The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)
In the same way that John Ford dominated the western as few other directors have dominated any genre, Sergio Leone has a near-monopoly on the ideal, at least, of the Spaghetti western subgenre — the latter-day, violent revisionist westerns predominantly made in Europe, Italy in particular. He wasn’t a terribly prolific director, known primarily for just five major films, but each of them was a cultural landmark that’s dominated the worldwide imagination in one field or another. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his most famous film, illustrates the problem this brings for anyone trying to analyze his movies anew: they are so much a part of film culture and film enthusiasm that practically anything one might say about them seems trite. More tellingly, the films themselves — this one above all — never suffer from this same problem. Ennio Morricone’s wondrous score and Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic handsomeness are synonomous with the very idea of a good time at the movies, but no matter how well-known and obvious they become, their initial freshness still emanates from the screen, which is why this movie has lived on and will continue to.
Though it hardly matters, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third film in a series, inheriting Eastwood’s character of The Man with No Name — here known as Blondie — from Leone’s seminal, earth-shaking Fistful of Dollars and its sequel, For a Few Dollars More. When I was in elementary school, my dad showed me all three of these films and I probably groaned and complained before settling in hypnotized. I’d never cared for westerns (did not really start to like them until around the time I initiated this blog) but for years upon years, Leone’s films were the closest I came to actively loving any of them. And truly, like North by Northwest or Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the sort of film that it’s frankly very difficult not to love, equally difficult to imagine someone not enjoying. I have no doubt there are people out there prepared to put a rest to such a wild theory, but saying that this film is one of the most deliriously fun in the annals of cinema is as close to fact as a opinion gets, I’d say.
Leone’s plotline, conceived with Luciano Vincenzoni, is a major element of its genius, simultaneously complex and engrossing but also intuitive and even elegant. It really gets its point across in the title (though the modern viewer will likely be hesitant to brand Blondie as simply “good” anything): three gunslingers, after a good bit of deceit and minor goings-on about staged arrests, Catholic missions, bathtubs and thirsty forced marches through dregs of desert, discover the existence of a fortune’s worth of gold buried in a graveyard and all battle in their distinctly amoral fashions to retrieve it. There are sidelines and tangents, but everything fits together like a puzzle, and nearly every key moment is imbued with sardonic wit and relaxed strangeness, largely thanks to the delightful idiosyncrasies in the character relationships, Tuco and Blondie and their uneasy partnership above all. The whole enterprise stretches for just about three hours, but it’s so involving that its length never matters.
Oddly enough, I had always remembered this as the least enjoyable of the three Dollars films (though only by a hair); over the years it was somewhat overshadowed for me by Leone’s next film, the stunning epic Once Upon a Time in the West, a staggeringly uncompromised film that’s not such a crowd pleaser and has far less levity but nevertheless put me under a permanent spell. Seeing the film for the first time in over a decade, I’m surprised that my memory actually served me well on the reasons why my enthusiasm, though considerable, was slightly tempered: Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef, “The Bad”) was a poorly developed character, and Blondie (Eastwood, “The Good”) wasn’t much stronger in this context; the war sequence (wherein Blondie and Tuco join up with the Union army briefly) in the last act felt redundant and overlong; the three-way climax in the cemetery, especially in comparison to the two earlier films, was somewhat disappointing.
I don’t really disagree with any of that now. Tuco (Eli Wallach, “The Ugly”) is by far the most interesting of the three leads, and Leone knew it — why else would he be given the sole moment of real catharsis, that beautiful Lavender Hill Mob – Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge graveyard orgasm? But Angel Eyes isn’t kidding when he says that Tuco has a guardian angel looking after him — Eastwood himself seems a mythical figure here, almost a ghostly presence. It’s as if “The Ugly” is the only flesh and blood creature, fighting off immaculate winds in either direction.
And I understand now why the lengthy Civil War tangents were viewed as necessary to both mood and plot, though Leone’s critiques of violence seem a tad dubious to me given, for instance, that this film’s only scene involving a female character consists of her being beaten up and slapped by a succession of men. And the three-way finale really is anticlimactic, largely because we don’t feel we really know Angel Eyes enough to find him a formidable defeat.
But I no longer had such defenses about the film on the whole. Its audaciousness and grit speak to me, as they probably do to most everyone. What makes the difference now? When I saw this before it was on an old pan & scan VHS, and viewing it properly with Techniscope vistas intact is a revelation. (I screened the shorter North American cut again but I have to imagine I wouldn’t want the film to be any longer, since it’s already a bit leisurely by design.) The intoxication and absorption is such a shot of pleasure, and Leone’s enthusiasm for his characters, story and visuals so contagious, that it seems pointless not to surrender.
Leone was a master storyteller, of course, and he’s at his gripping, episodic best here. This is still one of the most satisfying westerns I have seen, even if it’s still upstaged by Once Upon, and I much more vividly understand its pedestal now. And oh, that glorious title sequence. That score — arguably the most famous in film history, certainly the most famous outside of Hollywood or prior to the ’70s. That sense of composition and style, shot with unerring cool and beautifully expansive sense of detail by Tonino Delli Colli. To be honest, even when looking at all this very carefully I can’t tell if I’m reviewing the iconography or the movie, and eventually it doesn’t even matter. Either way, it’s an absolute — and deserved — cultural giant.