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May 17, 2009

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Ryan Kelly

I have an older friend who described to me the day he dragged a bunch of his 16 year old friends to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" when it was released back n 68. He had seen it the day before and was moved to tears by it, and when it was all over one of the boys asked "We skipped Clint Eastwood for this?" And, if you think about it, "The Good the Bad and the Ugly" is still a more popular movie.

Not that this says anything about the movie one way or another. I confess, I have seen exactly two Leone movies in my life--- "The Good the Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in America" (which is one I don't get the love for, unfortunately), and I definitely have always adored TGTB&TU and don't really understand the backlash against it. I wouldn't place it on the level of the best of Ford (or even Boetticher or Hawks), but it has a power and a sense of spectacle that is difficult to deny.

Ellen Kirby

"Not that this says anything about the movie one way or another." No kidding. Doesn't say anything about "2001," either.

Jason M.

@Ryan. I'm assuming you've seen the full 4+ hour cut of "Once Upon a Time in America," and not the butchered theatrical release, right? The US theatrical cut is pretty lousy; I think the 4+ hour cut, though, is really magnificent. It pretty much had me from the 10+ minute phone-ring sequence, which made me overlook whatever flaws the rest of the movie had.

Tom Russell

I too have never really warmed up to "Once Upon a Time in America", but I have seen "Once Upon a Time in the West" about, oh, I'd say two dozen times in the last four or five years. It's hypnotic, amazing cinema and despite the number of times I've seen, I have yet to exhaust it and have yet to get to the point where I can talk about why it's great. And for someone who, as various comments threads will attest, pontificate on all sorts of cinema both great and abysmal, my tongue-tiedness is a testament to the greatness of "Once Upon a Time in the West" in particular and Leone in general.

Should add that of the Eastwood trilogy, my least favourite is the first; it's enjoyable as hell but it's just so beholden to Kurosawa's film that it doesn't quite stand out for me the way "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" or "For a Few Dollars More" do; "For a Few" usually seems overshadowed by "Ugly" but I think they're both bonafide masterpieces.

Haven't seen Colossus of Rhodes yet; Glenn, is it worth watching in its own right or only in the context of Leone's oeuvre?

Dave

Just recently discovered this blog and really like it... just thought I'd chime in and that while I enjoy the Eastwood trilogy, I'm always somewhat surprised that it tends to get so much more recognition than Once Upon a Time in the West. Maybe "so much" is a bit of an exaggeration, but at least among the average movie fan, it certainly does. I definitely prefer Once Upon a Time in the West. The biggest problem for me would be picking between the two "Once Upon a Times."

Christian

You know what makes TGTBTU great? The scene with Eastwood and Wallach leaving the monastery and Tuco brags up How much his brother loves him tho we know Eastwood just saw them fighting. And then he hands Tuco his cigar and just watch the way Wallach chews up the cigar smiling as he finds his bravado again while Morricone's music amplifies all. Amazing.

And Ryan, if you haven't seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you haven't SEEN Leone.

Tony Dayoub

Love all of his movies. My favorite are For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Duck, You Sucker. The latter benefits greatly from the full restoration it recently got on DVD, including some significant portions that had been cut out.

It was rumored that Leone tried to get Eastwood to play the Bronson part in Once Upon a Time in the West (and maybe even that Wallach and Van Cleef stand in for Robards and Fonda, respectively... but I doubt that part). I'm not sure the film would have the same impact. Something about Bronson's steel blue eyes in a tight Leone close-up make it difficult to appraise if the film would be any better with Eastwood in the role.

So I'll throw this question out there for you guys: What are your thoughts on that bit of recasting?

Dave

I remember something from the extras on the DVD of Once Upon the Time in the West where they said there was a rumor that Leone wanted those three guys that you mentioned to be the three that are gunned down in the opening scene of the film. That would have been crazy.

But with your question, I agree with you that Bronson has a unique quality for the Harmonica character. And I definitely don't think anyone could have topped Henry Fonda in his role.

Steven Santos

I've always felt Sergio Leone was one of the best directors to use the 2.35:1 frame, particularly for close-ups and wide shots and the way he cut from one to the other.

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" will never stop being great, though I still think "Once Upon a Time in the West" is still his greatest film. TGTBATU has that moment, of course, when Eli Wallach demonstrates the fallacy of the talking killer: "If you're gonna shoot, shoot! Don't talk!"

Can't say I feel "Once Upon a Time in America" is really a great film. It has its moments, but I think even the 4-hour version is a bit of an ambitious mess, though still interesting to watch.

The Chevalier

How is TGTBATU more popular that 2001?

2001 made more money. 2001 was nominated for Oscars. 2001 is a regular staple of Top 10 lists.

Jason M.

But (and not that this is a great argument for or against either film), people tend to walk out of Good/Bad/Ugly laughing/cheering/disclaiming loudly about how great the movie is. People tend to walk out of 2001 more often scratching their heads.

Wouldn't surprise me to find out that far more people watch TGTBATU now than 2001. 2001 doesn't seem to fare as well on the small screen as Leone does. Just my observation, which may well be incredibly misguided.

Ellen Kirby

The only thing the story in the comment at the top of the thread conveys to me is that the person who related the story to Ryan had one feeling about 2001 and all his friends had a different feeling. What it achieves to "think about" TGTBATU being more popular film is, er, not much of anything, really. Still not sure why the story is even there unless it's as the type of silly argument in which one builds up one thing by tearing down another, completely different thing, but Ryan says that wasn't his point at all. So, as my previous comment hopefully conveys, I'm confused why the story is even there.

bill

@Ellen - Because Ryan felt like relating it? Maybe? I'm more curious about why your so upset about the comment's existence.

I came here only to say that, for me, "Once Upon a Time in the West" is far and away the best Leone I've seen. And I like the others I've seen very much, with the exception of "Once Upon a Time in America", which I also think is an ambitious mess. But "West" is just perfect. Such a marelous, wild, beautiful and gripping piece of storytellng.

Ellen Kirby

Not upset, just (as stated) confused, and have definitely gone on about said confusion at far more length than I should've. Though as we can see from two comments above my second comments, I'm not the only one.

Christian

I'd like to live in a time when THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY opened a year before 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY...Why compare one to the other?

Ryan Kelly

@ Ellen: Sorry I upset you so much.

@ Chevalier: "2001" is probably more institutionalized as a 'classic', you're right, but if I went 'round my college campus and asked, out of the two, which more people had seen my money would be on Leone's film. And I think that's a testament to how endearing the film is--- I feel like my generation feels like TGTB&TU is theirs in a way, because Tarantino brought the spaghetti western back into the pop-culture with "Kill Bill: Vol. 2". Jason M. is right, "2001" does lose much of its power on the small screen and that may be why it's become among Kubrick's least popular films with younger folks. But it certainly struck a chord with the culture at the time, but so did the "Dollar" trilogy (and don't forget in the U.S. TGTB&TU was the third Eastwood/Leone film in less than a year, and still very successful)

@ Christian: I know! And, worse yet, I'm something of a huge Henry Fonda fan. And I've only seen squeaky clean Fonda!

@ Bill: Thanks for sticking up for me, buddy. =)

Ryan Kelly

I agree with Christian, I would have loved to have been alive to see both films on their initial release. Got to see "A Space Odyssey" a few times in the city over the last few years, but not "The Good The Bad and the Ugly". Every time I watch the DVD I feel like I'm getting cheated!

Glenn Kenny

I'm never going to be the guy who's gonna put "2001" against "The Good..." because for me both films are part of the cinematic awakening I underwent in the late '60s at Bergenfield's Palace theater. Those two pictures, along with Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," were the three big ones that blew my not-yet-ten-year-old mind back in the day...along with the TV series "Cinema 13." It's all part of the same ball of wax, one that somehow determined my destiny.

Ryan Kelly

You were a child of impeccable taste, Mr. Kenny. They were both also part of a long series of all time greats that I watched my freshman year of High School that really heightened my senses as to what movies could do. I saw "Citizen Kane", "Lawrence of Arabia", "The Maltese Falcon", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Sunset Boulevard", and the other aforementioned films among others all within a very shot period of time, and it was glorious. I actually got to see many of those on the big screen at the end of my senior year and everything did really come full circle.

How'd you talk your parents into letting you see "Night of the Living Dead" at such a young age? I mean, the title makes no bones about the subject matter...

Jason M.

As an aside here, who else here thinks that with the recent resurgence of IMAX as a feature exhibition format that 2001 needs to be remastered and released in IMAX format?

