“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
From his 1961 debut, a kitschy swords and sandals picture called The Colossus of Rhodes, to his final film in 1984, the sprawling gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, director Sergio Leone seldom dabbled in the discreet. Yet if these films are notable for their artful indulgence, the five films that came between them—Leone’s string of groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns—are perhaps even more removed from any semblance of subtlety. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) paved the way, and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) become the ultimate destination, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the first real indication of just how grand Leone was willing to go (1971’s Duck, You Sucker, generally entertaining, is something of a step backward). Placed smack in the middle of this cowboy quintet, and running almost three hours in its extended cut (now available on a spectacular Blu-ray from Kino Lorber), this 1966 feature is an operatic, passionate, and expertly-executed Western renovation, one that could have only come from the visionary mind of Sergio Leone.
A satisfying sense of absolute accomplishment is partly why The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains one of the most popular and widely-lauded Westerns. With its explosive, painterly opening credits, its iconic gunshot-whistle-whip crack score, and its frame-filling faces—sweaty, unshaven, gritty, bloody—the film has been referenced in and out of its genre for decades, though few imitators have achieved this degree of unabashed brazenness without succumbing to contrived posturing. It’s a formal boldness, to be sure, for the plot of the film is in itself comparably standard. Set during the already-fatigued early stages of the American Civil War, around 1862, the focus falls on a trio of fringe outlaws, each an incremental distance from the rule of law and order. There is the titular “Good,” an elusive lone gunman called Blondie (Clint Eastwood); there is his on-again, off-again companion, the unscrupulous Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), AKA the “Ugly”; and there is the “Bad,” a sneering mercenary named Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). In the early portions of the film, the first two figures enact a scheme whereby Blondie “apprehends” Tuco, secures the bounty, then frees the desperado just as he’s about to be hanged. Then they do it all over again; that is, until their inevitably wily ways cause a rift in the partnership. Meanwhile, Angel Eyes has his sights set on an alleged cache of $200,000 in stolen Confederate gold. It’s a rumored wealth that soon enough intrigues Blondie and Tuco as well, thus setting up the lethal three-way pursuit.
There are all sorts of sub-plots and digressions before the film concludes with its renegade trio meeting for the picture’s famous cemetery showdown, but what keeps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly so fascinating and so worthy of limitless revisiting is Leone’s evident enthusiasm for the Western genre. Without being overly self-conscious about its generic base (as those films that would later emulate Leone often were), the piety of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is manifest in its dramatic set-pieces, its visual bravado, and its atmosphere steeped in archetypal essentials. All of these features—familiar and prominent, yet treated to an entirely original arrangement—encase the three primary characters, who are, again, linked to representative types, but given idiosyncratic twists. They are all determined, egocentric, venal, and skillful (and all remarkably good shots), but as their wayward paths grow progressively hampered by recurring suspicions and sporadic happenstance, their shared ambitions trigger incessant scheming and equally regular betrayal. Van Cleef, who like Eastwood and Wallach began his career largely in television, mainly Westerns, plays the ruthless Angel Eyes with a methodical and deliberate deviousness. Adorned in black, with needling eyes and a distinct mustache, he is a bad guy’s bad guy, set up early on to be a shrewd, indiscriminate killer. Eastwood, whose initial claim to fame came with the TV series Rawhide, which had just ended around the time of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, adopts the same basic “Man with No Name” persona he had in Leone’s prior two Dollars films (incidentally, he had a name in all three movies). Generally defined by his enigmatic stoicism, here he is granted a few fleeting quips, usually at Tuco’s expense, as well as some of the film’s softer traces of humanity (giving a dying soldier a puff from his cigar). In terms of a full-fledged character, however, it is Wallach’s Tuco who stands out. There is considerable humor all through The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and most of it comes from Wallach, his capacity for comical crudity rivaled only by his animated expressions of anger, joy, and desperation. At the same time, as the only character given a generous back-story (a back-story abounding in one transgression after another), he is subsequently less mysterious and, as a result, rather less intriguing.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in terms of content anyway, is its historical context. Countless Westerns have used the Civil War as a surrounding backdrop or vital narrative component, but Leone implements the war in a more abstract, rhetorical fashion. These men are caught in the middle of a conflict with which they have nothing personally or politically invested. They move along with purely selfish aspirations, concerned with whatever puts them ahead. And that certainly isn’t this divisive national struggle—that just gets in their way. The domestic engagement is sometimes played for laughs, as when Blondie and Tuco facetiously greet arriving Confederates in their gray uniforms, only to discover the men are actually dust-covered Union soldiers. But essentially, the three central characters are indifferent to the entire skirmish, disregarding both ideological perspectives. Still, there is a logical honesty to their apathy, something surely existent in actual western history, but something rarely acknowledged in Western cinema. It’s a possible reflection of Vietnam-era political fatigue, and it’s still indicative of a candid lethargy that reverberates today. Why worry about such lofty national concerns when there are more pressing issues facing me and mine? Nevertheless, Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes are not immune to the scale of combative violence, which generates a concentration of destruction beyond their imagination. Better than most any other Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly puts into prescriptive the moderate, localized feuds that commonly comprise films of the genre, and sets them off against the more substantial encounters that concurrently impact an embryonic nation. Giving some indication of what a Sergio Leone war movie may have looked like, the level of fighting is truly impressive (he employed some 1,500 Spanish soldiers as extras), and the magnitude of the carnage does manage to elicit a few profound moments of deliberation; in one particularly powerful scene, Angel Eyes silently surveys a blown-out barracks strewn with bloodied soldiers, while later, looking at the dueling forces, Blondie laments, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”
Written by Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, and Luciano Vincenzoni, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly registers a nearly surreal measure of hyperreality. With editing by Eugenio Alabiso, a familiar name to Spaghetti Western buffs (he worked on the original Django in 1966, among others), Leone’s masterful orchestration of the climatic standoff is a protracted piece of pulse-pounding montage, accelerating an ecstatic insertion of hands, guns, and eyes; the music swells, the tempo increases, off-screen space contracts. Leone stretches time, either with this type of calculated upsurge, building in intensity to a sudden crescendo where the ensuing violence is quick and vicious, or with painful, lingering attention, as when Tuco leads Blondie on a torturous trek through the desert (as one exceptionally sadistic example), where the latter’s sun-scorched flesh is practically melting off.
Shooting in northern Spain and at the famed Cinecittà studio in Rome, Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli saturate The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with established icons of the genre: the vast, barren desert, the eclipsing hats, blowing dusters, ragged cigars, sombreros, ponchos, etc. As Leone would do to an even greater extent with Once Upon a Time in the West, what he creates isn’t parody and it’s not exactly homage; it’s simply an expression of devotion. He knows and loves the Western—often saying he dreamt about Western movies—and is therefore comfortable testing the limits of the genre, romanticizing its features, and offering up a trancelike consummation of style and tone. There is scarcely a wasted or unnecessary moment in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Virtually every shot, movement, and sound effect is implemented with the utmost precision, with a complete realization of how it will translate into the film at large—it’s little wonder Quentin Tarantino proclaimed the picture “pure cinema.” Coming on the immediate heels of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (all three films had their US release in 1967), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has had a lasting impact few other Westerns can rival.