The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) / Western-Action
aka Il Buono, Il Bruto, Il Cattivo
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, brief nudity and language
Running time: 161 min. (some European cuts run 180 minutes or more)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Aldo Giuffre, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Al Mullock
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone
Review published May 27, 2007
Introductions are hardly necessary for Sergio Leone's grand epic western, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, the greatest of the spaghetti westerns. Though Leone had directed two very impressive entries already in in the previous two years, A Fistful of Dollars, and its follow-up, For a Few Dollars More, this is the film where everything came together, from his direction, to the eye-popping cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli (Life is Beautiful, Death and the Maiden), to the impeccable casting, to one of the greatest, most memorable scores to a movie -- ever.
The joys of the sights and sounds of Leone's masterpiece are so strong it's sometimes difficult to remember there is a plot to the film, and though a relatively standard grab for gold, it is surprisingly well-developed. We start the film off during the days of the American Civil War, with Tuco (Wallach, Nuts), a notorious Mexican bandit with a bounty on his head. Eastwood (The Witches, Coogan's Bluff) plays the nicknamed Blondie, the bounty hunter who claims the reward for Tuco's capture, but just as Tuco is about to hang, Blondie shoots him free, and the two make their escape -- at least until they can run the scam another time. However, Blondie soon realizes that Tuco is never going to amount to much in bounty and decides to get rid of the dead weight by abandoning him out in the desert.
As Tuco makes his return and vows revenge, another bounty killer, nicknamed Angel Eyes (Van Cleef, High Noon), learns of a cache of gold coins amounting to about $200,000, last seen in possession of a man going by the name of Bill Carson. It just so happens that Tuco and Blondie encounter Carson one day, just as he is about to die. Tuco learns of the place where the gold is buried, while Blondie learns the exact spot, turning mortal enemies into uneasy allies -- at least until the gold is found. However, Angel Eyes is quite tenacious in his quest for the gold, and soon it's apparent that the gold is going to have to be something to fight for, as well as to die for.
Pushing toward the three-hour mark (past it in some releases), The Good the Bad and the Ugly could be criticized for its excess, but to call it such would be denying why the film is great. It's the sheer audacity of the film that makes it so resonant, developing some scenes agonizingly slow, while others might be deemed superfluous to the main plot of the gold quest at large. For instance, certain scenes aren't completely necessary to be told, such as a scene where Tuco meets his brother, a man of the cloth, while his "friend" recuperates, or a prolonged Civil War battle for a bridge that the two men literally stumble into.
While it may be true that these scenes, from a plot standpoint, are mere pit stops on the way to the grand finale, they also are the most poignant scenes of the film, injecting a refreshing tone of sadness, pathos, and humanity that makes the characters infinitely more rounded in our eyes. By the end of the film, we may not like the characters' from their selfish actions, but we do have a certain feeling for them. Blondie wants the gold, but he also is shown to be caring to those who die needlessly, offering solace to those who have mere moments left to live. His take on the killing of countrymen in the bloody war is, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." He is a killer himself, but there is always a means to his end. For money, for revenge, yes -- but in war among people with no reason to kill one another except because they are told to, he sees little gain. He is the Good of the title.
Meanwhile, Tuco, who is often called a rat for his vermin-like behavior and appearance, is a congenital liar, and though comical, he often does carry a certain air of bravery about him that one can't help but admire. Although he makes friends as necessary in order for him to gain more for himself, he is willing to take on Angel Eyes and his men single-handedly, if that's what it will take. Though Tuco and Blondie are often at odds with one another, one gets the sense that they are friends on a less-than-certain level -- they just keep getting in the way of each other's continued existence. His speech with his brother reveals the reason for the life path he chose -- priesthood and banditry were the only way out of their poverty, and he regards his brother's path as the easy way out. He is the Ugly -- too pathetic to hate, his actions detestable, though he often is left little choice in his efforts to survive.
Angel Eyes is the bad-ass of the film, though not completely evil himself. He doesn't kill or torture merely for the enjoyment of it, but he is more than willing to do it in order to get information and ill-gotten gains, if there are some to be had. Amoral and ruthless, he is the Bad of the film, exhibiting all of the traits one despises in the the tales of the Old West -- if a man were laying wounded on the road on the way to his destination, he wouldn't try to help, he wouldn't kill him out of mercy, and he'd more likely step on him rather than go around.
Despite some mixed reviews at the time of its release, mostly critical of the violence quotient and the perceived disrespectful attitude toward the Western genre by the Italian filmmakers, hindsight has redeemed Leone's film as one that revitalized the genre, and it remains, even among those who normally don't like Westerns, as a favorite movie for millions regardless of country. Although Eastwood is clearly the star in the film, his character is limited by a lack of a proper background, as well as having been explored already in the two previous films in the "Dollars" trilogy. It's really the character of Tuco, played brilliantly by Eli Wallach, that carries the film's interest throughout. If Spaghetti Westerns weren't considered inferior fare at the time, Wallach's work here could very well have been considered award-caliber.
Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the phenomenal score by Ennio Morricone (The Untouchables, The Thing), with its blend of guitars, drums, and hyena-like cries from the singers. If there is a movie that might be elevated from good film to masterpiece just off of pieces of well-placed music alone, Morricone's would be it for this film. Unlike most films, where the composer would create the music based on what happens on the screen, it is said that Leone worked the opposite way, constructing scenes to fit the pieces of music. It is even rumored that he shot scenes while having the music he wanted for that scene playing in the background on the set, in order to give the right feel. As questionable as these things may seem in theory, there's no doubt that the marriage of music and image is what separates Leone's style from any other in the Western genre. It's pure cinema at its most basic, and most perfect.
Needless to say, if you've made it this far, I couldn't recommend The Good the Bad and the Ugly any higher, and it easily ranks among my top 5 favorite films of all time. It's my personal pick for the greatest Western ever made (and there are some definite classics, including Leone's own Once Upon a Time in the West), and as far as a film that transcends its story into being a true work of art in terms of cinematic technique, it has few rivals. Brutally violent, yet ironically compassionate, it may be about ugly heroes and despicable lives, but through Leone's vision, Delli Colli's eye, and Morricone's ear, it's also a beautiful epic that you'll find yourself irresistibly stopping to watch every single time you're blessed to catch it on television.
©2007 Vince Leo