Last night, after a long day’s work I decided to treat myself to a indulgent evening in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly– an old favourite I hadn’t watched in years. In fact, the last time I watched it was on video, an old VHS tape that has long since gone to the goodwill; I had it on DVD now, digitally remastered and in what was described as a Special Edition of the movie.
This turned out to be what they call the Director’s Cut, and included fourteen minutes of scenes that were originally left on the cutting room floor. It was made in 2002 with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach coming back to dub the voices for their characters more than 35 years after the original; a voice actor came in to do the voice of the late Lee Van Cleef. I was curious to see how this was going to work, and curious too to see new scenes in a movie I had watched and enjoyed so many times in the past.
But not any more. I never made it through. An hour into the movie I turned it off, my enjoyment thoroughly killed. Why do they do it? Wreck a perfectly good – indeed, great – cinema classic by adding in scenes that were (rightly) seen as superfluous at the time. In this case, from what I have since read, it wasn’t even an indulgence to the director, since Sergio Leone was apparently quite content with the editing of the original version in 1966. More is not always better. Especially in a epic whose running time was already 177 minutes.
The first time I saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was in the winter of 1972 when I was fourteen and the movie appeared on TV. My brother and I thought it was a hoot, and loved its darkly comic elements – most especially those provided by Tuco. Now, of course the version of the movie that originally entertained us on our black-and-white Zenith TV had scenes cut from it for reasons of length and delicacy. Indeed, until I saw the movie in all its glory on the big screen at the art house cinema in college four years later, I’d always believed Angel Eyes killed Baker by smothering him with a pillow – which is where the censors ended that particular scene in the TV version: with the pillow descending on Baker’s face. I remember being flabbergasted when I watched the full-length version and learned that after placing the pillow over the bedridden Baker’s face, Angel Eyes then pulls a revolver and shoots five times through the pillow. I mean, I knew Angel Eyes was bad, but I hadn’t known he was thatbad! But of course what I was seeing in college was the movie as Sergio Leone had intended people to see it, not the expurgated version for family TV viewing.
The new scenes however added nothing but length. They jarred, but not in the eye-popping way of discovering how Angel Eyes reallykills Baker. These merely annoyed. In the forty-six years since I first watched the movie, not once have I ever wondered how or from where Tuco enlisted the three henchmen who accompany him to the hotel where he hopes to kill Blondie; he just does. I was happy to be swept along by the pace of the movie and just accept that he’s rounded up three more bandits from the pool of bandits he undoubtedly knows and got them to come along. Neither was I curious to know why Angel Eyes happened to be a guard at that ghastly Union Army prisoner-of-war camp; he just was. To the extent that I gave it any thought, I would have assumed he had managed to place himself there as a means of trying to track down the elusive Bill Carson.
The added footage spent tedious minutes revealing these things and others in side trips that were irrelevant and served only to break the flow of the story. The dubbing, by actors whose voices had aged thirty five years, or in the case of Lee Van Cleef, a different voice altogether added to my dislike of these additional scenes. Hearing the older Eli Wallach speak as Tuco sounded like Jimmy Durante doing a bad impersonation of Eli Wallach. Indeed, of the three, the voice actor who stood in for Lee Van Cleef was the most convincing.
An hour down the track, in a scene in which Tuco is rasping out his lines as though he had suddenly come down with laryngitis, I’d had enough. I reached for the remote. Later I looked to see if the original version of the movie was still available, but apparently it is not. Too many years have passed; the special edition is now the received edition. And so The Good, The Bad and The Ugly joins Star Wars (Greedo doesn’t shoot first, no way!) as tampered-with favourites that I’ll probably never watch again.