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Unforgiven;A Fistfull of Dollars;For a Few Dollars More;The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly;Hang 'Em High; Two Mules for Sister Sara;Joe Kidd; High Plains Drifter; The Outlaw Josey Wales; Pale Rider

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Thanks to Unforgiven (1992, Warner, R, $99.99), Clint Eastwood has been forgiven. The pop-culture tastemakers who have never accepted him as more than a sneering link between John Wayne and Sly Stallone can’t deny the conviction of this deeply discomfiting Western. Official confirmation that the Man With No Name had become the Man of the Hour arrived last March, when Unforgiven won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. But Eastwood should have won Best Actor as well for his performance as the retired killer who rides into a small town for one final bounty: Harrowed, internal, complex, his William Munny forces us to look at our heroes in a harsher light. It’s a precisely thought- out performance-even if the thinking doesn’t show-and it dovetails with the antiviolence theme that was hailed in many quarters as a refutation of the star’s bloody screen persona. That’s a load, of course: Unforgiven is culmination, not contradiction. In his nine previous Westerns as star, Eastwood rarely takes the easy way out: Between the bullets, his oaters ask hard questions about greed, heroism, and history. For instance, the pessimism that seems so harsh in Unforgiven has deep roots in the three Italian-made spaghetti Westerns that rescued Eastwood from a career in B flicks and TV in the mid-’60s. In A Fistful of Dollars (1964, MGM/ UA, unrated, $19.98), For a Few Dollars More (1965, MGM/UA, R, $19.98), and above all The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966, MGM/UA, R, $29.98), director Sergio Leone broke the conventions of the horse opera down into brutal, loony pop-art shards. Gunfighters squint at each other across endless silences, bounty hunters strike matches on the back of cowboys’ necks, Ennio Morricone’s music cackles and sobs-even the lousy dubbing heightens the surrealism. The movies are brilliant near-parodies in which the director’s constant entwining of money and death in the Old West is uncomfortably close to history. Leone mostly used Eastwood as just another element in his wide-screen iconography-all three of these movies look terrible in cropped tape versions, so watch ’em on letterboxed laserdiscs if you can. Nevertheless, this is where the star’s persona gelled: the unhurried suspiciousness, the graceful amorality, the icy stare-down. At first they worked only for Leone: hang ’em high (1968, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.98) is soggy Hollywood pasta, directed by Ted Post, that unconvincingly forces Eastwood into a white-hat deputy-sheriff role.

By the turn of the decade, with Dirty Harry, the actor had shifted his attention to action. The few Westerns he made in this period were either whimsical-he romped through Mexico with Shirley MacLaine in the affable Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, MCA/ Universal, PG, $19.98)-or thoroughly ordinary, like Joe Kidd (1972, MCA/ Universal, PG, $14.98). It wasn’t until Eastwood began to direct that he again probed the weird, dark areas of frontier myth. Essentially, the four Westerns Eastwood has directed put a human face on Leone’s mystic pessimism: His American West is increasingly rich with historical and emotional detail. high plains drifter (1973, MCA/Universal, R, $19.98) is little more than spectral spaghetti, with Clint returning from the dead to destroy the town that killed him. But The outlaw josey wales (1976, Warner, PG, $19.98) is something new: a rueful epic that traces a loner’s return to community. You can feel the stretch, but Eastwood’s storytelling remains clear and unaffected, without the muddled pretensions that dog his later work. Pale Rider (1985, Warner, R, $19.98) is mostly pretensions, albeit graced with a terrific supporting performance by Michael Moriarty. It’s a Shane clone with some High Plains Drifter mysticism thrown in, and if it shows Eastwood looking for a way out of the box of Western-movie mythology, it ultimately settles for another myth. The true way out was in David Webb Peoples’ elegant script for Unforgiven, which insists that the West was never about Heroes and Villains until tamed by audiences back East. Everything in this movie explicitly conspires against stereotypes. Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for his performance, shows how an avuncular clown like Sheriff ”Little Bill” Daggett can also be a sadistic power freak. Eastwood’s William Munny becomes less sympathetic as he rediscovers the cruelty it takes to shoot a man-and Unforgiven insists that it takes great cruelty indeed. While slow and visually dark, the film loses little oomph on the small screen: Supporting actors like Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, and Frances Fisher continually goose it forward. And there’s tremendous moral weight in the way Munny’s inarticulate anger turns in upon itself, exposing all the contradictions a man can live with. In 25 years, Eastwood’s nihilism has become as sharp as Leone’s. But his feels lived in. Unforgiven: A A Fistful of Dollars: b For a Few Dollars More: B+ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Hang ‘Em High: C- Two Mules for Sister Sara: B- Joe Kidd: C High Plains Drifter: B The Outlaw Josey Wales: A- Pale Rider: C+