I first saw Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it was broadcast by the ABC television network as a Sunday Night Movie feature back in the day when the home video revolution was still a decade away and the Big Three TV networks devoted some of their prime time schedule to air not-quite-new-but-not-quite-old theatrical movies.
Because I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time and wasn’t educated about movies or the film industry, I was not aware that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the third chapter of Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (which also included A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) or that it was originally an Italian-made flick (shot on locations in Spain and southern Italy) titled Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (literally, “The good, the ugly, the bad").
Of course, because I was so young I didn’t quite understand all the nuances – visual and thematic – of Leone’s epic story about three anti-heroic characters (played by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef) who are searching for a hidden cache of Confederate gold in Civil War-torn Texas.
Indeed, I was very confused by the fact that Eastwood’s mysterious gun-slinging Man with No Name, aka Blondie, didn’t fit into my preadolescent’s naïve belief that good guys in Westerns all had to fit into the John Wayne hero mold as per the conventions of pre-1960s films set in the (mythical) Old West. After all, what with Clint’s character being labeled “the Good” one of the trio and the movie’s top-billed star, it was very strange seeing Blondie teaming up with the career criminal Tuco (Wallach) on a bounty hunting scam which netted both men thousands of dollars.
For those readers who may not have seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie would “capture” Tuco and turn him in to authorities in the various Texas towns where was wanted for a serious crime.
After collecting the reward, Blondie would leave and Tuco would be taken to the town gallows. The hangman’s noose would be placed around Tuco’s neck, and when it looked as though the execution was going to be finalized, Blondie would free his partner-in-crime by breaking the rope with a shot from his rifle.
Blondie: You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage - uh, cigar? - liable to interfere with my aim.
Tuco: But if you miss you had better miss very well. Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing!
[Chuckles, bites cigar]
The screenplay by Sergio Leone, Furio Scarpelli, Agenore Incrocci and Luciano Vincenzoni (which was anglicized by Mickey Knox) is deceptively simple in outline. Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, a steely-eyed and laconic assassin-for-hire, has been hired to find a man named Jackson– who now uses the alias Bill Carson - and find out the location of a stash of gold which belongs to the Confederate Army.
Angel Eyes is a relentless pursuer who is willing to do anything – even shooting a man he is interrogating and his oldest son – to fulfill his contract.
He is also a man who does not hesitate to double-cross an employer if there’s money to be made from doing so.
As Angel Eyes searches for the man who calls himself Bill Carson, Blondie and Tuco’s partnership dissolves over Tuco’s wish to get a larger percentage of the money the two men make from their bounty hunting scam. Tired of hearing Tuco’s demands for more money, Blondie abandons him and leaves the vindictive, violent and totally amoral criminal to fend for himself without a weapon or any of the money they netted from their last escapade.
Of course, the three men’s paths are destined to converge, especially after Tuco and Blondie each learn about Carson’s cache of stolen gold and decide that they want it. But if the two ex-partners want those $200,000, they must put aside their differences and team up again, Will they be able to do so, and will they help or hinder the relentless Angel Eyes?
My Take: It wasn’t until I purchased the 2006 MGM DVD version (which contains the “international edition” released in the U.S. and Great Britain) that I was able to really watch Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and appreciate it as the work of art that it truly is.
It helps, of course, that the DVD, which is part of the Best of Eastwood collection, contains the complete English-language version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and not the bowdlerized 95-minute version which has been syndicated for the American TV market since 2006.
While I am usually in agreement with the notion that most movies should be no longer than two hours, this is one of the few epic-length films that deserve to be seen without being edited for time constraints.
There are many reasons why I think Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is one of the best anti-heroic films ever made, not the least of which is the film’s almost alien vistas and neo-mythical storyline.
Quite simply, Leone had the cojones to break the mold of the typical Western and shoot the movie in Europe rather than bring his crew to the U.S. and film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the more familiar locations seen in American-made horse operas.
Consider this. Whereas a John Ford/John Wayne film along the lines of Fort Apache might tell a story which involves some jeopardy to its main characters, the familiar vistas of, say, Monument Valley are somehow comforting to us because we have seen them so often in other movies that they feel almost as though they were a back lot with no real dangers to anyone.
But the Texas depicted in Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is alien and inhospitable to us partly because of Leone’s mixture of extreme close-ups of the characters with extended panoramic shots of the hills, plains and mountains of Spain and Italy. These are places that very few American eyes had seen in 1966 when the film was released, so it is this unfamiliarity, this threatening landscape of arid ground and sunlit skies which give the film its harsher, unnerving atmosphere.
Another element that makes this movie work well is its dry, dark humor. The final screenplay (by Luciano Vincenzoni and Leone) has straightforward dialogue, of course, that provides exposition and establishes the McGuffin, but it’s also full of dark, witty bon mots.
[Tuco is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room]
One Armed Man: I've been looking for you for 8 months. Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you. Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me. I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam]
Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
Blondie: [counting Angel Eyes' men] One, two, three, four, five, and six. Six, the perfect number.
Angel Eyes: I thought three was the perfect number.
Blondie: I've got six more bullets in my gun.
Of course, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is also remembered for its eerie yet rousing score by composer Ennio Morricone. Its famous theme – which features the sounds of guns being fired, male vocalists yodeling and even the whistling of the melody by musician John O’Neill, who had already had a hit single with I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman but is best remembered for his performance here - is one of the most memorable pieces of film music ever composed.
Although it takes huge liberties with history, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can also be considered to be a great Civil War movie. Yes, it’s a spaghetti Western. Yes, it’s a caper movie, too. Nevertheless, the war is not just a distant backdrop; there is one hell of a surrealistic battle scene focusing on a bridge that Union and Confederates fight over with no end in sight, and there’s a realistic depiction of a POW camp of the era based on the real-life Andersonville prison in Georgia.
Copyright ©2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.