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In June of 2010 MGM finally released the first two Sergio Leone "Dollars" films on Blu-ray, but only in a three-pack with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (GBU). Now, fourteen months later they are available separately. Except for one new extra each, these Clint Eastwood westerns are content-wise the same as the copies on the 2007 Sergio Leone DVD boxed set Special Edition, which also included Duck You Sucker. Since I've pretty well covered these entertaining westerns in the earlier Savant reviews, I'll discuss their impact in Blu-ray.
Sergio Leone's westerns have never stopped making a lot of money; During the VHS era I remember seeing a list of the top selling MGM titles, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was either first or second. I've seen or possessed VHS tapes, several incarnations of laserdiscs and two full generations of DVD releases of the first three Leone-Eastwoods, and observed how the quality of the home video image improved over time. Until the last DVD Special Editions, A Fistful of Dollars bore a terrible English soundtrack; attempts to equalize Eastwood's softer dialogue brought out a loud 60-cycle hum. Not until those same DVD Special Editions did MGM's Technical Services department get the go-ahead to improve its film source materials, with the cooperation of the Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi. That resulted in better masters for For a Few and GBU. Fistful is owned by other producers, and on that title MGM has had to stick with older printing elements. That is why even the Special Edition of A Fistful of Dollars showed a noticeable density pulsing in some shots. The Special Edition also provided an opportunity to correct the entire soundtrack of For a Few Dollars More, which on the first MGM DVD was almost a full second out of synch.
Leone home video fandom has cooled at least a little bit from the excitement I saw from about 1995 to 2007 or so; I remember the original "MGM Video Savant" website getting a go-ahead from marketing because my first article on the Italian-only scenes in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly received so many hits. Many of these fans had done professional-quality research and were incensed that MGM's copies of the films didn't always have extra scene bits they'd viewed (or heard about) in European versions. MGM possessed scraps of extra footage and altered-version footage for the first releases of Fistful and Few; but I don't think they've ever received longer foreign material, like what has been described as a grim-funny dinner scene between the Baxters and the Rojos.
MGM has shown good faith in trying to do the best work possible. They reconstructed For a Few Dollars More from the Techniscope original, creating a new 35mm anamorphic version with today's improved optics. The only real setback has been with some of the audio remixing work for stereo on a couple of the Leone titles.
The new Blu-ray of A Fistful of Dollars is a big improvement over the DVD Special edition. I didn't see the old pulsing flaw, which was very strong in the sky area of the first gun-down scene. Patches of the film also bore some kind of residue that showed up as faint yellow blotches, again most visible in light areas of the frame. I didn't see that flaw either.
What is more noticeable on all of the Leone Blu-rays is a slight increase in granularity, that was previously obscured by the lower resolution of standard DVD. Now the films definitely look grainy. Bright day scenes of course seem less affected than dark night scenes, where an occasional extra-dark shot almost looks as if it had been "pushed" in processing. I fear that fans will see this as a flaw, as more than one web remark has stated that the films didn't look so grainy in theaters when new. That's true, and it's because they were printed in Technicolor. That non-photographic print manufacturing process yields a denser image. Blacks show almost no grain at all, while a general softness obscures the grain. It's the same effect that hides tiny flaws in sets or the wires used for old special effects. It needs to be remembered that the Techniscope original camera negative is basically a pair of 16mm frames side by side -- a drastic reduction in image area. Leone's cinematographers obtained beautiful images with this camera system, but it wasn't perfect. 1
I've also read online that the framing on the new A Fistful of Dollars is tighter than the image on some foreign discs. That would be something to note. I haven't seen this for myself.
The colors seem to have been boosted. Sometimes the effect can be a bit dodgy. When Joe and the old man climb the hill to watch the gun smugglers, the green grass is an exaggerated, bright lime green color that looks inappropriate for a desert. But other scenes are much improved, especially inside the Rojo and Baxter houses. The wood veneers are no longer a uniform wine-reddish brown. Finally, earlier Fistful of Dollars prints were riddled with all kinds of emulsion damage: scratches, digs, various problems here and there. Dust specks are present but many of the defects have vanished. If you want to check out what the 2007 master looked like, just look at the film clips used in the featurettes.
For a Few Dollars More always looked much better, not only in film quality but because the cinematographer had more time to light and compose his scenes. This is the first show where Leone really dragged out the running time in search of his own relaxed pace, and that means many more portrait shots of his gunfighter heroes, and longer close-ups of the interesting faces of his stock company of cowboy players. This is the show that I saw the restoration company Triage reconstructing from scratch. The sharp new 4-perf images may look the best of all four UA releases (I'm skipping Once Upon a Time in the West here, as it's a Paramount picture). The resolution of Blu-ray does indeed bring out more granularity in the image. It's a trade-off of sorts: the Special Edition DVD appears to have less grain but it's also softer, less well defined and the overall contrast and color values aren't as good.
MGM Home Entertainment & Fox's Blu-rays of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More contain all of the extras from the 2007 DVD Special Editions, listed below. New to Blu-ray are a pair of 'show and tell' featurettes (HD) in which Sir Christopher Frayling breaks out his collection of Leone advertising paper (and record albums) for the video camera. Frayling has pretty much everything when it comes to Leone posters, including rare examples from North Africa and Serbia. He clearly enjoys tracing the various artwork styles into different markets, where different actors are given featured billing according to their nationality. He also explains the major shift in advertising that occurred when United Artists gave the first two films a big boost, rechristening "Joe" and "Manco" as "The Man with No Name" for American audiences.
As Frayling is not an archivist, poster enthusiasts may be shocked to see him casually draping vintage collector posters, some of which aren't all that sturdy, over sofas and picking them up while trying to give an entertaining lecture at the same time. Museum curators are advised to steel themselves.
The older featurettes, first seen in 2007 but edited in 2004, are shown in Standard def and look slightly softer. The securing of Clint Eastwood was a major coup for the disc producer, who also pulled in producer Grimaldi and screenwriter Sergio Donati, as well as actor/dubbing director Mickey Knox, an untapped fountain of knowledge about Italian filmmaking of this time. Causing quite a stir in 2007 was the re-premiere of the original network TV prologue cobbled together by director Monte Hellman. The prologue was rescued from oblivion by faithful Leone fan Howard Fridkin, who taped the 1977 broadcast on a brand-new Betamax VCR.
All I can say is that I hope MGM eventually gets around to releasing a Blu-ray of Leone's Duck You Sucker, my personal favorite of his films. Of course, it's the least successful and least popular... choosing such films seems to be my personal modus operandi.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Fistful of Dollars Blu-ray rates:
1. So why then, did Sergio Leone continue to use Techniscope all the way through Duck You Sucker, on productions that could certainly afford the cost of CinemaScope or Panavision and all the film Leone could shoot? There are lots of reasons, starting with lighter cameras, fewer magazine reloads to hold up shooting, and a 50% savings on film. The Technicolor lab in Rome did beautiful, precise Techniscope work. I think that Leone shot in Techniscope because he wanted to fill his films with tight, choker close-ups. Most cameramen would rather shoot with spherical, flat lenses.
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T'was Ever Thus.