This review is a discursive plug for Alex Cox’s book, 10,000 Ways to Die. Cox synopsizes just about every Spaghetti Western ever made. His estimations of the films themselves, though, are the meat and potatoes of the book. Everything else–including the synopsis and the full list of cast and crew for each film–is padding. Having said that, I do in theory appreciate the synopsi, because I know how difficult it is for anyone to synopsize a story in so many words. I digress, though.
Sergio Leone films are rough around the edges. Of the Westerns he made, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly seems to me not only the quintessential one, but the most fun. As to whether it is the quintessential Spaghetti Western—hey. That’s the sort of superlative I just can’t vouch for. After reading the Cox book, I must confess my ignorance: The films credited to Leone only represent about a fifth of the genre. In addition to his films, I have seen a couple of Sergio Corbucci pictures, and The Big Gundown and Death Rides a Horse. Lee Van Cleef stars in four of those titles, and I have a highfalutin idea to write a biography about him someday. Still, I digress.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly nails the basic Leone approach. Influenced as much by American directors (e.g., John Ford) as they were by Japanese directors (e.g., Akira Kurosawa) and Italian directors (e.g., Federico Fellini), Leone’s gun operas remain startlingly fresh to this day, and here are the reasons why: Depicting the West as a veritable bed for bastards (a hostile desert terrain that, aside from a few breathtaking master shots of Monument Valley in Once Upon a Time in the West, looks unlike any American desert and so [if you didn’t know better] at least subconsciously jars you into feeling like you are watching a Western that was shot on another planet [but of course, it was Spain]), he gives you a riveting face for every character, and a near-absence of any moral center. At times, and for extended sequences at that, Leone eschews dialogue altogether. He also stretches time constantly. The effect excites you. Making stark juxtapositions between the wide shot and the close-up—between the slow buildup of tension and the hair-trigger release of violence—between the proclivity for sentiment and the tendency toward a rich gallows humor—Leone brings the Roman circus, a carnivalesque thirst for the bawdy, crude and obscene, to the central, ritualistic idea of the standoff. In one sense, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is simply a series of standoffs. Detours, double-crosses, and head fakes abound, but Leone keeps raising the stakes. And although TGTBATU is the best of the Dollars Trilogy, it does in its 180-minute iteration feel a bit too long, keen on being a masterpiece to rival anything David Lean was doing in that same decade, the 1960s. The sheer novelty of Leone’s approach, though, bolstered here and never bettered, sustains your interest. Applied to Ennio Morricone’s music on the soundtrack (Leone shot scenes to parts of the music), the film rises to greatness.
Anyway, I recommend the Cox book to anyone with even a passing interest in the Spaghetti Western genre. He writes well, and the praise he gives to some real obscure Italian oaters has inspired me to seek those films out. The Christopher Frayling audio commentaries on the blu-rays of the Leone Westerns are detailed and informative, amounting to a kind of biography-by-commentary. Better still are Cox’s critical yet loving reviews of the films, which comprise a slightly damning portrait of a director who changed the world. So, you should see the films (TGTBATU takes the cake), you should watch them with the Frayling commentaries on, and you should read the Cox book.
There was more to the Spaghetti Western than this one film; but I have a feeling it is the definitive example of the genre. I aim to find out.