After almost one year of writing, I’ve reached my 100th blog entry! To celebrate, I finally discuss my favorite film of all time: director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood’s 1966 Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly!
Simply put, this has been my favorite film for almost a decade. Each repeat viewing only solidifies its place at the top of my list and there are so many reasons why no film can beat it in my mind. While I am a fan of the Western genre, my love for the film is not dependent on it falling into any category. Simply put, this is an outstanding piece of cinema that is not bound by any cliches or genre limitations.
So throughout the course of this two-part article, I’ll take a look at what makes The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly such a spectacular piece of cinema and a film that has and will stand the test of time.
If you’ve never seen it, feel free to read. This is spoiler free!
Read Part 2 of the spotlight, focusing on the score, main characters, finale, and impact on cinema history.
Truly Epic Scope
Italian director Leone had found success with then-TV star Eastwood in the westerns A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More in 1964 and 1965. While he had no plans for another installment, he, screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, and producer Alberto Grimaldi agreed to a deal with United Artists to create another film. The movie began as a germ of an idea – three rogues looking for treasure during the American Civil War. It became the defining work of Leone’s career and a movie that has reverberated through the decades.
Eastwood returned for the starring role. While the three films are not absolutely connected, they share the central protagonist of The Man with No Name, here referred to by the nickname of Blondie. He’s joined by Tuco (Eli Wallach), a filthy scoundrel who’s much more complex than he seems at first glance, and Angel Eyes, a ruthless mercenary with a taste for killing. The three men, introduced as The Good (Blondie), The Bad (Angel Eyes), and The Ugly (Tuco), find themselves on the trail of $200,000 in gold. Each with their own purposes and methods, they are invariably forced to band together and betray one another in search of a prize beyond their wildest dreams.
Thanks to the then-hefty $1.2 million budget, Leone was able to give his tale a huge scope. Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes travel the West in search of the gold. Along the way, they fight through bombed-out towns, encounter massive armies on both sides of the Civil War, and shoot through countless gorgeous set pieces. While the movie was entirely filmed in Italy, it really feels like the Old West, and not the glamorous version seen in so many Hollywood movies. This is a filthy, dirty, grimy world that is populated with an assortment of wild characters that still feel real. There are no borders to the sets here. It seems like the Wild West goes on for miles and miles past what the audience sees. We’re just along for the ride through a piece of it.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly keeps a fantastic balance between an epic scope and an intimate focus. Through it all, it maintains focus on the three main characters, especially Blondie and Tuco with nearly the entire first act, almost an hour long, devoted to them. The two start as partners, Tuco being a wanted man and Blondie being the bounty hunter who turns him in, shoots down his hanging noose, and splits the reward. Backstabbing and vengeance split the men apart, but they encounter a man who knows where $200,000 is buried. Tuco knows the graveyard where it is. Blondie knows the name on the grave. It forces them to be partners once again and into the path of Angel Eyes, who is already after the treasure. Running nearly three hours, there is plenty of time to devote to each person, building them up and giving their story arcs a massive sweep.
Beyond its story, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a technical marvel. One of its strongest aspects being its cinematography. Director of photography Tonino Delli Colli uses widescreen filmmaking to its fullest extent in each moment. Every scene is filled to the brim with iconic images. The sprawling Western vistas are captured in their full glory. Massive mountain ranges, fully-formed frontier towns, battlegrounds, and more are displayed through humongous shots.
Perhaps more powerfully, characters are captured in extreme closeups, often in direct juxtaposition to the massive wide shots seen moments before. Every detail of each actor’s face is unblinkingly portrayed, putting each man’s cracks and crags up to intense scrutiny as a variety of emotions play across their features. Some shots are enveloped completely by a subject’s eyes, displaying each speckle and fleck as combatants size one another up. Only the tensest of moments result in these shots. Each one is used sparingly for maximum impact.
Other powerful pieces of cinematography include a split-second gunfight shot entirely behind a smoking pistol, the real life explosion of a massive wooden bridge, and a lengthy trek across a blazing-hot desert. Of particular note is the “Ecstasy of Gold” scene, where Tuco frantically runs through a massive graveyard in search of the buried gold near the film’s climax. Paired with composer Ennio Morricone’s hypnotic score, the scene is a dizzying journey that perfectly portrays the searcher’s frenzied desperation. Keeping the camera on Tuco, the scene blurs more and more, spinning through the tombstones faster and faster, only to come to a whiplash stop once the grave is found.
Colli’s cinematography helped the film stand out as a one of a kind experience back when it was released. Unlike so many cookie cutter filming techniques of the time (or even today), The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly doesn’t look like anything else. While the movie was released to generally negative reviews, it has since become a classic with praised heaped upon it. Its cinematography being one of its most talked-about aspects. Countless films have aped its style in one manner or another since, helping to usher in a new way of filming in all types of genres.
Fistfights, Double Crossing, and Shootouts Galore
During the course of its three hours, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly contains some of the best shootouts and fights seen on film. However, compared to many modern day action scenes, these feel rather simple and straightforward. But it isn’t about how many explosions there are or how many bullets fly, it’s the extremely high quality in the way each is executed.
Specifically, Leone makes sure the action scenes are all about tension. Gun battles center on who draws first, not who shoots the most lead. When a pistol or rifle is fired, the target rarely survives. Many scenes play around with the idea of whether or not a gun will be drawn. Many others are collision courses where someone is bound to die. Leone also sets up the idea that the three main characters are all impeccable shots, so no one is seen as an inferior to the other in combat. Of course, that setup works beautifully for the film’s finale, pitting the three men against one another simultaneously in a Mexican Standoff, but more on that later.
Leone makes sure that there is just the right amount of battles throughout the movie. Action never overwhelms story or character, but it plays a vital role in the tale of these three violent and desperate men. Morricone’s score swirls around and through the scenes. It builds and builds to the breaking point, often dropping out at the last moment only to crescendo once again. The gunfight scenes also frequently play with silence or minute sounds, like jangling spurs that give away an ambush. The deafening blasts of gunshots punctuate the silence and break through the score.
At the time it was made, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was criticized for its violence, which was seen as shocking and excessive for the decade. While it is quite tame by today’s gore-soaked standards, it is still a violent movie. Unlike Westerns of the time, people are shot and killed within the same frame as the shooter, rather than cutting from shooter to reacting victim. It makes the violence feel stark and real. It also prevents the cheesiness that some old Westerns suffer from in the light of modern day. Throw in a dash of blood and several brutal stunts, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly keeps each action set piece lively.
Read Part 2, where I finish my two-part analysis of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly!