A Man for All Seasons (Directed by Fred Zinneman)
The Nominees: Alfie, The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, The Sand Pebbles, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Directed by Sergio Leone)
My Nominee: Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock)
|The lead contenders for the 1966 Best Picture race were a pair of play adaptations that were not a lot of fun. Fred Zinneman's adaptation of Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons and Mike Nichols' adaptation Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were both films about personal struggles. One was about a feuding couple who spend an evening locked in a spiteful screaming match and the other was about the struggle between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over the king's desire to divorce Catharine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.
Of the two, I think A Man for All Seasons is a little more bearable, although Virginia Woolf has better performances. Yet, watching Zinneman's film always feels a little like homework.
My favorite film of 1966 received no nominations, no critics awards, no awards of any kind whatsoever. Maybe that's because Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly isn't taken as seriously as it should be. It is seen, then and now, as a violent throwaway western, the third part of an unconnected trilogy behind Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). This film is better than either of those films because it perfects the style he had been working on in the earlier two entries.
Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is not a standard western - it is all style with a thin story that the director somehow manages keep compelling for more than three hours. It involves a story that is perfect simplicity: Three violent outlaws get bits of information about the whereabouts of a fortune in army gold buried in a shallow grave in an overcrowded cemetery. Two of the men know the cemetery but not the name on the grave; the other knows the name on the grave but not the name of the cemetery. Through a violent trek that crosses paths with The Civil War and leaves a mountain of dead bodies in its wake, the three men find themselves in the same place at the same time in an unforgettable standoff at that cemetery.
Leone clearly identifies these three outlaws by painting them in broad strokes. Clint Eastwood plays "The Good" - a nearly-silent outlaw known only as Blondie who sits atop his horse, draped in a serape, chomping on his stogie and squinting in the sun. Although he barley speaks, he is always thinking. He is a crackshot, and we get a sense of his skill during a cockamamie moneymaking scheme in which his partner, a wanted man, lets himself get arrested so that Blondie can collect the ransom then, right before the hanging, severs the noose with a sniper shot and frees his partner. Later, they split the money - Blondie decides the split.
His partner is Tuco (Eli Wallach - "The Ugly") a bandito who never stops talking (even when he's alone), who wants the gold but keeps switching alliances with Blondie depend on which man has the upper hand. There's a scene when Blondie breaks their partnership, leaving Tuco out in the desert then later Tuco turns the tables, leaving Blondie to nearly die in the desert. Later in a monastery, he learns that Blondie has a valuable piece of information and tries, pathetically, to rekindle his partnership. I am not sure but I think Tuco gets more screentime than anyone else - he talks nonstop and moves thoughtlessly forward with any piece of information that will lead him to the loot. Wallach plays the character as a sweaty, angry little man with a loud mouth and a round face and a sort of pathetic means of begging for help. But Wallach keeps Tuco just a shade to the side of being a caricature. There is a nicely written scene that establishes his motives when he visits his brother, a priest, who disapproves of Tuco's profession. "When we were growing up" he tells his brother, "you either became a priest or a bandito - I made my choice. You became a priest because you are too much of a coward to do what I do."
The third man is a shadowy figure known as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef - "The Bad"). He has been looking for the gold long before the story starts and he leaves a trail of bodies behind to find snippets of information. Whether or not the person that he is threatening has any information or not, they always end up dead. Angel Eyes has less screen time than any of the three men but his presence is felt the whole way. We sense his character in a brilliant opening scene in which he enters the home of a man who has a bit of information that he needs. He walks into the man's house and sits down at the table to have a meal, spoons out his food and begins to eat, but he never takes his eyes off the man. The casting of Van Cleef in the role was a masterstroke. He has a lean, thin face and the narrow, pointed eyes of a snake. His voice is a monotone so his victims never know if he is coming or going.
These three characters are set on their mission through a backdrop that is unfamiliar to most Americans. Leone shot most of the desert scenes in Spain and to an American audience accustomed to John Ford's westerns set in Monument Valley, this location might as well be another planet. As Blondie and Tuco cross the desert, Leone uses wideshots to suggest a landscape that is desolation and death. His camera bleaches some scenes to make us feel the blistering sun beating down on a landscape that seems to be little more than sagebrush, sand and heat. His visuals are not pretty, the color seems to be a little off and that makes the vistas more dreamlike, or more like a nightmare. When the three men have a standoff at the end, they arrive at a cemetery that seems to have been there for a hundred years, the headstones are mostly made of wood and seem hastily propped up, quickly painted then abandoned. The area in which the three men have their standoff is set just forward of the cemetery, a dirt circle that looks like an arena, with the only audience being the dead who surround it.
The cast of supporting characters all seemed to have been hired because of their faces. Like Coppola's The Godfather, the backgrounds are packed with peculiar faces, not attractive at all. We see old faces, withered faces, sad faces, sun-bleached faces, faces that have experienced the worst of this desert environment and the gun-toting snakes that dwell upon it. There is very little happiness here (remember: this is The Civil War), this landscape is harsh, human life is frivolous.
There are scenes in this movie that are brilliantly executed. There is the scene in which Tuco finds a runaway wagon only to find that it is loaded with the dead bodies of Confederate soldiers. This is the scene where Tuco gets one part of the information and Blondie get the other (I have a theory that it was Angel Eyes who killed the soldiers). There is an incredible scene when the duo are captured by Union soldiers (they mistakenly think that the dust covered soldiers were wearing gray uniforms) and are taken to a POW camp. Tuco is tortured while Confederate POWs are forced to sit outside and play a sad tune on their instruments.
Oddly enough, despite the shootouts and bravado, what I remember most are the silences, the moments when the camera simply regards the landscape of desolation and dirt. It reminds me of how needlessly talky most modern films can be, of how afraid studio execs are of boring their audience by not having something going on all the time. Sergio Leone was a film craftsman, less interested in big stories than in atmosphere and mood and tone and structure.