Just as bewildering as the many versions of the film that have seen the light of day over the years, MGM's long-awaited BD edition is bound to cause some head-scratching and consternation with its hit-and-miss quality, and is possibly going to win the dubious honour of perpetuating the dissatisfaction of fans still further. For it has to be said that, even with this new incarnation ... we still await a release of the film where we can deem the picture quality to be definitive.
Stoking controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, this transfer certainly had a lot riding on it and, although I certainly do not concur with the “usual” naysayers on certain other sites, I cannot deny that I am a little disappointed with this restored 1080p MPEG-4 image.
DNR has been applied, folks - and, yes, it has been overdone ... at times. Whilst I, along with many other reviewers, were blown away by Fox's BD of Patton, it became clear very swiftly that we had fallen for those retina-scorching colours and that profound clarity without clocking the fact that the image had also been robbed of much of its original detail. As I became more educated in both the use and the recognition of the noise reduction process with regards to more and more releases that came along, and how it can often go too far, I also became quite a firm believer that, despite the, ahem, patented “waxiness” of the over-treated image, the resulting picture quality was still, by and large, better than anything else available to us on home video. Often substantially so. Take Zulu, for instance. Many slated its BD transfer, whilst I, and a large proportion of others, actually found the image to be remarkably impressive despite the presence of DNR and edge enhancement.
So, with all this in mind, let's take a good long look at Leone's classic as it appears on this BD.
Grain has not been completely removed, folks. But its appearance is haphazard, at best. It is difficult to assess the ratio of grain-intact, grain-removed screen-time owing to the completely random nature of what you will see on this transfer. Some landscape shots have it, whilst others do not. Some close-ups have it, whilst many more don't. The overall effect of this isn't very pleasing and there is a definite sense of something missing in the image's integrity from time to time. The remastered Techniscope print that was created for the 2002 reissue was never going to look jaw-dropping in conventional hi-def terms, but the reasons for this are, typically, myriad. But whilst there is a degree of bland facial texture during much of the film, there is also a hefty dose of pretty revealing detail as well.
I like the three-dimensional quality of the image. Leone's masterful framing simply begs to viewed on the biggest screen possible and there are a vast number of shots that look not only fantastically composed, but have elegant depth to them on this BD release. The Mexican villa that Sentenza enters near the start offers lots of visual retreats - with Cleef standing in a doorway that seems like a mile away from us and shots of the woman running down lengthy corridors when she hears the gunshots adding impressive interior magnitude. Whilst a lot of the bright desert exteriors suffer from distant edge enhancement and a degree of blurred horizons - compounded by the frequently blooming white clouds in the sky - it is these interiors and the more subdued images that benefit most from the greater depth. However there are great shots of the camera tracking down the barrel of Blondie's Winchester as he aims at the rope holding his “new” partner, Shorty, and a couple of direct-at-us gun-pokes that really do seem to project from the screen. The entrenchments and the massive number of extras during the bridge-battle sequence also provide a very sumptuous display of image depth that, despite any other misgivings, certainly helps to bring new and vibrant life to TGTBATU.
The film has an earthy palette - dusty, brown, yellow and ochre-stained - but it looks more vivid on BD than I have seen it before. Blood is especially bright, in that typically gaudy Italian style - just look at poor Tuco's shattered mouth during his beating - and clothing shades are more robust. The yellow stripe against the blue of the Union uniforms is also more pronounced, though the veil of dust still shrouds most moments in the company of the army. There is more of a natural veneer to the wooden buildings, the wagons and the saddles. More hues are revealed in the added cave-grotto sequence - greens and blues seem more readily apparent. Skin-tones are good considering that the sheer variety of them on offer go right across the board - brown and leathery, pink and blotchy, sallow and ill, warm and ruddy. Contrast is certainly decent enough ... it is certainly no worse than I have seen it before and any inconsistency stems from the original film, I'm sure. Blacks are solid and much less prone to the wavering depths of earlier versions. Interior shadows are good and there is nice delineation in the shadows thrown out by buildings and trains etc.
