Weak and conquered, Confederate soldiers march grudgingly through what’s left of a small town. The Man with No Name sits nonchalantly at its hotel, cleaning his pistol, totally oblivious to the three gun-wielding bandits making their way to his door. Outside, the marching halts, amplifying, for a split second, the spurs of one of the incoming gunmen. The hero looks up. The marching resumes, and, covered by the sound of their stomping, he quickly pieces his weapon back together, loads, and shoots. Two invaders go down. “Your spurs,” he tells the last one before killing him too.
This scene would have never appeared in either of the preceding “Dollars” films, and is only one exhibit in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of Director Sergio Leone’s maturation as a filmmaker, as well as an artist. He works in these kind of Hitchcock-esque instants of intensity all throughout the film, and, by working exclusively within the frame, he nearly masters the element of surprise.
The film opens with a shot of the bare Western landscape, panning across its nearly isolated mountain line before landing on the sunburnt, distressed face of a desperado. The initial long shot has become a close up without a single cut, revealing to us in the audience that this landscape wasn’t really empty, but occupied by someone much closer than we would have ever thought. This is a prime example of the rule that drives this film’s excitement: sight is limited by the frame. During the important moments in the film, what the camera can’t see, the characters can’t see either, which allows Leone the ability to shock when someone sneaks up on us in an area where it would be geographically impossible to do so
But, if his previous two Westerns didn’t give it away, Leone is not concerned with the plausible or thelogical. These gunslingers can take out small armies in seconds. He builds this great film with the broken, over-the-top clichés of Hollywood’s Wild, Wild West, using them in a way to form a distinctive style. That style is what made the other two films so amiable.
The somewhat ironic title, which itself has become engrained in our culture, describes its three central characters. The ugly is Tuco (a superb Eli Wallach), a half-witted, narcissistic bandit. Fleas casually take refuge on top of his unkempt brow. The bad is Angel Eyes (“For a Few Dollars More“ star, Lee Van Cleef), an intelligent searcher and killer. With ice in his veins, he shoots down a man who offered double his bounty to spare his life, and then proceeds to kill the first employer. And the good is Blondie (Clint Eastwood, The Man with No Name), who is only “good” by comparison. He double and triple crosses just about every person he meets.
However, despite these so called differences between Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco, it is clear from the time that their freeze-frame introductions graze the screen that these men are united by their indecency, their ruthlessness, and most importantly, their greed.
The beginning of the film sees Blondie and Tuco in a partnership where the wanted outlaw is turned in for the reward money, and cut down from the noose by the cigar-chewing marksman. The inevitable downfall of that deal strikes up a battle of vengeance between them that lasts the whole movie. Meanwhile, Angel Eyes is on the trail of a rebel soldier named Bill Carson, the man who stole and hid a fortune of Confederate money.
Things take an interesting turn when Tuco and Blondie run into the dying Carson. He gives Tuco the name of the cemetery where he buried the gold. But when the bandit turns his back, he tells Blondie the name of the grave. Now, the vengeful must keep his prey alive. This intel serves as a golden ticket for Eastwood, as he spends the duration of the film tactfully using his half of the secret as means of survival. Oh, and don’t forget about Angel Eyes.
Leone draws out this rat race to the highest extreme, sending his renegades over pickles and obstacles galore. Riding down a deserted road and sporting gray uniforms, Tuco and Blondie see an incoming group of soldiers. When Tuco calls out and salutes the line of gray soldiers whom he believes are Confederates only to watch in horror as they brush off the dust on their blue jackets, it is obvious that there is no kind of silver lining between the two sides.
Having the American Civil War be the backdrop for the three men’s escapade, Leone mocks all notions of good and evil. To the director, a conflict which in one day saw more American lives lost than in the entire Vietnam War is unworthy of any humanity, even in a setting as irresponsible and reckless as the west. At one point, the callous Blondie says, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.” Leone is unbiased in this errand, making sure both sides are equally reprehensible for this pointless war. It is no mistake that the POW camp Tuco and Blondie are subsequently sent to is an establishment of the victorious Union.
There are, however, wonderfully made battle sequences throughout the film. The exception to Leone’s total abhorrence for the war is when he focuses not on the two sides, but on some of the individual uniforms. A reluctantly subordinate Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè) is the most memorable example. Assigned to take control of a bridge and not convinced at all by the cause, he intends on spending the duration of the war drunk, trying to alleviate the guilt of all the men lost under his command. Tuco and Blondie decide to help him on their way to the gold – it’s the closest the two get to redeeming themselves, even if the graveyard is on the other side of the bridge.
With Leone’s remarkable camera style that is now associated with the spaghetti westerns, three marvelous performances from his stars, and one of cinema’s most memorable soundtracks (provided once again by the masterful Ennio Morricone), this once underrated film, and once underrated filmmaker have since garnered the respect they deserve. For lack of some better words, this is one of the best.
– by Luke Parker