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Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema — one frame at a time.
It’s been six months since ‘Framed’ started at Cinematical — with Duncan Jones’ haunting tale, ‘Moon’ — and during that time I’ve examined a variety of films, but I can’t think of a movie I’d be more excited to close out the year with than Sergio Leone’s epic western, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ Leone’s film reimagines the classic western and shakes the dust off of Hollywood’s good guys versus bad guys gimmick. There’s a bit of everything in Leone’s final installment of the ‘The Man with No Name’ Trilogy (aka the Dollars Trilogy): it’s beautifully violent, offbeat and humorous, has an unforgettable soundtrack (thanks to maestro Ennio Morricone), impeccable direction, colorful characters and a palpable atmosphere.
While the plot is entertaining enough, it serves mainly as a canvas for Leone’s craft: three gunslingers (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) race to uncover a fortune in buried gold during the Civil War. We quickly learn that the good guy earns his title by only a slight and sketchy margin, the bad guy makes his predecessors look like pussycats, and the ugly guy is brilliant enough to secure the most screen time.
What started as a low-budget take on the western classics made famous by American talents like John Ford and Howard Hawks, transformed into a genre (the spaghetti western) whose artistry, obsessive technique and bold drama were defined by the Italian director. Leone found his start in the film industry as a sword and sandal screenwriter during the ’50s, but his appreciation for Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ was the inspiration for ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (the first film in the Dollars Trilogy) — and its meticulous style set the tone for the rest of the series. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli joined forces with Leone for the last feature in the trio, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (GBU),’ and spoke with American Cinematographer at length about bringing Leone’s vision to life:
“Sergio was a real go-getter, a very meticulous artist who paid attention to everything he did, right down to the smallest details. For the images, he asked for things that were truly effective: full light for long shots because he wanted the details to be visible on screens of all sizes, and close-ups with the individual hairs of the characters’ beards visible. It was impossible in Spain — he wanted deep, long shadows, the deepest and longest we could get, and the [sun went] down late. On the set, we prepared in the morning, and then we just died waiting for the right light. I did everything I could to accommodate him within the limits of what was possible. And then there were the details! He wanted to shoot the actors’ eyes in every scene. I told him we could shoot 100 meters of eyes — looking here, looking there — and then use them whenever he wanted. But he wasn’t having any of that. And that’s how it went for the entire shoot … “
Leone’s dedication to details paid off immensely in ‘GBU’ where moments of silence and stillness allow us to relish in the particulars of his operatic compositions, and the gestures and expressions of his characters speak volumes (in the first few minutes of the film, or during the final showdown between the three men, for example). There’s a certain rhythm that comes from Leone’s crescendo of long takes, extreme close-ups, extreme wide shots and depth of focus. This kind of posture and pacing isn’t lost in this week’s frame, where the intensity and beauty of the still is easily on par with any of Leone’s moving images.
Sure, Morricone’s score isn’t audible here — punctuating the event and carrying us throughout the frame — but the energy and emotion of Leone’s active, painterly composition and sense of light takes over for him. The setting’s imbalance (though there is a kind of symmetry to the composition), juxtaposed with the contrapposto of the figures makes the scene an effectively tense complement to the mayhem happening in the town outside. This image has all the charged movement (dramatic geometry and gesture), visceral appeal (Leone’s weathered and worn — and often murderous — dynamic), iconography (the cowboy) and detail of Baroque painting.
‘GBU’ relies on sun and shadows for a lot of its lighting and the bold contrast between light and dark (chiaroscuro) is on display here. When we see these men outside, the dirt, grime, sweat and lines of labor models the shadows of their faces — but the shadows of interior spaces creates something otherworldly about them. It’s moments like this that Leone reminds me of a modern day Diego VelÃ¡zquez. Like Leone, the Spanish Baroque painter employed a gritty realism about his subjects, many of them historically or culturally significant — but often paying special attention to those on the periphery of society (recalling Leone’s one-armed bounty hunter, legless beggar, or even Wallach’s Tuco, for example) — which ties into Leone’s interest in the politics of war. VelÃ¡zquez’s broad, yet keenly detailed sensibility resembles the director’s, but the comparisons between the two aren’t just limited to the visual. In Arthur Danto’s ‘Embodied Meanings’ he talks about VelÃ¡zquez’s approach, which sums up a key ingredient in Leone’s appeal:
“There is a great difficulty in finding our way into a world in which dwarves and fools and jesters have a dignity and meaning we cannot altogether fathom, or in which a queen’s handkerchief is almost as interesting as she is. And who knows how to read the marvelous dogs? … Some metaphysical joke? Or the suggestion that dogs hold some rank in nature higher than slaves or even certain courtiers? All I know is that a dog in a chair is not innocent naturalism. One has the sense, in fact, that everything means something awesome, which intensifies the pleasure one takes in this tremendous painter we know we will never fully understand.”
Leone’s penchant for capturing moments like this through doors, windows and other strictly defined spaces recalls something that Roger Ebert wrote about in his 2003 review of the film:
” … Leone established a rule that he follows throughout ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots. There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them.”
Unsurprisingly, this methodology invokes the spirit of Baroque theater and idea of the Theatrum Mundi (the world is a stage). Sixteenth and seventeenth century European audiences marveled at the stages of their time, which came to life through the use of clever machines and sleight of hand illusions. Simultaneously, there was apprehension over these effects for fear that the spectacle would overwhelm the humanity of the performance. Leone engages a similar technical and social/political anxiety through the use of these choreographed frames, where unknown/unseen forces thrust his characters into a variety of situations.
Sergio Leone usurped all expectations of the western genre and redefined it with a never before seen strangeness, brutality and drama. ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ is the crowning glory on Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and exemplifies the strength and simplicity of its characters, but is never short on beauty.