Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent Watches: 48 Hrs. (1982)

When I think of the “buddy cop” genre, my brain always immediately goes to “Lethal Weapon.” I grew up around the time when that series was still very popular. The first three films were frequently featured in my parents’ VCR. However, that film had a popular predecessor. In the canon of eighties action flicks, “48 Hrs.” is important for a couple of reasons. It was directed by Walter Hill, who wrote arguably the first buddy cop flick, “Hickey and Boggs,” a decade earlier. It launched Eddie Murphy’s film career, establishing the red hot stand-up as a leading man. It was also the first film for producer Joel Silver, who would go on to create many more iconic action flicks. For these reasons and more, I’m a bit sheepish to admit I’ve never seen it before.

Of course, “48 Hrs.” isn’t technically a buddy cop flick. One half of the duo, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates, is a cop. The other half, Murphy’s Reggie Hammond, is a convict, on loan from jail for the titular two days in order to track down his former comrades. That being the psychotic Ganz and the Indian Billy Bear. The two escape a chain gang, kill some cops, and end up murdering Cates’ partner with his own gun. The cop and the convict have an argumentative relationship, impeding their journey to bring the crooks to justice. In-between fighting each other, they track down Ganz’ and Billy’s girlfriends, former associates, and the criminals themselves.

“48 Hrs.” is probably best remembered as an Eddie Murphy movie. This overlooks that Murphy doesn’t appear until a half-hour into the movie. Instead, Nick Nolte’s Jack Cates is the main character for most of the run time. The film focuses plenty on Cates’ tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend. As with any hard boiled cop, his job gets in the way of romance. A funny but pointed moment has him nearly missing a phone call from the woman due to getting a call from Hammond. As a cop, Cates is a rough fellow, barking orders and marching around with Frankenstein-stiff shoulders. Nick Nolte, who sounds like he’s been gargling gravel and whiskey all night and has a slate-stone face to match, is well suited to the role. The script was first offered to Clint Eastwood and it’s easy to imagine Cates as a slightly more obedient variation on Dirty Harry. (Though Cates still gets chewed out by his police chief, played by Frank McRae. McRae was so associated with the part that he would parody it twice, in “Last Action Hero” and “Loaded Weapon 1,” both released in 1993.)

The part of Cates plays to Nolte’s strengths but it’s not hard to see why Murphy would overshadow him. Reggie Hammond is introduced in his jail cell, tunelessly singing along to the Police’s “Roxanne.” This characterizes Murphy’s irrelevant comic persona, one he would wear throughout much of his early career. There’s no doubt that Murphy is funny, cracking numerous snippy asides and smart-ass comebacks. His constant preoccupation with getting laid is probably the movie’s best running gag. What’s also interesting is that Murphy doesn’t just coast on his gift for comedy. Hammond is a tough street hood and frequently stands up against both Cates and the movie’s other authority figures. The two elements come together nicely in a lengthy middle sequence where Hammond enters a redneck bar and systematically fucks with the patrons. Eddie flashing that shit-eating grin is funny but tossing badges into mirrors is pretty serious. Murphy’s status as a future superstar was already well secured. He’s fabulously entertaining.

The interaction between the two characters is truly where the meat of “48 Hrs.” is. The film laid down the story arc that countless imitators would follow. At first, the two hate each other. Cates shoots casually racist epithets in Hammond’s direction, who returns them in kind. Their sniping escalates until the two actually come to blows, beating the shit out of each in a back alley. But remember when I mentioned the buddy cop formula? In time, Cates and Hammond learn to respect each other. Hammond helps Cates get the bad guy, the two eventually developing into a good team. By the end, they not only respect each other… They like each other, both bidding a fond farewell in the final reel. The chemistry between Nolte and Murphy is very good and their evolution from hostile co-workers to good friends is natural.

While most of its imitators would focus on the comedy, “48 Hrs.” is darker and more violent then the buddy cop movies that would follow. Most of this is thanks to its villains. James Remar is a stone cold psychopath as Ganz. His facial expressions switches between emotionless disregard for others and sadistic glee. Remar is a fine bad guy, a believable threat to the heroes and the victims. The physically imposing Sonny Landham is even better as Ganz’ sidekick. Billy Bear is no less violent then his partner but Landham is more likely to strong-arm his enemies then taking pleasure in threatening them. The film also has no shortage of big, bloody squibs, with plenty of weeping gunshot wounds. Despite the yuks, the movie remains grounded in the crime genre.

“48 Hrs.” is pretty damn entertaining. It’s nicely balances both sides of the buddy cop formula, being successful as a comedy and a gritty crime film. In Reggie Hammond, you can see the prototype of Axel Foley and countless other Eddie Murphy smart-asses. Walter Hill would return to similar territory with “Red Heat” and "Bullet to the Head." And Nick Nolte played plenty more stiff-jawed hard-asses. I guess what I’m saying is: I probably should have seen it sooner. [7/10]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1984)

7. Once Upon a Time in America

All throughout the sixties and seventies, Sergio Leone had been dreaming about an adaption of Harry Grey’s book, “The Hoods,” a quasi-autobiographical story of Jewish gangsters in the twenties and thirties. Leone was so determined to bring this story to the screen that he even turned down the chance to direct “The Godfather,” fearing the two projects were too similar. “Once Upon a Time in America,” the eventual movie, had a protracted pre-production. Production began as early as 1975, with Gerard Depardieu and Richard Dreyfus being considered for the lead roles. The movie went through many forms before finally being made in 1984. Though its release was troubled at the time, eventually the film would be recognized as Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece.

“Once Upon a Time in America” covers fifty years of history. It follows Noodles and Max, two Jewish kids growing up in 1920s New York. They desire to break into the local criminal scene. The rising empire is interrupted when Noodles ends up in jail. After being released, he and his friends resume their rise to power in the underworld. However, the good times only last so long. On the last day of Prohibition, Noodles betrays his friends and leaves the city. Thirty years later, now as an old man, Noodles receives a mysterious invitation back to New York. Haunted by guilt and his memories, he finds himself confronting his past.

Before discussing “Once Upon a Time in America,” you must discuss which version of the movie you saw. Leone’s original cut ran six hours long, with the intention of releasing the movie in two parts. The version that screened at Cannes in 1984, and received a fifteen minute standing ovation, ran 229 minutes, nearly four hours long. The American distributors founds this run time too daunting. The movie was re-edited and drastically cut down to 139 minutes when originally released in American theaters. (Thankfully, this butchered version is becoming increasingly difficult to find.) Just last year, a 269 minute cut was assembled by Leone’s children and released on Blu-Ray. But I’m a purist. Though the newest variation claims to be as close to the director’s original vision as possible, Leone isn’t around anymore to verify that. The director did approve the widely available four hour version. So that’s the one reviewed here.

Something the notorious 139 minute version discarded was the movie’s unconventional, nonlinear story construction. In its proper cut, “Once Upon a Time in America” crosses back and forth from Noodles’ exile in the thirties, his childhood in the twenties, and his sad return in the sixties. Leone’s use of flashbacks peaks here, as most of the movie is an extended flashback. By jumping back and forth through the eras, the film becomes a meditation on the nature of memory. In the opening scene, the ringing of a phone crosses over several hours and days, showing the malleability of recollection. Returning to New York, Noodles thinks about his past, about his childhood and when things went wrong. He reflects and the audience reflects with him, casting a nostalgic and melancholic mood over the entire story. The movie’s non-linear structure has it beginning and ending in an opium den, leading some to believe the entire movie is a memory fraught opium dream. This is as valid an interpretation as any. The movie intentionally creates a dream-like, moody tone of memories, lost friendships, and lifelong regrets.

