I usually don't participate, but this one was irresistible -- because there is one film that forever altered my understanding of the human face in cinema; one film that forever changed the function and importance and language of the closeup for this (then teenage) viewer; one film --
Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo/The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966; US release December 29, 1967, so I saw it in the fateful year of 1968, the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey and so much more) transformed what movies were, are and could be.
From it's opening shot, in which a desolate western landscape was suddenly eclipsed by Albert Mulock's face, without a cut (Mulock loomed up into the frame from below, left, placing him between the viewer and the blistering vista), Leone's masterpiece literally transmuted landscape into face, face into landscape, as no previous film or filmmaker ever had.
Was there ever a western hero -- excuse me, anti-hero; the "good" moniker is pointedly ironic in the context of Leone's moral universe -- who filled the screen the way Clint Eastwood did? To my impressionable 13-year-old eyes, there wasn't, and to my 52-year-old eyes, there hasn't been a contender since.
Before Eastwood's Blondie (The Man With No Name, named at last, though he was of course dubbed "Joe" by the undertaker in A Fistful of Dollars) dominated the film, the first iconic face -- moving with unnerving feline grace from full-figure framing in a darkened doorway, stepping into that door frame and locking-and-loading the convoluted tale with his first interrogation (over a noisy meal of beans) of a very nervous fellow about one "Bill Carson" -- was none other than the man who shot The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Lee Van Cleef.
Since that monster movie had been the first powerful movie experience of my childhood, my earliest movie memory, Van Cleef was already hard-wired into my brain. Seen in this new context (though I'd seen Van Cleef in many westerns as a boy, those had been experienced on TV -- and he'd never been engraved on my retina in the way Leone was doing so here), synapses fired and exploded in my head.
This lean face, hawk-like nose and narrowed eyes were those of human raptor: "The Bad" indeed. I can hear the Ennio Morricone guitar riff in my head whenever I recall this image:
But greatest of all, my all-time favorite character in any film from any era, was and remains Eli Wallach as Tuco, "The Ugly." If Blondie was what we wished we could be in a dog-eat-dog world, Tuco is what we know ourselves to be. He is everything we fear we appear to be, and know in our hearts we are, however hard we try to transcend this sweaty shell of meat we're locked into. Tuco is appetite, hunger, need, desire, avarice, greed, passion, impulse, that which drives us all, a survivor above all, scraping out whatever he can from the dirt and stupidity of others. Tuco is a ruthlessly Catholic vision of man -- Tuco crosses himself constantly, though he wallows in the mud and dust far from whatever image of God he harbors.
I fell in love with Tuco, this feral mirror image of myself and every man I've ever known, and the love is undimmed from then to now, the fans flamed whenever I re-experience this most magnificent of all westerns.
I could go on and on, but there's really nothing more to say. Leone says it all in the film -- see it, for the first time (oh, how I envy those of you in that place of cinematic virginity!) or again and again and again, as I have and do and will this week.
There's nothing more to say, ah, but to show -- I must to share the final images of Leone's cast of characters, their final closeups. Morricone's blessed score -- amplifying the bird-call I once heard in New Mexico, outside of Cerillos, a cry I laughed aloud at in recognition -- shrieks anew in my head: