Classic Westerns by MGM Review
April sees the Special Edition DVD release of the remaining major films by Italian director Sergio Leone, beautifully restored, each loaded with a fistful of extras. Having beautifully re-mastered and repackaged his most famous work, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, MGM have now seen fit to unleash definitive versions of A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and the less-celebrated, but perhaps the most interesting of the batch, Duck, You Sucker, better known as A Fistful of Dynamite.
Despite having a relatively small canon of major films, Leone is arguably one of the greatest storytellers cinema has ever seen. A giant of man, with a love of theatrical myth as rapacious as his famed appetite for tucker, Leone spent the sixties and early seventies making truly epic films that offered a violent twist on the American Western. Drawn out on a grand canvas, these tales feature amoral and immoral characters who are so far removed from the honourable cowboy played by previous stars of the genre such as Gary Copper or John Wayne. As the titles suggest these gunmen are self serving mercenaries who regularly kill indiscriminately, sometimes even committing rape. The lines between hero and villain are blurred as their exploits reflect the true lawlessness that pervaded the American history of the South West. In traditional westerns, the hero was the fastest gun; in Leone’s western, the fastest gun was the hero.
These classics were dubbed ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ because they were largely funded by Italian companies, but they were actually filmed in southern Spain with a multicultural cast and crew, often without a common language between them. There he uprooted the traditional Western and injected it with humour and cynicism, as well as political and Roman Catholic imagery. On the surface they may look like rather hokey budget films, badly dubbed and heavy handed and that’s because they are, but they are also so much more.
Leone’s westerns were often panned by the critics on release, but proved a massive hit with audiences. One of the reasons for this could be that the high-brow film critics often like to label films and tend to put them in boxes and so they had trouble reconciling the gung ho, populist violence and action set pieces in the films with the fact that all of Leone’s work was punctuated with avant guard music and was brimming over with references to classic religious works of art and literature, not to mention key political and social affairs that were resonating with audiences throughout the globe at that time. In a sense, Leone’s films were art films made for a mainstream audience. It takes a rare gift to achieve success on both fronts but it is widely acknowledged now that Leone, a renowned cineaste, achieved this every time.
The great thing about Leone’s films is that they are so wonderfully atmospheric. With his trademark combination of wide panoramic shots and extreme close-ups, you can practically feel the heat emanating from the screen. Every skin crease, stubble hair and rotten tooth is brazenly on display for all to see and these images reveal Leone’s desire to explode the myths of Americana. As a boy, Leone loved American film and saw it as the real land of plenty, but as he grew up his experiences made him realise that those films he watched in the 1930s did not accurately portray America as it truly was. Leone’s films then, serve as a tribute to American cinema, yet at the same time are a cheeky attack on the false values that were peddled by the Hollywood studios. This has never been more succinctly realised by the casting of blue-eyed heroic actor Henry Fonda, known for his portrayal of noble men of virtue, as the child-killing sadist in Once Upon A Time In The West.
It took a while for the credibility of Leone’s films to be established but fortunately he has now been rightly recognised as a true cinema great and his legacy can be seen in a wealth of films of almost any genre. Leone did not just transform the western; rather he transformed cinema. Watching these films in their uncut, digitally-restored glory, it’s easy to see that the films do indeed work on many levels, and now with these Special Editions, they have never looked nor sounded better.
Per un Pugno di Dollari – A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
This is Leone’s second major film – his first being The Colossus Of Rhodes in 1961 – and was the first to introduce Clint Eastwood as the iconic ‘Man With No Name’, a character that would return in the subsequent For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Replete with poncho, brown cowboy boots, wide-brimmed hat and forever chewin’ on a cheroot, this character made an international star of Eastwood, then only know from the US TV series Rawhide, and transformed him into one of the most recognisable figures in film history. In actuality, Eastwood’s taciturn gunslinger was a different character in each of the three films and, despite his celebrated moniker, he did have a name in each – Joe, Manco and Blondie, respectively.
A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, A Fistful Of Dollars is a tale of a stranger coming into town, pitting two rival gangs against each other just to make a bit of cash. Fistful… has all the elements that define Leone’s style of filmmaking; full of unremitting violence, gritty realism and tongue-in-cheek humour. Leone’s direction is taut and stylish, and the visuals are striking and everything is accented by Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully quirky and haunting experimental score. As this was Leone’s first real foray into the genre, he is not as confident as he will become in terms of grandiose style and dark humour in later films; nevertheless the seeds are sown here and it remains a wonderful cinematic experience.
Per Qualche Dollaro In Più – For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Eastwood had proven so successful in his first foray into European Westerns with Fistful… that a follow up sequel was inevitable. Superbly scripted by Luciano Vincenzoni, this film features an unforgettable alliance between ruthless gun-slingers Eastwood as Manco and Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Mortimer and is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best of the so-called ‘Dollars Trilogy’.