Nearly all of Leone’s films deal with the bonds formed between tough men during hard times. “Once Upon a Time in America” is no different and indeed focuses on friendship over anything else. Growing up as Jews in 1920s New York, Noodles and his friends are outcasts from the start. Relying on each other, they form a bond that is impossible to break. The death of one of their own, and Noodles’ subsequent incarceration, does nothing but strengthen their brotherhood. The friendship between Noodles and Max is especially strong. Yet the wages of friendship is not always easy and Noodles and Max’s commitment to each other falters over time. That soured union is what drives the emotional heart of “Once Upon a Time in America.

As it focuses on the guys in their youth, “Once Upon a Time in America” is also a coming of age story of sorts. As teenagers, Noodles and his friends have their first, awkward encounters with sex. Polly, a local girl, is a budding prostitute. She sells her body in exchange for fancy deserts. Noodles runs into her in the bathroom and is so overcome with lust, he dry-humps her and paws her up then and there. With nothing to give her in exchange, she pushes him away. Patsy, the most sensitive member of the crew, buys a dessert to give her in exchange for sex. But he looses his composure and eats the dessert in the hallway. Not long afterwards, Noodles and Max take turns with Polly, loosing their virginity in rushed, awkward sessions. Though he fucks Polly, Noodles longs for Deborah, the pure, virginal sister of another friend. This impossible love stands in contrast with the ugly rutting he gives Polly. Yes, the movie embraces the Madonna/Whore complex without irony. Yet this is the mindset of a teenage boy in the twenties and influences his decision throughout his life.

Not long after their first encounters with sex, the boys have their earliest experiences with violence. As they ply their trade, attempting to get in good with the local mob, they face the wrath of Bugsy, the tough guy who formerly employed them. The boys are brutally beaten in the streets, heads and legs battered with clubs and a wagon wheel rolled over Max’s throat. Not long afterwards, the youngest kid in the group, Dominic, is killed by Bugsy. As he dies in Noodles arms, plaintively mumbling that “he slipped,” Noodles is driven into a rage, brutally stabbing Bugsy and a police officer to death. Leone doesn’t soften the violence even when dealing with children. The bright red squibs flow freely. The impact is immediate and strongly felt.

After his twelve year sentence in prison is up, Noodles returns to his friends, now played by Robert DeNiro. Leone highly respected DeNiro, calling him a real actor. DeNiro seems haunted throughout the whole film. During the sequences set in the 1960s, he wears convincing old age make-up, playing up the lifetime of regrets he has. However, even in the earlier scenes, Noodles’ past hangs over him. DeNiro’s great subtlety as an actor is well employed in the part. It’s not just the character’s pain that simmers beneath the surface. His anger, lust, and quiet humor shine through without breaking the man’s stoic exterior.

James Woods plays Max, Noodles’ closest friend. The fiery rage Woods displays, and overplays for camp in many other movies, is kept in-check here. Max is a man of reckless ambition, always pushing for more power. His companionship with his friends keep him grounded and, when he looses them, he looses part of his soul. Woods’ imbues the character’s anger and outrage with a sensitive humanity. Also among the supporting cast is Elizabeth McGovern as the adult Deborah, who gives an amazingly emotional performance. Jennifer Connolly, in her first screen role, plays the character as a teenager. I also really like Burt Young as Fat Joe.

The romance between Noodles and Deborah is the most important subplot in the film. As a boy, he spies on her dancing through a hole in a wall. He thinks of her as an angel, untouchable, perfect, and pure. She waits for him when he’s in prison, seemingly confirming her feelings for him. But when Noodles discovers she plans to leave him, he is consumed by rage, lost, and lust. The rape scene that follows is horrible, extended, and lingered upon. It’s the ultimate betrayal and destroys their relationship. It’s another example of the film’s unflinching portrayal of violence and the effects it has on people’s psyche. It’s also, arguably, not the only romance in the film. Max’s eyes stare soulfully at Noodles. When he has his first visit with Polly, he can’t maintain an erection… Until he looks over at his friend. During a back robbery, Noodles forces himself on a female bank patron, a move that baffles Max. Though he has relationships with women, Max is indifferent to them, preferring the company of his male friends. Is Max a repressed homosexual? Maybe. If he is, it seemingly confirms the homoerotic subtext beneath many of Leone’s films.

In the opening scenes of “Once Upon a Time in America,” Fat Joe is beaten to a bright red, bloody pulp. DeNiro blows the attacker’s brains out, splattering blood over the front of his face. The violence in the film is brutal, sudden, and uncompromising. A head shot later in the film comes out of nowhere, the body jerking back violently. A drive-by shooting tears through a phone booth, peppering a man’s legs with countless, tiny red holes. A similar scene later on reduces a car to a hole-filled piece of metal. There’s little of the style Leone brought to his earlier westerns here. This is not “fun” or “cool” violence. It’s direct and resolute. Leone is making a point, about the loss of life, suddenness of death, and the wastefulness of murder.

As a historical epic, “Once Upon a Time in America’ shows the rise of organized crime in America and its’ frequently unmentioned effects on politics. Throughout their adventures, Noodles’ gang begins working with the budding union movement. They intimidate police officers and business owners in order to push union boss Jimmy O’Donnell’s plan through. Their most elaborate method has them reorganizing a nursery, misplacing Police Chief Aiello’s only son. Max smartly realizes that power and money is intertwined. The movie draws a direct parallel between the greed of the gangsters and the greed of the politicians. By the last act, in a rather literal move, the gangsters and the politicians become one and the same.

The last act of “Once Upon a Time in America” is the most haunting part of the film. Noodles is reunited with Deborah. Despite thirty years having passed, her appearances remains unchanged. This is further evidence for those who support the opium dream theory. However, you can also interpret this as how Noodles sees Deborah as the perfect, unaging, ideal woman. She introduces him to the man who is heavily implied to her son. The man is named for Noodles, after his birth name of David, and seems to partially resemble DeNiro. Did Noodles’ act of rape impregnate Deborah? Is this his long-lost child? In the final minutes of the film, Noodles and Max confront one another. A convoluted turn of events explains how and why but it’s mostly unimportant. What’s important is the old friends, each burdened with regrets, resolving years of bitterness and pain. What follows still raises questions to this day. Noodles leaves, passing a trash truck. A man that might be Max walks out to the truck. As the trash truck drives off, the camera lingers on the spinning augers in the back. What does this mean? Was the truck filled with hitmen Max had sent for Noodles? Does, as I’ve always assumed, Max throw himself into the back of the truck in an elaborate suicide? The film provides no easy answers. Instead, it creates a dreamy tone of uncertainty and mystery, like a half-forgotten memory.

“Once Upon a Time in America” has Sergio Leone’s direction evolving in some interesting ways. The long-takes are maintained but in far fewer numbers. The lingering close-ups on his men’s faces is down-played. Instead, he captures as much of the scenery as possible. The streets of New York are painted in broad, bright colors, like a painting. Frequently, the characters seem small among the big city. One iconic, poster-lending moment focuses on the boys, looking tiny, running across the streets, a bridge overpass in the distance. My favorite shot is from Noodles’ eyes as he’s carted off to jail, his friends looking small against a huge, stone wall. This cuts suddenly, dramatically to the tomb where their bodies are kept, thirty years later. Another notable moment is when Leone’s camera spins above the nursery, as the guys switch out the babies. Leone’s direction is more muted, to go with the lower-key material, yet no less classical and stylish.

