Bene! Bene! Bene! Sergio Leone is the master craftsman of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is his masterpiece. An Italian director shooting Spain as the American West could not help but invent a genre. Sergio Leone reflects the old world taking a fresh and distinct account of the new. It is Europe in a reciprocal relationship with America. The American West is here for the first time portrayed outside of the USA and therefore outside its sensibilities and biases (and some would say ‘accuracy’.
As The Godfather series similarly did with the mobster genre, Leone doesn’t make a Western so much as an opera applied to a Western backdrop. The drama is painted with broad strokes on a Spanish location that could not be less realistically the US Southwest, if it were a canvas backdrop on an operatic stage. Within grand themes he then applies a kind of ‘stylised realism’.
The music is iconic: Ennio Morricone’s famously eerie score (you’ve heard it before) is as distinctive as the lead actors in this film. Clint Eastwood (‘the good’), Lee Van Cleef (‘the bad’) and the ineffable Eli Wallach (‘the ugly’) are some of the best examples of face-casting you’ll ever see. The motivations are basic: ‘greed’, ‘revenge’, ‘sociopathic’. Yet the characters are complex, the morality ambiguous and the back-stories are elaborate. Leone’s films blend the opposition of never less than three protagonists, requiring twisting plot mechanisations, shifting alliances and a classic ‘Mexican stand-off ’.
Clint Eastwood is icy, cool and quietly efficient. He turns in accused criminals for bounties and frees them before they are hung. Lee Van Cleef may be as cool as Eastwood, but he has a slicker, smoother and, dressed in black, decidedly more evil persona than Eastwood. But Eli Wallach, as Tuco, is the most memorable. Tuco is the most complex and sympathetic of the trio. He has an outlaw persona with traits of humanity that do not make him an entirely bad person. In his moral ambiguity and charming pragmatism, Tuco is the wild card, the axis upon which the two other forces are balanced, and ultimately tip.
It is, in many ways, the most comprehensive western ever made. Leone, as familiar with the myth of the American West as he was aware of its near exhaustion, not only revived the genre but took it places Hollywood had never dared take it before. He made TV actor Clint Eastwood into an international superstar, and in the process invented a character – the gun slinging ‘man with no name’ – who embodied the Western’s next generation: tough, morally ambiguous and clouded in a mystery unknown to the likes of Gene Autrey and John Wayne.
Leone directs with panache and intelligence, two qualities you rarely find in the same movie. The two other films in the trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) are grand accomplishments with many of the same elements as this one, but with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone has broadened his scope – literally and figuratively. He uses every last inch of his Cinemascope-enhanced frames, particularly in the final scene: the best shootout ever put on screen. The narrative stretches across two-and-a-half hours, during which the characters manage to develop without compromising their archetypal power.
The civil war backdrop provides for necessary plot machinations. But it also offers inexplicable desert warfare and the swarthiest confederates in the history of cinema. Maybe it was Garibaldi’s army, maybe the location was meant to be Palermo. And maybe, before you let the question go any further, you get one more burst of the coolest theme music ever, and you just don’t care.
Director: Sergio Leone
Writer(s): Sergio Leone (story and screenplay), Luciano Vincenzoni (story and screenplay), Agenore Incrocci screenplay) and Furio Scarpelli (screenplay)
Runtime(s): 161 minutes, 186 minutes (France, dubbed version), 182 minutes (Spain), 180 minutes (UK, re-release)
Country: Italy/ Spain
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.