The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone
Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef
Approved (original); M (re-rated, 1969); R (re-rated, 1989)
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One of the most iconic westerns in film history, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is a tense, exciting adventure set during the United States Civil War.
Clint Eastwood plays “The Good”, a man only referred to as Blondie who partners with wanted men to bilk small frontier towns out of reward money before freeing his quarries and splitting the money. One of the film’s earliest scenes introduces this ignoble series of actions as he shares the reward with his partner Tuco (Eli Wallach) who takes the title’s moniker of “The Ugly”. His is the first scene of the film as he faces a collection of bounty hunters eager to take him in, but each end up dead in their attempt. These two are eventually pursued by “The Evil” Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef) who believes they may know the location of a massive treasure of Confederate coins buried by a ne’er-do-well soldier.
There is a careful dance between these characters that isn’t so easily defined. The first half of the film has Blondie and Tuco alternating positions of power as their complex relationship devolves into revenge motives. After Blondie cuts Tuco off and abandons him in the middle of the desert, Tuco vows to find Blondie and make him pay for his selfish act. When he eventually catches up, he almost gets the drop on Blondie, but finds himself holding nothing only to later come across Blondie again and proceed to torture him on their long trek across the desert. Near the half-way point of the film, they come across the eye-patch-wearing soldier who shares the name of the graveyard with Tuco and the name on the tombstone with Blondie, which results in a reversal of power and forces them to work together for the treasure.
Sergio Leone defined what has become known as the Spaghetti Western with his prior Eastwood collaborations A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Although this would be the final film they worked on together, it was an amazing one. Eastwood is calm and level-headed through much of the film contrasting easily with Wallach’s excitable Tuco and Van Cleef’s calculating Sentenza. Their performances are each equally memorable and so successfully integrated that you couldn’t remove one without diminishing the impact of the others.
Leone’s film is more heavily stylized than most of the genre’s prior and future works. It’s limited color palate creates a measure of intense realism while its opening title sequence and slick editing create an utherworldly charm. This further enhanced by the iconic work of Ennio Morricone whose memorable score for the film is one of the most significant and important in film history. It seems utterly ill-fitting the genre, but there isn’t a scene where its use doesn’t feel completely justified. It’s the perfect symbiosis of film and sound paired seamlessly.
The film was a clear influence on later filmmakers who took its brazen twist on tradition as the ultimate in homage. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly does as much to tweak the genre as it does to celebrate it. The classic character archetypes and situational familiarity are treated with reverence even while being embellished. Quentin Tarantino not only owes a great deal of his success to emulating Leone’s style and appreciation of genre forms, but Eastwood’s talent behind the lens seems like a direct result of his interactions with Leone.
Despite not liking each other much during the filming of the two prior films, Leone’s insistence on an excessive number of takes on this film pushed Eastwood to declare he would never work with Leone again, which he didn’t. But Eastwood, after later becoming a director himself, took everything he despised about Leone’s methods and used them as guidelines of how not to make his movies. While a director like Leone or Stanley Kubrick who take an extreme view of creating the best art by finding the perfect take among many, Eastwood prefers a more minimalist approach wherein a handful of takes is all that’s required to achieve his desires. Had he not worked with Leoneo, I doubt Eastwood’s own work would have been so well informed.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the kind of western that puts many other more staid examples to shame. It doesn’t give its characters a lot of depth, but you hope for their success nonetheless. Where many other westerns use their motifs to push audiences towards expected reactions, Leone’s masterwork doesn’t feel as heavy-handed. I have never been a fan of the genre even when I find examples that work on multiple levels. This film is one of those movies that prove to me that westerns really can be enjoyable.
March 28, 2011