Ennio Morricone’s score is typically excellent. He incorporates a lot of music from the period, creating a frequently jazzy, exciting feel. A rather on-the-nose cut has the Beatles’ “Yesterday” playing as DeNiro considers his past. However, the best music in the film fits the story’s quiet, introspective tone. The main theme is both sweeping and nostalgic, backed-up by quivering instruments and rising vocals. The chirping piano is solitary and sad, aligning itself with the men’s childhoods in poverty. The most beautiful piece of music is Deborah’s Theme, which trembles and ques with the angelic beauty Noodles associates with his childhood crush, arriving to a full, gorgeous sung melody.

“Once Upon a Time in America” is a singular achievement in cinema, a massive, impressive masterpiece that has rarely been matched before and after. Leone spent most of his career as a genre specialist, putting clever variations on well-worn formulas. As his career evolved, his films maintains their unique style while becoming more emotional, powerful, and lyrical. “Once Upon a Time in America” is the peak of this. It’s a movie the director spent a decade making and the skill and detail is evident in the final product. Leone later regretted turning down “The Godfather” to make this movie instead. I think he made the right decision. [Grade: A]

The mishandling of "Once Upon a Time in America" broke Sergio Leone's heart. He died five years later. While the gangster epic was destined to be his final film, it was not the last movie he attempted to make. He wrote the screenplay for an American-style western called "A Place Only Mary Knows" that might have starred Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere. In the years leading up to his death, he had begun work on a war epic about the siege of Leningrad, which would have been called "The 900 Days." Two days before officially signing on to the projects, Leone had a massive heart attack, dying suddenly. Though its tempting to fantasize about these unrealized project, Leone left behind a staggering legacy. The man created five genuine masterpieces in a row, that continue to influence and enhance films today. He was truly one of the masters of cinema.

Recent Watches: My Name is Nobody (1974)

From 1964 until sometimes in the mid-seventies, the spaghetti western dominated Italian cinema. During that decade, the genre went through some interesting mutations. As the cinematic trend started to peter out, the westerns became more farcical. The movie that started this trend was “They Call Me Trinity,” a goofy take on the western starring Terence Hill. That movie would make Hill an immediate star and he would headline plenty of similar films, many of them buddy flicks with Bud Spencer. Just as Sergio Leone put his stamp on the Zapata western subgenre, he also had to have his say about the comedy-western. “My Name is Nobody,” which paired Hill with Leone’s “Once Upon in the West” star Henry Fonda, was not truly made by the Italian master. He came up with the concept and contributed some uncredited direction. Yet the movie, in its own silly way, is a reaction to the director’s own film, the ones that launched the genre in the first place.

Jack Beauregard is a legend of the Wild West, a gun fighter that has made himself a name with his lightening-fast trigger finger. His reputation precedes him and many newcomers want to test themselves against the master. While seeking the man responsible for his friend’s death, Beauregard comes upon an eccentric gunslinger of equal quickness that goes by Nobody. Slowly, Beauregard and Nobody take a liking to each other. The two’s adventure puts them in the path of the Wild Bunch, a hundred strong league of riders coming their way.

One of the main joys of "My Name is Nobody" is the contrasting personae of Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. Fonda is an iconic, classical hero of the western genre. He carries that weight to the role of Beauregard, a similarly legendary figure. He’s serious but not grim, good-hearted though silent and strong. Hill, meanwhile, wears a goofy grin throughout the entire film. He is continuously good-natured, always laid-back and casual. He thinks nothing of danger and treats the entire idea of shoot-outs as a game. Fonda’s serious demeanor and Hill’s goofball charm provide plenty of entertainment. Fonda is antagonistic towards Nobody at first, shooting holes in his hat. Yet Hill always has complete respect for Beauregard, admiring the man. The contrast in attitudes is the most entertaining aspect of “My Name is Nobody.”

Well, one of the most entertaining aspects of “My Name is Nobody.” The film is a full-blown farce. Its comedy is loud, fast-paced, and very silly. An early scene has Hill casually disposing of a ticking bomb. When entering a town that’s having a carnival, he’s confronted by a man on stilts. After shooting the stilts apart, the man turns out to be a squeaky-voiced midget. Nobody tends to defend himself with sped-up slapstick comedy. He slaps attackers away, grabbing their pistols out of their holsters. Later on, a rotating mannequin in the middle of the town is similarly used to fend off some baddies. The film speeds up during these moments, turning “My Name is Nobody” into a live action cartoon. Hill’s toothy grin keeps it silly and fun. His way with absurd dialogue and rambling, nonsensical metaphors are also worth a laugh or two.

Being so focused on humor, “My Name is Nobody” does not feature a lot of fancy shoot-outs. The movie makes the action that it has count though. A stand-off between Beauregard and Nobody explodes into the town, the two gunning down or defeating a horde of attackers. The final act of the film features a huge set-piece. Beauregard faces off against the Wild Bunch, a hundred riders crossing the desert. With his pin-point accurate firing, he explodes bombs on the rider’s horses, tossing the bad guys to their deaths. It’s an extended, exciting sequence that goes on nicely. It would come off as too much in a straight-laced western but in a comedy like this, the over-the-top action adds pleasantly to the material.

Tonino Valerii actually directed the film but Sergio Leone’s influence is obvious. There’s a few lingering close-up on actor’s face or wide-screen shots of men riding the desert. Ennio Morricone’s score quotes his music from “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Morricone’s main score is clownish, silly, but obviously his work. However, the main influence Leone had on the film is its themes. Despite the light-hearted material, “My Name is Nobody” still concerns the end of the west. Fonda’s Beauregard is a symbol of the old west, the time of shoot-outs and white hat heroes. Hill’s Nobody represents the future, a whimsical hero for a changing world. In the final minutes, the two create a scheme to allow Fonda to retire gracefully. His voice-over explicitly high-lights the movie’s theme, of the west evolving into a bigger, crowded, safer place. (In addition to providing a relatively valid explanation for one of Nobody's earlier, rambling anecdotes.) For bonus points, the movie references Sam Peckinpah, both by name and by calling the villains the Wild Bunch.

“My Name is Nobody” was another hit for rising star Terence Hill. The movie was popular enough to even receive a sort-of sequel, called “A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot.” Leone did some uncredited work on that one too. The two Nobody films would be the last westerns Sergio worked on, near the end of the genre’s life-span. A sunny, easy-to-watch comedy that leaves the viewer with a smile, “My Name is Nobody” is an easy recommendation for viewers looking for a different type of spaghetti westerns. [7/10]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1971)

6. Duck, You Sucker!
Giù la testa / A Fistful of Dynamite

Ever since the conclusion of the Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone had been working on his dream project, an adaptation of “The Hoods” by Harry Grey. Other projects kept him busy though. After “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone was presented with a script about revolution in turn-of-the-century Mexico. He liked it, wanted to see it made, but didn’t want to direct it. Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s assistant Giancarlo Santi were all considered but each realized that Leone just wanted to make the movie himself. The resulting film, “Duck, You Sucker!,” is the director’s most overlooked. Though a decent hit in Europe, in America the film was badly marketed, released under the non-representative title “A Fistful of Dynamite,” and basically forgotten for decades. After a series of quality home video releases, the film is finally getting its dues as one of Leone’s most evocative and powerful works.

