Directed by Sergio Leone
Released 23 December 1966 (Italy)
When Blondie (aka the Good) first arrives on screen in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, he guns down three bounty hunters whose only crime was to get there first. It is not a particularly good action, but hey, it’s a western right?
The good guy shoots the bad guy and that’s the right thing to do.
Okay, so how about then using this bounty (the titular Ugly) to scam a town into giving him the fee, only to free the convicted before he can be executed, so he can split the pot with him and take him on to another town to hand him in again and pull the same stunt?
Well, you know, he’s just so much smarter than everyone else, it’s a victimless crime, he’s not doing anyone any harm…
So, when the Ugly starts complaining about the working arrangement, and the Good simply takes him out into the desert, 70 miles from civilisation, and dumps him, is that good?
You get the idea, but in fairness, this is no typical Hollywood western, and it is a mistake to bring the same expectations with you.
This epic spaghetti-western, directed by Sergio Leone, and featuring a star-making turn from legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood, is next up on my Classically Lacking list.
As always, the idea is to decide whether a so-called-classic is still worth our time in 2019.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly follows Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in the respective, titular roles, in a journey across the American southwest to find buried Confederate treasure, against the backdrop of the Civil War. It is a slow burning western adventure, more caked in blood and dust than it’s American produced counterparts, and, importantly, many times more thoughtful. It works not only as an epic blockbuster, but as a thoughtful exploration of morality. By combining these two elements, the film becomes elevated, and is no doubt deserving of it’s classic status.
To get to the heart of what makes it so damn good, we’ll start the same way that Leone does, with:
We open on a ghostly settlement. Figures emerge on the horizon. We cut in close, very close, then out again, so the figures are little more than tiny shadows. A man waits on one side of the town, two others wait opposite. What are they doing? Are they here to kill each other? They begin to close in, at a glacial pace. The tension mounts. They converge on a saloon door, and it becomes clear that they are working together. They rush through the door and are met with a volley of gunfire, and a man, revolver in one hand, leg of turkey in the other, bursts through the window in a clatter of glass shards. Freeze frame. THE UGLY – the movie tells us.
Eli Wallach, the unfortunate Ugly, is an absolute scene stealer, spitting and shouting and sputtering his way through the world, completely embodying Tuco’s hand to mouth attitude.
It is worth remembering that this is an Italian picture, and Il Brutto does not necessarily relate to looks in the same way English speakers may relate to the word ugly. Sure, Tuco isn’t much of a looker, but the titular ugliness is more about his chaotic personality. He kills and lies and lives a kind of chaotic existence. He is not cruel, or vindictive, but he is ultimately selfish.
But does that not make him Bad?
Well, in Leone’s west, it’s all relative.
Angel Eyes, the Bad, played by Lee Van Cleef, embodies evil like the devil. He operates within his own code of ethics and kills with impunity. When we are introduced to him, he is riding out to find information about Confederate gold, a treasure that will eventually bring the titular trio together.
He stands in the doorway to the home of an injured Confederate soldier and his family. The soldier looks on him solemnly and says nothing. His wife and children back away. Angel Eyes waits. Once again, Leone cuts between the far away and the too close for comfort, forgoing any middle ground. Angel Eyes waits. There is dreadful, lingering silence. The movie is ten minutes old before we get a line of dialogue. The technique has not aged a day. I would be thrilled to see something as perfectly measured as this scene in the cinema today.
As the Ugly says later: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” It’s advice Leone takes to heart, and we can be thankful for that. Cinema is primarily a visual medium. It is no fun to have a character sit down and talk you through the ins and outs of plot, but it is also no fun to be completely baffled. Here, although his camera rarely goes there, the ideal middle ground is found. Leone tells you all you need to know, but rarely with words. It is told in the ominous way Angel Eyes is framed, it is told in the way Lee Van Cleef holds himself, the way he smiles and the way his eyes cut through the camera. It is told in the silence that weighs so heavily over the scene. You don’t need words.
The audience knows something terrible is about to happen.
By the time we reach THE BAD freeze frame, we know who we’re dealing with. So why does Leone disrupt the immersion of the viewer to literally slap a label on these three characters, when elsewhere he prefers to take a less obtuse approach?
When we read THE UGLY, THE BAD, and THE GOOD, it sets certain expectations in our minds as to what we can expect from these characters. Over the course of the film, Leone plays with these expectations, enforcing them in some instances, shattering them in others.
It is only when the titular trio come together at a Union prison camp, of which Angel Eyes is a sergeant in de facto control, that we see the true evil of the Bad.
A band of Confederate prisoners of war are forced to play music to cover up the violent interrogation that Angel Eyes, and his goon Wallace, perform on Tuco, in an attempt to find out his half of the secret location of the gold. It is clear this is a regular occurrence. The fiddle player breaks down in tears. In a world stricken by war and banditry we are shown that badness doesn’t end, or even really begin, with killing. The worth of human life has been diminished so that every character on show is a killer, but in the Bad we see cruelty and heartlessness embodied. He takes away the freedom of men, takes advantage of their defeat, forces them into his schemes, and this is shown to be far worse than any killing.
It is a distinction that is hard to make – the difference between a killer and a truly cruel man – but Leone forges such a harsh world that these degrees become important. The Ugly, relative to the Bad, is, well, not-so-bad.
But there is one more piece to the puzzle.
Typical Hollywood heroes may be killers, but they kill cleanly, and they only kill the clearly defined bad guys. They are honest. They aren’t scammers, as Blondie is shown to be. His freeze frame comes as he abandons Tuco in the desert at the end of their scheme, so what is so Good about him? This freeze frame ensures that the audience knows that this world is not of heroes in white, villains in black. Morality here is different. Good, if it can exist in any sense, can only exist in relation to the world which it inhabits, and this world is bloody and cruel.
In Leone’s world, goodness is little more than an offered cigarillo, or a comforting word. A bottle of whiskey. A sip of water.
When they reach the front of the war and witness a battle, Blondie becomes aware of the wastefulness of war. The battle is epic, with hundreds of extras streaming across a battlefield into a bottleneck bridge. Cannon fire clatters, smoke obscures the screen, the rattle of rifle rounds ring loud, but Leone frames the fray from so far away, with the camera zoomed in, offering only a grainy, vague image of war. Nameless, faceless men die alone and sputtering on the barren earth. It is futile, and Blondie sees it, just as we do.
He destroys the contested bridge, justifying to Tuco that it helps them on their way to the cemetery, and certainly it does, but it also fulfils the dying wish of a friendly, but permanently inebriated Union Captain, to stop the worthless battle.
The action saves, according to the Captain, thousands of lives.
After the battle he finds a young, dying soldier in a ruined church. Blondie covers him with a coat, and offers him a smoke, and waits with him as he passes. It is about as much of a gesture as a man like Blondie can offer. In this grim western world, this is what good looks like. There are no fixed moral boundaries, a bad man can do good things, as much as he can do cruel things. In the end, in Leone’s world, morality is only defined by action, and through his actions Blondie is rightfully defined as the Good.
It all ends with one of the greatest cinematic scenes in history. It takes the most basic cinematic language: cinematography, editing, and music, and forms a moment of unbearable tension. For those not in the know, the film ends in a Mexican stand-off between the three titular characters, and to ramp the tension Leone cuts rapidly between the three faces that we have come to know so well through the three-hour epic, cutting in closer with each switch, until we see only their eyes, and it boils over to the firing point.
Since the point of these reviews/analyses is to offer a recommendation, I will say no more on the ending although I could probably ramble on about it for days.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the kind of film where it is difficult to imagine how it could be better. Everything from the performances, to the camera work, to the score, just works. It builds and builds into a beautiful crescendo, and when it finally reaches that peak it does not disappoint.
Verdict: A must watch. It is as worthy of your time as any other work of art. As a moral exploration it is fascinating, as a meditative character study it is intriguing, as an epic movie watching experience, it is simply a thrill. It is funny, it is violent, it is memorable. It is a three hour movie, but it is not long. Watch it.