The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [retro review]

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend… those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”

The Scoop: 1966 NR, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach

Tagline: For three men the Civil War wasn’t hell. It was practice!

Summary Capsule: Clint Eastwood and friends shoot up the scenery and each other in the godfather of all westerns.

Drew’s Rating: Two out of two six-guns blazing…

Drew’s Review: A bit of history: in the mid-’60s, a young director named Sergio Leone helped create a new kind of movie. Gone were the simpler westerns of the past where John Wayne was the good guy, whoever he was fighting was the bad guy, justice always prevailed, and people managed to keep their clothes surprisingly clean in the desert southwest. In their place stood what became known as “spaghetti westerns” (so named for their primarily Italian financiers, casts and crews), where none of the old rules applied. The landscape was dusty and inhospitable. People wore grimy clothes; men were unshaven. The good guys weren’t always good and didn’t always win.

Leone’s success kicked off a spate of imitators and his influence is still felt to this day, but very few have managed to capture the feeling of his original trilogy, starring a young, unknown Clint Eastwood as the “Man with No Name.” All three films are hailed as classics, but it’s widely acknowledged that the first two allowed Leone to perfect his craft for what was to be his masterpiece, a movie that would come to embody the western genre perhaps more than any other to date: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The plot, while solid, isn’t the most original in the world — a huge shipment of Union gold has been stolen by Confederate soldiers who buried it… somewhere. A mercenary by the name of “Angel Eyes” Sentenza is searching for it; but soon, so are the murderous thief Tuco and his con-man former partner “Blondie,” AKA the Man with No Name (respectively the Bad, Ugly, and Good of the title). Each man knows part of the information about where the gold is hidden, so the rest of the film deals with the three working with and against each other to acquire the missing clues and find the loot… which, needless to say, none of them is particularly inclined to share.

Again, not the most original storyline, but then it doesn’t have to be if the characters are intriguing and believable, and in that respect Ugly delivers in spades. Eli Wallach is terrific as the conniving yet amusing braggart Tuco who would kill you for a nickel and then rob your corpse, while Van Cleef has a lock on the unmatched arrogance and deadly humor of Angel Eyes. Meanwhile, Eastwood had by this point perfectly refined the squinty-eyed stare and quiet demeanor of the Man with No Name, broken only to deliver scathing jibes or zen-like wisdom. His encounter with a dying young soldier late in the film shows just how good Eastwood is at expressing his character’s thought processes without a single line of dialogue, proving he can do more than just scowl and look threatening. And I’d be remiss not to mention the stunning cinematography: while there are only three main characters in the film, the landscape itself — from bombed-out towns to vast, dusty stretches of plains — serves as the fourth, never letting you ignore its presence.

Leone was a pioneer of the wide-angle shots and extreme close-ups that would come to be associated with spaghetti westerns, and nowhere is this more evident than in the final, three-way showdown at the film’s climax… which stands as, without question, the best gunfight ever put to film. (Sorry, Tombstone fans.) Over two full minutes long, at no point does it feel drawn-out or boring; instead, Leone slowly cross-cuts between the three, then tightens his shots down to just their guns and their eyes, building up speed as the tempo of the music increases and each man’s hand creeps steadily closer to his gun, closer, until finally — well. I won’t spoil it, but believe me, the tension is overwhelming as you wonder just who’s going to draw first… and who’ll be left standing to claim the gold.

I’ve gone on at length about how nigh-flawless this movie is. You really want faults? Fine. Though it is a more realistic western than most, Ugly does lapse into stylization on occasion. Eastwood in particular seems to become God sometimes, whether he’s identifying Tuco by the distinctive sound of his gun or shooting a man directly into an open grave, then blasting his hat and gun in after him. Also, it’s extremely long — the story flows steadily and never gets bogged down, but if you’re one of those people who can’t handle a 3-hour movie that doesn’t involve hobbits, you might not have the patience required. But with all that the film does right, it’s hard to take issue with a very few minor imperfections. Bottom line, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made, and a seminal film by anyone’s definition. Even if you have not the slightest interest in the genre itself, you need to check this one out. Tell ’em Blondie sent ya.

Shalen’s Rating: One out of one missing finger joints.