In 1913, Mexico is a country besieged by political unrest, with a tyrannical government repressing a burgeoning revolution. Juan and his family of bandits have no need for revolution. His only need for the rich is when he steals from them. Chance circumstances has him meeting John Mallory, a former member of the Irish Republican Army and an explosive experts. Juan drafts Mallory in his quest to rob a near-by bank. A series of unexpected events has Juan and John working with the revolution, fighting for the people and fighting to survive.

Through his career, Sergio Leone’s films became increasingly political. The first two films in the Dollars Trilogy were totally apolitical before “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” introduced an anti-war element. “Once Upon a Time in the West,” meanwhile, dealt with the balance of power and money that makes things happen. “Duck, You Sucker!” is his most political movie yet. It allies itself with the peasants. An early scene has Juan brought onto a stagecoach full of rich folks. He’s presented like a circus freak. The passenger berate the poor as disgusting, impure, dumb, and like animals, with some old fashion racism thrown in too. The camera focuses on their mouths as they shovel more food in, their opinions filling the air like an ugly cacophony. The film makes it clear that the poor benefit neither from tyranny nor from war. In a scene that is both touching and funny, Juan says the people who benefit from revolution aren’t the ones that fight and end up dead.

The film declares its political alliance from its opening minute with a quote from Mao Tse-tung about how “the revolution is an act of violence.” “Duck, You Sucker!” was made in reaction to the growing population of Zapata Westerns. A late period variation on the spaghetti westerns, the Zapata western had heavy political slants that they engage in fully. “Run, Man, Run!” and its sequels are probably the best known example of this type of film. During the political upheaval in Europe during the late sixties and seventies, the films became popular. Leone, however, was not impressed with the way these movies glorified revolution. The director was determined to make a movie that showed revolution as the ugly act is that leaves many, many people dead.

Not everyone involved in the war effort is especially passionate about the political cause either. The first character we meet in “Duck, You Sucker!” is Juan. Played by Rod Steiger, Juan is bandit who does not take his new status as a hero of the revolution well. Juan is a scoundrel. He has no problem killing, as long as it makes him money. After robbing the stagecoach at the beginning, he effectively forces himself on the sole female passenger. (Though her reaction is somewhat difficult to read.) The character shares roots with Tuco and Cheyenne, as a dirty thief with an odd sense of honor. Greed motivates him but it’s not the only thing that matter. His family means the world to him, his six sons from six mothers and his elderly father. They are his crew, helping him pull off heists, and their bond throws them together. How an amoral seeker of gold, albeit one with a lot of love for his family, accidentally becomes a revolutionary is the vein of the film that powers the whole thing. Steiger doesn’t entirely master the Mexican accent but his performance is committed and powerful, with plenty of humor and pathos.

The other half of the central duo is James Coburn as John. As with Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone had wanted to work with Coburn for some time. He had been approached for both the Man with No Name and Harmonica. Mallory is better suited to Coburn’s talents then either of those parts. John is a bit of a rogue. He has an almost fetishic love of explosives and sure likes to blow shit up. As a revolutionary himself, he sympathizes with the struggling rebels of Mexico. Like Steiger, Coburn does not entirely nail the character’s Irish accent. Coburn’s impish smile fits the character’s mischievous sense of humor. However, his deep eyes suggests John’s inner pain and meloncholey memories. Coburn is ideally cast in the part and it might be my favorite performance of his.

There are other actors and characters in “Duck, You Sucker!” but Steiger and Coburn are the stars of their show. The entire story is built around their relationship. When released in America as “A Fistful of Dynamite,” the movie was oddly sold as comedic. Calling the movie a comedy is more then a little disingenuous but “Duck, You Sucker!” is funny in spots. Upon realizing John’s skill with explosives, Juan imagines a religious banner over his head, reading “the Bank of Mesa Verde.” The back-and-forth the guys have is worth plenty of chuckles, especially when Juan finds John after missing his train. (Also funny: Mallory’s title-lending catch phrase. He frequently shouts “Duck, you sucker!” whenever a bomb is about to go off. What makes this is funny is, apparently, Sergio Leone believed this to be a common English phrase.) The friendship the two form is fraught at first, one solely of convenience. As their adventure goes on, they begin to rely on each other, liking each other’s humor. Both men realize the other is worth more then their appearance suggests.

In time, John is all Juan has. Though it starts off fairly light-hearted, the movie becomes darker in tone as it goes on. The turning point comes after Juan returns to his lair following a gun fight. The camera focus on Steiger’s face as he walks through the cave, his eyes watering. He mentions to John that he had never counted his family before. As the camera pulls back, we realize what has happened. John’s family is dead, executed by the military while he was away. Leone allows the scene to go on. He looks into the actors’ eyes, on the losses and sadness they’re feeling. The effect on the audience is immediate. From this point on, “Duck, You Sucker!” becomes darker, sadder and more violent. The men keep on fighting. Each other and the cause is the only thing keeping them going.

Surging beneath the film and powering it is Ennio Morricone’s score. As in previous collaborations, Morricone composes a different theme for each of the main characters. Juan is associated with plucking strings. Strange vocalizations, a toad-like croaking, also identifies with the character. John, meanwhile, has a more sweeping, romantic theme. An odd vocalization greets him as well. Halfway between a word and a sound, the chorus sings the name “Sean” repeatedly until it looses it meaning. (Sean is seemingly Mallory’s real name, if you’re wondering what the significance is.) Morricone’s music builds into a grand, melancholic theme. It’s perhaps my favorite score the composer has ever written.

As a war movie and a western, “Duck, You Sucker!” doesn’t lack action. As the alternate title of “A Fistful of Dynamite” suggests, the movie is filled with explosions. Coburn is introduced with a massive, dusty explosion that blows a hole in the mountain side. Later on, a church, a bank vault, a bridge, and a line of executioners all fall to John’s dynamite. The film concludes with a massive train crash, an impressive display of destruction. As for shoot-outs, the movie has got that too. Steiger’s break-in into the bank vault features some great sliding, sneaking, and shooting. An exciting moment has the two men pouring machine gun fire down on a bridge full of soldiers. By the finale, the film explodes into full-on war. Though less focused on chaos and gunfights then Leone’s other movies, “Duck, You Sucker!” is still likely to entertain action fans.

Another Leone trademark present in “Duck, You Sucker!” is the use of flashbacks. Throughout the film, we catch glimpses of John’s past. We see him frolicking with his best friend and his girlfriend, riding together and laughing. Morricone’s powerful, sad music plays over each scene, the flashbacks being otherwise silent. Through this device, and with zero exposition, we learn everything we need to know about the character. How he became involved with the revolution, why he left Ireland, and what those he lost meant to him. The final flashback even adds an interesting layer of ambiguity to the relationship John had with his best friend and the girl. It’s a poetic, beguiling choice and something that endlessly intrigues me about the film.

Lastly, “Duck, You Sucker!” looks gorgeous. As always, the director fills his movie with as many wide-screen shots as possible. A notable one is when a crowd of people swarm on Juan as he leaves a train. The epic action, with its crashing trains and explosions, are perfectly captured by Leone’s camera. The use of close-ups have never felt this intimate and personal before, the characters’ struggles and feelings being clear on their faces. As always, the contrast between the sweeping landscapes and the lingering close-ups marks the film as both a historical epic and a movie of great emotion.

