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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

(Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Sergio Leone, Italy/USA, 1966)


 


Smokers Only

 

If you want to appreciate the genius of Sergio Leone, follow the trail of smouldering cigars in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That is certainly what Tuco (Eli Wallach) does as he pursues Blondie (Clint Eastwood) across the barren plains of the American Old West (in actuality, Spain).

 

Smokers may well be in the best position to enjoy this movie. Cigars fill many narrative functions, from a prop in the gruesome, near-death masquerade staged by Tuco and Blondie as they wander from place to place, to a way of lighting explosives. And the expansive moments when his characters take a long, pleasant puff – glorified by the magisterial music of Ennio Morricone – are spectacles of sheer joy, when Leone reveals his talent at creating and filming human gesture.

 

In this scenario, Leone and his frequent writer Luciano Vincenzoni label Tuco as “the ugly” and Blondie as “the good”. The epithet of “the bad” is reserved for Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a truly nasty piece of work who crosses over from mercenary to military officer during the Civil War.

 

Critics in the 1960s and ‘70s turned over the multiple ironies of the film’s title, wondering who really should be called good, bad or ugly. Frankly, this sort of literary speculation is largely beside the point. Everybody in this movie is rotten to the core. Basic, animalistic values of greed and survival are the only things that drive them.

 

If you have ever wondered, as a film fan or a filmmaker, how bad guys can be made enjoyable, this is the movie for you. (It has certainly proved to be the movie for Quentin Tarantino.) Leone stages every encounter between the three men as a simultaneously gruelling and hilarious game of wits and bluff. Oneupmanship becomes the supreme value in life, and also the supreme achievement.

 

Leone views the power play of his characters with sheer delight. The most surprised party in any transaction is likely to be the viewer – Leone never ceases toying with our moment-to-moment expectations.

 

The opening scene is classic Leone. There is a vast, widescreen landscape, suddenly blotted out by an ugly, unshaven face. This man approaches two others with agonising slowness. We anticipate a classic Western shootout.

 

But, just as the three men approach the door of a house, they all burst in at once, an integrated unit in search of a hitherto invisible target. There is off-screen gunfire, and then Tuco appears through a window, frozen amid a hail of broken glass as he pulls a face and chomps on his lunch. When we finally peek through that door, the three visitors are dead.

 

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly now comes to us in a newly restored form, with an extra 20 minutes that originally appeared in the Italian version but have never been dubbed into English until now. Seeing this film on a big screen with the sound turned up loud is an incomparable experience of pure cinema.

 

At its full length, the inspired construction of the piece is more evident than before. It begins in a deliberately pared down, minimalist way, rotating its three main characters. Slowly, Leone begins adding details that construct a historical portrait of the Civil War.

 

This is Leone’s first real venture into the realm of the epic, an investigation he would continue to master in Once Upon a Time in the West (1970) and his final testament, Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

 

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly culminates in a closing 40 minutes that includes three immortal set pieces – a trifecta that very few filmmakers could ever pull off. Each of these scenes expresses a different facet of Leone’s art.

 

The first set piece is about the brutal ironies that inform history. Tuco and Blondie want to get to the stash buried in a graveyeard, so they blow up a bridge that is a vital link in the War. Once it explodes, the cannon fire from both sides escalates. When the smoke clears, it seems that (in a stunning ellipse) some soldiers have decamped, while many others are strewn dead on the battlefield. This, in a nutshell, is Leone’s vision of politics as the ultimate, perfectly meaningless Inferno.

 

The second set piece, following immediately on from the first, involves Tuco in the graveyard. Infinite riches are his – if only he can find one, particular grave in a field of thousands. As he skips madly from headstone to headstone, Leone’s camera spins and blurs (taking brilliant advantage of an inherent limitation of the motion picture apparatus – pan shots that “streak”). Wallach (in the finest role of his career) conveys, in this sublime dance, both the ecstasy of a savage child and his dawning sense of utter desperation and hopelessness.

 

And then there is the final shootout – three bad men in a wide circle, waiting to see who will fire first. It is a scene that has been endlessly copied and parodied in everything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995). But even the most jaded moviegoer’s laughter will turn to awe as Leone turns on and sustains the cinematic pyrotechnics that are his trademarks: the accelerating editing, the close-ups of eyes, the ultimate moment of truth.

 

Leone is, I believe, an underrated figure in cinema history, one of its greatest and most radical innovators. Ultimately, there is nothing in contemporary filmmaking that approaches the special kind of thrill that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly can give.

MORE Leone: GiĆ¹ la testa

© Adrian Martin August 2003


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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