I continue to celebrate hitting 100 blog posts by giving the second half of my in-depth look at my favorite film of all time – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. There are so many reasons why this is my favorite movie, as well as a film adored by critics and directors alike. Just ask Quentin Tarantino, he’s ripped off this movie more times throughout his career than you can count!
In this second half, I look at the fantastic central characters, Ennio Morricone’s thrilling score, the perfect finale, and the film’s impact on cinema over the years. Read on find out more about this absolutely astounding movie.
Go to Part 1 of my spotlight to read about the film’s epic scope, powerful actions scenes, and film-altering cinematography.
Three’s the Magic Number
Through all of the action, twists, and turns, Leone’s movie is propelled by the three characters at the center of the tale. Each man stands in stark contrast to the others, although twists of fate and slow reveals fed throughout show them to be more layered and interesting than originally thought.
Most ingeniously, each character is introduced at the beginning of the movie with their part in the title superimposed by them on screen. Tuco kills three bounty hunters looking to collect on his head, then jumps through a window, freezing the frame and revealing him to be “The Ugly.” Angel Eyes kills a target and then murders the man who hired him for the hit in order to go after the $200,000 he just learned about, showing him to be “The Bad.” Blondie teams up with Tuco to con police out of a bounty, only to eventually ditch him in the desert when he gives up on their partnership, pausing to identify him as “The Good.”
But these generalized classifications are slowly shown to be far too broad for who they really are. Subverting these expectations created by the very beginning of the film helps to keep The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly surprising and bring added depth to what could easily be a shallow action adventure.
The character of The Man with No Name is everything that Clint Eastwood excels at as an actor. He’s charismatic yet cool, emotionally reserved yet dynamic, and always extremely badass. He’s a quick draw artist with impeccable aim who has far less of a moral compass than someone would expect from a character labeled as “The Good.” Yet, there is an obvious heart underneath all the sunbaked squinting and cigar chomping. It just only comes out in little drips and drabs.
Eastwood knows how to make his presence felt onscreen without overpowering other actors or the purpose of the scene. From the moment he steps into frame, outgunning three rival bounty hunters and lighting up a cigar, his character feels iconic. Even without A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, Blondie is immediately magnetic. While his highlights in the film often come during the shootouts, he provides quite a few of the film’s best laughs, most often when playing off Eli Wallach’s Tuco. Blondie is reserved, focused, gritty, and stoic. Tuco is slovenly, manic, and quite the ham. It’s obvious why the two work so well together, both as enemies and partners.
When paired with or facing off against Angel Eyes, Blondie’s moral compass is shown as much stronger than anticipated. It’s not that the two men disagree about everything, it’s just that Blondie automatically despises him. Whatever happens to get in the way during the course of the movie, it’s obvious that these two will come to a major collision by the end.
If there is an emotional center to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, it’s Eli Wallach’s Tuco. One of the film’s best tricks is to introduce the character as an absolute scoundrel, having his laundry list of despicable crimes read out loud by his would-be executioners twice, only to slowly make him a sympathetic and even loveable scoundrel. Part of that is due to the history that is revealed about the character during his surprise run in with his long lost brother, but most of the credit must go to Wallach’s performance.
He plays Tuco as simultaneously goofy and deadly, laughable yet serious. Rather than stick to one moral road with the character, he gives him far more personality and human complexities than expected. Yes, he’s greedy, glutinous, and treacherous, but he’s not an evil person. He’s desperate and willing to do whatever he needs to survive while trying to outrun his past life. Some of the film’s most emotional moments come from his reflections and suddenly-exposed humanity.
On the other hand, Tuco is also the source of nearly all the movie’s laughs, and there are quite a few of them. He and Blondie go together like oil and water, and when they are forced to work together, the results are outstanding. Wallach’s reactions and physicality bring vibrant comedy and reoccurring visual gags, like the character’s half-hearted crossing of himself out of respect for the dead, which becomes more and more lackadaisical as the movie progresses. In any scene, Wallach is a fantastic foil for both Eastwood and Van Cleef, complimenting them wonderfully and never being outshone by their charisma.
While the circumstances of chasing after $200,000 is enough to give the three main characters dramatic purposes, Angel Eyes gives the film a great villain. He’s a consummate professional who’s passionate about his job. It’s just that his job is usually killing people.
Lee Van Cleef gives a snarling performance as Angel Eyes. He has all the intensity of a cobra about to spring, which informs all of his interactions with other characters. Whenever he’s on screen, the tension automatically increases dramatically. The audience is quickly shown that he’s prone to violence and is deadly with a gun, so the chances that someone will die when he’s around are that much more likely. It doesn’t always happen, but he’s the cause behind much of the movie’s violence.
