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.
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.
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 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.
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.