Potentially sacriligious, I know, but for the past few years, I've been thinking how awesome it would be to see a few 70mm originated films making their way to the IMAX screen. 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, Playtime, etc. Yeah, it's never going to happen, of course, but if it did, I'd be really tempted to park myself in a seat at the local IMAX for the entire run. Especially if it were 2001 or Playtime.

And at the very least, it's safe to say that it would beat the hell out of whatever the latest IMAX'd blockbuster is.

Dan

I think comparing "The Good..." and "2001" is apples and oranges, but since we're doing it, I care a lot less about "2001" than I do about "The Good...". And that reason is because since Kubrick doesn't give a shit about anything beyond the pretty pictures, the movie gets old fast, especially in light of how self-satisfied it is. At least "The Good..." is entertaining as well as thoughtful.

Christian

Well Dan, I think Kubrick does give a shit about mankind in 2001 as it's his most optimistic ending ever. Bowman reclaims humanity and evolves by overthrowing the very machine that took him to space. I find 2001 moving in its cosmic grandeur every time I watch it. And re-reading Christopher Frayling's in-depth bio of Sergio Leone, there are a few of Leone's associates who claim he had little thought except for detail and staging, but we know this is not true. I think Leone is as much a misanthrope as Kubrick could be...

JC

Once Upon A Time In The West is my favourite Leone. For A Few Dollars More, though not as ambitious as TGTB&TU, is my fave of the Man With No Name Trilogy, as Eli Wallach gets on my nerves a bit in the third installment. Duck, You Sucker is highly underrated, and Once Upon A Time In America...is mostly a product of its era, with all the positive and negative connotations that go with it...bit too sentimental, at times lacking in cinematic verve.

The Chevalier

I think that if younger people consider 2001 one of Kubrick's least popular works it says more about younger people than it does the movie. I've never seen a better movie in my entire life. Not much else out there even has the right to look in its general direction, it's so uniquely superior.

Paul Johnson

Long time lurker, first time poster.

I actually think TGTB&TU and 2001 comparisons are quite apropos. Both films distill genre conventions to their essence and turn that essence into something operatic. Of course, Leone's approach evokes Verdi where Kubrick's evokes Schoenberg. Beyond the conceptual similarities, there are some formal consonances. I'm thinking especially about the ways both Leone and Kubrick have a way of filming spaces so that two feet feels like several yards.

Regarding TGTB&TU's supposed greatness, it partly depends on what version you're talking about. I don't much like the extended cut, with Eastwood and Wallach dubbing in their lines thirty years after the fact. I hate the dubbing, and I especially hate the way that every added scene stops the narrative flow dead in its tracks. Even in the superior form, it's not even quite the best film of 1966. I would rank it a notch below Bergman's Persona and Godard's Masculin Feminin, not to mention one of my all time favorite film maudits, Fahrenheit 451. That said, it's the sort of highly enjoyable, very-good-if-not-quite-great instance of an overrated film that I don't feel like putting much energy into demoting its status, except to insist that it really isn't even among the top 20 greatest Westerns ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West, on the other hand, might be, and count me among the confused minority that considers Once Upon a Time in America to be Leone's greatest work. Yes, it's a mess, but a quite glorious one, and the slightly mad, reckless quality of it is part and parcel of its greatness. I think one reason I prefer both Once Upon a Times is the presence of female characters as vital forces. (Can a film be great if it has absolutely nothing to say about half the human race?) The feminine presences in both films, and the confused and powerful swirl of emotions around that presence, make both films feel far more deeply felt than the Man with No Name trilogy.

Jason M.

"Can a film be great if it has absolutely nothing to say about half the human race?"

Depends on how well it says things about the other half, in as much as saying things about parts of the human race is critical to the greatness of cinema.

Paul Johnson

"Depends on how well it says things about the other half, in as much as saying things about parts of the human race is critical to the greatness of cinema."