While he’s not subject to as much character development as Blondie or Tuco, there are shades to his character that we see throughout the film. Most surprisingly, the character first introduced as a mercenary is revealed to be a Union Army sergeant! It only spells more trouble for the protagonists when they’re arrested and brought into his military prison. Interestingly, Van Cleef’s character is absent from large portions of the film, disappearing and reappearing at the worst times for Tuco and Blondie. But his presence is always felt. There’s simply no way that the heroes will get to the treasure without facing him first.
A Soundtrack for the Ages
If there’s one piece of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that has seeped into mainstream culture, it’s the soundtrack. While the main theme is instantly recognizable and has become its own living, breathing thing, it’s only one of many outstanding pieces of composer Ennio Morricone’s score. Combining trumpets, guitar, piano, whistling, yodeling, and even the sound of gunfire, Morricone composed a score that feels like a living, breathing part of the atmosphere.
There are so many wonderful aspects to the film’s score that it can really be taken as a whole. There are no so-so parts to it and it truly locks in with the film’s wonderful cinematography to create an immersive experience. However, there are multiple pieces that stand on their own and show Morricone’s musical mastery.
“Title Theme” – Recurring motifs throughout the film help to establish various themes, while each of the main characters has a unique version of the two-note motif present in the signature theme of the movie. Blondie is represented by a flute, Angel Eyes by an ocarina, and Tuco by human voices. Each of these are played on their own at various points throughout the film to punctuate the actions of their respective characters, or are paired together at crucial moments and when the characters intersect.
“The Ecstasy of Gold” – A swirling and propulsive number that lovingly matches the frantic graveyard search on screen. Leone reportedly wanted Morricone to write a piece that sounded like the dead laughing from their graves. He gave him so much more here.
“The Trio” – An absolutely epic piece that makes an already amazing finale so much better. As trumpets, acoustic guitar, and piano rise and fall, Morricone wrings out every last drop of anticipation while Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes duel in the graveyard.
Every piece of Morricone’s score has something to be cherished. Take a listen and find all the wonderful arrangements that have made the soundtrack a piece of cinema history.
A Heart-Stopping Finale
All these pieces lead to the grand finale. Three men, $200,000 in buried gold, and one chill-inducing standoff in the middle of a graveyard. This so-called “Mexican Standoff” has been emulated in movies since, but has never been matched. It’s all because of the buildup that Leone has expertly developed in the nearly three hours leading to this duel. Everything rides on this. Characters the audience has come to know and love, the fate of the buried gold, and the epic sweep of this vast movie all boil down to three men poised to kill one another.
*Spoilers From This Point*
But words can only do this scene so much justice. For your enjoyment, here is the climactic battle in all its glory.
The reason why the finale is so fantastic is the sheer amount of tension that is brought with every passing moment. The direction, cinematography, and pitch-perfect editing all combine to leave audience members hanging onto the edge of their seats. The crescendo reached by the score, the rapid-fire editing from shot to shot, and the intense focus on each combatant’s eyes and hands make this an almost unbearable sequence. Most importantly, the payoff is extremely satisfying. What seems to be a no-win scenario ends in the best way possible, thanks to the rug absolutely being pulled out from under you.
Blondie’s trick, Tuco’s reaction, and Angel Eyes getting absolutely creamed by an almost non-chalant Eastwood is everything you wanted, even if you may not have realized it. It reveals even more about each character, only for there to be one last twist once the gunfight has come to a close.
Perfecting the Western Genre
The Western genre has had its many ups and downs over the years. And while to many non-fans it seems as though there can be only so many types of tales told within its confines, the truth is that there are so many ways to approach this dusty, six-shooter-filled staple of film. But without The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, as well as Leone’s other Spaghetti Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and Once Upon A Time In The West, the genre would be woefully limited.
Before the director exploded onto the scene, Westerns were composed primarily of white hat-wearing heroes and fiendish, mustachioed rogues. While some movies like The Searchers and High Noon took a much more dynamic and nuanced look at the stories told in the Wild West, most others were far too straight forward. Thanks to Leone, far more shades of gray crept into the genre, leading to more intricate and unique tales. The Spaghetti Western genre as a whole took off thanks to the director’s efforts. And while none of those movies ever matched his works (and many were downright terrible) they certainly added flavor to the Western genre.
No Western made before had the scope and unique vision to match what Leone brought to the screen with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And even in the decades since, no one has been able to match the film, even with their eyes opened by the fascinating approach taken in the story. Films like Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch, True Grit, and The Outlaw Josey Wales all owe Leone’s masterpiece a debt of gratitude.
But The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is as good as Westerns, and cinema as a whole, gets.