- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

It’s a good thing Clint Eastwood drove a hard bargain before agreeing to collaborate for a third consecutive time with the late Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. After all, the project was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” a swollen and essentially mercenary successor to the exploitation hits that popularized the synthetic genre known as “spaghetti Westerns” in the last half of the 1960s. Mr. Eastwood had appeared in the first two films, “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” while moonlighting from his regular Hollywood job as a lead on the popular Western series “Rawhide.”

Preoccupied with working cowboys who encountered adventures on cattle drives, “Rawhide” was a far more traditional proposition than the Leone mutations, which began by plagiarizing Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and eventually set a fashion in hard-boiled incongruity and amorality that Mr. Leone himself found it necessary to transcend. Eventually, he did lyricize his own portentous cliches in elaborate and stirring epic reveries on the American West and then New York in the Roaring ‘20s, “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” released in 1969 and 1984, respectively.

American Movie Classics plans to revive “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” today as part of an all-day salute to Mr. Eastwood that will, incidentally, restore briefly one of the bygone attractions of AMC programming: no commercial interruptions. The film’s surviving co-stars, Mr. Eastwood and Eli Wallach, agreed to record English dialogue that covers seven scenes and an estimated 14 minutes cut from the American-release version in January, 1968. (Scenes with the late Lee Van Cleef were dubbed by Simon Prescott.)

Good, bad and ugly were pretty elastic terms in the context of a Leone Western, where almost everyone in sight was inclined to be hard-bitten, ruthless and lethal. For the record, though, Mr. Eastwood embodied the “good,” a sharpshooting grifter known as Blondie; Mr. Van Cleef was the bad, a hired killer nicknamed Angel Eyes; and Mr. Wallach was the ugly, a vociferous scrounger named Tuco Ramirez who carried the demonstrative burden while his co-stars remained ominously cool under the collar.

Swindles and double-crosses were the modus operandi in all these movies, so it seemed a bit unsporting when Mr. Leone resented Mr. Eastwood’s contract demands: $250,000 plus 10 percent of the net profits in certain markets. It wasn’t an unreasonable proposition considering the actor’s contribution to the freakish success of the earlier films, made for salaries in the low five figures.

There was a certain economic uncertainty behind Mr. Eastwood’s proposed terms: The “Rawhide” series had ended in 1965 after a seven-year run, and the actor couldn’t be certain the vogue for spaghetti Westerns in Rome would be matched in the United States, where he intended to mount a sustained campaign for a starring career in features.

He was right to be cautious. The Leone trilogy didn’t transform Mr. Eastwood’s Hollywood career in a decisive way. Modestly popular at best, the movies, released at six-month intervals between January 1967 and January 1968, were outgunned repeatedly at the box office by the John Wayne Westerns of the same period; they were never competitive with such major hits as “True Grit” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The decisive break for Mr. Eastwood didn’t come until 1971, with an urban crime melodrama that fed off the gathering backlash against ‘60s liberalism, Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry.”

At a budget of $1.3 million, “Good…Bad…” was far and away the most expensive of the early Leone productions. It also was the one in which epic impulses began to intrude on the familiar stalking and one-upsmanship motifs. Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Van Cleef had partnered as rival bounty hunters who made common cause in “For a Few Dollars More.” It’s easy to see that “Good…Bad” began as a three-cornered variation on the same premise.

The almost 3-hour movie would have remained within a standard running time if confined to variations on how three bad hombres exchange swindling maneuvers while pursuing a fortune in gold coins. Instead, the Civil War enters arbitrarily from the wings in superfluous and cockamamie episodes that nevertheless open the door for expansive pictorial spectacle, along with historical implications that overshadow the trifling and repetitious plot.

The circumstances remain ludicrous: The settings are ascribed to New Mexico and western Texas, where Union and Rebel armored divisions are arrayed in trenches and supposedly clash over a bridge that looks as if its only purpose is to be blown up for a movie. Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Wallach get to set the charges in plain sight of two oblivious armies.

Indeed, the demolition episode suggests “Bridge on the River Kwai” restricted to a small artificial lake. Mr. Eastwood and several others began to detect David Lean longings in Mr. Leone at this juncture. There’s also a desert trek in “Good…Bad” that lamely recalls a sequence in “Lawrence of Arabia” and leaves Blondie covered with fabricated facial blisters.

Adding to the wackiness is an interlude in a Union prisoner-of-war camp that anticipates the Kwai digression. The prisoners are Confederates at the mercy of Mr. Van Cleef and other nefarious Union jailers. The anachronisms include echoes of Auschwitz, with a camp band that plays mournfully while Tuco is beaten to a pulp by a Van Cleef henchman.

Leone loyalists in the critical and scholarly community eventually came to a consensus about the inexplicable and repellent aspects of these movies: They contributed to the “deconstruction” of a moldering heroic genre and qualified Sergio Leone as a pioneer among “postmodernist” filmmakers. However, it was the rediscovery of tender and sentimental attributes, embedded in the sprawling scenarios of the “Once Upon a Time …” epics, that finally rescued Mr. Leone from aestheticized nihilism. So it’s doubtful that the master himself perceived lasting virtue in anti-heroic poses and cliches. The main value of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” at this late date is to illustrate how futile it can be to leave yourself with nothing but cynical and mocking options.

WHAT: Telecast of a restored version of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (“Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo”)

WHEN: Today at 8 p.m., repeated at 12:55 a.m. Sunday

WHERE: American Movie Classics cable network

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released shortly before the advent of the film rating system; frequent graphic violence; occasional comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Luciano Vincenzoni and Mr. Leone with additional story material by Sergio Donati, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli. Production and costume design by Carlo Simi. Music by Ennio Morricone

RUNNING TIME: About 175 minutes

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