In 1966, a masterpiece of film was released to the world. It single handedly ushered in a new era of cinema and introduced the world to the anti-hero, a concept that forms the backbone of modern film making. Long before Star Wars, it solidified the movie score’s place of importance within the film, if for no other reason as the brand. This wasn’t an American film, produced in Hollywood or filmed with well known actors, and yet the lead of the movie is now known and renowned world wide for his ability. The film we’ve all heard of, if not seen and the score is instantly recognizable and timeless. This is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
At the time, Clint Eastwood wasn’t very well known. He had starred in a TV show prior and some other westerns, but for the most part, he was a B-list actor at best with little to show for his effort. The actors playing alongside him such as Eli Wallach (Tuco, “the Ugly”) and Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes, “the Bad”) had already gained notoriety as actors oddly enough, and although they were cast in prominent roles, neither was lead. Rather Sergio Leone, the Italian mastermind behind this film decided to cast the little known Eastwood into the role. Today, his cohorts in the film aren’t well known, yet the name of Eastwood lives on.
But while the actors are important in name, it’s how they act that really matters, and even the biggest names in the industry often can’t compensate for poor direction or artistic vision. “The Good” was the opposite of such a travesty: It was an exercise in taking little known actors and turning them into giants through exquisite film making. The biggest thing Leone had going for him in the film was his lens: His shots never faltered. Wide angled, sweeping shots that captured the magnificence of the landscape were juxtaposed with radical closeups, closing in on the intensity of emotion felt by the characters while at the same time, never quite letting us see their whole face: Sergio Leone’s most well known climactic sequence is known only by the eyes of the actors. The deliberate calculation of Eastwood, ready to draw, but on who? The wild, unpredictable tension of Wallach, unsure of who to betray next for his own survival. The cold brutality of Cleef…he’s done this before, and he’s sure of himself. Leone pioneered film in ways that have changed the industry and his legend lives on in Quinten Tarantino’s film, who has cited him as an inspiration.
When Leone framed shots, he didn’t shy away from anything. In an era of film making where the camera often cut abruptly to avoid disturbing the audience, Leone held open the shutter. His lens displayed every hardship of every character, and on his film, the blood flowed in bright shades of red. He connected audiences with seemingly obscure and insignificant members of the cast, forcing emotional connections with them. This film itself opens with a lengthy sequence of shots detailing the assassination of an entire family by Angel Eyes: An agonizingly long way of introducing us to the villain, the “Bad,” the brutality that is this character. And what might be done with gore and grotesque angularity in modern cinema was done with deliberation and cold calculation by Leone. This is a scene that forces you to watch. It’s real life in real time culminating in the cold blooded murder of an innocent, young boy running, perhaps for help, perhaps to save his own life. And all for money. The statement couldn’t have been clearer if Leone had written it out and his choices of harsh lighting, neutral colors mixed with the unbearable warmth and desolation of the desert complete the scene: An isolated villain executes those who hired him simply because they didn’t pay him as much as the next guy…who Van Cleef’s character also promptly murders in cold blood.
The film is ultimately an exercise in juxtaposition, forcing us into a dichotomy of worlds. Its starkly set against the backdrop of the Civil War and throughout the movie we are met with an odd back and forth between gold-hunting by the main characters and gory, seemingly unimportant and useless, deaths by veterans of war. What should have been a wild romp about hunting for long lost treasure turns into a statement about war and the fragility of life—a rarity in an era dominated by John Wayne westerns with clearly defined good guys and bad guys and cut and dry story telling.
The title, too, is misleading: There really is no “good” in this movie and the redeeming qualities of the supposed “good” character of Blonde are more or less summed up in the fact that he is willing to stay with a dying man until his final breath where other characters would impatiently pass by…or rob the corpse. Blonde doesn’t talk much and has an air of deeper knowledge about him. The viewer gets the feeling that this is really the worst character in the movie, but he more acutely aware of the consequences of dipping his toe into that realm and desperately wishes to remove himself from it. He’s not good, but he’s better than he was—which the other two are representations of. Tuco is childlike. He is unaware and uncaring, unable to move past his own self-absorbed life and simplistic worldview (“there are two kinds of people in this world…”). Angel Eyes, however, nearly matches Blonde. He is calculated and beneath his steel eyes is a man that has seen too much. Unlike Blonde, though, he diminishes his past and still lives it, willing to go to great lengths just to satisfy his own goals. In that way, he is a combination of both Tuco and Blonde, a culmination of evil, while the addled paired duo are merely two halves.
