The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ★★★★★

[97]

[179-minute extended English cut]

Calling the first entry in Sergio Leone's unofficial Eastwood trilogy, FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, an impressive debut into the world of spaghetti westerns would be putting it lightly—it was a benchmark of the genre and a fundamental assessment of his craftsmanship behind the lens. He laid his skills against the whetstone in every imaginable way merely one year later with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE; it was longer, slower, more self-assured, grittier, and completely original. Leone improved from 'superb' to 'borderline masterpiece' and it's hard to think that upward trend could possibly continue, especially within the same genre.

But somehow, Leone manages to save the best for last, further honing a skill set and style that was already razor-sharp. All of Leone's trademarks are here—the intricate and intertwining story, the sprawling western landscapes, the concise yet powerful dialogue, the brilliant use of silence, the devilishly tense close-ups, the disregard for human life, the immaculate Morricone score, the morally ambiguous gunslingers, the deeply rooted cynicism—only this time, his courage and confidence are sky high, and it shows in every single frame. Every cut, every take, and every second of every shot that lingers, both close and narrow or far and wide—from a pair of eyes or a holstered gun to a team of horses galloping through the desert or a stymied Civil War bridge battle—is lacquered in certainty.

FISTFUL OF DOLLARS had one 'main' protagonist (Joe), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE had two (Manco and Mortimer), and so it's no coincidence that THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY has three—Blondie (the Good), Angel Eyes (the Bad), and Tuco (the Ugly). One could argue that Angel Eyes is not a protagonist, rather the villain, similar to El Indio in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. And it's true, maybe Angel Eyes is not a "protagonist" in the literary or virtuous sense of the word, but his story arch is every bit as integral as Blondie's and Tuco's, giving each portion equal weight and importance in composing the whole.

Furthermore, Leone melts and blends his characters together so well that every single person's moral compass is skewed to some degree—the terms "good" and "bad" are never absolute and should only be referenced in the frame of this particular story. Blondie might be credited as "The Good" but as evidenced from one of the beautiful opening sequences, he's involved in a money making, justice-cheating scheme with Tuco, taking him in for bounties and then freeing him just as he's about to be hanged by shooting down his rope from afar. Blondie is far from "good" in the traditional sense of the word; really, he's just less bad than the others—or, at the very least, Angel Eyes, who executes two men who've put out hits on each other and collects both sums of money without batting an eye. When I'm paid, I always see the job through.

Angel Eyes has higher aspirations, though; he's looking for Bill Carson, a man who has $200,000 worth of gold hidden somewhere, in hopes that he'll be able to get his hands on the money. Leone's elegant story unfolds like a western fairy tale; through happenstance, Blondie and Tuco stumble upon this very man as he's closing in on his last breath. It turns out that the money is buried in a grave inside a cemetery; with some clever trickery and impeccable timing, Blondie learns the name on the gravestone where the money is buried. The opposite is true for Tuco, who knows the cemetery but not the specific tombstone. Of course, this wouldn't be a problem had Tuco and Blondie's relationship as partners remained intact, but due to some fueling egos and a twinge of betrayal, they are anything but friends when they each learn this information. Against their wishes, they must begrudgingly work together to reap any rewards.

We’ve already seen what Eastwood (Blondie) was capable of in Leone’s previous westerns; his mysteriously assured and wickedly reserved persona continues to be on-point and provide the structural basis of crooked heroism in the west. Lee Van Cleef was Manco’s ally in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, but takes a flip-flop of ideals and assumes the role of “The Bad” here, and he does so quite well with sharp eyes and a diabolically sarcastic grin. Eli Wallach was brilliantly cast as Tuco—the most morally skewed and complex of all the characters. Blondie and Angel Eyes are decidedly Good and Bad, comparatively, but Tuco’s scrupulousness is muddy and much less clear. He’s really an amalgam of the other men—good with traces of bad, or perhaps bad with small hints of good. He’s both likable and despicable all at once, and Wallach taps into that mindset wonderfully.

Leone has mastered the art of pacing quite well—THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is a film that’s slow to transpire, but contains so much content in every scene and every sequence that it never becomes boring. At nearly three hours long, most filmmakers would be afraid of losing the audience’s interest, feeling the need to compensate by editing cuts more quickly and truncating long-lingering shots. Not Leone. He’s finally become self-aware of his own ability to captivate an audience through tranquility, never worried that he’s overstaying his welcome. Blondie’s death march through the desert in the scorching sun is a perfect example of a slow-burning sequence that would lose its gruesome power and intensity had Leone felt the need to start snipping and cutting frames short. Instead, we begin to feel and embrace Blondie’s blight, empathizing with him through each agonizing step he takes.

