10 January 2012

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY/1966/SERGIO LEONE/CLINT EASTWOOD

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo)

1966/Director: Sergio Leone/Writers: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone

Cast/ Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Aldo Giuffr, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, Enzo Petito

I was living in San Antonio Texas where my dad was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base when The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released. We all packed ourselves in his Valiant station wagon and went to the Valley-Hi Drive to see the film and it left an impression on me that was to linger for the rest of my life. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a film that falls into a very narrow category for me. Films that I feel are not only great films but films worthy of deeper introspection and multiple viewings and each viewing seems as fresh as the first one. It is a film I am not even comfortable commenting on here. There are a few others as well that would make me shudder to do a post here at my humble site about: Apocalypse Now, The Last Picture Show, Dr. Zhivago, Lord Jim and even Blade Runner and other films of the same caliber that have left such a lasting impact on me that I simply feel unworthy to expound on them in any fashion. And is another reason and that is that films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Apocalypse Now have been critiqued and reviewed to death on the net. I usually try to select more obscure and little viewed films of an often trashier variety here at the Café to pander. Also I try not to be too pretentious with my comments and speculations. I will leave all that to the experts. Certainly many films deserve deeper philosophical reflection but I am not the sort of person to publicly delve into all that sort of thing. In simple terms I like to proceed with my foot as much out of my mouth as possible. But when I watch a film like this one I am usually transported to another world all together. So with that as an introduction let’s take a look at this western masterpiece by maestro Sergio Leone.

Sergio Leone is one of the most influential directors of all time and yet his total number of films numbers only about half a dozen. There is debate on the net about what his best film was with some commenters saying things like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a great film but not Leone’s best film. Well I disagree and there are always people who want to sound like they are more into the ‘inner’ information by making some sort of staggering denouncement like that. Like people who say that the Beatles were not really a great band or that Marlon Brando could not act. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the work that all of Leone’s other films are measured by. The film falls into the spaghetti western genre but like any truly great film it transcends genres and categories and goes to not only be a great western film, spaghetti or burrito, but a great film period. A great epic motion picture. Period.

But guess what? It is still a fun film to watch. That’s right. It is a great film and full of all those deep meanings the ‘thinking’ film reviewers like to sit around and hash over and debate about but it is succeeds on a very basic level as well. It is a classic adventure story that has at its core the most simplest of themes: human greed and the pursuit of gold. The film is the third of Leone’s westerns that starred a young Clint Eastwood in the role of the Man With No Name. Eastwood had been playing the cowboy Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide. The series came to an end after Eastwood had completed the first two Leone westerns A Fist of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and Eastwood was weighing options when Leone and his wife flew to the California to negotiate his return to the character in the third film of the trilogy. Eastwood was never one to be shy or quibble and after a couple days of talks Eastwood flat out said he would make the film for a payment of $250,000 and 10% of all North American profits. Leone was not happy with the deal but wisely went ahead and made the picture with the brash young actor and soon to be filmmaker. It is debatable the film would have succeeded the way it did had Leone decided to go with another actor at this point. The film also had a huge budget, for the time, that would climb to about $1,300,000 in the end. The film would be shot in Spain and the majestic panoramic shots by cinematographer Totino Delli Colli actually resemble much of the American southwest. The film simply must be seen in widescreen format.

As I said the film takes one of the simplest of themes, the pursuit of instant wealth, and turns it into an epic adventure that uses the American civil war as a backdrop. There was very little actual campaigning between the Union and Confederacy in the state of Texas (which remained neutral during the war) the territories of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona but there some early skirmishs, like the Battle of Glorietta Pass in new Mexico, that the Confederacy lost. The film may exaggerate the scope and range of some of the Civil War here but it is acceptable since the film does not purport to be historical drama. It uses the Civil War as a vehicle for something else the way Apocalypse Now did with the Vietnam War. A shipment of Confederate gold was robbed by a band of men led by Baker. There was some double crossing and the gold was stolen from the thieves by a man named Jackson. On the trail of Jackson (now under the name of Bill Carson) is the hired gun known as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). Angel Eyes is a cold blooded, remorselss killer. We are introduced eary on as well to the Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach) who is a wanted man always being pursued by bounty hunters. Bounty hunters became a recurring motive in spaghetti westerns. Tuco soon becomes partners with the laconic ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) who is himself a sort of bounty hunter. Blondie seems to be more of an opportunist than a bounty hunter and strikes up a strange partnership with Tuco whereby Blondie ‘captures and turn in’ Tuco for the growing reward money only to set him free from the gallows rope with some sharp shooting. Maybe I can spend a brief moment with each character before I continue with my film comments.

