It has been easy for a lot of critics to complain that director Sergio Leone’s 1966 master work The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an exercise in style over substance, but man, what a style. At close to three hours long, the movie could be a rough road to travel if you’re not ready for the slow pace that Leone uses to help build tension. But throughout the runtime, the frame is filled with beautiful images. I could probably have chosen just about any scene in the movie to use as the thumbnail to accompany this writing.
It’s easy to see Leone’s influence on Quentin Tarantino, as our three principles – played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallack, respectively – are each introduced with a freeze-frame and their title displayed on the screen. Now we know what we need to about the characters, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in backstory and character history. The three men are put on the trail of a hidden cashbox filled with $200,000 in gold (worth about $10 million as of 2010), and the majority of the movie involves their changing allegiances and various misadventures. Leone’s vision of the wild, wild West is a merciless one. The sun beats down on the characters constantly (I don’t think there’s one scene that takes place at night), and even the cities are expansive. It’s a world where everybody carries a pistol, where murder and kidnapping are so routine that when a man carries another into town tied up on horseback, nobody bats an eye. This is so removed from life as we know it today. This vision of the United States in the Civil War era has an enemy soldier tied to the front of a train in order to die of heat and thirst, an idea unthinkable now. It’s a world where rules are hardly enforced, if at all, and one’s life is constantly in danger.
So the ‘Ugly’ of the title, Tuco (Wallach), is hardly surprised when he comes across a carriage filled with dead and dying men in the middle of the desert. Who attacked them and why is never even brought to question, and when one of the men mentions the hidden loot, no time is wasted wondering where the treasure came from – all efforts are immediately changed to finding the money. But it proves to be a journey littered with troubles, as Tuco and Blondie (Eastwood) find themselves held captive in a variety of situations, first at the hands of one another, then to far greater enemies – Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and his torturous Union brigade, and ultimately the most sadistic of villains: politics.
Each scrape that the men find themselves in, though, is both thrilling and haunting. Take, for instance, a moment when Tuco and Blondie are taken captive in a Union encampment after mistaking the soldiers for Confederate officers and pledging their allegiance to the South. Angel Eyes brings the former in for a bit of food and music, but the scene turns suddenly grisly when it is revealed that the music played by a group of forlorn prisoners is used simply to cover the sounds of violence inside – one of A.E.’s goons has taken to pummeling Tuco, slamming him against the wall, choking him, plunging fingers into his eyes all in order to get him to talk about the location of the hidden treasure. The melody that cloaks the terror is melancholy. The camera focuses on a fiddler whose eyes are wet with tears. This event is clearly not unusual; it likely sometimes ends with the death of a prisoner – these musicians are unwitting participants in this daily atrocity.
While we’re on the subject of music, the wonderful execution by director Leone is not the only thing that the movie has in its favor. Almost as central to the movie’s success is the now iconic score by Ennio Morricone, which colors every scene and adds to the epic sensibility, it gives the movie a sense of grandeur that the film could not accomplish with its images alone. There’s one amazing scene near the end that takes place in a cemetery – the camera swirls faster and faster until it becomes difficult to see anything aside from a blur of colors and shapes flying by. It’s an incredible moment visually, and thematically it signals the beginning of the end for the movie. The moment certainly would have worked if accompanied by no music, just the sight of a man running frantically through a gigantic graveyard, but it rises up and reaches out to the audience, it makes the viewer’s heart race, because of the pounding score playing over the action. It’s in moments like this, and especially moments when the theme music plays, that the score almost functions as a fourth character to the movie. The Good, The Bad, the Ugly, and Ennio Morricone’s Awesome Score.
All of it comes together in a marvelous finale that, even if the rest of the movie fails to move you, is sure to astound. The concept is packed with an intrinsic tension that makes the moment inherently captivating, so much so that Quentin Tarantino has felt compelled to copy it repeatedly. And it’s not just the question of “who will get the money”, the battle of wills between the three characters, that provides this brilliant final kick. Even after that is all sorted out, there’s another thrilling scene that has the viewer waiting with bated breath, unsure of how events will ultimately play out. The movie remains exciting right up to the very end – there is no falling action.
This is the first Sergio Leone film I have seen, and it’s true that a lot of the reason that I’ve avoided the man’s work this long has been because of an imagined disdain for the ‘western’ genre. It’s clear, though, that a good movie is a good movie regardless of where or when it takes place. Limiting myself like that is exactly what I complain about in those who refuse to watch masterpieces of silent film, in black and white, or which require subtitles. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a spectacular film; there’s nothing better than seeing a spectacular film for the first time.