Sergio Leone’s Civil War gunslinger epic is everybody’s favorite western, and most everybody has a bone to pick regarding problems with the previous DVDs and Blu-rays. The good news is that Kino’s 50th Anniversary Special Edition takes giant leaps in correcting older audio issues . . . but the bad news . . .
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
2-Disc 50th Anniversary Special Edition
KL Studio Classics
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Techniscope) / 187 161, 148 min. / Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il cattivo/ Street Date August 14, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Al Mulock, Aldo Sambrell.
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Production Designer: 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
I’d like to report that the new Kino restoration of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ‘got it right’ finally, but the film still lacks a definitive version (in English) on disc. Despite good intentions and some excellent audio restoration work by MGM, the picture quality has taken one giant step backwards. I know a number of individuals in the underground fan network of Leone enthusiasts that know the pictures extremely well, probably better than most of the restoration experts. I wonder what they’ll have to say about the new disc.
My evaluation of the new Blu-ray begins below. I’m not really going to review the content of Leone’s movie as I’ve done that at least three times before — and readers are surely here to find out if the new disc is worth an investment. To explain how GBU got to where it is now, one must go back to
the 2003 MGM Extended Version restoration.
MGM’s 2003 film restoration, recreating the longer Italian preview cut in an English-language version, is still the best GBU has ever looked. With producer Alberto Grimaldi’s help, MGM accessed the film’s original half-frame Techniscope negative and rebuilt a new 35mm anamorphic master for the film, painstakingly matching each shot. Improved optics pulled a much sharper image from what are essentially two 16mm frames side by side. The theatrical prints were a big improvement over even the Technicolor originals from the 1968 U.S. release.
As I later learned from that experts that helped me research the extras for MGM’s DVD special editions, MGM’s 2003 extended version radically revised the audio track, solving problems by ‘reinterpreting’ both music and sound effects. In addition to extending GBU to the longer Italian cut and re-voicing the lost English dialogue, the contract with sponsor AMC cable channel mandated that the ‘new’ film be mixed in stereo. That turned out to be a slippery slope when the sound house contracted to do the job discovered that the Music and Effects tracks on file did not always match what was on the movie’s composite track. Not only that, a comparison of English and Italian original mono tracks revealed multiple instances of different music choices.
When dropping in replacement stereo music for Ennio Morricone’s score proved difficult, cues were mixed and matched as the audio editors saw fit. As one might imagine, the more dynamic music then made the old iconic gunshot and cannon sound effects sound thin. The audio vendor beefed them up with additional new sound effects. When the show was done, conscientious fans sent me lists of places where the new music and sound effects bore no resemblance to any of the older mixes, American or European. The extended version is certainly attractive and entertaining, but in terms of film history it is a problematic revision.
Was extending the American cut a good idea?
Producer Alberto Grimaldi and MGM liked the idea of creating a new, marketable home video item. In addition to the new scenes from the Italian cut, Grimaldi also wanted to include a four-minute scene that had never been screened for the public, a ‘grotto’ scene in which Tuco recruits three bandits to help him ambush Blondie. Sergio Leone’s widow had already shown this scene on a talk show on Italian RAI TV; I saw the appearance on a VHS loaned me by Ernie Farino.
Far away from Italy, the MGM restoration people slowly became aware of a disagreement regarding the artistic control of Leone’s films. The Leone family would have preferred to exercise more control over Sergio’s movie legacy. They didn’t want the grotto scene reinstated, because it had not been in the film’s premiere version back in 1966. Producer Grimaldi explained that he had been the one to insist on its removal just before the premiere, over Leone’s objections. As the owner of the picture Grimaldi had the final say.
Are the added scenes of the extended edition really necessary? I think they provide some extra humor and variety. It’s not necessary to learn how Tuco obtained his henchmen, or how exactly Angel Eyes’ gang joined him on the trail. But I believe that Angel Eyes’ visit to the ruined fort to gain information is a major addition. Its visuals and music express the sadness of the war, adding depth to Lee Van Cleef’s character and enlarging the scope of Leone’s themes.
Although a case can be made for leaving out the grotto scene, I would argue that the long Italian cut best represents Leone’s intentions for GBU. He may have had a hand in the cut-down for the American release version but others had to supervise the dubbing because of the director’s poor grasp of English. United Artists supervised the revisions, and the quality of their final audio mix is nowhere near as good as the excellent, tasteful Italian track. If one wants to call Leone an artist instead of a maker of ‘spaghetti westerns,’ restoring his movies to their full original lengths is a good thing — both the Italian and American versions.
At its full length GBU plays like a grand epic. One detail that I think MGM missed was not emulating the 3-hour premiere version’s two-part structure. Right around Blondie’s recovery in the monastery is a hard fade-out and fade in; that’s where an intermission once belonged. It would have been enjoyable to see that re-created on video, giving viewers a natural snack, bathroom and discussion break. Sam Peckinpah’s personal road show print of his The Wild Bunch is an international version with a full intermission with music, and it was only 145 minutes long. But even the Italians working on the 2014 4K restoration were not interested in reinstating the Intermission card.
Sergio Leone’s most popular picture features Ennio Morricone’s most recognized score and perhaps Clint Eastwood’s most iconic screen character. The story of Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes was already part of our cultural mythology before pundits like Christopher Frayling declared it great art and college boys embraced the binary cult of Leone/Morricone. We fathers helped some too: I remember taking my rather young boys to a screening of Once Upon a Time in The West, where they sat in rapt attention for three hours flat. When I was at MGM The Good, The Bad and The Ugly had already been released innumerable times on VHS and laserdisc, and was about to explode into DVD. An executive let me see a ‘classified’ list of the company’s best home video sellers. GBU was near the top and was definitely the top-selling library title. TV couldn’t screen it often enough — in Los Angeles everybody knew KCOP’s innumerable airings, with voiceover announcer Ernie Anderson intoning the title, somehow making ‘Ugly’ into a four syllable word.
If Millennials can still find time in their busy lifestyles for movies, ever- younger audiences will continue to discover this show. Leone’s visuals are as stylized as those of any graphic novel or anime, and the characters played by Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef have taken on much more resonance. Leone and composer Ennio Morricone elevate many sequences to a kind of operatic grandeur, evoking emotions unexplored by American westerns of the time.
For that reason, detailing the film’s plot or explaining how the characters function seems totally unnecessary; I think I went fairly deep into that in older reviews of the ‘dollars’ films, fifteen years ago. Readers of this review will be more interested an honest evaluation of the new disc’s quality.
The KL Studio Classics 50th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly revisits the classic Leone picture for the umpteenth time. It is such an important title that one would think MGM would keep it in-house, but there really isn’t an MGM Home Video any more. Ten years after MGM’s extended version, a new 4K restoration was performed by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy. Fox, as MGM’s current home video distributor, issued the new restoration on Blu-ray in 2014. Kino Lorber has made some mistakes but the main problem is that its new disc is sourced from this same Italian restoration. For some unfathomable reason, the Italian consultant Sergio Salvati decided that the way GBU has looked for fifty years, in non-fading Technicolor prints, mind you, is wrong. His color timing rendered the whole movie in a sickly shade of yellow. Not a little yellow, a LOT. Many fans have disputed this by showing frame grabs of old prints that don’t look anything like the 4K restoration. But that’s what went out on the 2014 Fox disc and what was turned over to Kino Lorber.
The Good, The Bad and The Jaundiced.
Fans have been puzzled by the ‘giallo GBU’ for over a year now, as soon as frame comparisons showed up on the web. The hubbub was almost as loud as the protests by horror fans that decry Hammer Films’ preposterous re-coloring of their Chris Lee and Peter Cushing classics to remove the old bright Technicolor hues. Kino apparently agreed with the fans that the yellow cast was ugly. They’ve responded by adjusting their GBU away from the yellow grading.
Unfortunately, the end result is a little disappointing. There’s really no work-around to avoid another expensive full color grading pass from the original raw scans, which would have necessitated re-doing all the picture restoration of removing dirt, scratches, etc.. Kino didn’t have that kind of a budget. It looks as if, just prior to the encode, they used some overall setting to simply dial down the yellow. The transfer we see now is okay, but compared to MGM’s 2009 disc it has weak color and low contrast. Blacks are not black and the whole image is washed out. It may only seem marginally dull until one pulls out the 2009 MGM Blu-ray transfer and compares its far richer images. Of course the new Kino disc is still engaging, as GBU would look good if it were in B&W. But it is a big step backward (sideways?) in picture quality.
That’s a shame, for MGM and Kino have really come through on the audio. The 50th Anniversary set contains two full encodings of the movie, the extended cut and an approximation of the original 1968 American re-cut (fans have pointed out many small but relevant differences). Stereo tracks (and an Italian track) are present, along with a mono track restored by MGM and Deluxe from the original mono elements. Put together by MGM’s restoration people, it first appeared on a second pressing of the 2014 Fox disc. The new mono track seems to have mostly pleased the purists that had been angered back in 2003. That disc announced a mono track, but it turned out to be a fold-down of the revised multi-channel mix, sound effect augmentations and all.
The new disc carries three commentaries. Along with the 2003 Richard Schickel commentary that I personally never liked, there’s the Sir Christopher Frayling lecture track that my producer recorded in 2004, at the same time that we did extras for the other two Dollars film and Duck You Sucker. MGM did not originally snub Frayling, and neither did he refuse to record, as claimed by some web sources. My producer and Frayling volunteered the track as a freebie, just so it would be available when MGM returned to the title.
The older DVD video extras repeated for this special edition are a disaster, plain and simple. MGM and Fox have already repeated all of these old NTSC featurettes — Leone’s West, The Leone Style, etc. — on previous Blu-rays, so good conversion masters should already exist. Unfortunately, Kino has done what it does all too often — the 30-frame NTSC DVD content has been mastered to 24-frame Blu-ray without doing a proper frame rate conversion. This means that the older video extras from 2003 now play in nigh-unwatchable ‘chatter-vision.’ It’s the whole package, including the older scan of the uncut Italo ‘Tuco torture’ sequence, the reconstruction of the cut Socorro sequence, etc.. This is unforgivable, and not just because many of these extras are things that I spent weeks editing.
Kino has also laid on some new extras. Critic Tim Lucas has given the American cut of GBU his full attention. As can be expected, Tim’s take is slightly different from that of the average academic; he comes up with interesting anecdotes about the filming personnel, as well as his own, often- creative interpretations of Leone’s distinctive directing style. Two hours and forty minutes are difficult to fill, so I imagine that the commentary script Lucas prepared must be the size of a book.
A couple more welcome new items are present. An additional film extra is yet another silent lift from Tuco’s forced march of Blondie through the sand dunes, discovered by L’Immagine Ritrovata during the 2014 restoration. Blondie falls down another tall sand hill, apparently with the object of retrieving a human bone he might use as a weapon. It does have one good close-up of Eastwood’s convincing parched-face makeup job. As this is new and mastered in HD, it looks fine. A shorter new item is a ‘flip’ optical transition between two Tuco scenes. I clearly remember director Jim Wynorski pointing out its absence to us back when he graciously allowed MGM’s art department to scan some of his beautiful GBU posters. It has been re-inserted into the American cut, but not the extended version.
I’ll be listening to the parts of the Tim Lucas commentary that I missed, but Kino’s new disc, sad to say, will be joining a full shelf of earlier flawed DVDs and Blu-rays of this favorite. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a difficult title to do correctly because so many alternate versions of the movie were prepared. If the fans are picky and unforgiving, it is with good reason. I believe that Kino acted in good faith when it went to considerable expense to de-yellow the ‘jaundiced’ restoration provided MGM by the Italians. MGM’s restoration department was largely out of the loop, with the exception of their mono audio recreation from several years back.
I see no date yet set, but Kino has listed Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars as a future title. The restored version of that ought to be very desirable, as MGM’s old copies were all from fairly substandard elements missing small bits here and there. I attended one check print screening in which the soundtrack had a distinct buzz — that’s all UA had been given. So we have something great to look forward to.
Please note that the images illustrating this article are literally whatever could be found on the web and don’t represent any particular transfer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent (revised stereo and original mono English track; extra Italo track for extended version
Supplements: New commentary with Tim Lucas, older commentaries with Sir Christopher Frayling (2004) and Richard Shickel (2003); featurettes and interview pieces from 2003, deleted scenes, animated image gallery,
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in Keep case
Reviewed: August 8, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson