A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Lee Van Cleef born, 1925
On this day in 1925, Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr was born, in New Jersey, USA.
Best known for his portrayal of baddies, Van Cleef served on submarine chasers in the Second World War before becoming a time and motion man after the war ended.
Not looking enough like a traditional penpusher to satisfy his colleagues, Lee was persuaded by them, and his friends, to give the stage and film world the benefit of his hawk nose and eyes, each of which was a different colour, thanks to the heterochromia iridium mutation.
Van Cleef’s career hit a high note early on when he was cast in 1952’s High Noon (he was taught to ride horses by Ron Howard’s father, Rance), after which he would regularly play black hats in a variety of film and TV offerings, generally of decreasing quality. Whether this was down to poor choices, or Cleef’s serious drinking is moot, but by the time Sergio Leone came looking for him (Lee Marvin having turned Leone down) for A Few Dollars More, Van Cleef had become a carpenter/decorator and occasional artist; his face wasn’t even listed in the actors’ directories.
Leone cast him again in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Van Cleef cashed in with a run of back-to-back productions that paid him handsomely. Once again the quality began to slide, though Van Cleef could always be relied on to deliver a “fresh from hell” performance, the distinctive eyes burning with intelligence and passion.
His last great role came in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, in 1981, as the appropriately named Hauk (hawk, geddit?), with Kurt Russell deliberately aping Clint Eastwood as the badass Snake Plissken in what is essentially a futuristic western.
After which another slide. He died in 1989, aged only 64. Who knows what great role might have come along in another few years, and then again a few years after that.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, dir: Sergio Leone)
As I write this, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the number 5 film on the IMDb’s top 250 list. Not bad for a western, hardly the hippest of genres right now.
It’s one of Sergio Leone’s best remembered spaghetti westerns, thanks in no small part to its title, and the fact that it refers to its three leads – the good being Clint Eastwood, the bad being Lee Van Cleef, the ugly being Eli Wallach.
Actually, the good/bad, relative righteousness of those first two is partly what the film is about (but Wallach, we can all agree, is the Ugly). Told in great big operatic slabs, with faces treated in close-up as if they were something out of Monument Valley, it’s all about three men hunting for a vast amount of Civil War gold against the backdrop of a war that’s sputtering out. Each of the three men needs the other two to stay alive to find the gold – each has a fragment of the location – but once all three are in the cemetery where the gold is hidden, the power dynamic shifts, and we are treated to one of the most gloriously drawn out Mexican stand-offs in cinema history, a sequence of narrowed eyes, sweat, stubble and one of Ennio Morricone’s most recognisable soundtracks.
This remarkable score, which spent a year on the Billboard charts, comprises standard western fare (orchestra, choir), plus Morricone’s usual unusual instrumentation (ocarina, twangy guitar, jew’s harp) along with yodelling, shouting, whistling and gunshots. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the last of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. As far as Leone was concerned this was the last western he was ever going to make (he was strongarmed into Once Upon a Time in the West). So he’s going full tilt, especially towards the end, telling a story in pictures and sounds, using few words (the incessant babbling of Eli Wallach’s Tuco delivers very little information).
And the message? Greed, guns, they don’t mix.
- One of the greatest westerns ever made
- One of Ennio Morricone’s greatest soundtracks
- Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful deep focus cinematography
- The typical Leone long, dialogue-free opening sequence
© Steve Morrissey 2014