Oscar Stainton completes his Dollars Trilogy retrospective with the much-celebrated final chapter.
Who made it?: Sergio Leone (Director/Co-Writer), Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci (Co-Writers), Alberto Grimaldi (Producer), Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA)/Arturo González Producciones Cinematográficas/Constantin Film.
Who’s in it?: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Antonio Casale.
Tagline: “The Man with No Name Returns!”
IMDb rating: 8.9/10 (Top Rated Movies #9).
And so we arrive at the pinnacle of Sergio Leone’s epic trilogy, and by far one of the greatest westerns in film history. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not just a film – it’s an experience. After graduating from the relatively confined spaces of its predecessors, Leone has a truly vast canvas and palette of thematic and filmmaking tools to work with to produce what I’m certainly prepared to call his masterpiece.
During the American Civil War, mercenary Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) interrogates a former Confederate soldier about Bill Carson (Antonio Casale), a fugitive who stolen a cache of Confederate gold. He offers Angel Eyes $1,000 to kill the latter’s employer, which he accepts after killing him. Meanwhile, Mexican bandit Tuco Ramírez (Eli Wallach) is rescued from three bounty hunters by “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood), who delivers him to the local sheriff to collect his $2,000 bounty. As Tuco is about to be hanged, Blondie severs Tuco’s noose by shooting it, setting him free. The two escape on horseback and split the bounty in a lucrative money-making scheme. Blondie grows weary of Tuco’s complaints, and abandons him without horse or water in the desert. A vengeful Tuco barely survives and tracks Blondie down to a town being abandoned by Confederate troops. Following Blondie’s escape and an arduous search, Tuco recaptures Blondie and force-marches him across a desert. Near death, Tuco prepares to shoot Blondie, but he sees a runaway carriage containing several dead soldiers and a near-death Bill Carson, who promises Tuco $200,000 in Confederate gold, buried in a grave in Sad Hill Cemetery.
While the acting and dubbing is done to a high standard for this massive cast, this is a film of a few (very notable) standouts. Eastwood delivers on the role of a lifetime, depicting a more ruthless and sly character than his previous incarnations, but one with a clear visual arc to his performance. Clearly having a ball, Wallach is very entertaining as the wily Tuco; he’s kooky, theatrical and energetic but tough at the same time. Van Cleef is noticeably different from his previous character – he’s hunched over yet well mannered and imposing, with his eyes holding no humanity or mercy. Luigi Pistilli as Father Pablo Ramírez, Tuco’s priest brother, gets a special mention for his sincere and introspective scene with Wallach. Casale’s onscreen appearance as Carson is limited, but memorable in the effectiveness of his dying moments.
Ennio Morricone strikes gold once again with the iconic title theme, easily one of the most famous pieces of music in film history. Balancing the twangy and energetic electric guitar motifs and evocative choir with a twisted percussive and militaristic march, this versatile theme appears frequently throughout the film in more restrained yet still evocative forms. The score enhances atmosphere, tension and even grand scale in every scene. It also works to build character; melancholic oboes and strings add to the atmosphere of the army camp and become chilling when used as a cover for Angel Eyes torturing Tuco, making him more sympathetic. The standout pieces “Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio” are masterful themes worthy of mention, the former for its rising frantic quality and the latter for matching the cadence and flow of the finale so flawlessly.
The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli retains the familiar attributes of Massimo Dallamano but has more of an epic flourish, befitting the scale and character of the production. This film exudes authenticity with its use of the Spanish deserts for the American West. The editing and cinematography in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has a penchant for playing tricks on the audience, panning from moments of small and enclosed blocking to a much grander shot filled with extras, setwork and war-torn landscapes.
Leone’s visual storytelling is on-point, as usual, breaking the commonality of over-reliance on dialogue and exposition. The long takes and extreme closeups allow the film to breathe and retain an iron grip on the audience. The introduction of Angel Eyes is unnerving, eventually becoming terrifying as we learn all you need to know about him. We are made to endure Blondie’s suffering as he’s made to march through the desert with no water and Tuco taunting him, and his suffering is enhanced by the haunting score, making us wonder just how he’ll get out of this one. Leone also builds up the Civil War battle with drunken soldiers singing, establishing shots of marching troops, cannon fire, and the aftermaths of other battles. In the ongoing theme of showing the Wild West as it really was, war is depicted to be an ugly, harsh and devastating thing, as we linger over the death and destruction left in its wake. The sight of corpses strewn across a muddy trench-ridden battlefield will invoke stark visual memories of the First World War. While it is a long film, every minute feels earned and important.
