Sunday, December 11, 2011

Film #68: The Godfather (1972)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 4 or 5 (last seen about 5 years ago)

*The critics who put together the TIME list counted The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather II, as a single show (no Part III, for reasons obvious to anyone who has ever seen the final installment). I am reviewing them separately, however. Come back in a few weeks to see my review to Part II.

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Mafia family undergoes serious changes following World War II. Mafiosos get whacked in between various family functions.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, spoilers included)

Brooklyn, New York. Late 1945. The young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has returned from fighting in World War II. He attends his sister's wedding – a massive affair with hundreds of people in attendance. He explains to his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), that his family has deep criminal connections, as evidenced by the numbers of people lining up to ask his father, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for various political and criminal favors. Michael readily admits to all of this, but assures Kay that he never has and never will have anything to do with that part of his family's business.

The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone, listens to one of the many requests put to him.

Soon after the wedding, Don Vito Corleone meets with his eldest son, Santino “Sonny” (James Caan) and his adopted son and the family's legal counselor, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). They discuss a newcomer to the New York area, a narcotics trafficker named Sollazzo, or “The Turk”. The Turk seeks Vito Corleone's protection through his many political connections, so that he can operate his drug business free of police interference. While Sonny and Tom try to convince their father Vito that this would be a lucrative connection to make, Vito decides to refuse. His reasoning is that narcotics is far more dangerous and far less socially acceptable than their standard rackets of gambling, liquor and prostitution. He respectfully tells The Turk as much during their brief meeting.

A few days after his meeting with The Turk, Vito Corleone is gunned down while shopping at a grocery. Vito lives, but is seriously injured. The assassination was arranged by The Turk, who seeks Corleone out of his way so that he and one of the smaller, less powerful rival crime families can move in on his political contacts and usurp the Corleone family's power. Vito, in the hospital and stable but unconscious, has another attempt on his life averted by his son, Michael, who happens to be there for a visit.

With his two attempts to eliminate Vito Corleone having failed, The Turk attempts to coax a truce, using the civilian Michael as the negotiator. Before the meeting, Michael convinces his brothers and family lieutenants that there can be no truce with The Turk, as his father is the lone obstacle to the newcomers' goals. Instead of arranging a deal with The Turk, Michael conceives a plan to assassinate both The Turk and his bodyguard, local police captain McCluskey. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Michael succeeds in killing both targets. However, he must flee the country due to the political and legal pressures.

In hiding from extradition and the other New York mafia families who supported The Turk, Michael spends several months in Sicily, around his father's home town of Corleone. He keeps quiet, but does fall in love and marries a local beauty, Appolonia. Back in New York, Sonny has taken over the Corleone family business while his father gradually recovers his strength. Sonny, however, is not the most level-headed of crime family leaders. His fiery temper allows him to be goaded into racing to his sisters, without his normal guards, on the pretext of protecting her from her abusive husband, Carlo. Sonny is gunned to death at an isolated toll booth. In Sicily, a similar attempt is made on Michael. This assassination attempt, though, goes horribly wrong and kills Appolonia instead.

Sonny getting ambushed and annihilated on the causeway. This causes, and paves the way for, Michael's rise in the family business.

In New York, Vito Corleone has recovered a certain amount of strength. With Sonny dead and Michael a constant revenge target, he calls a meeting of family heads. He calls for a truce from all sides, swearing that, as long as Michael’s safety is assured, he will use his political contacts to assist any family who wishes to delve into the illegal narcotics business. From the interactions at the meeting, the savvy Vito also determines that it was his rival Don Barzini who had supported the Turk and set up the initial assassination attempt on his own life, as well as Sonny's and Michael's.

Michael returns to New York and reunites with Kay. They get married and, over the course of a few years, have children. Meanwhile, with the help of his aging father Vito, Michael slowly becomes the head of his family's business, legal and illicit alike. Michael is quickly thrust into the role of full-fledged family head when, unexpectedly, Vito dies of a sudden heart attack.

At his father's funeral, new Don Michael quietly and ruthlessly calculates how to retain and increase his family's power. Other bosses, beware.

Michael then moves with blinding quickness to consolidate and secure his family's interests. In Las Vegas, where his doltish elder brother FredoBarzini, and even Moe Green in Vegas, are executed.

As his final moves, Michael coolly calls for the deaths of two men very close to his family. One is his brother-in-law, Carlo, who had a hand in Sonny's death. The other is his deceased father's long-time lieutenant, Tessio (Abe Vigoda), who was going to attempt to assassinate Michael himself. When these murders are completed, the Corleone family's control in firmly in Michael's hands. Kay, who has been willfully ignorant of Michael's actions, finally asks her husband if he had a hand in all of these brutal slayings, including their brother-in-law, Carlo. Michael coldly lies to Kay, who buys the lie and sees Michael's ascension to “Don Michael”, the new Godfather and head of the Corleone family.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing)

An absolute titan of a movie, and one that I really never get tired of watching.

After you've seen The Godfather once, it's almost impossible to see it with fresh eyes. The movie has become so firmly ingrained in our popular culture that you would think it might become stale and tired. Yet it doesn't. This speaks volumes for how strong a film it is, and its strength comes from sources that go far beyond what a mere plot synopsis can convey.

The story of the Corleone family's crime involvement and its interpersonal dynamics are a great melding of Greek tragedy and the American Dream. This theme is as simple as it is attractive to many of us American viewers – riches and power can not save people from themselves. As powerful as the Corleone family is, the odd dysfunctions of any family remain. However, unlike most families', the falls are far greater and more spectacular when happening from such heights of ostentatious wealth. This runs through the Corleone family, but most obviously in Sonny, whose Herculean rage leads directly to his own brutal and bloody demise.

Looks like a nice family, right? Wrong. Just in this picture, you have: a hot-headed womanizer, a dangerously doltish stooge, a cold-blooded killer, and several willfully ignorant and complicit spouses. And I haven't even gotten to the adults in the photo.

Of course, The Godfather was far from the first gangster movie, or even the first mafia movie. It was, though, one of the first to bring this notion of family responsibility and honor to the fore. The first 30 or so minutes take place at a wedding – the most cordial and joyous of family events. While the guests are laughing, dancing and singing, however, sinister things are going on in the dark office of Vito Corleone. When not briefly outside with his guests, Don Vito makes deals with various supplicants, promising to use his power to give them what they want, provided that he can call on favors from them in the future. These quiet deals are what make the entire wealthy family machine run. Seeing the wedding take place right along side of it drives the point home.

The point of family cannot be overstated, and it is a great exercise to ponder its various meanings in the story of The Godfather. When watching this recent time, I began to realize just how, in the tale, we are seeing a more subtle transition within the Corleone family. Beyond the handing over of power from Vito to Michael, or the transition from New York to Las Vegas, is the ever-so-slight shift in the family/crime formula. Though we don't get Vito's back-story until the sequel film, we can understand that he is a man for whom family is paramount. The fact that his methods of supporting his family happen to be illegal is of minor consequence to him. We viewers don't have to agree with it, but we can understand and maybe even sympathize with him a little, for Vito does have a moral compass. His children, on the other hand, are a different breed. The hot-tempered Sonny, while a loving brother and son, is easily tempted by money and women. Michael seems to understand the value of family as a concept, but lacks the genuine emotion that was his father's most endearing trait. For Sonny and Michael, the family becomes a sham facade that supports their illegal and immoral activities. This inversion is fairly clear, but the elements that tip the scales are only matters of degree between generations of Corleones.

Michael gets advice from his father. Michael has the brains and wherewithal to do what needs to be done. However, he never does have or obtain the genuine love of people and family, which are his father's redeeming traits.

Of course, the higher-minded themes are only a part of a great movie. A compulsively watchable film needs great characters, as well, and The Godfather has them in spades. The Corleones themselves, Vito, Tom Hagen, Sonny, Fredo, Connie, Michael are fascinating enough, with odd dynamics throughout. But equally compelling are all of the minor characters. The Godfather has a solid two dozen memorable faces and characters, many of them with their own linguistic hooks and gestures that stay with you long after the film is over. A prime example is the bombastic and megalomaniacal film producer Jack Woltz. Woltz's self-satisfaction, pride, and epithet-riddled tirades are hilariously engaging.

Woltz also brings up another great element – the humor. The Godfather is loaded with drama and several brief, brutal, and graphic scenes of violence; these are fantastically tempered by the many moments of humor sprinkled throughout. Whether it's Woltz shifting from his condescension of Italians to the German-Irish Tom Hagen by calling him his “kraut-mick friend!”, or it's Appolonia's oblivious butchered English (“Mawnday, Toosday, Thursday, Wensday...”), or even the simple silliness of Vito Corleone scaring his grandson by sticking and orange peel in his mouth, there is a gamut of levity offered throughout. This is also another element that builds a sense of genuineness in all of the characters, and makes them far more than cardboard cutout cliched gangster characters.

The composition of the film is rightly regarded as the height of cinema. Francis Ford Coppola may have only outdone himself with The Godfather II, but only slightly if so. The classic look and feel of every environment and shot in The Godfather is iconic, which is why it has become such a standard for any film. I recall a former New York journalist who, in the 1990s, recounted the cultural effects of The Godfather. He said that it became the movie that every wannabe-wiseguy in the country watched, in order to learn how to “act like a genuine gangster.” It's not hard to see why – so many of the characters possess the ruthlessness, savvy, and style that any aimless young hood would aspire to.

