Wish you all a very happy 2006.
All that earlier talk about the west must lead to a review of a classic western. John Wayne was the first undisputed king of the western, but there the story and scenes remained within a formula. There were numerous classics by other actors, who were better known though for other roles. Gregory Peck was outstanding in “Makenna’s gold", and the underappreciated but fabulous “The gunfighter”. But the actor who left the longest lasting impression in Westerns was undoubtedly Clint Eastwood, who became the man with no name (long before Dirty Harry came along and changed things).
The stand out movies of this series were the Sergio Leone trilogy “A fistful of dollars”, “For a few dollars more” and “The good, the bad, and the ugly” and Eastwood’s own directorial venture, the superb “High plains drifter”. Now all of these became cult classics on their own right. They’ve been remade or adapted endlessly (not the least in Bollywood, with dozens of “inspired” movies like “Joshilay” or a dozen Feroze Khan flicks). High plains drifter was technically the best movie, and really indicated how good a director Eastwood would eventually become. A fistful of dollars really started out the theme in Western cinema, adapting Kurosawa’s classic “Yojimbo” to the 19th century southwest United States. The good, the bad and the ugly was probably the most entertaining of the lot. But my own personal favorite remains “For a few dollars more” (FAFDM).
This was a classic tale that would inspire (and be suitably adapted by) Ramesh Sippy to make one of Hindi cinema’s most popular classics, Sholay.
The story of FAFDM is rather simple. There’s a ruthless renegade outlaw, El Indio (Volonte), a bandit feared by all, who breaks out of prison and with his gang is on a rampage. Eastwood is a bounty hunter who now goes after the biggest game of them all, El Indio. On his way, he meets another bounty hunter, the shrewd master Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), who is also after the bandit. There’s little in the basic plot that’s not routine. But the story itself weaves around little twists, and unexpected turns. And the pace is slow and drawn out. There’s plenty of time for the viewers to get in to the three main characters’ skin, and begin to understand them. And there are more than enough classic moments.
Colonel Mortimer, we learn, must have started off as an upshot gunfighter. But he’s mellow now, and coldly calculating. It’s not how many times a person shoots, or how fast he shoots, but how well he shoots that’s important. Shoot once, but shoot to kill. Eastwood’s Joe is more reckless, ready to head right in to the heart of danger. The little scene of confrontation between the two has been ripped off in at least half a dozen Hindi movies. The scene where Eastwood shoots off Cleef’s hat, and keeps shooting it off as it lands and is going to be picked up by Cleef. And then, when the hat is out of pistol range, Cleef takes out his modified pistol, takes close aim, and shoots half a dozen holes in Eastwood’s cap, not letting it touch the ground. Familiar?
An uneasy alliance forms between the two, and the set out to outwit and capture El Indio, as the try to out wit Indio as well as each other. There’s intrigue, double-dealing, long, drawn out conversations with many slow pauses, and gunfights with just the right amount of tension built in. And there’s a bank heist, with strategy not inferior to any heist classic.
The cinematography was pioneering at that time, and this movie really was where those long, low-angle shots really became staple fare for all future westerns. But perhaps most memorable was the outstanding music score of Ennio Morricone, which you’ll recognize even if you haven’t seen any of these movies. You would have heard it in a hindi movie or ten.
Eastwood and Cleef were probably the inspiration for Jai and Veeru (of course, rivals and uneasy partners here became buddy-buddy in Sholay). Cleef’s character was split in to two to create Jai’s character and Thakur Baldev Singh’s character. But the stand out character was certainly El Indio. He became Gabbar Singh. From the jailbreak, to ruthlessly shooting down his own men, to pausing and swatting down an insect, to the nervous, hysterical laughter and moments of mania, it’s all there.
This movie has long become staple fare for any lover of Westerns. And what was great about the movie was not the plot. It was the whole atmosphere, and little details amidst the grime.