Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Please don’t think less of me, but my introduction to Westerns was Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Not only was the peak of the western genre, if not over by 1966, then at least in decline, but this one here also got not made anywhere near the New World, but mainly in Spain, and by an Italian. In a way, it’s a western twice removed, but it uses some set pieces and arrays them into a three-hour spectacle that seems to know exactly how much it can stretch any kind of suspense without actually reaching breaking point.
The characters enter the screen, larger than life, and they stay that way. They are introduced, each in turn, by their monicker from the movie’s title, but we already intuit who is who. Their real names are secondary. Only Tuco has some kind of skeletal backstory. It’s like Leone knew that an extreme close-up gives a character depth: if we know the pores on their noses, we cannot help but log on to their presence. Everyone else – families, soldiers, shopkeepers – is just there to play satellite to the three of them, but instead of turning into cardboard characters, there is something dangerous about Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), and something savage about Tuco (Eli Wallach). With Blondie (Clint Eastwood), the case is less clear. He is not really heroic or even good in this picture, which becomes clear in the very first scene where he, a bounty hunter, is not above shooting three other bounty hunters in order to get the reward for himself. Eastwood, as we all know, turned into a one-man rescue team for resuscitating the dying genre of the Western, at least for a time, which is ironic if you think that he cut his teeth in several of Leone’s so-called spaghetti Westerns.
There was a summer in the early 80s where Swiss TV offered you a choice of three movies, and you had to phone in and give them your preference. Leone’s western won over two others, and they showed it that summer evening, one of the shorter cuts probably, and for many weeks afterwards, on my way to school, at parties, on the football pitch, even at the store, you could hear Morricone’s iconic Ahy-ahy-ahhhh! from one corner, and mostly someone somewhere within hearing distance would answer Wah-wah-waaah! It was like a secret handshake among kids who didn’t know each other, but had one movie in common. It’s a prickly, stubborn melody, compared to any of the famous John Williams themes. It’s savage, it’s simple, and it’s hard to forget.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.