This is exactly the icon that nearly every mafia hopeful and poser aspired to for decades after Coppola's movie. A good haircut, an expensive suit, and a leather chair from which to dispense life and death.

It is difficult to find faults with the movie, but a few things do show up to me. One is that there are a few jerky time jumps. In the second half of the film, around five or so years whisk by, with only a few nonchalant mentions by the characters. It is slightly dizzying. More than this though (and I may be in the minority on this) is that I have never been overwhelmed by Al Pacino in this movie. As great as he has been in other movies, I always find his turn as Michael Corleone as very flat. I understand that he is supposed to be the cold, calculating, and lethally capable heir to his father, and this part comes across just fine. The thing I have never bought is exactly what the naive and warm Kay sees in him. Perhaps this is something that is explored far more in the source novel by Mario Puzo, but it is never clear in the film.

These things aside, The Godfather is superb. Even a person who is not enamored of gangster movies should love watching such an epic tale of the inner working of a dynastic family like the Corleones. It expertly blends nearly every element of great cinematic storytelling into a movie that is uniquely American, yet universally appealing. If you have never seen it, you absolutely need to give it a try.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the film.)

When it comes to such a universally-hailed film like The Godfather, there's not much someone like me can do to “explain” its status. Volume after volume has been written about it, and one doesn't have to look very far to find scores of interesting background and factoids on the movie. Here are just a few of my favorites:

The improvisation. I absolutely love learning what things have been concocted, extemporaneously, by the actors. I always assume that this is what marks the absolute greatest actors – the ability to add things into the movies from their guts, which become as memorable as anything. The Godfather has a few gems. One is James Caan's rapid-fire addition of the phrase “bada-bing!” when he's explaining to his “nice, college boy” kid brother just how he'll have to shoot Sollozzo and McCluskey in the face. All of us, even those from far outside of New York, are now well familiar with this little Italian-American-ism. Another is Brando's open-handed smack of Johnnie Fontaine, when he commands him to “act like a man!”. Apparently, actor Al Martino was too tight in the scene, and Brando decided to shake him up. It worked. You just have to look at Martino's face to see it. There are plenty of others, but these were a few of the standouts.

Rather than go on and on, I'll just recommend that any fan of this movie should seek out a few of these behind-the-scenes pieces. A really excellent one is the recently-published The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies, written by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. These two guys did a great job of assembling analyses and critiques of their “100 greatest gangster movies”, warts and all. The Godfather and its sequel (which top their list at numbers one and two) get plenty of pages. Another great source is the extra materials on the DVD collections. There are tons of tales of the near-castings and near-firings of Pacino and Coppola, and the countless things that Coppola would not compromise on with the studio, all for the better.

That does it for The Godfather, but I'll be watching Part II in several weeks, and doing a separate write-up for it.

That's a wrap. 68 shows down. 37 to go.

Coming Soon: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972):

I've seen this Bunuel movie once before. Peculiar. Mind-boggling. Oddly humorous. These are a few of my impressions. Maybe I can glean a little more out of this second viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Film #67: Xia Nu (1971)

Title for us English-Types: The Dignified Lady, a.k.a. A Touch of Zen

Director: King Hu

Initial Release Country: Taiwan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Chinese scholar helps a young woman deal with corrupt government officials who pursue her. Many people brandish swords and jump really high.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis. Spoilers included.)

In a small village in Ming Dynasty China, a young man named Ku lives a humble life. He is an artist and a scholar who ekes out a living doing portraits and scribing. The only seeming worry is his mother, who constantly badgers him about his bachelorhood and apparent lack of ambition for more prominent work within the government.

Within a short span, several strangers appear in the town: Doctor Lu, the blind fortune-teller Shih, a government official named Ouyang, and the young woman Ying. The very private and rarely-seen Ying actually moves into the supposedly haunted fort next to Ku's ramshackle home, which is part of a larger dilapidated and disused castle.

Over the next several days, it becomes clear to Ku that each of the newcomers is hiding something beneath their simple public personas. After a few moments of mystery and suspense, Ku learns that Ying, whose real name is Yang, is the daughter of a former magistrate who was going to inform the emperor of massive corruption. The primary figure involved in the corruption is someone known as “Eunuch Wei”, who intercepted Yang's father and had him tortured to death. Yang flees with two trusted generals – Shih and Lu – until they find refuge in the monastery of fighting Buddhist monks and remain there for two years.

Back in the present, Ku and Yang share an evening in each other's arms. Shortly after, Ku helps Yang and her two general protectors to lure Eunuch Wei's forces into a trap. Using local superstition and his own mechanical contrivances, Ku entices hundreds of Wei's forces, led by corrupt local officials, into the “haunted” fort and methodically lays waste to them with various traps. His plan is executed brilliantly, but he finds that Yang has fled the morning after their night-time victory.

Yang, Ku, and the generals trek through the jungle. You can bet that bodies and blades will be soaring through the air, shortly.

Ku, over several months, tracks Yang back to the monastery where she previously was sheltered. Before he can ascend the monastery mountain and find her, though, a monk brings down a newborn child – the result of his single night with Yang. With the child is a note from Yang asking that she not be disturbed, for she seeks permanent solitude in the monastery. Ku, dejected, begins to take the child home.

Ku and his infant son do not get far when he is accosted by a small band of soldiers, headed by Hsu Hsen-Chen, the brutal and powerful leader of Eunuch Wei's forces. Before Hsu can take Ku, however, Yang and the monastery's master, Abbot Hui, intercede. The immensely powerful yet impassive Hui uses his remarkable martial skills to eventually subdue and dispatch the considerable might of Hsu, though not before receiving a mortal wound at his hands.

In the end, the wounded but living Ku and Yang look on as Abbot Hui struggles to ascend a nearby rock formation. Hui sits in a lotus pose and becomes one with Buddha.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this one viewing, before any research on the movie.)

This movie is as good as I can imagine a kung-fu movie getting, which tells me that kung-fu movies just are not my thing.

A Touch of Zen has a ton going for it, which is good since it clocks in at over three full hours. There are plenty of compelling things that will enthrall a viewer, as they did me. The movie blends several strong components with a style that, though familiar, takes on a different feel due to the unique setting. However, after a certain point, the genre elements of the movie became rather dull.

The movie is divided into two parts, as most 180-plus-minute movies are, and the division is not just temporal. The very style of the movie changes drastically between the first and second parts. When dwelling on the first part of the movie, I can't help but think of the previous movie that I reviewed for this blog, Once Upon a Time In the West. Like that and other Leone films, A Touch of Zen begins with very deliberate, quiet pacing. It allows the viewer to passively drink in the scenery, the characters, and everything about the setting. I found this enjoyable since the director, King Hu (yes, that was his name – your sophomoric joke here), had a real eye for camera placement. I don't know if he was a student of Sergio Leone's films, but the parallels are hard to miss. Plenty of wide-angle shots cut with close-ups, featuring the vibrant faces and varying landscapes catch the eye throughout the film.

Many of these earlier scenes in the village create a great feel for the little place, not unlike Sergio Leone's Westerns.

Another great strength of the first half of the film is revelations about the various mysterious characters. It takes well over an hour to get the whole story of Uoyang, Ying and the generals, but until you do, the intrigue makes for great theater. I also found it great that a lot of the suspicions and enigmas are, initially, merely hinted at through looks and gestures rather than superfluous dialogue.

Hu definitely took a slow-burn approach to this, and I loved the way that it inched its way into the movie. It starts with a small attack between two people. To this point, there has been nothing outlandish in the film. Suddenly, in the midst of a fight, two fellows are deflecting daggers with their bare hands and leaping ten to twenty feet in the air off of tree branches. These initial dashes of the supernatural work well within the movie early on, and they lend an entertaining sense of adventure.

However, the second part of the film defines the phrase “too much of a good thing” to me. Whereas the first 90 minutes mostly comprise still moments punctuated by gradually-extended action sequences, the second half of the film is almost all action, with very few quieter moments. It's pretty neat to see a few people flying around like trapezists and dueling with swords for a bit, but after an hour, I found it tedious. I can certainly appreciate the acrobatic, choreographic, cinematic, and editing skill that all of these scenes took, but come on. Once the point is made that the characters are possessed of these Buddha-granted fighting powers of extraordinary magnitude, it morphs into pure stylization. And I can only handle so much style when there's no substance being added.

Abbot Hui, whose Enlightenment will kick your ass off.

A saving grace did come at the end for me. While roughly 45 minutes of the final hour of the film consists of extended fighting sequences, the finale is one of very interesting imagery. Abbot Hui, who was brilliantly played by the quietly imposing Roy Chiao, sitting in the lotus pose with the setting sun forming a halo behind him puts a wonderfully ambiguous and iconic stamp on the tale. Perhaps the implication is clearer to viewers more familiar with Buddhism, but a novitiate Westerner like myself is left to marvel and ponder exactly what this all means, especially in light of the fact the never-seen arch enemy, Eunuch Wei, is never conquered.

Despite this satisfying and metaphysical moment of closure, it takes a long time to get there. It also highlights one of the things that I wanted to see more of – the monks. Perhaps restraint was the best course here for the filmmakers, as too much of these orange-robed warriors as salt might have spoiled the broth. Still, I felt that there were plenty of questions left unanswered about this key component to the story. What is their philosophy, that it leads them to train themselves into nigh-unbeatable unarmed combatants? How do they do it? What is the synthesis between the pacifist Buddhist mindset and the ability to throw trained soldiers around like rag dolls? The lack of exploration of these questions left me wanting.