But tantalizing courses aside, a spaghetti western just wouldn’t be complete without a solid dose of action, tension, and adventure, and here, there’s plenty of each—Tuco “testing out” a revolver as the shop owner is closing up; his men slowly trying to sneak up on Blondie as he’s cleaning one of his guns; Blondie and Tuco’s mistaken identity and capture by the Yankee army; Tuco’s escape from captivity on the train; Blondie’s camp-out with Angel Eyes and five of his men; Tuco and Blondie’s dynamic shoot-out through the center of the town; the set-up and explosion of a bottlenecked wartime bridge—the list could go on forever. This is exactly what I meant when I said that Leone is a master of pacing. There’s so much that happens, and so many things that unfold, yet nothing is ever rushed along—it’s amazing that all of these scenes, sequences, and details fit into a runtime of less than three hours. On the opposite end of that spectrum, it’s equally impressive that this movie never feels nearly three hours long—a testament to its enchantment of the audience.

It would be a sin to talk about any Leone film and not mention Ennio Morricone. He, like Leone, had improved through each film in the trilogy—from great to even greater to downright masterful. With THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, he has created such an iconic score that has almost made itself analogous to the entire genre; it’s hard to think of old westerns and not immediately hear the, “Ahee-ahee-aahhh, wah WAH waaah” in your head—the signature trademark that effectively outlines the entire film. Another instance of his genius is during the Tuco's brutal interrogation at the hands of Angel Eyes’ henchman, Wallace. As Tuco is bludgeoned so severely, the choir outside juxtaposes a counterpoint with soft, hymn-like music, only serving to amplify the intensity of his beating.

The absolute best use of music, though, comes near the conclusion of the movie as Blondie fires a cannonball blast that unknowingly propels Tuco forward into a gravestone on the fringe of the cemetery these men had set off to find. Tuco stands up and realizes where they are just as the camera pans out to reveal a cemetery as vast as the day is long. The moment Ennio Morricone’s "Ecstasy of Gold" starts playing, I get chills throughout every inch of my body. I swear I could watch Tuco running through the rows of gravestones like a child with that music in the background for hours. It’s pure cinematic excellence, and a cornerstone example of how music alone can transcend a scene into greatness.

The time spanning the initial discovery of the cemetery to the closing credits are my absolute favorite 20 minutes of film, ever. What follows Tuco’s exquisitely scored graveyard frolic is by far the greatest shoot-out standoff in history. Three men, equally spaced at the eye of this gigantic cemetery; one rock in the center of them which contains the name of the headstone where the money is buried. This sequence is the culmination of everything Leone had been working towards with his previous two films and the first two acts of this one. The final showdown between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Direction, editing, scoring—everything here is absolute perfection. There’s no other way to say it. The cuts shuffle through the heads of the three men, their guns, and their hands, slowly getting closer and closer with each pass until shots that once revealed an entire face now only hold sets of menacing eyes, shooting nervous glances back and forth. The music slowly builds and intensifies, only to drop-out momentarily before it begins to build itself up again, creating a surmounting tension that stretches across the entire affair. The men’s hands begin to trickle and slowly inch towards their guns; the cuts cycle faster, the music crescendos and grows more rapid, then bam! You hear gunfire and the pressure slowly begins to ease its way out of the stress cracks it previously created. You take a deep breath and realize you’ve just witnessed the pinnacle of westerns (and, to a degree, film in general).

Leone even soothes us further with a little bit of humor in the film’s final scene in which Tuco and Blondie’s former “partnership” is rejuvenated in a playfully dangerous manner. At gunpoint, Blondie ties Tuco’s hands behind his back and puts him in a noose, his feet barely able to balance on the feeble tombstone below. Blondie rides off into the distance, appearing to leave Tuco for dead despite leaving him half of the fortune. Alas, how could Blondie be “The Good” if he went around killing for no good reason (though I suppose you could argue that he actually does have a solid reason for terminating Tuco)? He turns around on his horse several hundred yards away and shoots down Tuco’s rope, and everything comes full circle.

The western to end all westerns. Sergio Leone et al. are firing on all cylinders here and have created something that’s truly and genuinely deserving of the term “epic,” in every sense of the word. Nothing short of a visual and aural masterpiece, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is one of the most immersive films I’ve ever seen and continues to amaze 50 years later. My love for this movie was rooted back during my adolescence and has only grown stronger with each revisit. A timeless classic, a criterion for spaghetti westerns, and the summit of Leone’s much-too-short career as a director.

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