There's a tiny Sergio Leone film buried in the first moments of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The film opens on a rugged, expansive vista—the American West by way of Southern Spain—then quickly fills the frame with a sweat-drenched face as craggy as the land behind it, a nameless tough guy destined to meet a bad end at the hands of an even uglier man. Without words, which Leone had limited use for anyway, the sequence announces that the film will entertain no romantic notions about the West.
Instead, Leone's Westerns deepened the shadows of '50s films by John Ford, Anthony Mann, and others to present a West where virtue never helped anyone survive. Such Westerns demanded a new kind of hero, and Leone found one in Clint Eastwood, a U.S. television star eager to pick up some extra work during the off season.
With A Fistful Of Dollars, a 1964 remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Leone and Eastwood introduced their iconic "Man With No Name," a drifter of few words who's heroic only by contrast to those around him, and who isn't above double-crossing those intent on cheating him anyway. For A Few Dollars More pairs Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef in the quest for a vicious outlaw—Eastwood for money, Van Cleef for justice. Van Cleef returns to fill out "The Bad" role in the finale of the "Dollars" trilogy, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Eli Wallach joins the mix as a boisterous, morality-free gunman who alternately partners with and competes against Eastwood and Van Cleef to find a grave filled with gold coins.
Leone's grim choice of treasure troves is no accident. Few directors have a more thrilling command of slow-building action—though Ennio Morricone's distinctive scores aid mightily—but Leone's Westerns show an increasing concern with the consequences brought about by those men and their guns. The civil war surrounding The Good makes the central quest look kind of petty.
This eight-disc set skips Once Upon A Time In The West—Leone's best film—but revives Duck, You Sucker, which teams a Falstaffian Rod Steiger with James Coburn, casting Steiger as a disillusioned Irish rebel who finds no escape in the tumult of revolution-era Mexico. A flop on its release, this direct response to the unrest of '60s Europe and the bloodbaths of fascist Italy plays like a fitting farewell to the Leone West. In the end, all he could think to do with those landscapes that claimed the innocent and the guilty alike was blow them up. Key features: Plenty of commentaries and documentaries dominated by astute Leone scholar Christopher Frayling.