The only other thing that bothered me is something that the filmmakers possibly had no control over. Maybe due to a shoddy DVD transfer, some of the night scenes are impossibly dark. Typified most by the long midnight ambush of Ku and Yang's followers on Eunuch Wei's forces near the end of Part 1, there are times when the viewer can barely tell what's happening on screen. It's only emphasized by how well the rest of the movie is shot, with its masterfully composed sets and framing. The night sequences often blur into random shadows rushing around amidst the screams. The impenetrable murk did little to enhance these moments. Again, though, this may just be an age and DVD quality issue.

The ultimate question for me with any of these movies is, “Why did the fellows who did the TIME list put it on with the other 99 shows?” Whereas it is totally obvious with many of the movies on the list, with A Touch of Zen, I can only speculate. My guess is that it was probably one of the first films to have the high-flying, effects-enhanced martial arts action sequences that have become renowned the world over, thanks to films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Beyond this, it combines pathos with a polished, epic feel that many action films aspire to, but rarely achieve.

Would I watch it again? No. Not in its entirety, at least. Oddly, I would watch the slow first hour for its gradual and soothing pacing. More though, I would watch the final ten minutes again, as the final scenes offer some food for philosophical thought. You can keep the 90-plus minutes of over-the-top sword fights.

Take 2: Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the movie.)

When it comes to this movie, there's really not a wealth of material to dog through on the Internet. Within what I did find, there was nothing surprising. Critics, both past and present, hailed A Touch of Zen as an excellent film, in terms of technique (It won the 1975 Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize, and was nominated for the Palm d'Or.). No shocker there, as the visuals still hold up exceptionally well, even here in 2011.

The theme of Buddhism comes up quite a lot. Apparently, King Hu was lauded for his blending of the philosophy with the flash and style of the fighting sequences.

The only other common thread running through any materials I found was how A Touch of Zen has continued to be emulated. Virtually every site I found mentions either Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers, or both. All you have to do is watch a ten-minute clip of the 1971 original movie to see exactly why.

Would I recommend it? Only to people who know they like kung-fu movies, as A Touch of Zen is to kung-fu movies what the Godfather is to mafia flicks. It set standards that have and will persist through the decades. If, like me, the genre is not your thing, I highly doubt you'll be willing to hand over the three hours it takes to watch. Maybe just youtube the final ten minutes or so.

That's a wrap. 67 shows down. 38 to go.

Coming Soon: The Godfather (1972):

Yes!! I'm as excited about this one as I was about Casablanca. I don't care what kind of film snob you might be, you lose credibility if you don't enjoy this classic. I haven't watched it in several years, so I'm due. Come on back and see how I put my admiration to words.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Film #66: C'era una volta il West (1968)

Title for us English-Speaking Types: Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Mysterious drifter meets beautiful widow in the Wild West. Tangles with a wild outlaw, a bad dude in black, and railroads. Stares at everything.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

An unnamed man (Charles Bronson) with a penchant for playing a harmonica arrives in a developing part of the West during the expansion in the 19th century. He has come looking for revenge against man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank is a cold-blooded assassin hired by a railroad magnate, Morton, to help his railroad reach the west coast. Standing in their way is Jill, a former prostitute who has recently married the enterprising Brett McBain, a landowner who has been murdered, along with his three children, by Frank and his gang of thugs. McBain had, years before, foreseen that the railroad would need to come through the area, so he bought land and planned to build an entire town around it – a town he would name Sweetwater. Now, only his widow Jill is left to see his dream come to fruition, if she avoids Morton and Frank's attempts to get rid of her.

Mixed up in all of this is the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Cheyenne is on the run from the law, but has a certain dignity and code that ingratiate him to both Harmonica and Jill. Cheyenne has been framed by Frank for the murder of the McBains, so he also has motivation to find this cunning killer. It takes a while for Harmonica, Jill, and Cheyenne to uncover McBain's plans for Sweetwater. Once they do, they realize their aims are in line with each other. After some close calls and a few twists, Morton is killed by Cheyenne's men, and Harmonica gets his showdown with Frank. Harmonica shoots Frank in a stand-off and only then reveals that he is the younger brother of one of Frank's many victims over his bloody years. He has waited patiently for decades to confront Frank and put an end to his murdering life.

Harmonica gets his cold revenge.

With Frank dead, Harmonica heads away from Sweetwater, the construction of which is now in full-swing. Brett McBain had bought all of the wood and supplies needed to construct the train station and the town around it. With Morton and his goons out of the way, Jill and her dozens of hired men are free to build up her dead husband's ultimate wish.

An exceptionally detailed, full plot summary can be found here, at imdb's website.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

I now see why the creators of the TIME list put this one on there. It's not only a standout western, but simply a great movie, regardless of genre. My quick-shot summary above gives you no idea of just how great.

I had watched this once before and wondered why, with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly already on the list, the fellows at TIME had put another Leone western on it. After all, aren't his westerns all similarly unique in carrying those Leone trademarks? Yes and no.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is brilliant, no doubt. (You can read me gush about it in this post that I did several weeks ago). And while there are glimmers of some deeper commentary about U.S. history and violence in the movie, it is ultimately an epic adventure story. Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes hop from locale to locale, trying to out-duel and outsmart each other in ways that keep the watcher engaged in a very accessible way. Once Upon A Time in the West, despite some excellent action sequences, is another breed.

With this film, Leone slowed things down considerably. One only needs to watch the first ten minutes to see it. In that former film, you start with an extended close-up and a few slow minutes of build-up before you get Tuco Ramirez gunning down three bounty hunters and crashing through a barber shop window. In Once Upon A Time, it's nearly ten minutes of almost no action. We watch three of Frank's men walk into a train station and patiently wait for Harmonica as the opening credits intermittently pop up. Missing also is the early introduction of a rousing Ennio Morricone soundtrack, which one doesn't hear until nearly ten minutes in. I imagine that many modern viewers would lose patience with such pacing, but it's perfect for conveying the eerie and misleading stillness of the terrain and the characters.

It takes nearly ten tension-building, dialogue-free minutes to get to the first piece of fast action. Harmonica (in the distance) is about to show these 3 hombres what happens when you mess with the quiet guy in a Leone Western.

It is with this same slow and gradual pacing that the entire story of the film is told over two hours and forty-five minutes. I can't help but think that many modern viewers would not have the wherewithal for it. For those who do, though, there are payoffs galore. The sweeping long shots of the wide open southwestern terrain are incredible, surpassing even the earlier works of Leone himself. I was reminded of another director's observation that Leone, like many other Italian artists raised on steady diets of classical painting techniques, had an innate knack for frame composition. Time and again in this movie, you can simply drink in the landscape and marvel at how the characters and their story fit into it.

Of course, the movie isn't telling the tale of southwestern U.S. geography. Its lifeblood is in the narrative and the characters. Like his other spaghetti westerns (a slight misnomer, since some scenes were filmed in Utah and Arizona), Leone's characters are not exactly the most well-rounded you will ever come across. Still, they are intriguing, and they have just enough facets to make them compelling. Sure, Harmonica is pretty much the same “man with no name” that Eastwood played in the “Dollars” trilogy; and sure, Cheyenne is a slight twist on Tuco Ramirez from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. All the same, they're entertaining. The most novel addition is Jill – easily the strongest and most prominent female character in any of Leone's movies.

The biggest eye-opener in terms of characters is Frank. Not so much because of the character (not too dissimilar from Angel Eyes in The Good) , but because of who played the role. Having established and all-American swell guy Henry Fonda gunning down children, kidnapping women, and generally exuding evil is hypnotic. With those piercing eyes and almost kindly voice, it borders on terrifying to see him do his butcher's work with such icy satisfaction. Fonda was so good at the role that it almost seems a loss that he didn't get pegged for more dastardly roles earlier in his career.

Fonda's gaze is as dead as the pale corpses he leaves in his wake. Tom Joad, this ain't.

Fonda is clearly the standout, but a few other performances shouldn't go overlooked. Charles Bronson is, well, Charles Bronson. He's still. He's quiet. He has a mean glare. That was enough for this role, just like every other role he every had. Claudia Cardinale is solid as the world-weary ex-prostitute, Jill. She was smoking hot, no doubt, but also has a sultry wisdom that fit the part to a tee. Easily the best of the other main players, though, is Jason Robards as Cheyenne. Most markedly in his scenes with Cardinale, Robards is outstanding as the scuzzy yet compassionate, larcenous yet honorable criminal. I don't think I'll put him up there with Tuco in my esteem, but he's pretty close.

On top of the great visuals, pacing, and solid characters and acting, is the underlying theme of western expansion. This is what puts this movie over the top. While Leone made a few feints at social commentary and figurative imagery in his previous film, he really goes for it in Once Upon a Time, and I feel that he does it right. The West was “won” by the sweat, blood, and pain of who-knows-how-many people, and the idealism and greed of wealthy magnates who didn't much care who got ground up along the way. This movie can be seen as a forefather of more modern film takes on the subject like There Will Be Blood. Fortunately, Leone never bashes you over the head with symbolism. Probably the best moment of restraint is when the decrepit rail magnate Morton is dying, face-down near a tiny puddle. We could have been treated to a clumsy interposition of the Pacific Ocean right then, but we aren't. We simply see the image play out, along with Frank, and take in just how a grand scheme can end so pathetically.

