There is no middle ground in Sergio Leone's West. His magisterial, half-mad westerns deal in sweeping long shots and incandescent close-ups, but he has little use for the comfortable medium shot that French cinéastes call the "plan américain." The all-or-nothing approach was dictated in part by the limitations of Techniscope, the cut-rate widescreen process that made it difficult to focus on the middle distance. But Leone was given to extremes in any case, a tendency that comes to glorious fruition over the course of the films in MGM's "The Man With No Name Trilogy," to be released this week on Blu-ray.
In actuality, Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" had several, his enigmatic identity being the creation of an ingenious American publicist. In "Fistful of Dollars," he's called Joe; in "For a Few Dollars More," Manco; and in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" he's known as Blondie. The character changes along with his name: In the first film, he's an itinerant gun for hire; in the second, a ruthless bounty hunter; in the third, an opportunist making money by any extra-legal means necessary.
The films, released in a mad dash between 1964 and 1966, are a trilogy in terms of iconography rather than plot. Leone recycles actors in similar roles but different parts: Gian Maria Volonté plays discrete but equally brutal villains in the first two films, and Lee Van Cleef goes from the second film's antihero to the third's heavy without significantly altering his wardrobe.
With no equivalent in Italian culture to the American frontier, Leone internalized the visual language of American westerns while separating them from their roots. American westerns are origin stories, myths about the founding of culture and the establishment of law. Leone's, born of a childhood lived under the heel of fascism, mistrust any kind of authority. Officials are corrupt and weak-willed; government is absent. Better an anarchic world than one ruled by liars and tyrants. Although he mixes in plenty of Catholic imagery as well — a brutalized Eastwood undergoes his own private passion in each successive film — it seems more a matter of instinct than belief.
More than his taciturn hero or his gleefully sadistic villains, Leone seems particularly fond of the third film's openly venal Tuco, played with low-comic relish by Eli Wallach, whose homemade proverbs establish a kind of gospel of greed. In Tuco's world, as in Leone's, there are two kinds of people: suckers and those who prey on them.
"Fistful's" success made both Eastwood's and Leone's careers, but it wasn't until "For a Few Dollars More" that Leone leaped to the level of mastery. Enhanced by Ennio Morricone's kitchen-sink score, each confrontation is stretched out to the point of abstraction, a conflict of wills played out via screen-filling close-ups of the combatants' eyes. The violence, when it comes, is fast and bloody, but the prelude stretches into infinity.
The critic Richard Jameson wrote that Leone's movies are "operas in which arias are not sung but stared." "For a Few Dollars More" is particularly obsessed with sight, from the sideways glances that identify the bounty hunters' targets to the confrontation between Van Cleef's telescope and Eastwood's binoculars. Minuscule figures shimmer in the far-off distance, barely visible in a landscape eager to swallow them whole.
As Leone grows more confident, his set pieces grow more extreme, swelling in scope until the climax of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," a tone poem of avarice that finds Tuco running through a massive graveyard searching for a coffin full of gold. The camera spins in circles until the images become a blur, as if the screen is drunk on the prospect of bottomless riches.
With exemplary audio commentaries by biographer Christopher Frayling, the "Man With No Name" set duplicates earlier editions in terms of features, giving the images a high-definition upgrade that is something of a mixed bag. To minimize natural film grain, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is rendered mushy and plastic at times. The re-recorded surround-sound on all three movies is an overactive mess, panning dialogue into the side speakers in a fashion that has more to do with showing off than serving the film. (The discs include the original mono as well, although they default to the new soundtrack.) It's unfortunate that the "Good, Bad" disc includes only the questionably "restored" version of the film, with newly recorded dialogue and scenes that Leone himself cut for release, but some judicious reprogramming can take care of that.
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