Detail is better than it is on any SD disc. Period. But not by a great deal, so don't expect revelations. In fact, in many cases - when comparing this image to that of the R2 Special Edition - the increase in clarity is marginal to say the least. But, where it counts - faces, wrinkles, whiskers, eyes, stubble, clothing texture, guns, gold and gravestones - this transfer will not let you down. From the glint in Tuco's silver fang to the beads of sweat on Sentenza's brow, from the pale blue clarity of a dying soldier's eyes to the wispy smoke trailing from his lips after a last cigarillo, and from the coarseness of the noose around Tuco's neck to the blistering, peeling skin on Blondie's face after his scorching trek through the desert - there are definitely times when you know and appreciate the improvements made here. Just don't expect miracles.
Edge-enhancement still hovers about, with bright haloes seen around heads, hats and shoulders frequently. But whilst it is still annoying to see it on some of the more symbolic and iconic silhouettes and poses, I seriously think that it has been toned down compared to previous transfers. What doesn't help this is the often glaring background sunlight, which can seem to accentuate it.
Print-wise, there is still some damage in evidence. We get some flecks now and again, the odd stray hair on the lens and a little bit of judder, but the most noticeable effects are to be found in the 2002 restored sequences. Angel Eyes entering the ruined fort has some degree of mottling against the sky and the scene of Blondie and Tuco riding the wagon through a desert track strewn with dead bodies has some yellow tinged flashes. There are even a couple of shots during the start of Tuco's desert torture of Blondie that have the really curious effect of bristling with noise over in the far right of the image - like some alien infestation sweeping down from the sky and over the sandy ridge - whilst the rest of the picture looks clean and free from it. Well, cleaner and free-er, I should say. There is also some slight shimmering at the start of the scene when Tuco meets up with his old gang in the cave grotto.
Thus, with all this considered, the Dollars capper appears to live up to its title. It certainly has moments of Good, elements of Bad, and, inevitably, pockets of downright Ugly. Is it a decent upgrade from the SD Special Edition, though? Well, hand on my heart - yes. It is.
Oh dear, oh dear ... there's bound to be some complaints about the revamped audio, as well, as the lossless mix is as haphazard as the image.
Having lambasted many a vintage release equipped with profoundly bogus surround mixes - take a bow Anchor Bay and Blue Underground - I am more than aware of the complexities and difficulties in attempting to bring an older sound design into a more vibrant environment for today's hi-def market. But the broadening-out of TGTBATU with its DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix doesn't do itself any favours with its less-than-convincing rear activity, un-natural steerage and quite clunky stereo spread.
Voices heard from an off-camera position sound appallingly dislocated and the atmosphere of the scene is consistently let-down by such audio anomalies. This happens too many times to count and, even once we have made allowances for the dubbing, this can't help but distract. Those big, chunky gunshots and trademarked ricochets - even off sand (!) - have also been altered. They still have that unique Spaghetti sound, but in an attempt to make them slightly more realistic, they have lost that adorable avant-garde richness and gritty echo, now sounding a little too clean and polished. In an effort to create more of an active soundfield, there have even been gunshots and effects added to help balance out the extension of the mix to the rears, but I don't think that the film has a natural sweep at all. Which is a shame.
But what does work is the clarity and full-flowing passion afforded to Morricone's score. Now, rightly or wrongly, this comes through with added vigour and much more thickly spread resonance. Edda Dell'Orso's keening vocals really do soar and that immaculate man-made coyote-howl of the main theme sounds quite terrific. Does the score match the film with this new strength? Well, I'm a massive fan of the music and, even being objective about its placement within the mix, I have to say that its presentation in the lossless track was quite enjoyable.