Traditionally, to the student of film, the Western as a genre proper is one of the most diverse, spanning many wide and varied topics creating tiny niche subgenera within its heading. Although it’s widely recognized that this particular film exists within its own created genre, it also somehow transcends the western label, appealing to wide ranging audiences. For some, this is a wild west roll in the hay, a spectacular masterpiece in the same vein as “The Big Trail,” “Stagecoach,” or “The Searchers.” For them, it is simply another western with a clear plot and lengthy running time, interspersed with sparse dialog and lots of gunplay. There’s gunfights, hangings, broad brimmed hats and period war time drama. What a shame it is that this audience will forever leave this movie in the same pile as other action sequenced thrillers. For the critic, though, this is a film with far deeper meaning and implications—and far ahead of its time. In a genre that naturally caters to nostalgia and prolonging the slow death of an era unique to America, this movie breaks all the rules. In a blatantly un-American way, Sergio Leone tackles such issues as the meaninglessness of war, the ubiquity of violence, the nature of greed and human nature’s response to elements of compassion and kindness.
War is perhaps both the most overt and also subtle topic of this movie and it is incredibly pertinent to a modern audience. The film’s subplot is obviously a plot of war. But while it plays a major role, the camera sweeps past it all barely even touching on the reasoning behind it. This is a war movie without all the glory: There are no great tacticians planning their next moves, no heroes to cheer on as battles are fought and won, no differentiation between sides and no ideals held up or shuttered. Everything is pointless and this fact is further encapsulated by the gestures of greedy, bigoted and horribly violent commanders who use the war as a means of simply enacting their own brutality. The war is a facade for the scum of humanity, a means of creating a legal hell for those around them while the common soldier dies—only to be solaced by a cigarette shared by Blonde. Ultimately, Leone uses running time to get his point across: The war is a major plot device, but one that lingers far too long without going anywhere. Normally, this would draw out a movie and be a bad thing. Not here. Here it serves a single purpose: The audience becomes as fed up with the whole meaninglessness of it as much as Leone’s characters are, as scenes of lengthy brutality are drawn out only to result in the various factions blowing themselves into oblivion.
If war plays a major subrole in the whole film, then greed is its counter in primary roles. All three main characters are obviously greedy in some way. Tuco is perhaps the most obviously greedy, living only to find money to waste. Angel Eyes’ motives are also money driven, especially as a bounty hunter, and it seems as though they become more and more personal as the movie progresses. I have always found his character to be the embodiment of what greed actually is, as while Tuco is blindly ignorant, just looking to make money to spend it, Angel Eyes is more slowly drawn into the personality of greed. He starts off distanced and rather businesslike but by the end of the movie, unemployed and stalking his prey for his own motives, finding the treasure is a personal need. Even the film’s climactic score composed by Ennio Morricone is titled “The Ecstasy of Gold” (“L’estasi Dell’oro” in its original Italian) giving a nod to the blatant theme of the film’s climax. Finally, after everything, it just comes down to a pot of gold.
The film making of Sergio Leone has become legendary. Today, it is fully realized through the lens of Quinten Tarantino and although his own style took some perfecting through the ’90s, his influences became quite obvious with the “Kill Bill” films of the early aughts. The style is instantly recognizable. Panning shots, saturated colors (or stark black and white, deeply contrasted) and a playfulness with sound, a sense that many directors pass by as mere consequence of action rather than a meaningful portrayal of material. But what really sets apart the style is the unnerving use of time. Scenes hold, unbreaking, for almost too long. Tension is built not through breathtaking action sequences, but rather simply through a very natural use of the human response to anxiety: You can feel yourself become nervous as the scenes creep forward to an uncertain conclusion.
The conclusion of this film grants a subtle nod to the traditional western genre. The assumed hero wins in the end and rides off into the mountains…but not after playfully pranking his moderately loyal friend Tuco leaving him with a noose around his neck and hands tied. In the end, Leone leaves much of his masterpiece open for interpretation. The ostensibly worst character, Tuco is left to live, but he gains nothing. In fact, what the movie ultimately showed was that the “Ugly” was not really all that bad, being more a loyal dog than anything else. He was despicable as a specimen of humanity, but he wasn’t particularly evil. Angel Eyes, though, was. He was ethically devoid, not out of ignorance as was the case with Tuco, but out of a willful reluctance to cling to any kind of moral behavior. Blonde, too, seems to fall into this category, but unlike his peer, he has learned the art of self control. He isn’t good, but he isn’t proud of that fact. Leone didn’t give us a hero. But he did give us an option to cling to.