Shalen’s Review: This is my second review in the Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” trilogy, and frankly I’m in awe. This film has everything. It has Clint delivering some great lines, and managing to convey some things very well with no lines at all. It has Lee Van Cleef, one of my favorite Western actors, and good work from the other supporting cast members as well. It has distinctive sound track motifs, good camera work, and an excellent script.

And it has Eli Wallach, playing a character that ends up rather more complex and interesting than Eastwood’s actually is. Apparently director Sergio Leone knew this, because Tuco gets more screen time than “Blondie” (Eastwood’s character. Apparently the other characters are not able to tell the difference between “blonde” and “medium brown”). Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes gets less than either, and his character is developed the least despite a very interesting introduction. (His is the missing finger joint mentioned in the rating. It’s quite visible in the climactic gun battle. IMDB says Van Cleef lost it building a playhouse for his little girl. He was also a WWII veteran who acted as a minesweeper. He died in 1989.)

I am a detail freak, so I’m going to mention some of the details that most drew my attention. The extreme close-ups are numerous and generally well done, although the one that opens the film startled me (“Who the heck is THAT guy?”). I like that the three antagonists all have different ways of carrying their guns: Tuco on a leather strap around his neck, Angel Eyes across his belly for a cross-draw, and Blondie in the traditional tied-down hip holster. I like that Leone took time to develop Tuco as a very good shot (even while drunk!), not just another craven who thinks he is good. I like the use of nooses in the constant personality clash between Blondie and Tuco, and I like that Blondie was the first one to be guilty of a double-cross. I like the insertion of Tuco’s brother and their relationship, although at that point I was afraid we were going to veer into Steinbeck territory and something bad was going to happen to him. I like that the makeup effects went so far as to depict the actual result of sun overexposure on fair skin (horrible blistering), although it would have been nice if Eastwood’s character had shown some scarring afterwards.

I was surprised to read Drew’s comments on the length of this film, because it really didn’t seem that long. It’s fairly approachable and easy to watch, and all the tricks of style don’t make it less entertaining. I think that was a gift Leone in particular had that many of today’s “good” directors lack.

If you’re looking for a good western that doubles as an excellent film, this is a good choice.

"I am here to look stoic and chew bubblegum. And I'm all out of bubblegum."

Intermission!

  • There’s no dialogue for the first 10 ½ minutes of the movie.
  • Making its debut in this film is the familiar five-note “WHOOO-ooo-OOO-ooo-OOOOO” that everyone automatically hears in their head whenever it’s time for a showdown. Slap leather!
  • In the theatrical trailer, Tuco is mistakenly designated “the Bad” and Angel Eyes “the Ugly.”
  • The personality of comic superhero Wolverine was largely inspired by Eastwood’s portrayal of the Man with No Name, which would continue to influence those of countless other anti-heroes over the years. Western bounty hunter Jonah Hex from DC Comics owes a great deal to the Man with No Name as well.
  • Though primarily a western, Ugly also serves as Leone’s commentary on the futility of war, illustrated in a scene where Tuco and Blondie must cross a shallow river playing host to a pitched Civil War battle. The small, inconsequential bridge spanning it is what so many men are dying for control over, and Blondie’s solution ultimately proves the most sensible — just blow the damn thing up, allowing them to pass and saving hundreds of lives in the process. For the scene, Leone needed to get the permission of the Spanish Army to destroy an actual bridge, who agreed on one condition: their Captain be the one to blow it up. Except he did it while no cameras were rolling, necessitating that the bridge be rebuilt just to get blown up again!
  • Filmed last in the series, Ugly is technically a prequel; in it, we see the Man with No Name gradually assembling the outfit he’ll wear throughout the two other movies, culminating with his infamous poncho in the last few minutes of the film.

Groovy Quotes

Bounty hunter: Hey amigo — you know you’ve got a face beautiful enough to be worth $2000?
Mw/NN: Yeah… but you don’t look like the one who’ll collect it.

Tuco: There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.

Tuco: Don’t die, I’ll get you water. Stay there. Don’t move, I’ll get you water. Don’t die until later.

Tuco: God is with us because He hates the Yanks, too!
Mw/NN: God is not on our side ‘cause He hates idiots also.

Tuco: When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk.

[Reading a note left by Angel Eyes]
Tuco: “See you soon, id… idi…”
Mw/NN: “Idiots.” It’s for you.

Mw/NN: You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend… those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.

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7 Comments

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