The film ends tragically, suddenly, with a huge explosion. In the following silence, the survivor asks what he should do next. The title then flashes on-screen, answering his question. “Duck, you sucker!” Unappreciated for years, the film has quickly become recognized as one of the director’s many masterpieces. One of its several alternate tittles is “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.” This neatly fits the film into the center of another trilogy, a trio of movies set during important historical events about hard men and the bonds they share. It's probably my favorite Leone film. [Grade: A]

Friday, May 22, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1968)

5. Once Upon a Time in the West

After wrapping up the Dollars trilogy, and seemingly creating the high-point of the genre in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Sergio Leone said he was done making westerns. Despite offers from studios to make another, including one that would have starred Kirk Douglas, Leone held fast to that statement. That was until Paramount offered him a bigger budget and, more importantly, a starring role from Henry Fonda. Fonda was Leone’s favorite actor. He had previously tried to cast him as the Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars.” Fonda’s involvement was enough to convince Leone to make another western. With a screenplay co-written by then film critic and future horror auteur Dario Argento, “Once Upon a Time in the West” rolled into production. The film is considered by some to be, not only Leone’s best works, but one of the best films ever made.

The railway is extending into the wild west. A portion of land called Sweetwater, owned by a man named McBain, is the easiest access to water in the desert. Knowing the railway would go through his property, McBain has plans to build a port. However, McBain is killed by goons hired by the railway man, Morton, and led by the vicious Frank. Plans to take the land is interrupted when McBain’s previously unmentioned wife, Jill, arrives in town. Also arriving in town is a mysterious stranger who plays the harmonica and a good natured bandit named Cheyenne. The four individuals come together in a tangled path of land ownership, the future of the town, and personal revenge.

Having all ready created the ultimate western with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Leone’s goal with “Once Upon a Time in the West” was to push his style, and the genre with it, as far as it could go. The film begins with a long, mostly silent credits sequence. Three men arrive at the train station. The camera focuses on their hard, sweaty, wrinkled faces. They mill about, waiting for the train to arrive. A fly buzzes. A fan squeaks in the wind. Water drips from a leaky tower. There are no music, the sound effects filling in the background. When the stranger arrives, and guns down the assailants, the violence is lightening fast and sudden. These elements reoccur throughout the film. Leone’s camera is patient, often adsorbing what’s happen in slow, meticulous detail. Many of Leone’s narrative trademarks are present. There’s a powerful Morricone score, tense stand-offs between bad men, a torture sequence, and a motive-lending flashback slowly revealed throughout the film.

The scope of “Once Upon a Time in the West” is simultaneously huge and intimate. Leone’s lens is wider then ever before. The sweeping desert vistas, and the little men and towns lost among them, are shown in extra wide-screen. Yet Leone has always shot his actor’s face with the same sort of grand span. With Paramount backing the film, Leone was working with a major studio’s budget for the first time in his career. Thus the sets, props, costumes, and details are lavish. The bigger budget also allowed for a higher amount of grit. Every person and place of residence is caked with dirt and sweat. The movie goes as far as possible to replicate what the west actually looked and felt like.

Thematically, “Once Upon a Time in the West” deals with the end of the west. As the railway enters the Arizona desert, it bring civilization and order to the chaotic western frontier. The story deals with control over those commodities. The railway goes where the water is and whoever controls the railway, controls the future. Gunslingers like Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank are things of the past. Their time is winding down. By film’s end, the bloodshed is over. Vengeance is fulfilled and debts are paid. Two of the three men are dead and the last rides off, disappearing into the horizon. In their path, they leave a new town, new businesses, and a new world. Enough elegiac westerns have been made that it’s practically a genre onto itself. “Once Upon a Time in the West” makes the same point in a clear, subtle way.

In the Dollars Trilogy, women did not play a particularly large role. There’s one named female character in “A Fistful of Dollars.” All the women in the previous entries were either dead or the most minor of characters. “Once Upon a Time in the West” corrects this by making a woman the main character. Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain drives much of the plot. The land she owns is what the villains are after. Jill is not a passive victim. When she hears a harmonica in the night, one of the most beguiling moments in the film, she grabs a rifle and prepares to fire. When Frank and his goons threaten her home, she goes directly to him, using the skills she knows. Because this was still 1968, Jill is a former prostitute and sleeps with Frank, in attempt to talk him out of his plans. It doesn’t work. Yet Jill’s checkered past is never held against her. It doesn’t make her any less strong. Cardinale is gorgeous, in addition to being the story’s emotional rock and its powerful center.

The film’s casting coup is Henry Fonda as Frank. Fonda’s public perception as a pure, virtuous hero was so ingrained that he was one of the few actors believably cast as both Abraham Lincoln and Tim Joad. His many appearances in westerns always had him playing the hero. Leone intentionally cast him against type. The man said it best himself: “An unseen man guns a child down in cold blood. The camera pans up and… it’s Henry Fonda.” Frank is a cold-blooded mercenary. He kills without question. His loyalties are sold to the highest bidder. He has a sadistic streak a mile wide. Fonda’s all-American good looks are surprisingly well-suited to a villain. His big blue eyes project a cruel coolness and a casual ability to end a life. His “romantic” scene with Cardinale has an intense undercurrent of malice. His negotiations with Morton are similarly fraught with dread. Frank is one of the most frightening villains in all of western history and Fonda is powerful in the role.

The other lead of “Once Upon a Time in the West” is another actor Sergio Leone had wanted to work with before. Charles Bronson was also approached to play the Man with No Name and declined. (In an unusually switch-a-roo, Harmonica was first offered to Clint Eastwood, who turned it down.) Harmonica is a variation on the same role, the stranger who wanders into town. In the ensuing years, Bronson would play many emotionless revenge killers and it was a part he excelled at. However, Bronson’s best roles played up his ability for a quiet humor. This is on displayed in his role as Harmonica. The character certainly has a way with the one-liner, coolly and calmly delivering dialogue about too many horses and people’s abilities to cut rope. The film plays up an unexpected side of Bronson. Beneath that stone face, the heavy brow, the crystal sharp green eyes, there is a surprising amount of emotion. By keeping his expression so still, Bronson suggests a man that has been hiding a lot. As he finally faces down his foe, his eyes shown in close-up by Leone, tears well up in his eyes. Of fear? Relief, over this finally being over? It’s hard to say. Either way, Harmonica is a definitive Charles Bronson character.

Filling out the third corner of the trio is James Robard’s Cheyenne. Robard, more commonly seen as down-to-Earth everyman, was also slightly cast against type as the rough gunslinger. Cheyenne is also a variation on a character that previously appeared in a Leone movie. The character has more then a little in common with Tuco. Both are comic relief in not especially funny movies. Both play hard men with rough histories and a life time of unspoken regrets behind them. Both form unexpected bonds with men that should be their enemies. Robards has a similar swagger and style to Eli Wallach as well. Out of the main cast, perhaps Cheyenne gets the short stick. He’s a rough-and-tumble bandit and gunfighter. However, the character is capable of unexpected insight. The jewel of wisdom he gives Jill are funny and touching in an odd way. Robards is very good in the role.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone’s working relationship was entrenched by now. The score for “Once Upon a Time in the West” lacks the immediately recognizable themes of the Dollars Trilogy. This doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent piece of music. Once again, Morricone creates unique themes for each main character. Harmonica is preceded by a mournful harmonica cry that builds into an abrasive shriek of strings. Those same harsh strings represent Frank, the cruel, rough villain. The sadness of the music hints at the character’s tragic past. Robard’s Cheyenne is greeted by the jangly plucking of the banjo, suggesting his down-home roots and comedic status. The most beautiful leitmotif is reserved for Jill, a gorgeous woman’s choir of building, swelling music. Though not as catchy as past work, Morricone’s music here is deep and resonating.

Despite its tough guy exterior, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is a film of great emotion. Though the film does not dwell on it, Jill slowly develops a romantic attraction to Harmonica. As a man who expects little of her and demands nothing, he appeals to the woman. His quiet strength also impresses her. Harmonica, however, is the wandering hero and can’t stay with her, even if he wanted too. Cheyenne should be a rival of the other man. He certainly doesn’t like him much when they first meet, finding him cocky and glib. However, a mutual enemy creates an alliance between the two. A begrudging respect forms soon afterwards and, by film’s end, the two are friends. The most affecting relationship in the film is between Harmonica and Frank. When the reason why the hero is pursuing the villainy is revealed, it’s some of the most effective and cruelly poetic imagery Leone would ever put to film.

No western is complete without a couple shoot-outs. And no Leone western is complete with an exciting, dynamic shoot-out. The bullets come fast and fierce. The opening shoot-out between Brosnan and the three men is over in seconds. More then once, he displays his lightening fast shooting skills, knocking men off their horses. Having a fast drawl does not make him unique in this film. Frank’s skills are such that he can shoot the buckles of a man’s belt. A creative sequence is set on a train. Cheyenne climbs along the outside. An especially clever bit has him hiding a gun in his boot. The most elaborate shoot-out takes place in town, as Frank’s own men turn on him. It recalls the town wide shoot-outs in “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” However, this one is even more dynamic in its violence, with more men falling from railings and hiding behind billboards. Yet the crowning achievement is the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank. The gun fight is over in seconds. The build-up is the show, the men circling each other, starring one another down. In these tough men’s eyes, Leone paints vivid pictures.

When I first saw “Once Upon a Time in the West,” I liked it but also thought it was too long and paled in comparison to the Dollars films. Upon rewatcing the film, I liked it a lot more. Yes, it is very long. (Though shorter then “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”) That doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie much. The film is a crowning achievement, equal parts exciting and deep, an emotional, poetic journey. Whether or not it’s truly the best western of all time isn’t for me to decide. It is definitively a masterpiece and one of the best films from a director who made plenty of good movies. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1966)

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

After the box office success of “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” Sergio Leone earned his auteur license once and for all. Originally, Leone had no intention of expanding his two films into a trilogy. However, an offer form United Artists to put up a portion of a budget and an enthusiastic screenplay pitch had the director returning to the genre. Having already pushed the western into new directions with his previous features, Leone decided to make a truly epic western. The resulting film is considered by many to be one of the best westerns ever made, if not the best. “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” is a film that cast a long shadows. Its story, characters, music, title, and themes have all become iconic.

In the waning days of the American Civil War, three men battle over a hidden treasure of gold coins. Blondie, a fair-haired bounty hunter, and Tuco, a scoundrel, end the con they’ve been running suddenly. Meanwhile, Angel Eyes, a vicious killer-for-hire, gets the scent of a stolen cache of Confederacy gold. Tuco tracks down Blondie for revenge but, after nearly killing him, also finds out about the treasure. The three men form rough alliances, betray each other, march straight into a war zone, and gun down plenty of attackers, all on their quest for gold.

The latter half of Leone’s career as a director are made up of what can best be called cinematic novels. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is the first of these. The film, in its fullest form, has a run time of 179 minutes, just a minute shy of three whole hours. This lofty run time gives the movie plenty of time to explore its ideas. It’s a lived-in world, full of details and color. It’s enough time to pack in plenty of gunslinging, humor, and a war. There are moments devoted solely to expanding on its characters. Other moments are thrown in seemingly because they’re amusing. Such as Tuco, in his bathtub, being cornered by a one-armed man. The man is out for revenge, hinting at a history between the two characters. While the attacker is monologuing, Tuco fills him full of lead, reprimanding him for talking instead of shooting. The scene contributes nothing to the plot. However, it adds so much more to the world of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Though an epic watch, the film’s length never feels unearned.

The most iconic aspect of the film is Ennio Morricone’s score. The music is synonymous with the entire western genre. It has been used in other films, TV shows, kids cartoons, and even TV commercials. Any time a situation is meant to invoke a gunslinger stand-off, Morricone’s score is frequently heard. The main theme is unmistakable. The tribal, beating drums powers the music. The high-pitch yodeling, which Morricone called “coyote howls,” are distinctive and unforgettable. Both root the movie in the western’s past. Individual instruments are linked to the main characters: a flute for Blondie, an ocarina for Angel Eyes, and a men’s choir for Tuco. The strumming guitar, which backs up the heroic theme, suggest sweeping adventure. However, Morricone’s score makes time for softer, more quiet moments. The mournful cry of a military march reappears several time. “The Ecstasy of Gold,” with its trance-like piano melody, wraps the audience up in the characters’ mad lust for riches. That Morricone’s music would become so well known is appropriate. It’s a high-water mark for movie music that hasn’t often been surpassed.

In “For a Few Dollars More,” Leone devoted the movie’s opening minutes to establishing its prime characters. He continues that tendency with the trilogy’s conclusion. The first half-hour of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is devoted to introducing the central trio. Each man gets an establishing moment. Tuco shoots three men down and burst through a window. Angel Eyes gets the information he needs and then murders the informant in cold blood. Blondie dissolves his partnership with Tuco, puckishly stranding the man in the desert. After each scene ends, the accompanying title flashes on the screen, designating the good, the bad, and the ugly in the audience’s eyes. Such a lengthy opening is another luxury afforded the film by its extra-long running time.

Eastwood’s Man with No Name being given the title of “The Good” almost seems like a cruel subversion of the expected rules of the western. Blondie, as Joe and Monco were in the previous films, is no western white hat. He’s introduced off-screen by three gun bangs. Three unsuspecting men, their backs turned, fall dead. It’s a testament to the down-beat world the film exist in that an anti-hero like Eastwood would be the Good. Yet Blondie is undoubtedly the best of the three men. Twice, he gives a dying man a cigarette. He gently pets a kitten resting in his during one scene. He usually only kills when threatened. His impish sense of humor and guile marks him as the good guy as much as his actions. Eastwood’s western hero continues to be defined as much by his cunning as his lightening fast trigger finger. Clint apparently had to be talked into coming back, with a much higher paycheck and a percentage of the gross. As such, his performance is not as razor-sharp as in the last two movies. Yet when slowly gets one over his enemies or successfully guns down an attacker, it’s still a reminder that Eastwood is the coolest man in the west.

Sergio Leone admitted that each of the three characters contained a part of his own personality. However, Eli Wallach’s Tuco was his favorite. Tuco is a bastard. He murders men throughout the movie, shooting each it best suits him. He’s a thief, stealing a self-assembled super-pistol from a gun store. He’s motivated solely by greed. Any alliances he makes are purely temporary. He’s a man only out for himself. He’s not honorable but he is likable. The pleasure he takes in turning the tables on his foes is infectiously fun. Wallach has an obscene charm in his smile. However, the character is frequently shit on by life, rightfully earning him the title of “The Ugly.” Maybe because Leone liked him so much, the film takes the time to probe Tuco’s back story. We meet his brother, a monk. We learn about his parents and his family, how he chose the life of a bandit for himself. Even when his feelings are hurt, Tuco puts on a smile. He knows the score and, if he keeps scheming, maybe someday he’ll get his due. The film would take Wallach from minor character actor to respected character actor. He would even headline a few spaghetti westerns all by himself.

That aforementioned opening is largely silent. The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes in. This occurs when Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes interrogates a man for information about the gold. When the man gives him what he wants, and threatens to shoot him, Van Cleef guns the man down. He then shoots the man’s son and wife. Later, he shoots the man who hired him while he’s in bed. This establishes Angel Eyes as the most cruel and calculating of men. Van Cleef was so personable and likable in “For a Few Dollars More.” His character here dresses similarly but couldn’t be more different in personality. Van Cleef is a good choice for the role. His narrowing face and beady eyes ooze villainous intent. Angel Eyes has the least personality of the three men. He’s a straight-ahead mercenary, killing for money. The pleasure he gets out of the act is besides the point.

The epic scope of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is laudable enough. What makes it a truly likable film is the oddly friendly relationship between Blondie and Tuco. The two are partners in crime at first, running a unique con. However, the Good ditches the Ugly soon enough. This backfires when Tuco is pointing a pistol in his Blondie’s face. The sequence that follows, when Wallach drags Eastwood across the desert, is the film’s most darkly humorous moment. Blondie suffering under the hot desert sun isn’t funny. Tuco splashing his feet in his water or shooting holes in his canteen is. The antagonistic but oddly warm relationship is one of my favorite aspects of the film. When Tuco tries to get the information out of Blondie, the other man diffuses the situation carefully. As the two attach bombs to the legs of a bridge, they discuss the treasure further, Tuco’s vulnerability shining through while Blondie maintains his cool. Even up to the end, when Wallach has his head in a noose, Clint takes the time to perform a friendly gesture. But not too friendly.

With his fifth film, Leone’s directorial style is fully formed. One of the first images in the film is a close-up on a grizzled, hardened man’s face. It’s a motif the director returns throughout the movie. Leone contrasts the intimate landscape of a man’s face with the wider landscape of the countryside. The harsh deserts and the green vallies are shot with as wide a lens as possible. The editing is tighter and more clever then before. The camera cuts between the barrel of a gun and the barrel of a cannon. When Tuco finally reaches the cemetery, the camera spins around him, illustrating his excitement and matching the stepping excitement of Morricone’s music. Leone’s direction knows when to be intimate, when to be epic, and when to be coy. Quentin Tarantino has called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” the best directed film ever made. Well, who’s to say? But the film certainly looks amazing.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” isn’t just a western. It’s also a war film. The Civil War rages in the background at the very beginning. There are references to Yankee and Confederate forces near the start. As the characters come closer to their goal, the war comes into sharper focus. As a gun fight rages in a ghost town, cannon balls explodes around the men. By the end, the guys are right in the middle of a battlefield. At first, the men are entirely ambivalent to the horrors of war. Tuco steals uniforms off of dead men’s back. (The way that plot ends up, with a dust storm and an assumed identity, is hilarious.) Occasionally, even men as hardened as these are moved by what’s happening around them. Upon entering a church full of injured men, Tuco is stunned into silence. Upon seeing the carnage of the war zone, Blondie mutters about the loss of life. When finding two dying men, the Man with No Name takes time to respect their passing, giving one a swig of liquor and the other a cigarette. Even violent gunslingers find the gratuitous loss of life shameful.

The trio are motivated mostly by greed. Tuco and Angel Eyes are after the gold, above all else. Even Blondie, by far the most ethical of the men, is pursuing the treasure for his own gain. Through this, the theme of greed emerges. Leone drawls a none-too-subtle parallel between the greed of the men and the war effort around them. The trio selfishly search for gold. The armies battle over land. Both are shown on about the same level. There are differently manifestations of the same desire. The film because an anti-war movie of sorts, playing up the absurdity of all combat.

You know what Sergio Leone seems to like? A good torture sequence! For the third time in a row, he finds some excuse for a main character to be brutally beaten by the bad guys. In “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” he ups the ante. Tuco is beaten black and blue, his teeth punched out, his eyes gouged, his hands broken. Most of the violence in the film is relatively bloodless. Men are shot and tumble over dead without any visible blood. Yet Tuco’s beating is visceral and intensely violent. Perhaps giving the sequence a stronger edge is the music played over. Angel Eyes covers up the brutality of his action by having a band play and sing. The contrast actually makes the violence even more horrifying.

Leone recognizes how awful violence can be. He’s also not above playing action and mayhem for thrills. There’s plenty of flashing pistols and flying bullets in the movie. In “For a Few Dollars More,” the heroes worked their way through a small town of goons. The third film in the trilogy tops that sequence. Left alone in a ghost town, torn apart and ravaged by the war, Blondie and Tuco fend off Angel Eyes’ gang. There’s plenty of guys shot off railings, tumbling down to their deaths. Eastwood corner shooters, blasting them away. He alerts them with a sharp whistle, getting the drop on them. Tuco’s methods are more direct, gunning down those that get in his way. Cutting edge for the time and still riveting today, the sequence shows Leone elevating the western gun fight into some more stylized and exciting.

Surprisingly, a shot-out that good is only the appetizer to the climax’s main course. On paper, it’s a simple sequence. The trio meet again in the graveyard. The three stand around a stone circle, bringing “For a Few Dollars More” to mind again. Morricone’s music builds. The camera sharply cuts between their three faces. The audience is left wondering: Who will shoot first? Who will turn on the other? The drawn-out action builds tension while also putting the viewer in the characters’ head. This is a masterwork lesson on how to end your movie. Ultimately, Tuco is revealed to be not so bad anyway. As the extended denouncement proves, the film ends with the Good triumphing over the Bad and the Ugly still being ugly.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” lives up to its reputation. As a western, the film morphs the genre in new and exciting directions. As an action film, it’s never less then fully riveting. As an exercise in style, it still impresses, Leone’s direction often being imitated but never topped. The score is incredible, the actors perfectly cast, and the film’s impact is still felt. Is it the greatest western ever made? You never known for sure. It’s certainly a really, really good movie. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1965)

3. For A Few Dollars More
Per qualche dollaro in più

“A Fistful of Dollars” was an immediate success, at home in Italy and internationally. Sergio Leone and his producer wanted to get to work on a follow-up as soon as possible. Clint Eastwood was uncertain at first but, after seeing an undubbed print of “Fistful,” enthusiastically agreed to return. Debate rages to this day about whether or not “For a Few Dollars More” is a direct sequel or merely a thematic follow-up. When released in America, United Artist sold all three films as being about the Man with No Name, connecting them as a series. Sergio Leone always insisted that there was no continuity between the films, each meant to be singular stories. Eastwood is clearly playing the same character. The debates don’t affect the film any. “For a Few Dollars More” is not only a worthy follow-up to “A Fistful of Dollars,” it may actually be the better.

The Wild West is being terrorized by El Indigo, the most dangerous outlaw around, and his gang of miscreants, robbers, and murderers. The crooks plan to rob the bank of El Paso next, making off with a vault full of half a million dollars. On his tail are two separate bounty killers. The first is the poncho clad Manco, a lightening-fast gunslinger who doesn’t say much. The second is Douglas Mortimer, a black-clad former colonel who shoots with deadly accuracy and a bandoleer of high-tech guns. The two hunters meet on the trail of Indigo, butting heads at first. Eventually, they form an alliance to take down the villain, who Mortimer has a personal connection to.

From its opening minutes, “For a Few Dollars More” establishes itself as having a wider lens then Leone’s last film. A lone horseman crosses a prairie. The angle is wide and distant, the man seeming tiny in the field. A shot rings out through the area, the assassin unseen, the man falling dead from his perch. With that, the titles float on screen, designed to look like puffs of smoke, each pierced by a single bullet hole. The opening declares that this is a movie of bad men clipped down with deadly accuracy.

Powering the opening, and the whole film, is Ennio Morricone’s incomparable score. The whimsical whistle connects it with the first film’s theme, while also signaling its wild west setting. The flicking of the jew harp provides movement. The soft drum implies the beats of horse hooves and, later, the pumping of a locomotive. The guttural cries of men are primal and fierce while the strumming guitar builds to a sweeping, powerful, choir theme, where each of the elements meet again. There’s no doubt that it’s a ridiculously great, adventurous score that gets the audience excited.

Like the other Leone westerns Morricone would score, each of the main characters receive a musical motif of their own. Leone also begins the film by introducing each main character in a lengthy, singular scene. Mortimer stops a train and takes out a target. Manco walks through a thunderstorm, interrupts a poker game, and claims his own bounty. El Indigo, meanwhile, displays his stopwatch, the object that informs and defines his personality. The trio of leads, each getting a first scene to themselves, is something Leone would return to. As in films past and present, Leone also has his heroes undergo a Christ-like torture, beaten and brutalized by the villains. The movie concludes with the good guy and the bad guy having a duel in a stone circle, settling their personal grudge. That Leone would return to these story elements is appropriate, as they are classic western moments his films helped defined.

Despite Clint Eastwood being the marquee name, Mortimer is introduced first. The character is played with a stoic focus by Lee Van Cleef, already a veteran of westerns himself. He is steely and calculated, to the point of being relaxed. In the first scene, a mark shoots wildly at him. Mortimer, meanwhile, casually, calmly, loads his gun, taking the guy out with one clear, clean shot. The bounty hunter is presented almost like the James Bond of gunslingers. He is outfitted with the highest-tech weapons of the day, each contained in a unfolding brown leather satchel on his horse. Van Cleef also shows a quiet humor, an eyebrow cocked and a pipe in his mouth. He’s a different sort of badass then Clint Eastwood and a valuable addition to the film.

Which isn’t to say Eastwood still isn’t the king of cool. His own introduction has him casually strolling through a thunderstorm, unaffected by the rain. He casually marches up to the guy he’s going to kill and tells him so. He casually shoots underarm at an attacker. Eastwood’s Man with No Name maintains his ballsy toughness, smooth execution, and take-no-shit attitude. For example, he’s not above shooting an unarmed man. His soft spot for kids are maintained too, though even that has a limit. Like before, his scheming and planning can only take him so far and he eventually finds himself over his head. Eastwood inhabits the part so naturally that it’s no wonder he would define the western hero archetype. His performance is a deliberate, fascinating variation on a theme.

Probably the biggest pleasure of “For a Few Dollars More” is the inevitable conflict the film sends the two characters on. As bounty hunters, they are rivals. The fight scene between the two, coming about a half-hour in, is one of my favorite scenes in the film. They play an extended game of keep-away with bullets and hats. Eastwood shoots Van Cleef’s hat several times. Keeping with their established personalities, Van Cleef takes Eastwood’s off with a single shot. However, the two are only rivals for so long. Soon, they meet and formulate a plan. In most any other western, this would be a dull scene of exposition, setting up a plot that will obviously go wrong. However, watching Eastwood and Van Cleef bounce off each other is an absolute joy, the two forming a funny back-and-forth.

In “A Fistful of Dollars,” the villains were bad men, motivated by greed and murdering with glee. El Indigo is also played by Gian Maria Volonte, like the first’s Ramon. Volonte is just as vicious here. Indigo also takes pleasure in dispatching his foes, dangling their inescapable fates in their faces with the chiming stopwatch. However, that stopwatch is a key to Indigo’s past. He’s a more complex villain, motivated as much by regret as material gain. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of his past, a device Leone would also return to in future works. What he did was equally unforgivable but it roots his personality in a human sadness. The best bit of acting from Volonte comes when he stares into space, consumed by memories, the sad music box playing him to sleep. He is frightening when gunning down victims and plotting bank robberies. Yet the details of his past make him a more captivating adversary.

“For a Few Dollars More” also shows Sergio Leone’s directorial style expanding. The wide vistas that are so associated with him are on display here. The Spanish desert continues to make a visually fascinating location. No wonder Leone would want to film as much of it as possible at once. Gunslingers stand in the distance, firing off shots, their bullets rippling in the sand and dirt. He shoots the faces of hard, bad men with the same sort of gravitas he gives to the landscapes. He allows tension to build during the duels, placing as much importance on setting and location as he does to story or characters. This technique creates a surprising amount of suspense, making the viewer wonder about the outcome of the gunfight, even though the audience can assume the good guys will prevail. Leone’s bag of filmmaking tricks elevates the genre to a masterful art form.

“For a Few Dollars More” mostly tells a very different story from its predecessor. It’s not an unofficial remake of any Kurosawa film that I know of. However, the sequel does have one thing in common. In both stories, Eastwood’s Man with No Name must go undercover with the bad guys. This leads to the middle section of the story where it suddenly becomes a heist film. Prison bars are torn from walls. The plot device involving the vault, hidden inside a wooden box, is clever. Even more clever is the way the wood is shot away by the bandits. Because this is about both of them, Van Cleef worms his way into the gang too, in another surprisingly intense sequence. However, Leone spends more time on the duo’s discovery, leading to double-crossing, scheming, and changing alliances. These moments are somewhat routine and the only time “For a Few Dollars More” drags.

It doesn’t drag too much though. This is an action film that moves. From the first scene, the shoot-outs are lightening fast, muzzle flashes striking and bodies falling to the floor. The quick cut editing emphasizes the ferocity of the action. The early scenes of Eastwood mowing down rows of goons with super speed and accuracy are exciting as hell. However, the movie is buildings towards the thunderous climax. Manco and Mortimer have to face off against an entire town full of banditos. They march through the streets, gunning down their attackers. Leone’s camera films the streets between buildings tightly, creating an effective tunnel. Eastwood spins around in a chair, blasting goons through the window. Van Cleef is more direct, barging in and letting his rifle blaze. The stand-off between Mortimer and Indigo is breathtakingly exciting. All the film’s best elements come together. Leone’s lyrical direction, Morricone’s gorgeous score, and the intense performances combine to make a fantastic conclusion.

And, hey, if nothing else, the movie has got Klaus Kinski as a hunchback too! “For a Few Dollars More” is more direct and action-packed then the first part of the trilogy. It has more to offer with a more exciting, better constructed screenplay. The action is fantastic. The score is incredible. The actors are men at the top of their field, doing what they do best. It’s the rare sequel that’s superior to the original. That’s saying a lot, since “A Fistful of Dollars” was really good too. Most of all, the movie shows Sergio Leone evolving into a genre genius, a man who could turn a simple western into a exciting masterwork of filmmaking. [Grade: A-]