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With a Limited Grasp of English, Sergio Leone Kept the Script Secondary

GoodBadUgly_sized.jpgThere’s a certain staid formula for Westerns: Good versus bad. Cowboys versus Indians. Sheriffs versus outlaws. You get the idea. Even when the film serves as a vehicle for ideas about violence, alienation or ethnicity (The Searchers or High Noon), some Westerns feel stodgy and stilted, particularly those shot in studio backlots.

In contrast, Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti Westerns have a fresh feel based in visual storytelling. You can credit the director’s combination of incredibly wide shots filmed on location with tight close-ups to build tension while developing character without much dialogue. His 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is so stylistically compelling that at times it feels downright avant garde.

That’s because Leone allows body language, long gazes and fancy camera work to do the heavy lifting usually reserved for dialogue. Near the end of the film, when one character runs around a cemetery searching for a particular headstone, the way the scene periodically dissolves into an abstract blur of motion and color, you’d think you were watching something out of Blowup or a similarly artsy film.

At the same time, Leone kept it internal, turning Clint Eastwood into the ultimate silent stranger over the course of three movies: A Fistful of Dollars , For a Few Dollars More , and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Some of that tight-lipped persona was no doubt the result of Leone’s limited grasp of English. Some of it’s because Eastwood refused to dub in line changes after filming, instead sticking to original lines. And even though the collaboration between the two ended unhappily, Leone’s influence on Eastwood’s later work as an actor and director — specializing in taciturn and conflicted anti-heroes — remains undisputable.
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