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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 4K

by Glenn Erickson Jun 12, 2021

It’s still one of the most popular movies ever, and fans are proving that by shelling out for an umpteenth home video release, this time on the 4K Ultra HD format. Everybody knows exactly what to expect from Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, but what about the transfer quality and encoding — Sergio Leone’s film was originally shot in the half-frame Techniscope format, which is on the low-res side to scan in 4K. Kino adds a Blu-ray disc and a mountain of accumulated extras from earlier editions.


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 162 min. / Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo / Street Date April 27, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, Enzo Petito, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Al Mulock, Antonio Molino Rojo, Mario Brega, Chelo Alonso, Ricardo Palacios.
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Production Designer, Costume design: Carlo Simi
Film Editor: Eugenio Alabiso, Nino Baragli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone story by Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
Directed by
Sergio Leone

You can’t argue with success — the #1 home video disc being sold on Amazon.com right now is not a Blu-ray, but an Ultra HD disc. That sounds a little chilling for the Blu-ray business: how many 4K-equipped consumers are out there?  The primacy of the extremely popular The Good, The Bad and The Ugly impressed me decades ago at MGM/UA Home Video, when I caught a peek at an internal memo that placed Sergio Leone’s movie as the label’s number one seller on VHS.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly needs no introductions anywhere, and it doesn’t need review publicity to sell. A little article I wrote on it in 1998 for the original MGM Video Savant website received tens of thousands of hits, which I don’t attribute to my involvement. Now that GBU is so well known, written up and analyzed by Sir Christopher Frayling and adjudged by Quentin Tarantino to be the ‘best directed movie ever,’ it isn’t like a disc fan (or anyone) needs the movie ‘explained’ to them. And I’m not the right person for that job, anyway — I’m an admirer of Sergio Leone but not a worshipful fan; I see him as a great filmmaker but he’s not a nostalgic favorite. I think my appreciation of his westerns grew more from the music of Ennio Morricone than enthusiasm for Clint Eastwood or the cynical storylines. When I saw GBU new in 1968 my particular teenage bias held a not-flattering-to-me belief in Hollywood-centric production values. To me the American release of GBU suffered from a thin, tinny soundtrack. The gunshots sounded like machine noises heard over a telephone. I recognized the same voices from sword ‘n’ sandal pictures, and they weren’t always in sync. And finally (get your rotten tomatoes ready) in 1968 I preferred the top-40 Hugo Montenegro cover version of the title tune to Ennio Morricone’s original. My signed confession is on file with the Feds.

By the time I was asked to contribute ideas at MGM/UA Home Video I was a confirmed fan to the Dollars films, converted by the first letterboxed laserdiscs. I’m sure others would have had the same idea, but I first proposed the creation of a new English-language ‘extended’ version of GBU, bringing Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood back in to record dialogue for scenes removed for our domestic release version. The idea was to add a new best-selling product to the company’s catalog. By the time the project finally got going I had been gone from the company for four years.

I only have two observations to make about the 2003 extended version ‘revision’ of GBU, which was finished on film. It really came to pass because most of the bills were paid by American Movie Classics, AMC cable. They wanted the longest version possible, which motivated MGM’s John Kirk to put in everything he could find that was of good quality. An extended ‘Tuco Torture’ scene didn’t make the grade because the only film elements were damaged, or of poor general quality. A new scene in an underground grotto featured Eli Wallach and was in good condition. It was in the premiere cut but never in any released version of the movie. Including it necessitated borrowing music from elsewhere in the soundtrack, and that meant making editorial revision decisions that second-guessed Leone.

AMC also stipulated that the new extended version had to be in full 5.1 stereophonic sound. Had the requirement simply been for 2-channel stereo, the film’s sound effects may have stayed the same. But 5.1 surround usually mandated low-frequency effects, which at a minimum meant augmenting the movie’s gunshots. The two or three infinitely-duplicated gunshot sounds would never sound reasonable in a stereophonic environment. And to make the new scenes ‘fit,’ the audio specialists altered some music cues. The revised and remixed audio would make enemies of many of the Leone Faithful, the dedicated fans that knew the pictures forward and back.

I still like the long extended version, as it is closer to what Leone envisioned. A couple of its scenes are much-missed favorites. Eastwood’s ‘counting bullets’ campsite scene is a winner, and Lee Van Cleef’s visit to the fort-turned hospital is a beauty both for direction and the Ennio Morricone music cue. The added scenes give us more of a notion that there’s a war going on. They also even out the characterizations: even the reprehensible Angel Eyes is moved by the misery of the war wounded. In the extended version, it’s not quite so much of a shock when we arrive at that enormous battlefield, that somehow transplants The Battle of the Somme into West Texas in 1864.

Leone had carved out a career in the cutthroat Italian film industry, where nice guys didn’t last any longer than Spaghetti western bad guys. Fistful of Dollars can be described as plagiarism plain and simple; he’s lucky that Toho and Kurosawa didn’t demand that the negative be burned. Leone’s cynical, winner-take-all would seem to reflect the Rome moviemaking environment. All three of GBU’s adventurers are crooked, murdering opportunists. Their excuse is that they’re trying to get ahead in a corrupt, morally conflicted world, which definitely describes most of Europe during the slow recovery from WW2.


Basic Situational Ruthlessness.

The model of behavior is Basic Situational Ruthlessness, as modeled for Leone in the most influential western of the 1950s, Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, which is also about freebooting opportunists looking to make big money in the confusion of a civil war. Blondie and Tuco trade off sneaky double-crosses exactly as do Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. I would think that the original point (and joke) of the ‘good, bad and ugly’ title is that the assigned labels for our three main characters are meaningless. Only points of personal style differentiate Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco from one another. When the original U.S. version was reconfigured, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ were swapped between Angel Eyes and Tuco, without ruining the characterizations.

It’s easy to find accolades for GBU.   Morricone’s music works better here than in any other Leone picture; it’s tightly scored and steers our emotions in every scene. From this point forward Leone would seemingly edit his films to fit Morricone’s music, putting Il Maestro before the horse, so to speak. The three distinct main characters are beautifully played. Eastwood has a commanding authority, Van Cleef gives the show everything he’s got, and Wallach’s contribution elevates the general level of acting. The brother-to-brother scene with Luigi Pistilli deepens Tuco’s character — although still a rat, he’s the most endearing of the three. The U.S. cut is a solid construction that expends its first half-hour just for character introductions.

Sergio Leone’s premiere screening of Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo was a smash late in 1966; America didn’t see it for over a year, when it was launched with a killer United Artists advertising deluge based on the James Bond campaigns. On San Bernardino’s KMEN 129 radio station, I remember listening to a terrific audio plug for GBU … just before hearing a news bulletin that Martin Luther King had been shot. The two things still feel connected.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray of  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly would seem to be the perfect package for the 4K enthusiast — unlike some 4K releases, a standard Blu-ray is also included with a downconversion of the clean new transfer. Collectors in love with the movie but not quite ready to buy a 4K setup can purchase and enjoy.

Kino did an online poll asking fans which version of the film they wanted to see in 4K. The U.S. cut won in a landslide. Actually, this is the first time the true original U.S. cut has been released on Blu-ray. Kino’s previous Blu-ray release included a cut-down version that was meant to represent the U.S. version. Fans were quick to point out small differences here and there, especially when the U.S. version had an alternate shot, or simply a shot held slightly longer than in the International Cut. So for this release Kino listened to the fans and made the fixes for a fully accurate representation of the U.S. cut.

Say goodbye to yellow faces and green skies, as the color balance on the new transfer does not reproduce the ‘Ritrovata Jaundice’ look of the 2014 restoration. Who knows, perhaps Italian Technicolor prints were indeed those colors?  My personal memory is that the original U.S. print I saw looked like standard Technicolor work — warm, rich colors, especially in those ruddy skin tones.

CineSavant quasi-technical evaluation: What does it look like?

The presentation begins with an original United Artists / Transamerica logo. Almost immediately we are struck with a new look for GBU. The colors are pleasing in general. Some scenes look on the cold side. On standard settings the contrast seems very high, with blacks crushed — on my LG 65″ set backlit riders are almost silhouettes, and when already-dark figures walk through shadows, they just blend with the existing black. This is unlike the normal Ultra- HD image, which extends the contrast range, allowing us to see gradation in black areas. True, when I switch my picture setting to ‘sports’ I see more detail in the blacks, but not much. I think the blacks may have been thickened to avoid milkiness and extra grain, which comes through now and then. 4K HD is so crisp that the image sometimes has a video-ish look, especially with the picture looking this clean. Yet we still see plenty of what I identify as film grain, so the image doesn’t look too slick or over processed.

This is taking into account the fact that GBU was shot in Techniscope. You can see actual comparisons of half-frame Techniscope 35 and squeezed Anamorphic 35 side-by-side in a sync block in the Reconstruction of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly featurette. The original negative is half the size of a normal 35mm frame, not much larger than two 16mm frames side by side. You’d think there wouldn’t be enough image information there to fully utilize a 4K scan. But the fine film images laid down by Tonino Delli Colli’s camera team looked great even when optically enlarged. The image sharpness is still quite good, even if it comes nowhere near that of a new movie shot in full resolution.

It is my understanding that once again Kino began with a Ritrovata video master that had already been color-timed for yellowish color values, with greenish skies. Thus Kino takes advantage of thousands of hours of digital repair, stabilization and clean-up, but their own color efforts are limited. Some color values seem suppressed, and some scenes now look cool and overcast instead of sunny and hot. The somewhat crushed blacks can be distracting as well.

That’s my subjective, non-expert evaluation. I still watched the show happily all the way through and enjoyed it. The extra sharpness and stability are a big plus. The original non-futzed English audio is bright and clear — even when the mix cuts off gunshot ‘decays’ before they fall silent.

The extras are spread across two discs. All the older MGM extras have been ported over, that will fit the standard running time of the show. The original Richard Schickel audio commentary only goes with the extended version, so is not present. That’s not a big loss but we also must do without Sir Christopher Frayling’s authoritative commentary, which regrettably also just won’t fit. Compensating is a new fact-heavy track by Tim Lucas, whose expertise and ease with Italian films comes to the fore. Lucas goes into practically every single creative contributor to GBU, explaining their role rather than just launching into a stack of credits. In the first ten minutes he’s relating Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes to Judex and suggesting that the slight stiffness in Van Cleef’s stride might be to suggest an injury that’s exempted Angel Eyes from military service. With audio commentaries it’s too easy for a comment track to parrot the same 101 known facts — in this case, more like 3001 known facts. Tim has a lot of time to fill yet strives to introduce original thought.

Tim has the exact Spanish location for every scene nailed down, and he gives a more complicated account of the premature detonation of the bridge than I’d heard before. Tim’s notes for the Morricone soundtrack — when certain instruments and voices are heard — are very welcome too.

The 4K disc also carries the added footage from the 2005 DVD as a separate extra, in what to me looks like full Ultra HD definition. We’re given the scenes from the standard Italian cut (deleted and extended), the grotto scene and various altered transitions here and there.

The Lucas commentary is also on the Blu-ray disc, which contains the bulk of the archival extras, especially the extensive MGM extra featurettes. They were produced back when added value packages for library titles merited sizable budgets, with decent fees for their creators. Personally speaking, I lost my enthusiasm when the studios expected wondrous extras but no longer wanted to pay for them. Producer Michael Arick was able to interview several key GBU contributors. He flew to New York to interview Eli Wallach (who took the subway to his session) and then to San Francisco to connect with producer Alberto Grimaldi and writer Sergio Donati. Both communicated well in English.

I got to spend an afternoon with the colorful (and how) Mickey Knox, an engaging raconteur one could easily imagine charming his way to the status of ‘The King of Rome.’ Knox told the raw truth about Sergio Leone while simultaneously communicating the director’s genius and likability. By chance I had helped a documentary producer edit a piece about the Civil War Sibley campaign, and was able to cut it down to its basics for inclusion on the disc.

The old NTSC featurettes are some of our best work. I especially like The Leone Style, which intercuts Eastwood and Wallach laughing as they relate the experience of working on a Spanish movie set, where safety isn’t given a high priority. Even when hunkered down quite a ways from the exploding bridge, impressively dangerous-looking projectiles barely miss those stand-ins for Wallach and Eastwood.

The feature clips on the older featurettes also provide a comparison, color and contrast-wise, with this new encoding of GBU.

I’m still proud of the enthusiast-experts that I enlisted to insure the accuracy of those MGM featurettes. Collector extraordinaire Don Bruce has passed away, but Leone authority Tom B. (I don’t see him using his full name online now) has remained a friendly contact. I can still recommend Tom’s former-newsletter-now-a-blog Westerns All’Italia. I was also happy to meet collector Howard Fridkin, and see some of his prodigious collection of Leone and Italo-western ‘paper.’ Ulrich Angersbach contributed expertise as well; I think he provided the continuity for the lost Socorro sequence featurette, which is on the disc but not listed with Kino’s extras. Jim Wynorski generously let us photograph his perfect-quality European posters. The ‘Leone Group’ firmed up my friendship with Lee Broughton, Bill Shaffer and Ulrich Bruckner, and have been doing projects with them ever since. I was able to secure Mr. Eastwood’s autograph for them … the star was in a great mood for our interview, I think because he’d just received some good news about his latest movie.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (English-language only.)
Supplements (from Kino Lorber)
4K:
Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas; Deleted Scenes (UHD 17:58); Extended Scenes (UHD 7:29); Alternate Transitions (UHD 00:58)
Blu-ray:
Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas; Leone’s West: Making of Documentary; Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly featurette Part 1; Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly featurette Part 2; The Leone Style: On Sergio Leone; The Man Who Lost the Civil War; Reconstruction of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Extended Cut); Deleted Scenes; Vignettes Uno, Due, Tre; Italian Lunch; New York Accent; Gun In Holster; The Optical Flip; Trailers from Hell with Ernest Dickerson; On the Set Image Gallery; Promotional Image Gallery; Trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 9, 2021
(6517gbu)
CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.