Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The (1968)
Release Date: January 24th, 1968 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sergio Leone Actors: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, Aldo Giuffre, John Bartho
he quintessential and definitive Spaghetti Western, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is one of the most exciting and entertaining films ever made. Packed with suspenseful showdowns, fiery gunfights, full-scale battles, and confidently ostentatious taunting in between, this imaginative actioner demonstrates incredibly obscure guidelines for the demarcation of good and evil, several of the most iconic sequences in cinema history, and Ennio Morricone’s unusual, unforgettable score. Although it’s considered the third part to a trilogy, preceded by “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), it technically does not contain the same characters and is not a continuation, though Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing “man with no name” retains identical costuming throughout the series.
The wanted outlaw Tuco (Eli Wallach) forms an uneasy partnership with Blondie (Clint Eastwood), in which the latter turns the former in to the authorities for a reward, only to free him before he is hung – so that they can repeat their bounty-hunting scam in the next town after pocketing the payment. Meanwhile, the villainous Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is hunting down Bill Carson, an Army soldier who stole $200,000 in gold. When Tuco and Blondie come upon the injured Carson, Tuco learns the name of the cemetery where the fortune is hidden and Blondie learns the name of the headstone under which it’s buried. During the midst of the Civil War, each of the three mercenaries is caught up participating in historical events as they struggle, oftentimes against one another, to get to the precious treasure.
Morricone’s stirring music will instantly sends jitters up the audience’s spine. The famously recognizable theme foreshadows an epic Western unlike any seen before. Long, lingering shots of vast mountainsides and breezy desert vistas inhabit much of the opening shot, while the beautiful contrast of extreme close-ups cutting to extreme faraway shots (mixed with the framing of characters positioned close to the camera, with open widescreen views of the countryside clearly visible in the background) is breathtakingly visionary. The cinematography is the first unmistakably impressive aspect of the film, made even more apparent with the bold decision to utilize zero dialogue during the initial ten minutes of footage.
Secondly, the three main roles are a character design breakthrough for archetypal antiheroes of the Spaghetti Western genre. Their development and motivations prove continually absorbing as they share nearly equal screentime throughout. Dubbed the Good (Eastwood), the Bad (Van Cleef), and the Ugly (Wallach), their actual depictions cross those loosely defined lines constantly; never has the discernment between good and evil and right and wrong been so blurred. All three exhibit immorality at times, forcing viewer sympathies to regularly shift as each actor imparts powerhouse performances.
Thirdly, in a strikingly unique editing method, the shots often rotate between three or more contrastive events at a time, rather than two. Early on, when Blondie is cleaning his gun, the camera cuts between his work, Tuco’s quietly planned attack, and cavalryman marching into town. The same technique is used again during a brilliantly paralleling torture scene, in which a POW band plays a serene tune while Tuco is tortured by Angel Eyes, while Blondie awaits a verdict. This masterful juxtaposition of counterpointing events serves up humor, intensity, and a prime example of innovative execution.
Similarly, the Civil War plays an intriguing backdrop to the thrilling tale of revenge and greed. As the lead trio searches for the missing pieces of the puzzle to obtain the coveted metal, they are caught up in chance military engagements. Tuco and Blondie initially join the Confederates to avoid suspicions, but are then captured by the Yankees. Angel Eyes reappears as a member of the Union and, later, Tuco and Blondie again cross paths with soldiers (this time the Yankees), deceitfully joining their side to avoid trouble. All the while, their goal is only to eventually locate the resting place of the stolen loot. The historical entanglements make their plight just that much more ambitious, toilsome, grand, and realistic for the time period.
Expanding upon the ideas set forth in his previous two films, as if perpetually reworking the scenarios and characters until they achieve flawlessness (clearly reusing henchmen, cinematographic cues, and the layout of the finale), director Leone incorporates betrayals, double-crosses, fake partnerships, and faulty allegiances. Even when they finally pinpoint and unearth the trove, the three titular personas combat paranoia and distrust. Boasting what is often considered the greatest showdown ever filmed (spanning more than five minutes of steadily escalating tension), the scenic landscapes and superior use of widescreen return for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to face off in a desolate graveyard. This ultimate test of guts, trust, wits, and skill culminates in an absolutely perfect series of staccato transitions from quivering hands to flitting eyes to trembling brows (accompanied by majestically crescendoing trumpets). The result is heart-pounding sensationalism and the close to a Spaghetti Western paragon – a gold standard by which all adventure films should be measured.
– Mike Massie