The rail magnate Morton gazes at a picture of his dream, the Pacific. The closest he gets is the shallow pool of dusty desert water, where he dies.

If there's anything to nitpick, one is that Leone often pushes verisimilitude to the back so that clever film style can be front and center. Some scenes are easy to dismiss as a bit silly and unrealistic, such as when Frank's thugs silently take over the auction for the Sweetwater property. A touch goofy it may be, but even scenes like this are simply chances for Leone to use visual rather than dialectic storytelling. And, as anyone who has seen and knows his films can attest, he was brilliant at this. I've always been a fan of being forced to actually watch the movie, and not just rely on exposition. I can see why some viewers might poo-poo these sequences as parlor tricks of sorts, but I'm always amused and impressed by them.

My only other minor gripe is that the Ennio Morricone soundtrack in Once Upon a Time is not quite as strong as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It's certainly as quirky and unique, but I actually found the integrated harmonica wail mostly annoying. Luckily, Cheyenne's theme song had a playful bounce to it, which accompanied the character's more amiable nature nicely.

Jason Robards has the look and psychology of the cynically humorous thief, Cheyenne, down pat.

Any who enjoy westerns or simply well-crafted movies that make full use of the techniques particular to the medium should give this one a serious shot. As I suggested in my review of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a good primer is working through Leone's three films with Clint Eastwood, starting with the 90-minute A Fistful of Dollars. The production isn't nearly as sharp (it was probably made with about $45), but the director's skill is easy to see. If you enjoy that, work your way through the rest, and cap it off with Once Upon a Time in the West, probably the most enduring of them all.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little more research on the film.)

After some digging, I am reminded why many movie lovers can be forgiven if they have never seen or even heard of this movie. Here in the U.S., it was a total flop.

Thanks to Paramount's meddling and editing, the original had 20 minutes cut out of it, which never helps narrative cohesion. More than this, though, was a seeming lack of preparation on the parts of the viewers. Both Paramount and American audiences were hoping for another skewed, high-paced action flick like the previous "Dollars" trilogy. They weren't ready for such a slow, deliberately paced movie. Even Roger Ebert, who was often ahead of the critical curve with his viewing eye, was lukewarm in his original review in 1969. In contrast, French and Italian audiences loved it. So much so that the movie would run in some places for up to four years following the initial release. In the U.S., it barely lasted a few months.

It wasn't until the mid-80s that the studio restored the original version, and the few American cinephiles who had always revered it could share their vindication. With the intercession of decades, you see the movie pop up all over “best movie” lists.

On the DVD I watched, the most recent special release, there are some excellent short documentaries, featuring past and modern interviews with some of the cast and crew, as well as several prominent modern film directors. They all marvel at how Leone concocted an ultimate summation of the greatest American westerns in Once Upon a Time. The list of films from which he drew is almost an encyclopedia of the genre's greatest works – High Noon, Shane, the Monument Valley films of John Ford, and around a dozen others. Leone not only blended the strongest elements of them all, but he added his own style and cynicism to the themes and characters. One modern commentator called it a massive homage to, and final dirge for, the film Western.

Taking a play right out of the John Ford play book, Leone shot several scenes in the exact same spots of Monument Valley. This shot, along with dozens of others, capture the expansiveness of the whole region.

A note of more specific interest was learning how the music for the film fit into the process. Contrary to almost all other films, the music score was composed first, and the scenes shot to match. The four primary pieces of music, each specific to the four main characters, are introduced separately in turn, and then blended by the end of the movie. The effect is truly remarkable, and a testament to Leone's vision.

Actors loved working with Sergio Leone. This only came as a surprise to me in light of the fact that he was such a visual perfectionist. Another renowned perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick, was notoriously difficult for actors to work with, because of his demands and inflexibility. Leone, on the other hand, gave his actors plenty of latitude to do as they saw fit. Integrating such freedom from performers with his own crystal clear vision is something that boggles my mind.

A final note on Leone's film genius. As I'd heard mentioned when researching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, apparently Leone never did any story boarding of any kind. Unlike nearly all other highly visual directors, who physically map out their scenes so that the sequencing is correct, Leone had a pure, completely finished tale worked out in his head by the time filming began. I'm reminded of the scene in Milos Foreman's Amadeus when Salieri marvels at seeing Mozart's uncorrected, flawless first drafts of his symphonic and operatic scores. Whether this was true of Mozart or not, it was very true in Leone's case. The fruits of such a sharp imagination can be seen in all of his works.

So again, I highly recommend seeing this movie for those with the time and who know what they're in for. Be patient, soak up the beauty of it, and know that you are watching a film Western classic the likes of which can only be imitated, but never replicated.

If the film artistry isn't enough of a draw for you, maybe this shot will entice you. It also explains why Claudia Cardinale as Jill had jaws dropping across oceans.

That's a wrap. 66 shows down. 39 to go.

Coming Soon: A Touch of Zen (1971)

I'm totally in the dark about this movie. Never heard of it, and only know that it looks like a sword-swinging kung-fu extravaganza. It'll also be the first Chinese movie that I review for this project.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Film #65: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director: Arthur Penn

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Restless Texas redneck lovers go on a bank-robbing spree during the Great Depression. “Laws”, emotional highs and lows dog their heels.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

Rural Texas, 1931. The 21-year old Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is agitated by her dead-end life as a waitress living with her mother in a small town. She spies a handsome, dapper young man outside of her house, casing her mother's car, seemingly to rob it. After running out to stop him, the two strike up a conversation during which the man, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), readily admits that he has recently been released from prison for an attempted robbery. Bonnie is skeptical to the point of egging Clyde into robbing a nearby grocery store. When Clyde does just that, Bonnie, rather than flee the armed robber, readily hops into a stolen car with him and drives out of town.

When the pair stop just outside of town, Bonnie is so overcome with excitement that she throws herself at Clyde. Surprisingly, Clyde roughly rebuffs her, claiming that he “ain't no loverboy”. Despite this odd reaction to the beautiful and willing Bonnie's advances, the two see that they have a unique connection with each other. Both are seeking to make names for themselves by breaking away from societies' rules. Clyde plans to rob his way to fortune and fame, and Bonnie is all too happy to join him.

The pair of fugitives size up the next member of their little gang.

The two make a failed attempt to rob a bank that has recently gone out of business, but they soon start to find more success. After picking up a strange and disenfranchised young gas station attendant, C.W. Moss, as their getaway driver, they manage a successful bank robbery. However, Clyde shoots and kills a man during their semi-bungled escape.

Once in a safe hotel room, Clyde offers Bonnie a chance for escape. Realizing that he will now be wanted for murder, he urges Bonnie to return home and avoid any potential capital punishment. Bonnie refuses to leave Clyde, thus reaffirming their bond to one another. The two attempt to consummate their love, but Clyde's impotence prevents it yet again.

The trio of fugitives soon meets up with Clyde's older brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), a fellow ex-con, and Buck's wife, the reserved and rather dim-witted Blanche. The fun-loving and simpler Buck readily joins his younger brother's crime spree, Blanche in tow. Clyde welcomes the company of his brother, but Bonnie soon becomes highly agitated at Buck and Blanche's utter lack of sophistication. While Bonnie has some spark of creativity, even writing poetry, Buck, Blanche and C.W. seem to find the game of checkers the height of mental gymnastics. The tensions begin early and grow steadily.

The gang of 5 continue robbing banks throughout Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other nearby states, hopping borders in order to avoid capture. They avoid some early attempts at capture as they perfect their thievery. They efficiently loot multiple banks, but never take any money from the more humble farmers and locals. Their legend and fame grows rapidly, as newspapers regularly report the deeds, as well as falsely attributing several robberies to the gang.

The gang grows more confident and skilled in their robberies.

Eventually, the law begins to close in. After C.W. Allows himself to be seen in a little town, the police raid the gang's hotel room. After a furious and bloody shootout, the gang escapes, but not without serious injuries. Buck sustains a horrible head wound, Blanche suffers eye damage, and Clyde is shot in the arm. After camping outside to recover slightly, the gang is once again tracked down and attacked. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. Manage to get away, though Bonnie is also wounded in the arm. Buck and Blanche are not so lucky. Buck is shot again and soon dies. Blanche, now completely blind, is taken away by the police.

The injured Bonnie and Clyde are driven to safety by C.W., receiving a little support along the way from impoverished Dust Bowlers who are awestruck by the celebrity thieves. C.W. takes the pair to his father's tiny farm, and the man seems to welcome them. This ostensible kindness is merely a front, though. As Bonnie and Clyde recuperate, C.W.'s father privately berates his son for a fool and eventually informs the Texas Rangers about the two fugitives.

In a simple set-up while Bonnie and Clyde return from buying groceries in town, C.W.'s father pretends at having car trouble. The pair pull over to assist, but do not sense the trap. Before either Bonnie or Clyde can react, let alone surrender, a score of Rangers and lawmen open fire upon them from behind the nearby bushes, riddling the couple and their car with dozens of bullets. The mutilated corpses of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow fall limp onto the ground, ending their renowned spree.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research on the movie.)

Really good movie that holds up exceptionally well.

Bonnie and Clyde may not seem so special to modern, first-time viewer, but with a little awareness of the context, it's not hard to see why it is considered so very influential. Based on my film-watching experience, it created a unique blend of tried-and-true standard film-making conventions with a dash of the novel, leading to entire shifts in the way that crime stories have been told in film.

The story itself is intriguing enough, being based in reality. I personally don't know much about the real Bonnie and Clyde, but I'm eager to do the research for the Part 2. I have to assume that the screenwriters took certain liberties with the dialogue, and even some of the action. What little I do know, however, tells me that the singular personalities and passion of the titular pair of thieves is not a mere fantasy. The bizarre quirks of the two – Bonnie's predilections towards intellectualism and Clyde's sexual impotence, to name the most obvious – give the story a very compelling eccentricity that is lacking in most crime films.

Of course, such unique characters can only be given life by solid acting, and Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty do phenomenally well. While Beatty's Texas accent is a bit inconsistent at times (maybe I can say that only because it's my home state), this is a minor gripe. In all other things, the two actors nail the charm, passion, foolishness, pretentiousness, and rebelliousness that make for intriguing and rounded characters. Being able to pull off such a range of traits can't be easy, but Dunaway and Beatty do just that.

The supporting cast is also quite solid. A young Gene Hackman stands out wonderfully as the loud-mouthed yokel, Buck, and his wife is played to pitch-perfect annoyance by Estelle Parsons. It doesn't take long to see why the more reflective Bonnie takes an instant dislike to the shrieking, mulish Blanche. Even the minor roles by Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder (!) make great accents to the film.

The performances and story are certainly strong, but no stronger than quite a few other good crime movies. What sets this one above the rest, I feel, is the direction. Bonnie and Clyde is one of those rare films that wastes nary a second. Every scene, every word, every glance between characters means something and adds to the tale. From the opening shots of a bored Bonnie Parker, pining away in her room, to the final shots of hers and Clyde's lifeless bodies on the ground, this movie is about as tight as they come. There are certainly quiet moments, as well, but even they invite the viewer to pay close attention, as body language and eye movements are telling stories that words aren't. One needs only see a few of Bonnie's eye rolls to see my point.

The quarters get tighter, and Bonnie's patience with her goober gang-mates runs thinner.

Even beyond all of this is the overall story arc and the tone. Bonnie and Clyde might have been the first movie to tell the tale of two criminals in a way that endears them to the audience, and then shoves their bloodied corpses right in your face. The first half of the movie is far heavier on comedy, a lot of which holds up really well, 45 years later. It feels like you're on a fun little escapade with a few young renegades. However, there are allusions of what is to come. After one bank robbery, a farmer whose money Clyde purposefully did not steal, says to a reporter, “That Clyde Barrow done alright by me. I'll be bringin' the Missus to their funeral.” This and other signs remind the viewer of just how this will all end.

Once the “laws”, as Clyde and Buck call them, begin to close in, the humor begins to fade and deadly seriousness takes over. There's a sequence in the film when, at Bonnie's behest, they go out to see her mother and family in a remote rock quarry. The scenes are shot in a washed-out, sepia tone that lends a hazy heaviness to this part of the story. This is totally appropriate, as Bonnie mother senses her daughter's imminent demise and detaches herself with a final, matter-of-fact goodbye.

When the end finally comes, director Arthur Penn puts his ultimate stamp on violent film-making. With a death scene that would be emulated within a scant few years in films such as The Godfather and others, Bonnie and Clyde are mowed down in quick, brutal fashion. In such scenes in earlier films, I can't recall them ever being so shockingly realistic. The likable duo are machine-gunned to death with a scant few seconds. There is no slow-motion or music score to add any semblance of romance or glory to it. There are no death throes or final words from either of the two lovers. One moment they are smiling and alive; the next they are simply no more.

This single frame gives a good sense of just how brutal the finale is. It's lightning-quick and ultimate.

It is the elements in this final scene that set a standard for film violence that many directors misunderstand and misuse today. Someone like Michael Bay seems to think that the violence itself is the artistry and the draw of such things. However, he glamorizes and ultimately anesthetizes people to it through cinematic slight-of-hand. David Cronenberg, on the other hand, follows the Arthur Penn model, in his way. If you watch the death scenes in his recent films A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, you see that these scenes, while few in number, are brutally graphic and shockingly quick. I heard him explain in an interview that this is because he wants the audience to know that violence is not to be polished up for easier consumption, even in a tale of fiction. I think Arthur Penn had this figured out long before his imitators.

Bonnie and Clyde is a revolutionary film, though probably not so obviously a one as other films. It wasn't until I watched it, slept on it, and thought about it for a day that I realize this. I would recommend it virtually anyone who is not completely turned off by rather graphic violence, as the latter half of the film features plenty of it. This aside, it has something for nearly any attentive film-watcher.

Take 2; Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after further research on the film.)

There's almost no end of material that one can lose oneself into when it comes to the Bonnie and Clyde film. Let's start with the real history:

Volumes have been written, so in the interest of time, I went to that oh-so-reliable reference source, wikipedia (hey, I'm running a blog for fun here, not writing a dissertation!). It becomes quite clear that Arthur Penn's movie, as is usually the case with movies, plays extremely fast and loose with the facts. Sure, some of the locales and people's names are correct, and even a few of the general actions are true to fact. Still, a large portion of the true story was molded, shaved, and fashioned into something very different. And this, of course, was the only way that it would work.

The reality of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is, of course, far less sexy and far more tragic than a Hollywood movie can convey. While true that the two were renegades and had no small affection for each other, the film conveniently leaves out just how many civilians they murdered. Or about Barrow's very troubled younger days, being raped in prison at age 16, essentially channeling his rage to become the personification of the philosophy “Get rich or die trying.” If you read a brief description of Bonnie and Clyde's exploits throughout the Dust Bowl, you become less sympathetic than you probably would be for Beatty's and Dunaway's more affable duo.

The real deal Bonnie and Clyde, goofing around with a shotgun. Unlike the film, in which the duo are unarmed when killed, the originals were loaded for bear and had already taken the lives of multiple civilians and lawmen, alike.

Of course, Arthur Penn's film makes no claims at being a documentary, and so we can view it in a very different way.

Apparently, the going was very rough for the production of the film. A few very talented people were interested, but Warren Beatty landed the production rights. After the film was made, the studio and test audiences apparently hated it, so much so that the studio was planning to only release it in Texas drive-ins. The story goes that Beatty literally begged the studio, on hands and knees, to give it a real chance. They did, to initially lukewarm and even poor reviews. When it was released, the original TIME reviewer called it “sheer, tasteless aimlessness”.

After several months hovering in obscurity, people eventually came around. Once again, Roger Ebert, having only been at the professional film critic gig for less than 6 months, was ahead of the curve. In this more modern 1998 review, he outlines the story of the film with far more detail. He also points out some of the more interesting tones and themes in it, some of which I mentioned in my own “Take 1” above.

In short, the novelty of the movie has resonated right through the succeeding decades, into out very own. For those of us who have grown up with Thelma & Louis or Natural Born Killers as part of the mainstream movie landscape, Bonnie and Clyde may seem rather tame. One only has to realize, however, that this movie was the granddaddy of them. As with Citizen Kane, in inspiring so many imitators in terms of techniques and styles, it's almost hard to see Bonnie and Clyde for just how embedded its innovations are in so many movies that have followed.

I suppose what brought some of it home to me was reading about how many of the early 1967 audiences were shocked, bordering on disgusted. Bonnie and Clyde was seen by many as more violent and sexual than any movie had a right to be.

And you know what? The kids loved it.

Even now, in 2011, some of the scenes have a somewhat uncomfortable promiscuity to them, but maybe that's just that 1960's, grainy look that the film has. Whatever the characters are doing, it always seems to be more illicit when it was filmed in the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever the case, younger viewers were right on board with the maverick tones of sex and violence flying right in the face of the moral majority.

All of this just scratches the surface of the myth-versus-reality angle, the story of the film angle, and any of a number of others. All I really need to do is reiterate that, if you haven't seen this movie, you really should give it a shot. If you do, and you really watch what's being said and done, it's easy to see it for the a truly revolutionary work.

That's a wrap! 65 shows down. 40 to go.

Coming Soon: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

As much as I love Sergio Leone and his movies, I was surprised that they put a second Western of his on the list, already giving The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a slot. Whatever the reason, I certainly don't mind setting aside about three hours to watch more long shots, extended close-ups, and bizzaro sound effects, as scuzzy buckaroos try to out-shoot and out-stare each other.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Film #64: Mouchette (1967)

Director: Robert Bresson

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Sad young teen girl, in sad family situation, in a sad town, gets even sadder due to uncontrollable forces.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning):

Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is a 14-year old girl in a small town in France in the 1960s. She has virtually nothing going for her. She lives in poverty with a slowly dying invalid mother, a drunken thief of a father, and a helpless infant brother. Whether at school, at work, or removed from either, the only person who seems to value Mouchette at all is her mother, who is confined to her bed and is barely conscious most times. Otherwise, Mouchette is humiliated by teachers and classmates, abused and extorted by her father, and generally given little more than a passing glance by anyone else. Any brief moments of pleasure that she can steal for herself seems to be promptly quashed by some larger, oppressive force in her life.

At a local fair, Mouchette follows a young man she takes a fancy to. Soon after, she is slapped and derided by her domineering, scumbag father.

While sulking through all of this drudgery, Mouchette's life suddenly becomes more frightening and exciting. While hiding in the woods nearby her school to escape a heavy rain one evening, she is near a scuffle between the school's gamekeeper and a local poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert). The two men have romantic designs on the same woman in town, and the gamekeeper confronts Arsene. They tussle a bit and seem to settle their differences by sharing a few shots of liquor.

