“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” - Sergio Leone (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, 1966) was the third installment of Sergio Leone’s famous Man with No Name Trilogy (aka Dollars Trilogy), whose earlier offerings were A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Although at the outset Leone did not have the intention of fashioning a trilogy and the plots of the three films were not serially connected, they all featured the same iconic lead – the laconic gunslinger, “The Man With No Name”, played by Clint Eastwood.  Also, because they were Italian productions and were all released in the US in a single year, 1967, American critics began referring to them (and their subsequent Italian progeny) collectively as “Spaghetti Westerns”.

Each successive film in the series was more grandiose and had more than double the budget of its predecessor.  But each one still had Leone’s distinctive cinematic stylistics:
  • wide-view long shots tightly intercut with sequences of extreme closeups.  These are used to orchestrate the numerous and deadly man-to-man confrontations in the story.
  • an episodic plot structure operating in the context of some predominant issue (usually money), with each episode culminating in a confrontation.
  • scenic landscapes and settings that immerse and isolate the viewer in an atmospheric context.
  • moody, evocative soundtrack music by Leone’s longtime friend and former classmate Ennio Morricone.
  • And always there is the Man with No Name, whose gunshot marksmanship (along with that of other key principals in the stories) is impossibly accurate at long distances, while there thuggish adversaries always miss.
All of these effects combine to establish a highly expressionistic interior landscape for the viewer, who becomes completely immersed in all the tense psychological confrontations that arise. In some respects we might refer to the whole collection of these effects as “operatic” and somehow appropriately Italianate, considering their source. In any case Leone was a master of this expression, and to see one of his films is to enjoy plunging deep into the emotion-laden waters he fashion. And with each successive output of the Dollars series, Leone went deeper and more emphatically into his form of orgiastic expressionism; so that with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly it was almost reaching self-parody. 

The film’s story concerns the efforts of three ruthless gunslingers who are independently seeking a cache of stolen money.  It was scripted by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni, with assistance from Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. The three desperados are

  • “Blondie” (The Man with No Name, played again by Cline Eastwood).  He is calm, calculating, and merciless.  Since among the three main characters he is the least evil, he represents “The Good” in this story.
     
  • “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef) is a cold-blooded and sadistic psychopath who, unlike Blondie, seems to take pleasure in carrying out his hired assassinations.  His nickname is a cynical reference, because his eyes are not so much angelic as they are demonic So he is “The Bad” in this story.
     
  • Tuco (Eli Wallach) is the stereotypical Mexican scoundrel. Although he is also a vicious criminal, he is not so cool and cold-blooded as Blondie and Angel Eyes.  He likes to ingratiate himself with others, but he is clearly a phony who will double-cross at the least opportunity.  He is also obsessed with his own low-standing dignity and is eager to take revenge when he feels insulted.  When he does take his revenge, he goes overboard in mocking and insulting his adversary.  At the same time he will try to take advantage of anything that could be of use, no matter what.  Thus whenever he is around death, he is reminded to make the Christian Sign of the Cross, just in case that gesture might gain him some protection from God. Thus he represents “The Ugly”.
Since Eastwood and Van Cleef appeared together in the preceding For a Few Dollars More, one is tempted to link the two stories, especially since both characters wear pretty much the same outfits in the two films (Van Cleef is always the “man in black”). However, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865), almost a decade earlier than the time setting of For a Few Dollars More, so at best it would have to be considered a prequel.  But even this linkage is weak, because the two characters played by Van Cleef are very different in the two films.  In For a Few Dollars More Van Cleef plays Colonel Douglas Mortimer, a former Confederate Army officer and a more principled individual; whereas in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Angel Eyes, he is a sometime officer in the opposing Union army and a cruel sadist.

In any case what distinguished The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the earlier films is the utterly uncool character of Tuco.  He occupies a considerable amount of the narrative, and his psychological vulnerability becomes a focus of the viewer’s attention as the story moves along.  Some people might be put off by the stock characterization of Tuco and see it as an example of ethnic bigotry.  It is interesting that the actor in this part, Eli Wallach, was Jewish and famous for playing stock characters of a number of different types.  On the whole I would say that Wallach’s performance here is very good, and even in spite of the oftentimes over-the-top characterization, his Tuco essentially energizes the entire story.  This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the film.

If there is an overriding theme to Leone’s tale, it might be about death, itself.  Throughout the story there are people being killed in a matter-of-fact fashion, and the total body count is very high.  This suggests a cavalier, even flippant, attitude towards death.  On the other hand, maybe that is the film’s sardonic and self-mocking point.  The artificial notion of the Western Hero is held up to ridicule in Leone’s films as merely a hollow justification for mindlessly lethal violence.  And this point is further hammered home by the film’s showing how still more absurd is the notion of war heroism and even the very idea that war has any justification at all.  The film is set in the midst of the US Civil War and provides a sample illustration of how a country with a population of less than 35 million could engage itself in the senseless process of self-mutilation that led to 750,000 war deaths.

The story of the film passes through roughly six episodic stages.
1.  Introducing the Three Principals
The film begins with a classic Leone opening scene showing a murderous confrontation without dialogue.  Three bounty hunters have come to kill the wanted criminal Tuco, but Tuco shoots them and manages to escape. 
Then in a separate episode, the deadly contract killer Angel Eyes confronts a man named Stevens.  Only via a lengthy process of slow disclosure will the viewer eventually learn that three men – Stevens, Baker, and Jackson, the latter of whom has changed his name to Bill Carson – stole a large sum of money from the Confederate Army. This money will be the target prize for the three principals of this story.  Angel Eyes has been contracted by Baker to kill Stevens and then coerces Stevens to contract him to kill Baker, after which he kills both of them and gets doubly paid.

The third episode of this act introduces Blondie.  The wanted man Tuco has at this point been captured by three more bounty hunters, but Blondie intervenes and kills them.  Then he captures Tuco and turns him in to the local sheriff to get his $2,000 reward.  But when Tuco is about to be publicly hanged in the center of town, the precision marksman Blondie shoots from a distance through the hangman’s rope, enabling Tuco to escape.  Blondie’s intention is to repeatedly run a scan operation, turning Tuco into the authorities to collect his reward and then freeing him at the hanging site so that they can split the reward and do it all over again.  However, Tuco proves to be too cantankerous for Blondie to tolerate, so he cold-bloodedly takes the still hand-cuffed Tuco out into the desert some 70 miles from town and leaves him there to die.

So at this point we know how vicious and cold-hearted each of the three protagonists is.

2.  Tuco’s Vengeful Pursuit
Tuco somehow manages to make it back to town alive, and he is determined to take out his revenge on Blondie.  This is the subject of the second act, with a considerable focus on Tuco.  Although Blondie kills the henchmen assassins Tuco hired, Tuco does capture Blondie in another confrontation, but his repeated attempts to execute Blondie are interrupted by extraneous war-related events.  Through one of these events, Tuco learns from the dying Bill Carson that there is a treasure buried under a grave at the Sad Hill Cemetery.  However, only Blondie, still Tuco’s  captive, manages to serendipitously find out under which of the many graves in the vast cemetery is the treasure buried.  Blondie, of course, refuses to tell Tuco what he knows, so the two of them have to work together from now on. Being unprincipled opportunists, these two once sworn enemies have no problems now becoming allies.

3.  War Interruption 1
Tuco and Blondie, now wearing stolen Confederate army uniforms, get captured by a passing Union army and placed in a prison camp, which, as it oddly turns out, happens to be overseen by Angel Eyes, who is now operating as a Union army officer.  Seeking information about the treasure, the sadistic Angel Eyes has Tuco cruelly tortured in a lengthy scene lasting eight minutes.  As in past Leone films, the torture portrayed would kill ordinary people.  Tuco survives, but reveals everything he knows.

Angel Eyes now dispatches his deputy to take Tuco on a train back to a town to be hanged.  Then he decides to team up with Blondie to find the buried treasure.  Again the unscrupulous scoundrels change partners at the first opportunity.

4.  Shifting Alliances
In the fourth act the alliances will shift once again.  Tuco manages to miraculously jump from his train, kill Angel Eyes’s deputy, and escape. He makes it to town and encounters a previously-seen bounty hunter who appears ready to kill him.  But in a memorable moment, the bounty hunter first taunts Tuco, who then shoots him dead, after which he admonishes the corpse,

    “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk.”

Meanwhile Blondie, not trusting Angel Eyes and his five henchmen, chooses to bolt.  He runs into the just-escaped Tuco, and the two of them decide to reunite and work against Angel Eyes.  In a typical Leone-styled shootout, they knock of Angel Eyes’s men one by one, but Angel Eyes, himself, gets away.  So they decide to head for the Sad Hill Cemetery.

5.  War Interruption 2
Before they can get to the cemetery, though, they are captured again by the Union army, and we come to Leone’s anti-war segment of the film.  The Union and Confederate armies are engaged in a mutually annihilating slaughter over the control of a bridge.  Blondie and Tuco need to get to the other side of the river, but they cannot go anywhere while the two armies are relentlessly engaged in suicide charges.  So they decide to blow up the bridge with stolen war explosives; and once they do so, the senseless killing stops, and the two armies withdraw.

6.  Finale at the Sad Hill Cemetery
The last act, for which the viewer has been waiting for more than two hours, takes place at the cemetery, where Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes converge.  And Leone plays it up for all it is worth.  When Tuco arrives at the cemetery, he begins running desperately, searching for what he thinks is the right grave (but, of course, he has been deceived by Blondie).  As he does so, the camera begins panning past the graves he is running past, and the swirling images lapse into a deliriously accelerating montage that lasts for three minutes.

When Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco finally confront each other and are ready to draw their guns, they move into a classic three-way Mexican standoff.  Nobody will die until somebody makes the first move, but each has to decide at whom he will take aim.  Leone builds up the tension by showing a shifting montage of momentary extreme closeups of the three desperados lasting more two minutes.  This is probably the most memorable sequence (among many candidates) of the film. Then the shootout ensues. In the end they do find the money, but you will have to see for yourself who winds up with it.
Perhaps the outstanding feature of the film is the way the cinematography and editing build up psychic tension throughout the tale.  Famed cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli was working on his first Leone film, but he would continue to do the cinematography for Leone’s three remaining features. One aspect of this camera work I particularly liked was the way the extreme closeups have the characters almost, but not quite, looking straight into the camera.  This has a slightly unnerving effect on the viewer that heightens the tension.  And all of these shots are tightly integrated into the flow by the editing of Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli. 


Perhaps because of this fascinating mise-en-scene, a number of reviewers rate The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as the best film of the Man with No Name trilogy [1,2].  However, although I think this is a good film, I still think For a Few Dollars More is a more tightly integrated and effective work.  The problem, for me, with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is its self-conscious indulgence in the comedic, and it all comes down to the Tuco character as presented by Eli Wallach. Admittedly Wallach’s performance provides vitality to the film, and his character of Tuco is one that we get to know much better than Blondie and Angel Eyes.  But this spoofing performance interferes with the suspension of disbelief, which is crucial for films of this nature. 

Comparatively speaking, in For a Few Dollars More, the viewer is immersed in a tense and constantly life-threatening world that holds together in the viewer’s mind.  Not so in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the coherence of such a tense world is constantly mocked.  In For a Few Dollars More death is a disturbing possibility that might appear at any time, but it is more often a threat and not always a desired goal.  In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, death becomes a joke, a game earnestly pursued by all three principal characters.  Depending on your tastes, you might buy into this spoofing, but such a flippant approach undermines the overall effectiveness of the expressionistic presentation.

Sergio Leone’s movement towards the self-parody seen here in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would not continue, however.  His best films, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), were still to come, and they presented further expansions of his expressionistic scope.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): Sergio Leone's Epic Tale of Greed and Betrayal”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (March 2012). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, Rogerebert.com, (3 August 2003).  

1 comment:

stampschick said...

I find it so amusing that some people cannot bring themselves to acknowledge Eli Wallach's true contribution to this film. Either they will totally ignore that contribution by saying that it is "an Eastwood flick" (no, it is a Wallach flick, regardless of the billing), or they will somehow find a way to criticize his monumental performance that was so career-defining. I'm sorry that he burst your testosterone-laden-stonefaced-Eastwood-and-Van-Cleef bubble! Without his presence, the movie wouldn't have been half as interesting and entertaining to watch, and we would have been forced to endure nearly 3 hours of faces that looked as if they had taken massive injections of botox. I found the same welcome relief in Wallach's portrayal of Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960) among that sea of stone faced, phoned-in performances. If that means his performance HAS to be labeled over-the-top, then so be it. I assume he gave Leone what he wanted, right? Wallach made Tuco one of the most memorable and beloved characters in the Western genre, despite that character's massive flaws.