HOLLYWOOD – In our new series ‘The Making of…’ we go behind the scenes, using previously unseen letters, diaries and documents, of a major motion picture landmark of cinema. This week The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Sergio Leone had always wanted to make a film about a treasure hunt. Growing up in Mussolini’s Italy, treasure hunts were actually banned by the Black Shirts, as were blue shirts, yellow shirts and salmon pink trousers. So following the success of his first two ‘Dollar’ films, Leone brushed off an old idea he had been toying with for years. Three rogues during the American Civil War all go in search of an evasive wagon of gold. He provisionally entitled it Il Magro, Il Grasso, Il Marito, which translates as The Thin, the Fat and the Husband. He wrote to Dario Argento, a young film critic at the time and wannabe film director, and explained his idea:
The idea of my western is the purest concept I have come up with, now that I’ve run out of Akira Kurosawa films to copy. I’ve based it on an old Italian folktale my grandmother used to tell me. The thin man is always alert and wily, but the fat man is more charming and gregarious and everyone helps him, but the married man is the best because wherever he goes his wife follows him shrieking loudly. It is going to be very funny. Claudia Cardinale will play the wife I’m sure. Or Sophia Loren!
Despite his initial wish for Claudia Cardinale to play the married man’s wife, the role proved so difficult to to cast that the script was changed and the film retitled Il Magro, Il Grasso, Il Scapolo: The Thin, The Fat and the Bachelor. Thoughts turned to Clint Eastwood who – although his relationship with the Italian director was difficult – was still keen to make one last contracted film. Leone wrote to his American star:
Clint, I have a lovely role for you. It is perfect. You will get to wear that hat you like. You know the cowboy one! Yes, I knew that would bring a cheeky smile to that cheeky face. The role is Il Grasso, he is a gunfighter, but his real love is blueberry pies. Oh, he eats so many. The audience will see a whole new side to you, but listen you must put on some weight. I would say quite a few kilo. Fifty at least.
Clint responded cautiously:
I read the script and it is a good one. I’m just not sure about my character. May I suggest that instead of being fat he is relatively slender. And instead of being garrulous, he is a man of few words. And instead of eating pies, he squints and shoots people. remember when you wanted me to wear that frogman’s suit in Fistful of Dollars, you remember telling me ‘A Poncho!? That’s ridiculous!’ but who was right in the end. Trust me on this.
Now called Il Magro, Il Buono, Il Brutto (The Thin, The Good and The Ugly), the filmmakers moved to Franco’s Spain which would stand in for the US West. Eli Wallach, who had never worked with Leone before, was cast as The Magro. He wrote home to his mother:
Spain is nice. Hot as you’d expect this time of year. Clint is very quiet. A fitness nut, but you know. Nice. The film looks like being a bit of disaster. I’m clowning around as best I can but frankly I don’t understand the script, I don’t understand the direction, the story. Lee Van Cleef is here playing the Thin. I swear to God it’s a stupid film. Yesterday, Sergio made us stand around in a cemetery all day while he filmed our fingers and then the bridges of our noses! Europeans!
With the film complete all that remained was to add the score and overdub the dialogue. Clint told Roger Ebert in his documentary Clint and Sergio:
Sergio didn’t speak English and I spoke no Italian. And the script was often a mess. We knew roughly the scenes, but he didn’t have the dialogue properly translated or translated so badly that it was meaningless. So Sergio would just get us to count up to a number out loud. You count to 7 Clint, now Lee you count to 5, now Clint to 3 and so on. Then we’d overdub with actual words.
Ennio Morricone had completed the score early but the last touches were required the iconic ‘AIIIIAIAIA’ that would begin the score and the film. This was provided accidentally by the Maestro himself when he closed the piano lid on his own fingers. The sound of his shriek of pain had been inadvertently recorded and by looping it and manipulating it electronically Morricone added a strange and comic vibe to the film.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was released in 1966.
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