Monday, September 4, 2006


Sunday night, the Whitney Humanities Center screened a print of Sergio Leone's best-known "spaghetti western," The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and though I've seen the film many times over the years, I don't think I've ever seen it on the big screen. That was reason enough to go, but also because last summer I was making up a list of films definitive for my viewing life, and considered including GBU. I think it has to do with my sense that the film represents a significant shift in sensibility from the Western of my father's generation (i.e., John Wayne Westerns, many directed by John Ford or by Howard Hawks) to that of my older brother's age group -- the teens of the late '60s.

GBU, starring Clint Eastwood, has many of the familiar tropes of Westerns -- the loner (Clint, "the Good" known as Blondie), the mean, sadistic cuss (Lee Van Cleef, "the Bad" known as Angel Eyes), the ornery comic sidekick (often played by Edmund O'Brien or Walter Brennan in Hollywood Westerns, but here even more robust and mercurial -- "The Ugly" (Il Brutto) played for all it's worth by Eli Wallach as Tuco), the predominantly male camaraderie (in GBU there are only three women -- the speechless wife of the guy Van Cleef guns down in his first scene, a whore with info who Van Cleef slaps around in another scene, and "an old hen" who Tuco shushes when she's about to give him a piece of her mind), the picaresque adventures -- and here GBU really shines in dragging out the story as long as possible, always heading circuitously toward the big pay off of the paybox buried in the sprawling cemetary on Sand Hill -- plenty of gunplay (in Clint's hands shooting has comic timing, blowing hats off spectators and severing the rope, or not, when someone is about to be hanged) and, somewhat gratuitously, a long walk through the center of town with death aiming from any roof or window or doorway.

But what is "the new sensibility" of this kind of Western? Well, for one thing there's that cooler than cool modulated whisper that Clint employs in every scene; his opening line, off camera, "Yeah, but you don't look like you'll be collecting," spoken to a bounty hunter who has Tuco cornered, introduces the dry, ironic attitude of our hero. And his good deeds -- blowing up the bridge for the jaded and drunken Union captain, and offering a few last puffs on his ever-present cigar to a dying Confederate soldier -- are tinged with a disaffected nonchalance that suggests he's "good" because he's free from the evil side-taking that perpetuates the war (its foolishness signaled by the bridge that -- in a switch on Bridge Over the River Kwai -- the captain wants to abandon rather than defend against all good sense). Clint's "above it all" or "outside it all" status is dramatised in that epic final showdown of mounting tension (and no one does it like Sergio) over who will shoot first, when in fact it's a foregone conclusion: Clint will kill Van Cleef while Tuco, as usual when it comes to Clint, will be ineffectual (Tuco is never really an opponent, he's more the sidekick you can't really trust but whose every move is predictable).

But what's the deal with Blondie and Tuco anyway? How did Jon Stewart in his Oscar montage of vaguely homoerotic moments in Westerns of the past miss the scene when Clint sneaks up on Tuco straight from his bath with soap suds all over his gun? And why is Clint always leaving his playmate tied up in some godforsaken desert place? Time was, when archetypes were more the rage in our collective unconscious than socially tinged cultural criticism, much would be made of how "The Good" (or reason, or talent) and "the Ugly" (or "The Animal") must align themselves in an odd give-and-take, love/hate oneupmanship that, if nothing else, advances the plot and gives them adventures.

Today, looking back on Clint's iconic status in the '60s, I was thinking how Blondie and Tuco are just a few tokes (on a joint -- rather than that cigar they're always passing around) away from transforming -- no, not into the Duke and Ward Bond, but into those freewheeling icons of the '60s, Captain America and Billy in Easy Rider, or How The West Was Stoned.

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