Some time shortly after, a drunken Arsene wanders through the woods and comes across Mouchette, still huddled under a tree. Arsene, thinking Mouchette may have seen something, brings her out of the woods and to a nearby shelter. Mouchette is aware that Arsene had fought with the gamekeeper, but neither she nor Arsene is sure of the exact outcome, which may have been a murder; Mouchette because she was not there and Arsene because he is too drunk to recall. To be safe, Arsene gives Mouchette an alibi that she can use for Arsene, in the event that the poacher has killed the gamekeeper. Mouchette seems to go along with it, out of either fear or some strange attraction to the nefarious rogue.

Arsene brings Mouchette to a safe-house in the town, where he plans to burn tons of firewood in order to corroborate his concocted alibi of being there all night. As he continues to grill Mouchette on their story, he goes into an epileptic fit. Mouchette comforts him briefly. When Arsene recovers, however, he becomes suspicious and will not let Mouchette leave. After a brief chase around the room, he captures her and forces himself upon her. She resists at first, but then relents to his sexual advance.

Mouchette is bullied by yet another force - the poacher Arsene.

Early the next morning, Mouchette returns home to find her mother in dire condition. After a brief exchange with her, her mother dies quietly, leaving Mouchette with only her father and infant brother.

The next day, as her father sits in mourning over his wife, Mouchette leaves the house on an errand for milk. On her way, she stops at a bakery, where the proprietress is kind at first, but turns insulting when a shaken Mouchette begins to act strangely. Mouchette then goes to the gamekeeper's house, where she unexpectedly finds the man alive and well. She is pulled inside and grilled for a bit by the man and a housemaid, the latter being more sympathetic. The two get the story out of Mouchette of what, exactly, happened with Arsene, with Mouchette embellishing slightly by calling Arsene her “lover”. Mouchette then leaves on her way back home. Along the way, she makes one last stop at an elderly townswoman's house. The woman rambles a bit, but tries to speak to Mouchette about her own life. She even gives the sullen young girl a dress with which to cover her deceased mother at the funeral. Mouchette merely hurls an insult at the old woman and runs out.

Instead of returning home, the thoroughly dejected Mouchette goes to the side of stream and looks out over the water. After some time pondering, she attempts to roll herself down the hill and into the water, only to be prevented by a collection of rushes on the bank. Once more, the girl goes back up the hill. Rolling down with more force of will, she send her body through the rushes and into the water, drowning herself.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research):

Boy, these realist films don't play around.

Before watching Mouchette, I did the same thing almost anyone would do – I read the little summary on the DVD sleeve. Within that tight little sub-100 word reading, all of the following words and terms can be found: “...haunting...bleak, hopeless life...alcoholic father and terminally ill mother...grim surroundings...harsh...tragic tale...”

So yeah. I knew what I was in for.

With this foreknowledge, I was spared any nasty surprises, and I probably enjoyed the movie a little more than I would have. Still, it truly is a downer of a movie after which I can't help but ask “What's the point?”

Mouchette's visuals right up there with the best of the naturalist black and white films of Ingmar Bergman and others. While the director, Robert Bresson, used a few more cameras than Bergman, thus creating slightly more kinetic motion, he also used dialogue much more sparingly. Instead, he used wonderful visual storytelling a la the older silent filmmakers and contemporaries like Sergio Leone (though Leone told tales of a completely different ilk).

One of Mouchette's few pleasure. For several minutes, you can see every ounce of joy and attraction on her face as she rides the bumper cars around.

It's also not hard to see how different this film is compared to what was mainstream in the day. Yes, realism had already been around for a few decades, and had even achieved international recognition through films like the Apu Trilogy, Umberto D., Tokyo Story, and plenty of others. Of all of them, though, only the Apu Trilogy comes close to this sad tale of a lonely little girl who has nothing truly going for her, in terms of the weeping factor. And Mouchette goes even further down the road of depression, as the title character is left in the end with absolutely no hope, unlike the young Apu. Hence Mouchette's ultimate decision to end her own life.

Along the way, Mouchette's tale is told with heart-rending realism and subtlety. Often through mere facial expressions and body language, we can see every ounce of humiliation, anger, and even, short-live though it may be, joy that the girl goes through. One can realize that, while poverty is doubtlessly crushing for anyone, it might be even more so for a young person just reaching the age at which she is most emotional, quixotic, and malleable. The only moment of contact she has is a virtual rape. While it is understandable to see this scene with anger at the “she was asking for it” implication as Mouchette rapidly goes from resisting to embracing Arsene, I think it is incorrect. I took it to mean that Mouchette sees this horrific violation of herself as the only connection she can have with anyone. So much so that she even convinces herself that she is now Arsene's lover. Such is the result of utter poverty: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

The end is the icing on the cake, so to speak. I can't pretend to understand suicidal tendencies, but it's not hard to see how the title character's environment would lead to such a mental state. I suspect, though, that most viewers would, like I did, merely want to shake the girl and tell her to snap out of it. When she finally does herself in, I wasn't even sure what to feel. I would have to describe my mental state as the emotional equivalent of a shoulder shrug: “Oh, well. Saw that coming.”

Mouchette's first, failed, attempt at suicide. She gets it right on the next go-round.

As depressing as it all is, it wasn't as much of a chore to watch as I had feared. Mouchette's tale is told with the backdrop of a sexier story involving a jealousy between the gamekeeper and the rakish Arsene. With these more dynamic characters' confrontations adding a spice of energy to things, the movie avoids being an hour-and-twenty-minute drag.

If it isn't obvious from this review, I do not plan to watch this film again. As strong as the technical merits are, and as bold as it is for telling a harrowingly realistic tale, I can't see getting anything more out of repeated viewings. I would only recommend it to those who enjoy such melancholy fare, or are hard-core fans of very sound filmmaking.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (Done after some further research.)

There's actually not much to be found on this movie, at least not in my basic searches. However, watching 2 of the documentaries offered on the Criterion Collection DVD that I had offered a little more.

The most interesting tidbit is why director Robert Bresson chose to tell the sad tale of the adolescent Mouchette, something he had done several times in previous films. Apparently, Bresson was fascinated with the malleability and unpredictability of adolescence. I can see his point – in this film, Mouchette succumbs to the abuse and neglect she faces. She attempts to get past it, but ultimately cannot. If this had been a Hollywood film, the title character would almost certainly have triumphed over the negative elements in some way. It may be far more cliche, but it doesn't make it any less probable. One never knows how a young person with react to adversity. Mouchette looked at the darkest side of it.

“[Mouchette] can't be summarized. If it could, it'd be awful.” - Robert Bresson.

After writing my own summary for this movie, I was glad to hear Bresson say this. The story of Mouchette (which is based on a French novel) is exceedingly simple. And yet, no summary can convey the tragedy and the reality of the tale. The truth is, you never quite know how Mouchette will react to the different forces acting on her, and therein lies the little bit of intrigue that can pull a viewer through the movie. It worked for me, even if the film isn't terribly exciting.

On a final note, I have to say that it was nice to watch a few “behind-the-scenes” documentaries about Mouchette. If nothing else, seeing Nadine Nortier smiling and laughing helped to wash the taste of the melancholic fatalism out of my mouth.

That's a wrap. 64 shows down. 41 to go.

Coming Soon: Bonnie and Clyde (1967):

Whew! After the Thorazine pill that was Mouchette, a rootin', tootin' Hollywood shoot-'em-up is just what I need. I haven't watched this one in many a year, so I'm looking forward to it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Film #63: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966)


Title for us English-speaking types: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Director: Sergio Leone

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: approximately 7 or 8

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Three tough hombres seek out a hidden fortune in the Wild West. During the search, they try to avoid becoming casualties of the Civil War and each other.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

The American West. Early 1860s and the States are far from United. The Civil War is in full swing, though in the deserts and plains of the West, it is only a peripheral presence. In a remote town, three gunmen storm into a barber shop, only to be rapidly gunned down by a rough-looking character named Tuco. Tuco jumps on a nearby horse and flees the town.

Elsewhere, a man in black drifts into a small hacienda. The man has been paid by another to find the current alias about another missing man, one called Jackson. The owner of the hacienda fearfully tells the man in black that Jackson now goes by the name Bill Carson, and also mentions a stolen cash box filled with $200,000 that Carson has in his possession. The frightened man assumes that the man in black has been paid to kill him, and he offers him double his fee to desist. The man in black responds to the offer by killing the man and his son and taking the money anyway. He returns to the man who hired him. He learns that Bill Carson was part of a small group of Confederate renegades who stole the gold from a Union convoy. Upon learning this, the man in black, who goes by the name “Angel Eyes” kills his original patron in cold blood.

Angel Eyes, "The Bad", begins his blood-soaked path towards the treasure.

Back on the plains, Tuco is riding along on his stolen horse, but the horse is shot out from underneath him. He is surrounded by three bounty hunters who seem intent on taking him in the for the $2,000 reward being offered for the capture of this inveterate criminal. Just as the three hunters close in on Tuco, a quiet stranger emerges and tells the three bounty hunters to back off and allow him to take Tuco. The three men try to shoot the brazen newcomer, but the man kills all three of them with lightning quickness. Tuco, believing the man to be his savior, tries to thank him and be on his way, but the stranger merely straps him onto the back of his horse, brings him into the nearest town, and collects the reward for himself.