But, there are other fine elements besides the score, though. Effects-wise, the rumble of the train and the copious explosions have a lot more oomph and weight to them. The bridge-blowing is very enjoyable and provides the sub with some meat to bite into. Another big blast, when the shell lands in the middle of the street between Sentenza's men and Tuco and Blondie, is presented with gusto. Footsteps on boardwalks and jangling spurs have been lifted to a more prominent position within the scheme of things, and the creaking of the horse-drawn mill at the Mexican villa packs more groaning density. So, at least, the lossless track savours the really big stuff.
The disc also includes a 2-channel mono track that only partially redresses the balance because it, too, sounds overly clean, processed and spruced. Like the DTS-HD MA, it is shorn of all hiss, crackle and pop - its vintage pedigree virtually eradicated. And, bizarrely, after what I've just been saying about it, I actually preferred the enhanced life and power of the 5.1 mix! That'll be down to Morricone's music and those buffeting explosions, I suppose.
At least here, MGM's release gets it right. Employing the well-armed posse of extras that adorned the Special Edition SD from a few years ago, and even bringing along an entirely new member to the gang - the wonderful, one-man, one voice movie education that is Sir Christopher Frayling's outstanding commentary track.
Although Eastwood biographer and film writer Richard Schickel's now familiar commentary is good value, packed with detail and anecdote, the real gold in this purloined casket is the chat we have with the renowned Sir Christopher Frayling on his separate, and new, track. Erudite, charming, amusing and possessed of more knowledge of Leone and these films than you or I will gain, the cultural academic is on nothing short of spectacular form here, as he discusses what is clearly one of his most cherished movies. What makes his commentary so compelling and endlessly enjoyable is the fact that he has not only interviewed everyone involved with the Dollars Trilogy that he possibly could, but that he has also been to most of the sets and locations that were utilised, and this all-encompassing understanding of time, place, methodology, fact and trivia surrounding Leone - he is also the man's biographer - is bolted onto simply fascinating insight and opinion that no other movie commentator or documentarian, that I've heard or seen, can exemplify in quite the same way. Never running out of steam, never losing track or forgetting even the merest detail, Sir Chris actually increases your appreciation of the film as well as your knowledge. Plus, you really get the impression of him sitting and watching the film right alongside you, which completely eradicates that often tedious and dry lecturing that such authorities can bring. One fascinating idea among many that he puts forward is that the final shoot-out is the very first example of the pop-video - as it was all set, filmed, directed and edited to Morricone's score. You see just influential this movie is, eh?
Leone's West: Making-of Documentary is a terrific retrospective that brings together Eastwood, Wallach, producer Alberto Grimaldo, Schickel and Frayling to discuss the genesis, production and impact of the great director's vision. Anecdotes aplenty and high reverence mixed with humour and insight make this is thoroughly engaging, informative and enjoyable.
The Leone-style: On Sergio Leone has the usual suspects from the previous featurette discussing the great director and telling of their experiences under his ever-present enthusiasm. Wallach talks about his near decapitation by the train and of accidentally swigging from a bottle of acid. Eastwood laughs about the mistimed bridge-blowing and how Leone had first wanted his two stars to be an awful lot closer to the explosion whilst he, himself, would manning a camera half a mile away. It is more good stuff that is merely broken off from the first feature and given its own title.
The Man Who Lost The Civil War tells us about the actual campaign in the Texas region that took place during the conflict and forms the backdrop for the movie. Cut down from a longer documentary, this is reasonably good stuff. We hear about the ill-fated General Sibley campaign and the focus then shifts to how Sergio Leone interpreted the events and embellished them in his own inimitable way for the film. Although, as with all of his films, there is a lot of attention paid to detail, particularly regarding weaponry, Leone was not completely accurate in terms of exactly when such things would have been around. The large mortar mounted on the back of the Union locomotive transporting Tuco, for instance, is perfectly in-keeping with the armaments of the period, even down to the wooden housing that protects it - but the nerdy niggle is that during this time there were no railroads in the region.
Reconstructing The Good, The Bad And The Ugly tells us about how John Kirk from MGM and Paul Ruben from Triage went about restoring the film back in 2002. Along the way, we learn about the Techniscope process and just why the obsolete format is so difficult to work with these days. With the movie's producer Alberto Grimaldi and Eli Wallach on hand to discuss the reinstating of the missing scenes, we get an idea of why and how it was all accomplished. As well as explaining why it was important to finally get the film back into as good-looking and as complete a form as possible, Kirk also confesses why he felt the need to boost the audio track from quaint old mono to the fuller-sounding width of 5.1. Now, it is important to note that this little feature is concerned with the theatrical restoration of the movie and not its transfer to high-definition.
There are two Deleted Scenes. The first is the original and extended version of “Tuco's Torture” at the hands and feet of Mario Brega in the prison stockade. Damage to the negative had meant that the scene had been recut for all versions a long time ago - although the British censor had chopped out more of it on the film's initial release. The second is for the fabled Socorro Sequence that should come before the cool montage of Tuco trailing Blondie by finding his used cigar-buts, which is shown here in the form of a photo and text reconstruction. Even though it was ultimately dropped from the film prior to its premier, this is the sequence from which shots still exist in the French theatrical trailer - which, quite nicely, is presented on the disc, as well.
Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly has the film music writer and documentarian John Burlingame providing an overview of what the composer brought to the picture. He remarks on how Leone and Morricone insisted that the final shoot-out was filmed to the accompaniment of the score, yet Wallach and Eastwood have no recollection of any music being played at the time. He gives a brief, praise-worthy account of Morricone's highly unusual style - the choral elements mixed with wild ethnic sounds, nature-emulating effects and warped instrumentation - and testifies that no matter how imitated this distinctive music may be, no-one can ever come close to matching its truly epic class and conceptual rarity.
Plus we get the original and French Theatrical Trailers. The lengthy French one is the very trailer, folks, that contains some footage of the lost Socorro Sequence. Plus, we get to see some familiar shots from different angles, or different takes, making this quite an interesting little historical snippet.
Overall, this is an excellent package. Okay, so we don't the original, unmolested edition of the movie - which could have seamlessly branched or even on another disc - or any PiP features, BD-Live or what-have-you, but what you get is good, back-to-basics fact, trivia and tale from those who really know what they are talking about. And, you know what, even if this release only contained Frayling's commentary, I would still recommend it!
With such an unparalleled classic, both of genre and of Cinema, it is frustrating to have to mark it down in terms of AV quality. But, let's be honest, this is precisely what it all boils down to as I doubt, quite sincerely, that there are many people reading this who haven't already got a copy of the film, and who aren't simply looking to upgrade it in terms of picture and sound as opposed to just obtaining their first ever edition of the film on disc. But, all things taken into account, the film does look better than on any SD disc that has come before. Digital tinkering has taken place, yet it is not as bad as many detractors have claimed. But the lack of an original cut of the movie also means that you are stuck with an extended version that you may or may not like. Personally speaking, I love this longer cut. It is definitely the closest we'll get to Leone's definitive cut, and certainly harks back to the print that played for its original Rome premier on December 24th 1966.
The saddlebag-full of bonus material is simply excellent and all that a fan could wish for, but it is the film, itself that demands to be put on your shelf and cherished. Leone was never better, or more outrageous than here, leading Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco on this violent, hyper-stylised odyssey of greed, betrayal and poisoned alliances. A truly mesmerising movie, folks - from start to finish a riot of image and emotion, and one of the purest marriages of story, direction, cinematography, music and performance.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly has a transfer that embodies all three of those components, but is definitely still a worthy upgrade from any previous version on disc.
Epic. Bold. Beautiful. All together now - ayi-ayi-ahhhhh ... wah-wah-wahhhhhhh!
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