The Borgesian hallucination is a vision of the American West as a lucrative shooting gallery: Life is cheap except to bounty hunters, a profit is made every time someone is killed. Sergio Leone opens with a gag (a murdered rider dwarfed by the desert, an extreme long-shot to go with the ensuing extreme close-ups), then provides an aria for each protagonist. Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) is a great soldier turned jackal, though his mission at least has the emotional thrust of revenge; for Moco the mercenary (Clint Eastwood), it’s a matter of keeping track of corpses and rewards. They step on each other’s toes and shoot at each other’s hats ("just like the games we know," a nearby urchin observes) and join forces to get to El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), the outlaw cackling on the Wanted poster. The itinerary is from Tucumcari to El Paso to Agua Caliente, lands of dogged vendettas, blasted safes and cartloads of bodies. "It’s a small world." "Yes, and very, very bad." The parodical outline of Fistful of Dollars gains flesh and curves as Leone grows entranced by the ornate frame, the way a character’s sombrero blacks out the sun as the figure looms over the camera, how a pocket watch’s chimes cause a flashback to drift in like a cloud of opium. The actors are keyed to the scabrous humor. Eastwood polishes the sagebrush Kabuki routine, playing straight-man to a screen-hogging Methuselah who keeps bitching about the trains traversing the prairie, and to his baroque co-stars. Van Cleef adds a lavish touch of André De Toth by calmly striking a match on the hump of hunchback gunman Klaus Kinski (nothing is funnier than the did-he-just-do-that twitch in the corner of Kinski’s mouth), Volonté’s switch from coldly executing a friend to mock-mourning him profusely is the kernel of his Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion tour de force. The pinnacle of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is just around the corner, the triangular shootout and Ennio Morricone’s trumpets point the way. With Luigi Pistilli, Joseph Egger, Lorenzo Robledo, Mara Krupp, and Mario Brega.
--- Fernando F. Croce