Shortly after he spews and endless litany of insults at the lone bounty hunter, whom he calls “Blondie” for his light-colored hair, Tuco is placed into a noose, with only a horse between him, the ground, and oblivion. When sentence is passed and Tuco is about to he hanged, Blondie, who is hidden in a nearby barn hayloft, shoots the rope apart, freeing Tuco. He also shoots the hats off of several citizens, to ward off any chance of pursuit. It turns out that Blondie has struck a deal with Tuco – Tuco gets turned in, Blondie takes the reward and then saves Tuco. Tuco's bounty goes up, and they repeat the process, splitting all the reward money. Tuco complains about wanting more than a 50-50 share, but Blondie suggests that his “aim might be affected” if his share drops. Tuco drops his complaint, but assures Blondie that double crossing him would be a grave mistake.

In a new town, Tuco sits atop another horse, his neck in another noose. On the edge of the town, Blondie, already with the reward money for Tuco, waits to free him with another rifle blast. Casually looking over the scene is Angel Eyes, who happens to be in town to follow the lead of Bill Carson. He learns of a prostitute who Carson frequents in another town. Angel Eyes makes note of Blondie and Tuco, but leaves town in pursuit of the prostitute. Just as before, when Tuco is about to be hanged, Blondie fires his shot, but slightly misses. Tuco dangles from the neck for a few seconds from the half-cut rope. Blondie fires another shot that cuts the rope completely and frees Tuco again. The two hop onto Blondie's horse and head out of town.

Blondie and Tuco, the "Good" and "Ugly", respectively, discuss their business deal.

Once they are many miles from the town, Tuco rails at Blondie for nearly missing the rope. Blondie quietly lowers Tuco onto the ground and explains that he thinks they have milked their little scam for all its worth. Leaving Tuco stranded and tied in the middle of nowhere, Blondie rides off with all of their ill-gotten gains.

On a subsequent evening in yet another town, Angel Eyes tracks down the prostitute who knows Bill Carson. After a mild beating at Angel Eyes' hands, the girl tells him which regiment Bill Carson is in. Angel Eyes is getting closer to the money.

On a following day, Tuco staggers into a tiny village. He has somehow survived the miles-long exodus that Blondie forced upon him, and he now has two things on his mind – getting water and getting revenge. He makes a good start of it by pilfering some water from a well and then robbing the shop owner of his best revolver and all of his cash. He even tracks down Blondie to a hotel and almost exacts his revenge then and there. At gunpoint, he forces Blondie onto a stool and gets a rope around his neck. Just as TucoTuco through the floor and allowing Blondie to escape.

After several days of tracking him across the plains, Tuco finds that Blondie is in the middle of the same old scam. He lays behind the cover of a low hill, his rifle cross-hairs on another hanging rope around the neck of another criminal. However, just before he is meant to fire his life-saving shot, Tuco sneaks up behind him and takes him prisoner. Blondie's new “partner” is left to die and Blondie is now the captive of the last man in the world he would want to be captive of.

Echoing their last parting, Tuco leads Blondie to desert. As Tuco rides atop a horse, he forces Blondie to try and keep up with him along a 100-mile trek across the scorching hot sands. With the comforting shade of a parasol and ample water, Tuco delights in the slow death of Blondie, even teasing and taunting him along the way. Blondie remains stoic, but eventually his endurance is baked away by the relentlessly brutal desert sun. After walking for many hours without water or shade, he finally collapses. Tuco, having appeased his desire for retribution, slowly moves in for the kill.

Tuco now has his man, Blondie, right where he wants him.

Just as Tuco cocks his gun, though, a riderless wagon comes barreling out of the desert. The distracted Tuco leaves the nearly-dead Blondie and heads off the wagon. In it, he finds several dead Confederate soldiers. One soldier, however, still clings to a small shred of life. It is Bill Carson, and he explains that his group was attacked out in the desert. He promises Tuco that he will reveal the location of his stolen gold coins if only he can get some life-saving water. Tuco tries to pry the information from him, and manages to get the name of the cemetery, but not the specific name on the grave where the gold is hidden. Carson loses consciousness, and Tuco scrambles to find some water in order to revive him. When he returns with the water, though, Tuco sees that Blondie has dragged himself to Carson. Carson has died, but not before he whispered the name of the grave to Blondie. Tuco, who moments before was joyfully going to kill him, now has 200,000 golden reasons to ensure Blondie's safety.

Tuco brings Blondie to a mission where the monks start to nurse him back to health. Tuco tries to weasel the location of the grave out of Blondie early on, but to no avail. Once Blondie's health is returned, the two men prepare to set out after the gold. Before leaving, Tuco seeks out his brother, who is the head Brother at the mission. Tuco and his brother, Pablo, recount their very different paths through life, each one casting aspersions and disgust at the other. The two part, regretting that they cannot reconcile, but they part all the same.

Out on the plains again, in their found wagon and Confederate uniforms, Blondie and Tuco make toward the gold. Tuco knows the general location, and Blondie the specific grave, so neither can find the treasure without the other. It isn't long before they are found and captured by a traveling Union army. They are presumed to be rebels, thanks to their uniforms, and are sent to a P.O.W. camp.

At the camp, Blondie and Tuco are surprised to see Angel Eyes there, somehow in the position of a Union sergeant. Angel Eyes has positioned himself here in order to best come across any word of Bill Carson. During the prisoner role call, when Bill Carson's name is sounded, Blondie convinces Tuco to assume the role. Angel Eyes promptly has Tuco brought into his office and brutally tortured in order to find out what he knows about the real Bill Carson and his stash of gold. Tuco parts with his half of the information and is sent off on a prison train with a massive and violent man as an escort. Angel Eyes next brings Blondie into his office. Realizing that torture will not work with Blondie, Angel Eyes forms a partnership with him instead, now that Angel Eyes has the name of the cemetery. Blondie cautiously accepts, for he has no other choice.

Angel Eyes, posing as a Union officer, as he prepares to squeeze information about the gold out of Tuco.

On a cargo train with his ogre-like guard, Tuco makes his move. Feigning the call of nature, Tuco hurls himself and the guard to whom he is handcuffed off of the moving train. He promptly kills the guard, and soon after manages to get the handcuffs off by laying them (and his guard) across the railroad tracks. Another train comes along, severs the chain, and frees Tuco.

A little time after, a little farther along, and a little closer to the cemetery, in a town decimated by the War, Blondie takes a breather with Angel Eyes and the five mercenaries who Angel Eyes has brought along. Tuco has also found his way into the town, but he has been spotted by one of the men he shot in the barber shop at the beginning of the story. Tuco shoots the man in self defense. A short way off, Blondie recognizes the report of Tuco's gun, and strolls away from his companions. Angel Eyes gestures for one of the guns for hire to tail Blondie.

A few buildings away, Blondie rounds on the mercenary and kills him. He then finds Tuco and reinstates his deal with him, assuring the never-say-die bandit that Angel Eyes still does not know the name on the grave where the treasure is hidden. Tuco and Blondie then kill their way towards Angel Eyes, gunning down all of the remaining four hired guns in Angel Eyes' employ. When they get to his hiding place, though, they find Angel Eyes himself gone. Blondie and Tuco strike out again.

Eventually, the two men come to a bridge that will lead them to the cemetery. The only problem is that it is the setting of a current stalemate between two large forces – one Union Army and one Confederate. The two sides are locked in war of attrition, with neither side willing to give up on the bridge. Tuco and Blondie remedy this problem by sneaking out to the bridge and using dynamite to blow it to pieces. Just before they do, however, Tuco and Blondie agree to swap their pieces of the information – the cemetery is named Sand Hill and the grave is that of Arch Stanton. Once the bridge is removed, Tuco and Blondie cross the river.

Across the river, Tuco breaks away from Blondie and dashes towards the cemetery. He gets to Sand Hill and races through the hundreds of gravestones until he finds that of Arch Stanton. He starts to dig when Blondie arrives with a shovel for him to use. Just as they are about to open the grave, Angel Eyes sneaks in and holds the two men at gunpoint. Just as he thinks he has the upper hand, however, Blondie surprises both other men by kicking open Arch Stanton's grave to reveal nothing but a pile of bones. He explains that he never told Tuco the right grave, not trusting him with it.

To settle it all, Blondie proposes to write the name of the real grave on the bottom of a stone, which he will place in the middle of all three men and they will simply have a three-way showdown for it. The name is written, the rock is placed face-down, and the three men slowly back away from each other. After several minutes of carefully measuring each other, the men make their moves. Angel Eyes draws first, aiming for Blondie, but Blondie is quicker and kills him. Tuco, meanwhile, has been firing his weapon in Angel Eyes' direction, but to no effect. He apparently has no bullets in his gun.

The middle of Sand Hill Cemetery - scene of the grande finale, three-way standoff.

After the tension has eased, Blondie explains that he had unloaded Tuco's gun the night before, as they were waiting out the aftermath of their sabotage of the bridge, and Tuco was asleep. He also shows Tuco the “name” rock, which has no writing on it, whatsoever. It turns out that Bill Carson had told Blondie that the gold was stashed in the grave marked “unknown” next to Arch Stanton's. This is where Blondie urges Tuco to dig, and where they do indeed find the sacks heavy with the gold.

