Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Spaghetti, western and classic

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.



Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
A great post on a great movie.

Happy New Year to you and your wife.

A Motley Tunic said...

I like The Good, the Bad and the ugly the best. Somehow Ugly's character always keeps me engrossed in the movie. And the climax is amazing! The music is also great. FAFDM lacks the humor that ugly provides. But the bank robbery sequence is very well taken

Have you seen 'Outlaw Josey Wales'? I think that one Clint Eastwood himself directed.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Isn't the Sholay inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurais ? Probably it could be a mix of “For a few dollars more” and "Seven Samurais".

Abi said...

My vote for the ultimate western would go to "Seven Samurai". Kurosawa was the master who introduced many of the elements you talk about: in particular the slow, drawn out style of story telling that allows you to "get in to the ... main characters’ skin, and begin to understand them."

Many other 'samurai' movies by Kurosawa were also classics. Just like many Hindi movies were 'inspired' by the Westerns, I have heard that many Westerns were 'inspired' by Kurosawa.

Thanks, Sunil, for rekindling memories of a wonderful age when I used to devour movies like my son devours chocolates now.

I wish you and yours a very happy new year.

Sunil said...

Thanks Michael.......and wish you the same.

Sowmya....yes...like i'd said, TGTBTU was probably the most entertaining, but i like this one the most. Outlaw Josey Wales was superb.......but not a part of the manwith no name trilogy :-). But you should see High plains drifter. It's outstanding.

Yes anonymous....somewhat. But if you see for a few dollars more, the resemblance will be more striking. A remake of Seven Samurai was the Magnificient Seven (with Yul Brunner amongst others :-)), a hugely entertaining flick.

Abi.....Seven Samurai was an Eastern, not a Western :-)
Dozens of westerns were inspired by Kurosawa's movies (i've reviewed many of them here, he's my fav movie maker, and i've watched most of his films, not just from the Samurai stables). Yojimbo must be one of the most remade movies ever. And a happy new year to you too.

Kaps said...

wishing you a great year ahead!

Anonymous said...

Sunil, here is wishing you a very happy new year...
and one thing you forgot about the westerns, that is the tunes they have given to bollywood - the menacing "villian-is-here" signature tunes of hindi movies :)

Sunil said...

Kaps....you too!

Charu....happy new year.
Don't think i forgot that.....it's been much too obvious :-)
Here's what i said..."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. :-)

greatbong said...

Happy New Year Sunil..

"McKenna's Gold" I heard was the first English movie to be dubbed into Hindi..."Shaitan Ka Sona" was the name.

Anonymous said...

eeeeeeps, how did I miss that? *sorry*

Sunil said...

Arnab....awesome. I need to see the hindi dubbing.


Suhail said...

"..Clint Eastwood, who became the man with no name.."

tsk..tsk..How can you do this Sunil,how. The man has a name..it's "Blondie" :)

Agree with Sowmya, Ugly keeps me hooked. His character is really etched out in a superb fashion. Should watch Yojimbo & HighPlains now..

(belated) Happy new year to you and yr Mrs.

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Anonymous said...


This is an extremely good write up on the Spaghetti Westerns, especially the one's directed by Sergio Leone. I see that you have seen the "Dollar Trilogy" and I am wondering if you have seen "Once Upon a Time in the West"? If you have not already seen it, better do yourself a favor and watch it at the earliest.

Sunil said...

I've seen "Once upon a time in the west", and it is amongst my favorites :-)