Blondie’s arc is the realisation of the value of human life, going from trading on captured bandits’ lives and being willing to let Tuco die, to seeing the violence and abuse of power in the Civil War. Leone toys with Blondie’s appearance throughout the film; a cream-coloured coat and hat is used when he appears as a “guardian angel” to Tuco to save him from hanging, framed against intense sunlight. Yet this is subversion, as he abuses the law to get rich off it. After being dragged through the very worst that the desert and the Civil War can do a man, he gradually heals and survives and emerges again stronger. When Blondie changes his old bounty hunter attire for a grey military uniform, it fits his gradually greying appearance before entering into his familiar brown hat and poncho – no longer pretending to be a guardian angel. He is ultimately as eager for gold as Tuco and Angel Eyes, but a renewed value for humanity has been gained amidst the senseless bloodshed.
Tuco himself is a fascinating counterpoint to Blondie and Angel Eyes, with no loyalties to either side of the war and a selfish streak he wears like a badge of pride. In a way, he is more honest than either the “good” or the “bad” in greed, and honest in his selfishness in a way that defies assignment to either side of morality. He is vengeful towards Blondie in his own way but he’s not bloodthirsty. He’s often the main source of humour in the film and his large personality, resilient spirit and unpredictable personality, make him surprisingly enjoyable for a bandit.
The theme of the Wild West being a man’s world has been woven throughout the previous films, but it comes to the forefront here with no major female characters or ones with any kind of meaningful role. The early emergence of the family motif as the first thing that gets destroyed by the antagonist shows that there is no mercy and little hope for such quaintness in such a harsh setting. Indeed, the role of women in this film is greatly downplayed. There is one violently abused prostitute character that provides Angel Eyes with some information for one scene, and an elderly innkeeper lady. But besides them, there is no heroine figure, family member or love interest to take second or third-fiddle to Eastwood’s Blondie, something that would be regarded with scorn today. And yet not only is it unconventional for today, it’s actually vital for the film to work on the level that it does. Leone presents the church as having more relevance when providing respite and recovery from the harshness of war. Tuco in particular highlights the past and family he once loved, who he left behind to become a bandit while his brother became a priest. In a way, it makes Blondie the only real brother Tuco has left, and though they screw each other over and try to get the other killed, they’re still all they’ve got.
The moral ambiguity and honest immorality of the three main characters drives the plot forward. While Tuco dances between being a wronged man and a wrongdoer, it’s revealed that he had struggled to live a moral life in an immoral world. Angel Eyes’ evil is in his deliberately threatening, wilful breaking of promises and killing without any need to. Blondie is also willing to murder for money or personal freedom, but endures punishment at the hands of his former partner. It’s a common cliché for greed to be a man’s downfall in cinema, but it’s interesting to see it become the reason why a man might be saved by another’s greed, as seen when Tuco keeps Blondie alive just so he can find the gold. The Civil War allows for a look at the moral ambiguity of the two factions, with the oft-maligned Confederate Army and the oft-glorified Union Army being depicted as more similar in character than perhaps we are led to believe. The uniform worn is not an indication of anyone’s character, as we see Angel Eyes, a sergeant, seeking to profit from the suffering and bloodshed.
The finale centrepiece in the graveyard is considered one of the best in film history and with good reason. The seamless blend of acting, music, cinematography, and editing starts out as a feverish experience as Tuco madly searches among the many graves, and this scene becomes more exciting and engaging than many attempts at action scenes from lesser directors. The power of the famous three-way standoff is fuelled by the diametrically-opposing main figures and the powerful Leone score. We hold on their expressions, with the squint-eyed Blondie against the indecisive Angel Eyes against the wide-eyed Tuco, and the placement of their hands for a good few minutes as the music soars, and as the editing quickens in tandem with our excitement, we wonder who will be the first to shoot and who will be the first to fall.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an epic in the traditional sense of the genre, utilising and combining every visual storytelling technique to tell a compelling tale of finding humanity in an inhuman time. It also builds upon the legend of the Man with No Name Leone had been elaborating on since A Fistful of Dollars; his name, and the names of Eastwood and Morricone, are just as much legends as the tales of the Old West.
- Clint Eastwood wore the same poncho through all three “Man with No Name” movies without replacement or cleaning.
- For the scene where Angel Eyes interrogates Maria the prostitute for information about Bill Carson, Lee Van Cleef was appalled by the fact that he was required to actually hit Maria (played by Rada Rassimov), complaining “I can’t hit a woman.” Rassimov replied with, “Don’t worry. I’m an actress. Even if you slap me for real, it’s no problem,” but Van Cleef further stated, “I know, but I can’t!” As a result, a stunt double was used for shots where Rassimov was slapped, which were intercut with shots of Van Cleef himself. As he later put it: “There are very few principles I have in life . . . one of them is I don’t kick dogs, and the other one is I don’t slap women in movies.”
- In the gun store, everything Eli Wallach does with the guns is completely unscripted. Wallach knew little about guns, so he was instructed to do whatever he wanted. Most of Enzo Petito’s bemused reactions throughout the scene are genuine. The scene where Tuco shoves the open/closed sign in his mouth was also Wallach’s idea.
- Wallach would have been decapitated during the train scene if he’d lifted his head up. In the wide shot, the step that would have hit his head is visible.