April 30: How the (Not) West Was Won — A Western not made in America.
My Uncle Bill’s name was Frank, not Bill, but at some time in his teenage years he decided that he wanted to be Bill, after Buffalo Bill, and everyone allowed him to be. So even into his senior years, no one knew his real name. I tell you this to establish his cowboy movie bonafides. He and my father would often quiz each other into the night around a campfire about famous stars and they seemed to agree that Lash LaRue was the best, but then again, Lee Van Cleef was the best bad guy.
We Italians know something of Westerns.
After the success of For a Few Dollars More, United Artists approached the film’s screenwriter, Luciano Vincenzoni, to sign a contract for the rights to this film and the next one. Producer Alberto Grimaldi, director Sergio Leone and he had no plans, but with their blessing, Vincenzoni came up with the idea of three rogues — the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) — seeking hidden gold sometime after the Civil War. They got a bigger budget, Eastwood got $250,000, a Ferrari and a percentage, then the camera rolled.
This would be the last role that Eastwood would do for Leone, who he saw as too much of a perfectionist. Harmonica in Once Upon a Time In the West would go to the man who was originally going to play Angel Eyes, Charles Bronson.
The film begins with Angel Eyes killing men on his way to finding Confederate gold while The Man With No Name and Tuco keep pulling a scam where The Man collects the bounty on Tuco’s head, saves him and then they do it again in a different town. After dealing with Tuco’s constant complaining, he finally strands him in the desert and the “Rat,” as Eastwood’s character describes him, gets his revenge by marching him across the same hot and desolate no man’s land.
The twists and turns of this movie find a man named Bill Carson (Antonio Casale) burying gold in one grave in a cemetery. Tuco knows the name of the burial ground while The Man knows the grave. $200,000 worth of gold is hidden away, which is a lot of money even today, so you can imagine why everyone is willing to do anything for it.
American audiences were tired of Italian cowboys by this point and who can say why they were so dumb? Roger Ebert realized this and said that he “described a four-star movie, but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a Spaghetti Western and so could not be art.”
As bad as Van Cleef seems on screen, he did have some rules about being a good person in his real life. He was supposed to slap around Maria (Rada Rassimov) in one scene and said, “I can’t hit a woman.” Rassimov told him, “Don’t worry. I’m an actress. Even if you slap me for real, it’s no problem”, but that’s a double slapping her. Van Cleef said, “There are very few principles I have in life. One of them is I don’t kick dogs, and the other one is I don’t slap women in movies.”
Even the name of this movie is ironic, used past film and having a meaning in actual life. The Mexican standoff found its way into many movies, particularly the work of Quentin Tarantino, who said that the final scene is his favorite of all time: “During the three-way bullring showdown at the end, the music builds to the giant orchestra crescendo, and when it gets to the first big explosion of the theme there’s a wide shot of the bullring. After you’ve seen all the little shots of the guys getting into position, you suddenly see the whole wideness of the bullring and all the graves around them. It’s my favorite shot in the movie, but I’ll even say it’s my favorite cut in the history of movies.”