Reminder to self: don't included provocatively barbed rhetorical questions in posts unless I'm prepared to follow them up. Duly noted. So here it goes: I wouldn't define a film's merits by "what" it says about being human(which will almost always be some sort of cliché, even in the greatest works), but films communicate something by default (all art is a kind of address; i.e., it's a form a communication; i.e., it's saying something, even if that something that can't be articulated in words). Whatever a movie happens to "say" functions as a kind of organizing principle, defining what does and doesn't get represented, and the intensity with which it is represented (think "Tradition is Important" as just such an organizing principle in John Ford movies). So as I see it, "saying something" isn't critical to the quality of a film as much as it's an intrinsic characteristic of artistic expression. Now, when a film is organized in such a way to evince little or no interest in women, I usually take that as a limitation(it's one reason I prefer Kubrick's Barry Lyndon to 2001), and something that bugs me even when it characterizes films I adore (for instance, John Carpenter's The Thing). There are political reasons for this preference, but also aesthetic ones. And here is where I go ahead and contradict myself and in fact argue in some depth against the idea that TGTB&TU is a great film, and in doing so risk going from a lurker to a hijacker all in the course of a single morning.

Previously, I said TGTB&TU is a distillation of the Western. I should have said it plays like a 12 year old boy's distillation of the Western. That means, in part, all the most macho sacraments of Westerns - shoot outs, fights, and of course duels - emphasized and extended, with a fetishistic attention to all the attendant rites. It also means that all the mushy stuff (i.e., anything having to do with women) gets left out. The result is a movie that's exhilarating, but also a little shallow. Shallow in this instance doesn't have anything to do with paucity of ideas, but rather with the rather limited range of feeling. Compare TGTB&TU with something like Boetticher's The Tall T, a less obviously audacious film, but one with a quite shattering sense of the random brutality of the West. In contrast with The Tall T, TGTB&TU is rather disengaged from the violence it portrays. TGTB&TU is almost as abstract as something by Brakhage, which is precisely what a lot of people respond to so strongly about TGTB&TU, but also what leaves me admiring the film rather than loving it. TGTB&TU portrays violence as a pure formal pattern, a way of representing violence that has been enormously influential on any number of subsequent filmmakers, for good and for ill. (And let me be clear that I'm not making any kind of moral argument with Leone's approach to gun play; my argument is that the emotional disengagement makes the violence less interesting, not that it makes it makes real life violence attractive or any nonsense like that.)

I see the relative narrowness of TGTB&TU as particularly linked to the absence of women, since many of the best moments in OUATITW and OUATIA have to do with the female characters and the ebb and flow of feeling attached to them. The money in TGTB&TU is a MacGuffin used to generate the quest narrative and the subsequent parade of genre conventions, but which in itself means nothing; both the Once Upon a Time films make women generating forces of action, creating a sense of real meaning and urgency to the stakes in play.

Here's another related and not unimportant factor in why I like TGTB&TU less than OUATITW: in OUATITW I get to look at Claudia Cardinale for over two hours. In TGTB&TU, I get Eli Wallach. Call me shallow, but I think these things matter.

Tom Russell

@Paul: While I don't agree one hundred percent with everything you have to say, boy do I love the way you say it. I'll have to reread and rethink your comment for a few hours before I can respond intelligently, but I just wanted to jump in with three things: (1) while I don't see "2001" as being particularly about one gender but about humanity as a whole, I do think "Barry Lyndon" is the best of the master's films and the one that most strongly rebukes that old and weary chestnut, Kubrick-the-cold-and-calculating; (2) I agree that OUATITW is better than G,B,U and that it certainly seems more deep and mature; and (3), I too would rather look at Cardinale than Wallach.

beale

"(Can a film be great if it has absolutely nothing to say about half the human race?)"

Yes.

D Cairns

I don't even think Once Upon a Time in America is a mess. At all. I think the sexual politics are highly problematic, but they are exactly what Leone intended them to be. It's a mature work in the sense that it's as mature as Leone was ever going to get. It has mind-blowing sequences and sweep, and if it doesn't aim for the kind of monumental visual poetry Leone attained in West, that's because Leone abandoned most of his visual planning in order to accommodate DeNiro's needs as an actor.

Never mind 2001 versus Ugly, I think comparing America to West or any other Leone is quite hard (but more productive), because it's so different. Not just in genre, but in approach: Leone had to let DeNiro play the scene, and then find a way to shoot it, rather than blocking everything first. It's closer to Duck You sucker, where Leone took over the reins at short notice and was presumably forced to improvise more.

I would agree that Ugly is now more liked by the public than 2001, which has a lot to do with the rising of Eastwood's star, and the decline of the auteur's standing among the populace.

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