Combustible Celluloid Review - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Sergio Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, John Bartha, Antonio Casale
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With: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, John Bartha, Antonio Casale
Written by: Sergio Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Directed by: Sergio Leone
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 179
Date: 12/22/1966

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

4 Stars (out of 4)

As 'Good' As 'Ugly' Gets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It starts with a field of impossible red, a bold, brash red that makes the corners of any ordinary TV set bleed. But on the big screen, it assaults you, along with Ennio Morricone's blaring score, spattered with electric guitars, blaring horns and a screeching choir. Gunshots go off with every cut, announcing the cast, the crew and finally with a series of giant 'kablooms,' a cannon etches the words "Directed by Sergio Leone."

Even at three hours, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone's 1966 spaghetti Western epic, keeps going with that level of energy.

Leone was a master of scale; he gives us the widest expanse of craggy landscape imaginable, plunks a tiny figure of a man into the corner of it, then smash-cuts to an extreme close up of a sweat-drenched pair of eyes, stretching as almost as wide as the horizon itself. He weighs every movement carefully; every footstep, every squeeze of the trigger, screams epic. Everything is important and nothing is insignificant.

Leone (1929-89) only directed seven feature films in his long career (he began as an assistant/second unit director), but they're all giant-sized, taking place across all space and time. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was his third film with Clint Eastwood; the series made him a star and popularized the spaghetti Western in America.

Now a new, restored version -- with scenes that were never before prepared for American release -- opens today at the Castro for a week's run.

Lee Van Cleef ("the bad") appears first, as a bounty hunter who learns about a cache of stolen gold that has never been claimed. Enter Clint Eastwood ("the good"), who has a scam going in which he brings in wanted criminal Eli Wallach ("the ugly"), collects the reward, then frees him from his own hanging, only to start all over again in a new town.

When Eastwood severs their partnership and leaves Wallach in the desert, the "ugly" man vows his revenge. This occurs when Wallach captures Eastwood and makes him march across the desert with no horse and no water.

A stagecoach full of dead and wounded soldiers crosses their path, and Eastwood and Wallach find out about the gold as well. They form an uneasy partnership when Wallach learns the location of a graveyard where the loot is buried, but only Eastwood knows the name on the grave.

After two hours of shootouts, escapes, explosions, and a scene in which Eastwood and Wallach make their mark on the American Civil War, the three gunfighters meet at the graveyard at the same time. Leone ends the film with the same giant-sized artistry that began it -- a three-way face off between the men, cutting from extreme close-ups to extreme long shots, men fingering their guns, shooting sideways glances, sweating, etc.

For this new release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, MGM called in Eastwood, Wallach and a voice expert to imitate Van Cleef, and for the first time dubbed several scenes that were edited out of the original American release. Most of them aren't particularly necessary, but they do sometimes clear things up and add new levels to the picture.

This movie and its counterparts, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) were financially successful upon their combined release in the United States, but scholars and critics treated them as second-rate, drive-in features.

After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone only completed three more films in his remaining 23 years of life, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), A Fistful of Dynamite, a.k.a. Duck You Sucker (1972) and Once Upon a Time In America (1984), which was butchered upon its original release. Leone never lived to see that film truly appreciated.

However, most film buffs and film scholars now hold a special place in their hearts for Leone's films. Indeed, few movies are so firmly established in the pantheon of cool.

Though it was remastered for the big screen experience, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly plays remarkably well on the small screen. MGM's two-disc DVD comes with a new 5.1 Dolby English language mix, plus the original mono Italian sound mix. Viewers should know that neither of these options is the "real" version. The film was shot with the actors speaking many different languages, and the dubbing was part of its original vision.

On this new English language version, however, restorers had to "cheat" here and there to expand the mono sound to a new stereo sound, not to mention that, in the new scenes, Eastwood and Wallach don't really sound like they're in their 30s anymore. Purists might want to stick with the previous DVD version and its mono soundtrack. I prefer this version.

In 2017, Kino Lorber released a new 2-disc Blu-ray set for the film's 50th anniversary (it was actually released in the United States in 1967, even though it premiered in Italy in 1966). I'm very happy with the result. The first disc includes the theatrical cut (163 minutes) with an optional commentary track by Tim Lucas, and the second disc contains the extended cut (179 minutes) with optional commentary tracks by Richard Schickel and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling.

There are so many extras (many of them from earlier releases), including a featurette on composer Morricone, a feature on the restoration, deleted scenes, trailers, and more. I wouldn't hesitate calling this one of my favorite home video releases of the year so far.

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