Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1966)

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

After the box office success of “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” Sergio Leone earned his auteur license once and for all. Originally, Leone had no intention of expanding his two films into a trilogy. However, an offer form United Artists to put up a portion of a budget and an enthusiastic screenplay pitch had the director returning to the genre. Having already pushed the western into new directions with his previous features, Leone decided to make a truly epic western. The resulting film is considered by many to be one of the best westerns ever made, if not the best. “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” is a film that cast a long shadows. Its story, characters, music, title, and themes have all become iconic.

In the waning days of the American Civil War, three men battle over a hidden treasure of gold coins. Blondie, a fair-haired bounty hunter, and Tuco, a scoundrel, end the con they’ve been running suddenly. Meanwhile, Angel Eyes, a vicious killer-for-hire, gets the scent of a stolen cache of Confederacy gold. Tuco tracks down Blondie for revenge but, after nearly killing him, also finds out about the treasure. The three men form rough alliances, betray each other, march straight into a war zone, and gun down plenty of attackers, all on their quest for gold.

The latter half of Leone’s career as a director are made up of what can best be called cinematic novels. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is the first of these. The film, in its fullest form, has a run time of 179 minutes, just a minute shy of three whole hours. This lofty run time gives the movie plenty of time to explore its ideas. It’s a lived-in world, full of details and color. It’s enough time to pack in plenty of gunslinging, humor, and a war. There are moments devoted solely to expanding on its characters. Other moments are thrown in seemingly because they’re amusing. Such as Tuco, in his bathtub, being cornered by a one-armed man. The man is out for revenge, hinting at a history between the two characters. While the attacker is monologuing, Tuco fills him full of lead, reprimanding him for talking instead of shooting. The scene contributes nothing to the plot. However, it adds so much more to the world of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Though an epic watch, the film’s length never feels unearned.

The most iconic aspect of the film is Ennio Morricone’s score. The music is synonymous with the entire western genre. It has been used in other films, TV shows, kids cartoons, and even TV commercials. Any time a situation is meant to invoke a gunslinger stand-off, Morricone’s score is frequently heard. The main theme is unmistakable. The tribal, beating drums powers the music. The high-pitch yodeling, which Morricone called “coyote howls,” are distinctive and unforgettable. Both root the movie in the western’s past. Individual instruments are linked to the main characters: a flute for Blondie, an ocarina for Angel Eyes, and a men’s choir for Tuco. The strumming guitar, which backs up the heroic theme, suggest sweeping adventure. However, Morricone’s score makes time for softer, more quiet moments. The mournful cry of a military march reappears several time. “The Ecstasy of Gold,” with its trance-like piano melody, wraps the audience up in the characters’ mad lust for riches. That Morricone’s music would become so well known is appropriate. It’s a high-water mark for movie music that hasn’t often been surpassed.

In “For a Few Dollars More,” Leone devoted the movie’s opening minutes to establishing its prime characters. He continues that tendency with the trilogy’s conclusion. The first half-hour of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is devoted to introducing the central trio. Each man gets an establishing moment. Tuco shoots three men down and burst through a window. Angel Eyes gets the information he needs and then murders the informant in cold blood. Blondie dissolves his partnership with Tuco, puckishly stranding the man in the desert. After each scene ends, the accompanying title flashes on the screen, designating the good, the bad, and the ugly in the audience’s eyes. Such a lengthy opening is another luxury afforded the film by its extra-long running time.

Eastwood’s Man with No Name being given the title of “The Good” almost seems like a cruel subversion of the expected rules of the western. Blondie, as Joe and Monco were in the previous films, is no western white hat. He’s introduced off-screen by three gun bangs. Three unsuspecting men, their backs turned, fall dead. It’s a testament to the down-beat world the film exist in that an anti-hero like Eastwood would be the Good. Yet Blondie is undoubtedly the best of the three men. Twice, he gives a dying man a cigarette. He gently pets a kitten resting in his during one scene. He usually only kills when threatened. His impish sense of humor and guile marks him as the good guy as much as his actions. Eastwood’s western hero continues to be defined as much by his cunning as his lightening fast trigger finger. Clint apparently had to be talked into coming back, with a much higher paycheck and a percentage of the gross. As such, his performance is not as razor-sharp as in the last two movies. Yet when slowly gets one over his enemies or successfully guns down an attacker, it’s still a reminder that Eastwood is the coolest man in the west.

Sergio Leone admitted that each of the three characters contained a part of his own personality. However, Eli Wallach’s Tuco was his favorite. Tuco is a bastard. He murders men throughout the movie, shooting each it best suits him. He’s a thief, stealing a self-assembled super-pistol from a gun store. He’s motivated solely by greed. Any alliances he makes are purely temporary. He’s a man only out for himself. He’s not honorable but he is likable. The pleasure he takes in turning the tables on his foes is infectiously fun. Wallach has an obscene charm in his smile. However, the character is frequently shit on by life, rightfully earning him the title of “The Ugly.” Maybe because Leone liked him so much, the film takes the time to probe Tuco’s back story. We meet his brother, a monk. We learn about his parents and his family, how he chose the life of a bandit for himself. Even when his feelings are hurt, Tuco puts on a smile. He knows the score and, if he keeps scheming, maybe someday he’ll get his due. The film would take Wallach from minor character actor to respected character actor. He would even headline a few spaghetti westerns all by himself.

That aforementioned opening is largely silent. The first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes in. This occurs when Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes interrogates a man for information about the gold. When the man gives him what he wants, and threatens to shoot him, Van Cleef guns the man down. He then shoots the man’s son and wife. Later, he shoots the man who hired him while he’s in bed. This establishes Angel Eyes as the most cruel and calculating of men. Van Cleef was so personable and likable in “For a Few Dollars More.” His character here dresses similarly but couldn’t be more different in personality. Van Cleef is a good choice for the role. His narrowing face and beady eyes ooze villainous intent. Angel Eyes has the least personality of the three men. He’s a straight-ahead mercenary, killing for money. The pleasure he gets out of the act is besides the point.

The epic scope of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is laudable enough. What makes it a truly likable film is the oddly friendly relationship between Blondie and Tuco. The two are partners in crime at first, running a unique con. However, the Good ditches the Ugly soon enough. This backfires when Tuco is pointing a pistol in his Blondie’s face. The sequence that follows, when Wallach drags Eastwood across the desert, is the film’s most darkly humorous moment. Blondie suffering under the hot desert sun isn’t funny. Tuco splashing his feet in his water or shooting holes in his canteen is. The antagonistic but oddly warm relationship is one of my favorite aspects of the film. When Tuco tries to get the information out of Blondie, the other man diffuses the situation carefully. As the two attach bombs to the legs of a bridge, they discuss the treasure further, Tuco’s vulnerability shining through while Blondie maintains his cool. Even up to the end, when Wallach has his head in a noose, Clint takes the time to perform a friendly gesture. But not too friendly.

With his fifth film, Leone’s directorial style is fully formed. One of the first images in the film is a close-up on a grizzled, hardened man’s face. It’s a motif the director returns throughout the movie. Leone contrasts the intimate landscape of a man’s face with the wider landscape of the countryside. The harsh deserts and the green vallies are shot with as wide a lens as possible. The editing is tighter and more clever then before. The camera cuts between the barrel of a gun and the barrel of a cannon. When Tuco finally reaches the cemetery, the camera spins around him, illustrating his excitement and matching the stepping excitement of Morricone’s music. Leone’s direction knows when to be intimate, when to be epic, and when to be coy. Quentin Tarantino has called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” the best directed film ever made. Well, who’s to say? But the film certainly looks amazing.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” isn’t just a western. It’s also a war film. The Civil War rages in the background at the very beginning. There are references to Yankee and Confederate forces near the start. As the characters come closer to their goal, the war comes into sharper focus. As a gun fight rages in a ghost town, cannon balls explodes around the men. By the end, the guys are right in the middle of a battlefield. At first, the men are entirely ambivalent to the horrors of war. Tuco steals uniforms off of dead men’s back. (The way that plot ends up, with a dust storm and an assumed identity, is hilarious.) Occasionally, even men as hardened as these are moved by what’s happening around them. Upon entering a church full of injured men, Tuco is stunned into silence. Upon seeing the carnage of the war zone, Blondie mutters about the loss of life. When finding two dying men, the Man with No Name takes time to respect their passing, giving one a swig of liquor and the other a cigarette. Even violent gunslingers find the gratuitous loss of life shameful.

The trio are motivated mostly by greed. Tuco and Angel Eyes are after the gold, above all else. Even Blondie, by far the most ethical of the men, is pursuing the treasure for his own gain. Through this, the theme of greed emerges. Leone drawls a none-too-subtle parallel between the greed of the men and the war effort around them. The trio selfishly search for gold. The armies battle over land. Both are shown on about the same level. There are differently manifestations of the same desire. The film because an anti-war movie of sorts, playing up the absurdity of all combat.

You know what Sergio Leone seems to like? A good torture sequence! For the third time in a row, he finds some excuse for a main character to be brutally beaten by the bad guys. In “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” he ups the ante. Tuco is beaten black and blue, his teeth punched out, his eyes gouged, his hands broken. Most of the violence in the film is relatively bloodless. Men are shot and tumble over dead without any visible blood. Yet Tuco’s beating is visceral and intensely violent. Perhaps giving the sequence a stronger edge is the music played over. Angel Eyes covers up the brutality of his action by having a band play and sing. The contrast actually makes the violence even more horrifying.

Leone recognizes how awful violence can be. He’s also not above playing action and mayhem for thrills. There’s plenty of flashing pistols and flying bullets in the movie. In “For a Few Dollars More,” the heroes worked their way through a small town of goons. The third film in the trilogy tops that sequence. Left alone in a ghost town, torn apart and ravaged by the war, Blondie and Tuco fend off Angel Eyes’ gang. There’s plenty of guys shot off railings, tumbling down to their deaths. Eastwood corner shooters, blasting them away. He alerts them with a sharp whistle, getting the drop on them. Tuco’s methods are more direct, gunning down those that get in his way. Cutting edge for the time and still riveting today, the sequence shows Leone elevating the western gun fight into some more stylized and exciting.

Surprisingly, a shot-out that good is only the appetizer to the climax’s main course. On paper, it’s a simple sequence. The trio meet again in the graveyard. The three stand around a stone circle, bringing “For a Few Dollars More” to mind again. Morricone’s music builds. The camera sharply cuts between their three faces. The audience is left wondering: Who will shoot first? Who will turn on the other? The drawn-out action builds tension while also putting the viewer in the characters’ head. This is a masterwork lesson on how to end your movie. Ultimately, Tuco is revealed to be not so bad anyway. As the extended denouncement proves, the film ends with the Good triumphing over the Bad and the Ugly still being ugly.

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” lives up to its reputation. As a western, the film morphs the genre in new and exciting directions. As an action film, it’s never less then fully riveting. As an exercise in style, it still impresses, Leone’s direction often being imitated but never topped. The score is incredible, the actors perfectly cast, and the film’s impact is still felt. Is it the greatest western ever made? You never known for sure. It’s certainly a really, really good movie. [Grade: A]

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