The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at 50
The first time Sergio Leone took to the west with A Fistful of Dollars, I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the phenomenon that would follow in its wake. But Leone’s passionate visual direction and Clint Eastwood’s stoic antihero reinvented the American West in Almeria, Spain, as a dirty, sandblasted no man's land, populated with ugly gunslingers and feuding gangs.
Of course, the planets were aligned to usher in the era of the Spaghetti Western, and Leone led the charge following with For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the criminally undervalued, politically charged A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker!), and Once Upon a Time in the West. Many will go on the record saying that Once Upon a Time in the West is Leone’s best, and while that might be true, its operatic realization feels a bit too romantically emphasized. All of Leone’s westerns bear their strong suit, but its The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that always stands a cut above the rest, simply for being the most adventurous. The preceding Dollars films retain the rough-hewn, fast and a loose quality with occasional glimmers of grand scale entertainment, that would become fully realized in the conclusion to Leone's trilogy.
People have poured philosophies all over the the genesis of Leone's baroque stylism. There’s something special working in his body of work; there’s no denying that. But Leone succeeded by taking the familiar pastiche of a familiar brand, chucking the standard “black hat v. white hat/bad guys v. good guys” motif aside and made something unique, providing audiences with a new interpretation of the genre. The elliptical mashup of hands, guns, and point blank facial expressions act as a photo montage of the action before it occurs - his (literally and figuratively) explosive revision of the mythic western was stylistically on par with the pop art of Andy Warhol.
The metaphysical implication of the title is brought to light by three pitch-perfect leads; Eastwood had to be in the picture, it simply wouldn’t work without him. Stalwart character actor Lee Van Cleef comes close to stealing the show as the smirking and sinister Angel Eyes (aka The Bad), but Eli Wallach as Tuco is the most amusing in this classic trio. While everyone is at the height of their game, Wallach spits some great dialogue, contributes the most physical (he does endure a lot of abuse) performance, and is delightfully hammy throughout. Sure, Eastwood is the biggest star, and Van Cleef is a piercing villain, but Wallach is the one who shoots someone from a bathtub following with the great “if you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” line.
It’s impossible to even mention The Good, the Bad and The Ugly without acknowledging Ennio Morricone’s score. In the long line of great composer-director relationships (Cronenberg/Shore, Williams/Spielberg, Rota/Fellini) the marriage between Leone and Morricone is something to marvel. Even the deprived few who haven't seen the film could hear a distant whistle of the theme and know where it’s from, or at the very least identify its derivations.
The term “spaghetti western” commonly evokes a threadbare, low budget kind of exploitation fare but Leone was one of the few (at the time) to connect with an American box office. Thus catapulting his productions into epic territory with the scale of a David Lean production, but the veneer of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly couldn’t be any further from any prestige picture. The title does a pretty appropriate job summarizing the film, there are no sanded edges, everything’s dirty, muddy, dusty, rusty and there isn’t a flattering face (aside from the three leads) to be found. Leone’s penchant for theatrically ramped up violence his penchant for period realism is groundbreaking; the level of historical detail is letter perfect, giving a remarkable story a solid foundation of credibility.
Against the gritty detail is a rollicking high-stakes story that breaks from the otherwise locked-in settings that westerns usually dealt out- these three extraordinary misfits, each in possession of a clue as to the location of a Confederate treasure. It’s an adventure of life or death stakes, with three reticent loners whose “shoot first and ask questions never” mindset pit themselves against one another. However, they have to maintain an uneasy alliance to reap the rewards. In the midst of all blazing guns, squinting eyes, and scheming mechanics there’s the Civil War. If the characters weren't already brandishing enough badass clout, they wade through one of histories bloodiest conflicts as if it were a chore. The American poster has one of the best taglines in history “ For Three Men the Civil War Wasn’t Hell. It Was Practice!” in a business where everything is hyperbole that's an all too perfect way to sell the film.
Looking down the barrel at Leone’s westerns is fun because they all rank up in their own particular way, but are evidently cut from the same cloth. Leone made the Spaghetti Western an international sensation, and his influence is still visible worldwide from the works of Quentin Tarantino to the informal Korean remake The Good, The Bad and The Weird.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a special case in that it’s big, adventurous, violent, with all of the director’s key stylistic hallmarks at the frontlines. Fifty years removed and the film is still emblematic of the genre, sustained by its own merits, and continues to be a major influence on cinema today.