The Good: As anyone who has seen the film realizes the term ‘good’ here must mean "not so bad" when compared to the two other mongrels. Blondie’s ethics are as flexible as the other two characters when dealing with the prospect of instant wealth but he does not kill unless drawn on and shows acts of compassion the other two characters seem unable incapable of. With sympathy in his eyes he hands a dying Union Captain a bottle of whiskey, he shares a smoke with a dying young soldier and in the end shows mercy to Tuco when Tuco probably would not have done the same if the tables were turned. He is not above a double cross himself or leaving a buddy stranded in the desert without food or water. We really never learn anything about the character in any of the films except that he is essentially motivated by money. He tends to be a little smarter than the other people around him and is always faster on the draw.

The Bad: In For a Few Dollars More Lee Van Cleef played basically a good guy. While Eastwood’s bounty hunter character in that film was motivated by reward money Van Cleef’s character was equally motivated by revenge (and money). In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly his Angel Eyes character is a killer who enjoys his work. He does not always do his own dirty work and often has some partner or gang to back him up. He is shrewd as well and maybe as equally shrewd as Blondie but lacking any compassion or sense of mercy. He is patient and predatory as his tracks the trail of the gold that finally leads him to Tuco and Blondie. The character was originally top be played by Charles Bronson but Bronson was committed to The Dirty Dozen. He would eventually star as the mysterious harmonica player in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

The Ugly: No doubt the most interesting of the three characters, or at least most entertaining, is Tuco as played by Eli Wallach. Wallach was not overly excited about playing another bandito type character like the one he played in 1962’s How the West Was Won but he finally agreed to the role after talking with Leone. Tuco’s character is the most developed in that we learn things of his past; his brother is a priest, he stayed at home and helped while his brother studied the priesthood and he himself chose the other option… a bandit, his parents are dead and that he is wanted for a comically long list of crimes. Wallach’s performance adds some comedic relief to the film but Tuco is as tough as they come and handy with a gun himself though probably the slowest of the three. He becomes evilly vindictive when he is betrayed by Blondie and left to die in the desert. One wonders if his revenge may have been less, or at all, had Blondie not basically screwed him over so bad.

Most of the story centers on the relationship between Tuco and Blondie with Angel Eyes being a menacing presence that seems to be lurking just outside events on the screen. After the strange business arrangement between Tuco and Blondie is severed after Blondie concludes his partner will never be worth more than $3000 Blondie all but leaves Tuco for dead in the desert. Tuco does not die so easily and winds up in a small village where he re-equips himself with firearms and ammo and a spiffy new sombrero. With vengeance on his mind he sets off after Blondie and finds him working with his new partner Shorty who Blondie is forced by Tuco to, well, leave hanging. Tuco decides to take a walk through the harshest section of the desert with Blondie. Of course Tuco will have a horse, an umbrella, a few guns and lots of water. Blondie will be on foot and that is about it. It does not take too long for Blondie’s gringo skin to start burning and peeling much to Tuco’s amusement. The way one may shoot a dying dog Tuco finally takes some slight degree of pity on Blondie and is going to end it all with a bullet when a dark wagon being pulled by panicked horses appears on the desert’s horizon. This is the second time fate has intervened to save Blondie from Tuco. The first was earlier in the film when Tuco had Blondie with a noose around his neck in a hotel room and canon ball strikes the building allowing Blondie to escape. During the course of events at the wagon Tuco gets the name of the cemetery from Jackson (Bill Carson) while Blondie gets the name on the grave. They are now bound to each other again and Tuco takes Blondie to a nearby monastery that is run by his brother. Blondie recovers slowly and witnesses a scene where Tuco’s brother, Father Ramirez, all but curses Tuco and slaps him (for which he gets punched in the face) and Tuco leaves heartbroken but tells Blondie how much his brother loves him. In another act of compassion Blondie does not pull the rug out from under Tuco and allows him to have his version of things and shares a smoke with him.

