There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who haven’t seen Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s insolent reinvention of the western... and those who dig.
This (mostly) new-to-Blu set is the ideal starting point for newcomers, but Leone lovers expecting hi-def perfection may feel let down. The set combines the UK Blu-ray debuts of A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More with the existing 2008 release of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
The latter transfer is overly clean, so scrubbed the actors’ hitherto grizzled faces take on a weirdly waxen sheen. The newer releases go to the other extreme: more tactile (Leone’s looming close-ups are a study of sweat and stubble) but suffering from excessive grain. Sound is more consistent, albeit consistently problematic.
Each disc offers a noble attempt at DTS surround, the buzz of cicada punctuated by thunderclap gunshots and Ennio Morricone’s mighty cues. The problem is the source: a mono melange of post-synced dialogue and effects whose tone, alternately harsh and flat, doesn’t suit the subtle dynamics of home cinema.
Fortunately, the films remain remarkable. The lean, mean A Fistful Of Dollars hits the dirt running, as Eastwood’s amoral “Joe” (despite the hyperbole, he has a different name in each film) makes mischief with two sadistic families locked in an internecine turf war. It’s sure-footed, but it should be: the plot is a blatant transposition of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick Yojimbo.
Yet while Leone can’t claim credit for the story, the visual style is all his own. He had neither the money nor the location to replicate the classic John Ford look. So, he used an abandoned Zorro set in the Spanish desert, a rudimentary film format, Techniscope, and, in Morricone, a composer with the musicality of an angel and the cackle of a hyena. Oh, and the star of TV western Rawhide.
Way down Leone’s wish-list, Eastwood came cheap, working for $15,000 plus a European vacation. More priceless was the actor’s lack of ego and his instinct for paring down his dialogue. Ice-cool beside volcanic foe Gian Maria Volonté, Eastwood’s enigmatic anti-hero is the blueprint for Indy, Captain Jack Sparrow, everyone.
The result is an extraordinary distillation of Leone’s dream west, a world he seldom saw on-screen: “I get bored of westerns, they talk too much, there isn’t enough action,” he reportedly said. Leone’s alternative delivered nonstop shoot-outs and beatings to an audience who shared his appetite for destruction. The most startling innovation: that heartstopping final show-down.
With Fistful an instant smash, Leone moved quickly to capitalise. For A Few Dollars More, as the title suggests, is Fistful redux, its setpieces bigger, its witty tone more confident. Eastwood and Volonte reprise their dynamic as bounty hunter and bank robber, but the wildcard is semi-retired Hollywood heavy Lee Van Cleef, astutely cast as Eastwood’s rival.
At once playful and sinister, Van Cleef shifts the emphasis into something more ironic, and Eastwood matches him. Leone, too, finds his voice, as much send-up as serious drama, a vision of adults misbehaving amidst the playground of his imaginary West.
Co-produced by United Artists, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly allowed Leone to maintain his primacy over the glut of imitation spaghetti westerns with unprecedented scale. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, it charts the search for hidden gold by three anti-heroes of varying morality: ‘Good’ Eastwood, ‘Bad’ Van Cleef and, as ‘Ugly’ Tuco, Method actor Eli Wallach.
As Eastwood and Wallach make their surreal, picaresque progress through the carnage of war, Leone delivers staggering filmmaking: a shoot-out in a town destroyed by mortar fire; a battle for control of a strategically important bridge; and Leone’s definitive stand-off in – where else? – a graveyard.
The impressive extras are SD carry-overs. Leone’s biographer, Sir Christopher Frayling, delivers rigorous analysis across commentaries and featurettes, while Eastwood cameos in brief interviews. Most intriguing is 1977’s moralistic prologue to Fistful, commissioned by US TV in an attempt at neutering the naughtiness... but entrusted to unlikely conformists Monte Hellman and Harry Dean Stanton! Hardcore Leonites might feel similarly compromised.
It seems churlish to carp about minor blemishes after years of choppy prints on TV and video. Nonetheless, if you’ve already spent a ‘fistful’ on earlier editions, it might be worth reconsidering whether this really demands ‘a few dollars more’…
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