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is pure Leone, from the visual style to the bits of humor interspersed between the violence. Clint Eastwood returned as The Man With No Name, paired this time with veteran Western heavy Lee Van Cleef as the beady-eyed Colonel Mortimer.

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Eastwood’s character (briefly referred to as ‘Manco”) is a fast-drawing bounty hunter. He’s interested in the $10,000 reward for escaped killer/outlaw Indio. Mortimer is also interested in Indio, but has another motive: a young Indio raped his sister, resulting in her suicide during the act. The two meet up in El Paso, where Indio plans to rob the bank’s estimated one million dollars, kept in a secret cabinet. Manco and Mortimer engage in pissing contest in the street, shooting each other’s hats, but soon form an uneasy alliance to split the reward money. Manco infiltrates Indio’s gang, but the robbery is successful. Mortimer shows up as a safecracker willing to help for a price, followed by treachery at every turn until the final shootout between Mortimer and Indio, filmed as a warmup to the more heralded scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

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Lee Van Cleef became a star at age 40 thanks to this film. The actor had struggled for years in Hollywood, playing Western henchmen (HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), noir goons (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL), even sci-fi villains (IT CONQUORED THE WORLD), but after an uncredited role in 1962’s all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, he was absent from the big screen until Leone came calling. From the opening panoramic shot of him nailing a rider with his rifle, Van Cleef’s persona as one scary dude not to be messed with was established. Suddenly, after all the struggles, he was a star, and made Spaghetti Westerns right until the craze died down in the 1970’s. Van Cleef continued to work steadily in films, from his role in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK to costarring in the television ninja series THE MASTER, right up until his death in 1989.

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Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojos in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) plays Indio as the meanest, craziest bandito the West has ever seen. This nut makes Liberty Valance look like a boy scout! He’s always smoking weed to obliterate the memory of what happened that night with Mortimer’s sister, and carries a chiming pocketwatch with her picture (Mortimer has one, too). Many of the cast of Leone’s previous film appear, as does another Familiar Face: German actor Klaus Kinski, making his Spaghetti debut as the hunchbacked outlaw Wild.

Lee Van Cleef (Col. Douglas Mortimer) is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution. Clint Eastwood (Manco) can collect the money.

Ennio Morricone’s music is back, a staple of these films. The hauntingly whistled theme, with it’s by now familiar whipcracks and wordless chorus, is a classic in its own right. The camerawork by Massimo Dallamano, a standout in FISTFUL, is excellent, guided by Leone’s painterly eye. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was another worldwide hit, but like it’s predecessor not released in the U.S. until 1967. Leone’s next film would be what I consider his greatest, the final chapter in the Dollars Triolgy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

(to be continued… )

 

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

Mr. Ugly Rides Again: Lee Van Cleef in THE BIG GUNDOWN (Columbia 1967)

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I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on Spaghetti Westerns. I’ve probably seen more than the average filmgoer though, and have learned to appreciate them  over the years. If I were to make a Top Ten favorite film list, Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY would definitely make the grade. Recently I watched THE BIG GUNDOWN for the first time, and while it doesn’t quite measure up to classic status, it does serve as a good example of what the genre’s all about.

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Lee Van Cleef was fresh off his success in two Leone/Clint Eastwood Spaghettis (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and the aforementioned film) when he was cast in this Sergio Sollima saga. Van Cleef, who struggled for years as a villainous second banana in Hollywood, was now an international star, and THE BIG GUNDOWN was his first leading role. He plays the steely-eyed, steel nerved Jonathan Corbett, a fast-drawing ex-bounty hunter offered a chance to run for Senate by filthy rich Texas politician Brokston. Corbett’s asked to perform one last hunt by bringing in Cuchillo, accused of raping and killing a 12-year old girl. Corbett tracks the elusive Cuchillo through most of the film in a series of action-packed and sometimes humorous set-pieces. Their cat-and-mouse game comes to a close in Mexico, when Corbett discovers things are not what they seem, and he’s just been a pawn in the rich man’s master plan.

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Tomas Milian costars as the wily Cuchillo, and at first I didn’t know what to make of him. A happy-go-lucky rapist? It wasn’t until later in the film when the truth was revealed that I understood his character. Milian was a Cuban-born American who like Van Cleef found fame in Italian cinema. He became a Spaghetti star with FACE TO FACE and RUN MAN RUN, the only other two Westerns by director Sollima, who went on to make his mark in the Italian crime (‘poliziotteschi’) genre, beginning with 1970’s VIOLENT CITY, featuring Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas. Carlo Carlini’s excellent camerawork gives THE BIG GUNDOWN a big boost, and the location filming in Spain is gorgeous to behold.

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The score is by the great Ennio Morricone, who’s still alive and composing at age 87. Morricone was recently Oscar nominated (his 6th) for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and though he’s already been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, I hope he wins! The Italian icon’s filmography is far too lengthy to do justice here, but I’ll just name a few that may jog your memory. Besides the Leone/Eastwood trilogy, there’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE, BUGSY, DANGER:DIABOLIK, DAYS OF HEAVEN, IN THE LINE OF FIRE, MY NAME IS NOBODY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, RED SONJA, THE THING, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, and THE UNTOUCHABLES. And that’s just the tip of the Morricone iceberg! I’m a big Morricone fan, and can remember owning a copy of Hugo Montenegro’s single THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, happily whistling it on my way to school. Good luck at the Oscars, Ennio!

THE BIG GUNDOWN was well worth watching and is recommended to fans of all Westerns, Spaghetti or not. Another thing I really dug about the movie is the opening theme, sung by Italian chanteuse Cristy (aka Maria Cristina Brancucci). I’ll leave you with that, hopefully to whet your appetite for viewing THE BIG GUNDOWN: