Continuing my look at essential films of the golden era of Italian filmmaking (roughly the late-1950s to the early-1980s) with three from ’66: a classic of political cinema, a murder mystery without a body and the quintessential spaghetti western.
Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
A ‘how to’ guide for starting your own insurrection, Battle of Algiers was shot by Pontecorvo and his 9-man Italian crew on location in the city. This visceral docu-drama tells the story of the Algerian peoples’ struggle against French occupation and colonialism. The principle story follows Omar Ali, alias ‘Ali La Pointe’ (Brahim Haggiag), an Algerian street criminal who joins the rebel National Liberation Front (FNL). The film, an Italian-Algerian co-production, was co-written by Franco Solinas, who also worked on many other Italian political films, including Salvatore Giuliano, Hands over the City, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, A Professional Gun, Tepepa and Burn! The anthemic, elegiac score was co-composed by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. This powerful depiction of revolution and counter-revolution admirably doesn’t take sides and in 2003, during the occupation of Iraq, it was screened in the Pentagon.
Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Antonioni’s murder mystery is one of the most iconic ‘London’ films of the 1960s. Like The Ipcress File, it presents the city via the cold paranoid gaze of a fractured lens, a million miles away from ‘Swinging London’ as depicted by the popular media of the era. Photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) snaps a couple embracing in Maryon Park, Charlton, but when he develops the photos he discovers he has witnessed as murder – blow-ups of the images reveal a gunman hidden in the bushes. The interesting cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Peter Bowles, Jane Birkin and the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds. How the mystery unravels makes for riveting cinema, in this, Antonioni’s most accessible and commercially successful film.
The excellent soundtrack, featuring cues by Herbie Hancock, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Yardbirds and Tomorrow, is also available.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
The third of Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, this would today be called a threequel, though it’s actually a prequel to Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Three gunmen become entangled in a search for a $200,000 Confederate army payroll buried in a war cemetery, as the Civil War sweeps through New Mexico in 1861-62. Clint Eastwood played bounty hunter Blondy, Lee Van Cleef was hired killer ‘Angel Eyes’ and Eli Wallach was garrulous Mexican bandido Tuco Ramirez. This is the great Italian western and career highpoints for all concerned. The Spanish landscapes look beautiful, the long desert sands filling the screen with their emptiness. The cast features a rogue’s gallery of craggy-faced spaghetti western regulars including Aldo Sambrell, Benito Stefanelli, Lorenzo Robledo, Antonio Molino Rojo, Romano Puppo, Frank Braña, Al Mulock, Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega. The famous score was by Morricone and includes the towering ‘L’estasi dell’oro’ (The Ecstasy of Gold), with its soaring soprano vocal by Edda Dell’Orso, which Morricone still conducts today in his live concerts – a reprise of the composition is often used as the final encore.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is available in many versions, of varying quality and length, but the classic version is still the 154 minute international release (161 minutes in the US) which is available on DVD in the UK and US.
The Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from GDM features 21 tracks, including many that have previously remained unreleased.
Eli Wallach includes several interesting anecdotes about the film’s making in his autobiography, The Good, the Bad and Me.
The film tie-in by Joe Millard is available too.
To read more about Battle of Algiers, Blowup, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and other films discussed here, buy my book Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult.
Also, my Once Upon a Time in the Italian West includes an entire chapter devoted to the making of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.