For A Few Dollars More tells the tale of a ruthless quest by two bounty hunters to track down the notorious bandit El Indio played by Gian Maria Volonte, who had appeared as one of the villains in Fistfull…, although here he really turns up the evil to eleven. Here Indio is a pot-smoking maniac who takes pleasure in killing men, women and children, while laughing theatrical. A lot. In fact, the film as a whole is much more melodramatic than it’s predecessor, as the action moves from Jail breaks and hold-ups to spectacular gun battles and a fantastically tense final showdown between Volonte and Van Cleef. In this film, Leone, Eastwood and Morricone have all become much more confident in their respective art forms and the result is a more satisfying story than A Fistful of Dollars but which is not overlong and meandering like The Good The Bad And The Ugly arguably has a tendency to be.
Giù La Testa – Duck, You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite(1971)
It’s worth mentioning that this film has been messed around with considerably since its release. Leone’s originally wanted it to be called “Duck, You Sucker”, based upon a misguided notion that it was a commonplace American phrase, but the distributors marketed it along side Leone’s previous successes; in the UK and the US it was called A Fistful of Dynamite, while in other countries it was known as Once Upon A Time…The Revolution. It was also considerably edited, with a view to make it more palatable – some of the more adult scenes were cut and the ending was altered. Here, at last is the chance to see Giù La Testa exactly as it was envisioned by Leone himself, including it’s original title and ending, and it’s a better film as a result.
The plot takes place many years after the events of his previous westerns, this time at the turn of the Twentieth Century. On the run from the British government in Mexico, Sean Mallory, played by James Coburn is an IRA explosives expert who becomes befriended by Juan Miranda – a very grubby Rod Steiger – the leader of a bandit family. Upon witnessing Mallory’s skills with explosives, Juan asks Sean to join his gang to raid the bank of Mesa Verde but before long he’s caught up in the Mexican revolution.
A more complicated movie than any of the Dollars Trilogy, this film reflects Leone’s style becoming more mature, dark and overtly political. Ultimately this film is about friendship, but it is also a criticism of the wave of revolutionary thinking that was so prominent in the late 1960s. The first thing we see as the film begins is a quote by Mao Tse Tung, which illustrates that Leone has a different agenda, and which may explain why this wasn’t as massive a hit as his earlier films. Although the prerequisite gunplay, cracking one-liners and massive explosions are present and correct, the film is much more introspective and tragic, and does not have as broad an appeal as his previous efforts.
The tone is decidedly melancholy, using a tragic back story to Mallory’s life told in slow motion flashback at various points throughout the film that underpins the sadness his character carries with him, as well evoking images of the horrors of modern warfare amongst the chaos of revolution; just as the cemetery featured in the climax of The Good The Bad And The Ugly evokes the sea of graves to mark those soldiers killed in WWII, there is a particularly remarkable scene showing dissidents being shot in long trenches that is unmistakably mirroring those prisoners of Auschwitz and Dachau that were forced by the Nazis to literally dig their own graves before being shot dead.
In keeping with the themes that run throughout Leone’s films, Giù La Testa is a critique of the way the Mexican Revolution had been documented in American filmmaking, as well as a message about the destructive consequences this kind of bloodshed and betrayal can have on friendship and the family – two elements of life so important to Leone. If you haven’t seen this film, check it out as it is a powerful piece of filmmaking that, although not being as satisfying as any of the Dollars films, it certainly has more to say.
Each set is a two-disk affair, and all feature an informative featurette by Leone’s official biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, who is kind of like Dr Robert Winston: moustachioed, likeable and deeply intelligent, without being pompous or pretentious. Fistful… and For A Few Dollars More have an interview with Clint Eastwood himself, filmed in 2003 as he reflects on making the films. In the case of Giù La Testa there is a feature on a new Leone exhibition that Frayling is holding later in the year, along with a study of how the film in its various forms got mangled over the years. For all films there are the now expected productions stills, trailers and other such gubbins, notable a comparison between the Spanish locations then against how they look now, but the real jewel in the crown is a detailed commentary for each film by Frayling, who obviously knows his stuff.
As Frayling is a film scholar who has now doubt lectured on Leone at great length he gives the kind of commentary that is the most welcome. Often a good actor or director does is not very eloquent when it comes to discussing their own work and commentaries can often be pieces of self-important rhetoric or filled with awkward pauses as the director runs out of stuff to say. This is neither and Frayling explains clearly and insightfully everything you could ever want to know about Leone, casting, the production and the themes of the films themselves. The down side of this is that the commentaries are so complete that there is a certain amount of repetition in the subsequent featurettes, but this is a small gripe and the DVDs are worth it just for the commentary alone. A must have for all Leone fans, even if you already own the vanilla versions of the first two. In all a pretty impressive batch of extras for which it’s well worth paying a few dollars more. I can’t believe I just wrote that…
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