Blondie plays one final trick on Tuco. At gunpoint, Tuco is forced to stand atop a wooden grave marker and place his head in a noose hung from a tree. Blondie leaves Tuco's half of the money on the ground and rides away. Just as Tuco is about to slip and hang, however, Blondie emerges from behind a distant tree and, recalling their early scams together, shoots the rope. Tuco is freed to take his money, but not before he screams a few parting insults at his “business partner”.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

A movie like this may never be made again. I've seen it many times now and I still love it. Yet, despite my undying enjoyment at watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it is a film that I would hesitate to recommend to everyone.

I recall a conversation I had with one of my anthropology professors around 1999. I had learned that he enjoyed Western movies, so we got to talking about them one day, touching on the John Wayne/John Ford Monument Valley films and others. When I brought up Sergio Leone and his “Man With No Name” series, I was crestfallen to hear this professor poo-poo them as “silly.” I was a bit thrown.

And yet, when I watch any of the Leone westerns now, I can see why he said it. Compared to a typical American western, there is something quirky and blatantly stylish about a movie like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Still, it's these offbeat elements that are part of their indelible magic.

Tuco Ramirez. Never has such an entertaining bag of scum been filmed so skillfully.

Before getting into the more peculiar aspects of the Leone westerns, one needs to look at the more traditional standards. The clearest of them all is the visual element. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly can easily be placed right next to any of the titans of western movies in terms of visuals. The composition and framing of every shot, be it the vast sweep of the plains or the extreme close-ups of the gnarled and lined faces of the characters, is the height of film aesthetic. Even when compared to Leone's previous “Man With No Name” films, this one excels.

Closely related to this is one of my favorite aspects – the visual storytelling. As I've mentioned in my reviews of several silent films like The Last Command and others, visual storytelling is, oddly, a nearly lost skill in films. It's odd since it is arguably one of the very few things that can set film apart from any other storytelling medium. Far too many films rely on excessive dialogue or exposition. Sergio Leone was quite the opposite – he seemed to relish the chances to tell a tale without a character saying a single word, and his movies are replete with examples. One of my favorites in this movie is when Tuco emerges from his death-defying escape from the desert. As he bursts into the shop, silently disassembles and reassembles various revolvers, and robs the shopkeeper, the man's entire character is laid bare: He's driven. He's skilled. He's ruthless. He's even oddly funny. This is all clear in a roughly five-minute sequence in which barely ten words are spoken. So few directors have the imagination or technique to do such a sequence, and Leone made a habit of it.

One of the nearly countless clever shots of Leone's. When the camera pans up to this perspective, you get several seconds to dwell on what it means for Tuco.

Speaking of Tuco, the character has a special place in my heart. Thanks to good writing and a phenomenal acting job by Eli Wallach, Tuco Ramirez is one of my all-time favorites. It's hard to even think of another character like him in movies. He's clearly scum of the lowest order, but I can't help but like and almost admire him. His exploits in the movie make it all clear – while he possesses some of the basest of human qualities (greed, selfishness and violence), he also possesses several admirable, if somewhat twisted, qualities. He's as tough as they come (how else does one survive hangings, being marooned in a desert, severe beatings, and countless shootouts?) and he absolutely never backs down. Most importantly, he's as capable as anyone in the movie, and this is my favorite bit. While Tuco already serves the most humorous role in the film, Leone could have written him to be a total clown, yet didn't. As lethal as Blondie and Angel Eyes are, Tuco is just as deadly. The former two may be more intelligent and collected, but Tuco is easily as dangerous. By not relegating Tuco to the role of some goofball bandit, the story is granted much greater balance.

In addition to my fondness for Tuco, a few things need be pointed out about the other title roles. Of the three, Lee Van Cleef as “The Bad” is clearly the most two-dimensional. He's simply a cold-blooded killer out for himself. No more. Blondie and Tuco, though, are different cases. In some ways, they embody abstract, mythological archetypes of the western tale: the calm, cool, unflappable drifter with impossibly perfect aim; and the dirt-encrusted, blood-drenched bandit. Yet, there are scenes in the movie in which they are made more endearing. With Tuco, it is through his touching interactions with his missionary brother. With Blondie, his quiet observations and kindnesses to the downtrodden and dying he comes across. These scenes show the two men to possess a humanity that their harsh exteriors belie. It's this unusual blending of mythical and humane that set Leone's films apart from their cruder ilk.

I can't let a review of this movie pass without mentioning the music. Even if you've never seen these movies, you know some of the tunes. Scored by the absolute master, Ennio Morricone, Leone's spaghetti westerns all had a sound of their own, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was the best of them. The driving bass drums, human grunts, Jew's harp, discordant piano notes, and lonely guitar picks all add to the tone of the movie. The music echoes the odd blend of funny, cool, serious, and tense, and does it like no other soundtrack ever has or perhaps will.

So back to my former professor's judgment of Leone's movies as “silly”. I think he was put off by the lack of authenticity when it came to the action elements of the movie. There is certainly some contrivance in the name of style. Leone had a knack for coming up with cool and clever visual tricks. Blondie's serape and ever-present cigars. Tuco's over-the-shoulder gun sling. The wacko music. Lee Van Cleef's cartoonishly evil sneering and laughing. Sure, these are not things that were part of “the Real Wild West”. But that's not what Leone's movies were about. They were about telling a tale of adventure, featuring interesting characters in a setting only somewhat based on history. That dusty, wide-open setting is the perfect crucible in which to crush three hard cases, forming a flashy and volatile compound.

The tragi-comic, drunken Union colonel. One of the many elements of the movie that has just enough reality to avoid being dismissed as mere camp.

If you haven't seen this movie, you may ask, “Should I watch it?” As alluded to earlier, this is hard to say. Leone's films are for lovers of epic adventure movies, sure, but they also require a true love of cinema. I've read plenty of reviews on Netflix and other places in which viewers trash his movies for being way too slow. I know they refer to the extended close-up shots and the long periods without dialogue. Personally, I love these moments. They force you to pay attention and always provide a payoff – either a tale is told or tension is built. If you're OK with westerns and want to see a classic like none other, give this one your time. A good approach is to watch Leone's first, A Fistful of Dollars. Not only is it a solid remake of the Kurosawa samurai great, Yojimbo, but it's a much more accessible  90 minutes.

NOTE: I watched, for the first time, the 40th Anniversary Special Edition of this movie. It includes an extra 15-or-so minutes that were cut out of the original. Word of warning – get the original, theatrical release. The added scenes are not only superfluous and a bit choppy, but they are voiced over by 70-year old Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, who had to go back and re-dubbed the sound. All of the added material detracts from the flow of Leone's original cut.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the film)

There are plenty of interesting, puzzling, and downright hilarious factoids to dig up about this movie.

There are a few short, strong documentaries on the film, including plenty of modern interviews with Eastwood and Wallach. They recount just how “cheap” spaghetti westerns were, in almost every respect. The film they made with Leone was not much of an exception, as they had to act through complete language barriers and loosey-goosey attitudes towards the filming process. Eastwood having been a Hollywood reject, he began working with Leone because he didn't have too many options. He and Wallach tell many a tale about how they narrowly avoided serious maiming and death on the sets several times. Funny in hindsight, I guess.

Going through some other commentary, such as the film doc “The Leone Style” with Richard Schickel or Roger Ebert's revisiting of the movie, it's interesting to see how the recognition of Leone's true mastery of the form took time to coalesce. This original TIME magazine review was apparently a rather typical mixed bag, and clearly has no use for Eastwood's acting, calling his to-date film works “consistently awful”. But even such a lukewarm critic was not blind to the visual genius of the movie.

Arguably one of the most iconic western movie shots of all time. Eastwood may not have had much acting range, but he damn sure knew how to strike a stoic pose.

It was curious to find that, to my surprise, the historical Civil War events portrayed in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were rooted far more deeply in fact that I had suspected. While I, and I suppose many other people, assume that there was little to no large-scale fighting in the Southwest, apparently there was. As referenced in the movie, there really was a General Sibley, who really did make a desperate gambit to storm through Union forces, up the Rio Grande and into Colorado, in an effort to take charge of that state's silver and gold supplies. He failed rather miserably, but not before several thousand of his men were killed along the way. This is not so different from the backdrop of the wild quest of Angel Eyes, Tuco and Blondie.

I also discovered something about the “added” scenes that I disliked so much. These extra 16 minutes were actually part of Leone's original cut, released in Rome. He unwillingly cut them out at the behest of United Artists, who claimed American audiences would find his original 177-minute version too taxing. Regardless, I still found most of these edited scenes unnecessary. Maybe it's just because I had always seen the 161-minute version, and any change to it feels unnatural. Whatever the case, I'll go back to the shorter version for future viewings.

Whether the editing helped or not, the reception was fairly clear. When released in 1967, the movie was a hit. American audiences were enamored of the odd little tweaks to the all-too familiar western genre. They had already been able to adapt to them with Leone's first two westerns featuring the stone-faced Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly kept all of the idiosyncratic flourishes of style and polished the aesthetics to a high finish.

Looking slightly ahead on my list, I see the later Leone western, Once Upon A Time in the West. I have seen this one a few times before, and it is good. However, I'm left to wonder exactly why it is considered a separately “great” film. I suppose I'll find out in another few weeks.

That's a wrap. 63 shows down. 42 to go.

Coming Soon: Mouchette (1967)

This one looks like a serious change of pace. I'm going from a raucous shoot-em-up to a dreary-looking French film about a teenage girl's suffering an misery. I may have to whack back a fifth of Scotch to get into the right mindset for this one. Come on back and see if I can stay lucid enough to figure out what make Mouchette “great”.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.