They are soon captured by Union soldiers since they are wearing Confederate uniforms as disguises. They are led to a POW camp where Angel Eyes has secured a position, somehow, as a Sergeant. Angel Eyes got information from beating Jackson’s girl friend Maria that led him to believe Jackson was being held in a POW camp. As it is Jackson is dead but Tuco has assumed his Bill Carson identity and Angel Eyes is quick to seize the chance to beat information out of him with the help of one a eyed prison guard who Tuco vows to get even with and eventually does. Angel Eyes get the information he needs from Tuco and rather than beat Blondie half to death he sets off with to get the gold and split it up with his new partner. Tuco and Blondie are later reunited and out gun Angel Eye’s gang in a small town being blasted by artillery fire. Angel Eyes decides he is no match for the two of them and decides to bide his time and disappears. Tuco find themselves in the middle of a Civil War battle for an unimportant bridge. While the bridge on the one hand is the senseless cause of casualties on both sides it is also an obstacle between the two men and their gold. They cannot really go get their treasure in the middle of a bloody battle and so they blow the bridge up in a spectacular scene that actually had to be shot twice because it was not captured on film the first time. The film moves towards it conclusion at a perfect pace. Not rushed or hurried and the scene where Tuco runs through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton is one of my all time favorite dramatic scenes. It could have gone one for another couple minutes even. Of course what all this is leading up to is the immortal three way showdown in the center of the cemetery. The scene cannot be over praised in how the tension builds up between then three men. Leone’s editing along with the perfect score by Ennio Morricone has yet to be duplicated in my opinion. The scene slowly builds up to the blaze of gunfire that is over in a heart beat. Blondie decides to sever the partnership yet one last time but as I said earlier he shows he is different in this sense from Tuco in that he shows a little mercy at the films conclusion that Tuco may not have had in him in the same situation.

And of course before closing this article off something must be said of Ennio Morricone’s exquisite soundtrack. He scored the first two Man With No Name films and, I believe, Leone’s remaining films (Once Upon a Time in the West, Fist Full of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in America) but his score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is as perfect as a film sore can be for a film. By this I mean how the sore seems to describe the characters themselves and helps to bring the scenes to life. Another composer for the film would have been like another actor in the place of Eastwood. It would not have worked. I have posted a few samples from the soundtrack. Most people are aware of the theme song but not know some of the other tracks. I guess I could ramble on and on about this film. If you have not seen it then see it. If you have seen it then see it again. I saw it with my wife and she loved it and it is possible she may even see it again someday she said. This is as good a recommendation as you are about to get since she is one of those people who can only typically see a film once in a lifetime.

4 comments:

low carb bread said...

From the above reviews it sounds that this movie was quite interesting...Although I hadn't saw this movie but now I want to see it...

David said...

Wow, big posting day! I have seen this film at least 50 times, 6 of them in a theater. Enough time has passed that many people on the internet today may not know Clint Eastwood ever made a movie he did not direct, much less was once a TV star. Good, brief review that will hopefully cause many people to see this film for the first time. Have you had enough comments from Oklahoma for one day? :P

Bill D. Courtney said...

Low Carb

Please, you must check it out. If you do get back and let me now what you thought.

David

Never enough comments. A big posting day yes but some of this was in my draft folder really, just needing to get the images and stuff together. Hurried through a lot it recently as I am not blogging too much and right now have a tooth ache that has me up here rather than in bed.

Thanks for the comments. I was happy to have nine comments when I checked here a minute ago, especially after my Bullpen post where I vented a bit about a lack of them. Need to do more freaky fumetti posts and cowboy movies. I do keep and eye on what people like to read here and one thing that is popular are jungle movies posts. Wow. So more Tarzan, Jungle Jim and Bomba coming up.

Thanks

Bill

remy said...

What a classic movie, and personally nostalgic - one of the first westerns to do something different from cowboys and indians with some beautifully violent set-pieces (for the time) and absolutely great direction from Leone, your frame grabs from the three-way shoot-out that leads into the 'ecstasy of gold' sequence reminded me of just how astounding the direction is, for me one of the truly great sequences in cinema history, with Morricone's score fitting perfectly. Thanks for the reminder, I'm going to watch my DVD again...