The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef
It took three films for Leone to perfect the style and tone of his new spaghetti western genre. First was “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), fun but also flawed take on Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”. “A Few Dollars More” (1965) was better, but with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Leone created a passionate epic about three men inexorably linked together in a race to find a treasure full of gold buried somewhere in a graveyard.
Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) are partners in crime. Their modus operandi: Tuco, who has a price on his head, is brought in by Blondie who collects the ransom, then rescues him before he gets to hang. It's a tenuous relationship fueled purely by money. After a disagreement Blondie betrays Tuco and steals his money. Seeking revenge Tuco tracks down Blondie and tortures him to near death. But before he has a chance to kill him they encounter a Civil War soldier who tells them of a treasure of coins buried in a graveyard. Tuco knows the graveyard, but only Blondie knows the grave. Reluctantly they are forced to become partners again.
Meanwhile Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), another badass desperado, is also hunting for the treasure. Over the expansive deserts of the midwest, the three hombres continually play a game of life or death deception - either working together or against each other in the hunt for Bill Carson's cashbox.
From the opening shot we know Leone’s film is about extremes. The shot starts on a wide-angle vista of the desert. Suddenly a dirty and weathered face jumps into a bold close-up – a precursor to a gunfight. It’s an unusual and jarring transition from long-shot to extreme close-up. Over the course of the film Leone moves us across these extreme both visually and emotionally. Ennio Morricone’s melodramatic score is composed with the same methodology. Sometimes it’s a wildly romantic sonata, sometimes is a jarringly guitar pick screaming loud through the speakers.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is an early expression of revisionist, or post-modern cinema, much like what some of the French were doing with the 1960's New Wave films, revising genre films with their own skewed version of Hollywood. Leone's point of view is from the the most despicable men in the western genre - the greedy men who only look out for themselves and their wallets. Often a Hollywood protagonist (say Jimmy Stewart in "The Big Country") would start out like this, and by the end land on the side of righteousness. Leone's characters remain as ethically challenged as they began. In "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" while this three-way battle rages, America is raging it's Civil War. By seeing the characters move throughout the battles of the Civil War we see an even more egregious example of irresponsibility - one country at war against another other with much more bloodshed than the actions of three petty criminals.
The title is a bit of a misnomer because the three main characters are ALL bad, ALL ugly, and none of them good. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie is possibly the worst of all the characters. Even though he’s been friends and partners with Tuco, he commits the worst act of betrayal by taking his friend’s money and leaving him alone in the desert. Tuco’s actions of revenge which leads to the discovery of the cashbox is an direct consequence to Blondie’s unmotivated betrayal. Even Lee Van Cleef has honour. When he’s paid for something he also follows the job through, even if it means killing his employer.
So the three gunslingers are truly equal which makes the final Mexican standoff the perfect climax to the near three hours of buildup. Few filmmakers can build up and pay off dramatic tension better than Leone. In the three way gun battle Leone paces the scene with extra special care, enhanced by Morricone’s blistering score. In keeping with the revisionist theme, no gun battle would take that long, but it’s Leone manipulating his medium and the genre to extend this quick moment into an eternity. Enjoy.