The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY 2il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Italy / Spain / West Germany, 161 minutes
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Mickey Knox
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editors: Eugene Alabiso, Nino Baragli
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov, Antonio Casas

Eli Wallach’s teeth are too good—and that goes for Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, too. Gleaming white and straight and lined up just the way modern-day dentists like them. At some point—I think usually around the time Tuco (aka “the Ugly,” Wallach) has brought Blondie (aka “the Good,” Eastwood) to a monastery to recover from a bad time in the desert—I notice how well-tended those teeth are and I am taken temporarily out of the action. My last complaint. That’s the niggling level of my criticism about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is otherwise practically flawless.

GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLYIt is, as the mystifying phrase we like to use now has it, what it is, and makes no bones about it. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a cartoon-level Western trafficking in existentialism, with extra fine shooting and a bone-simple story of revenge and greed animating the three principals, as the divertissement, cutting across history and causing it to fall away: the Civil War, the railroads, horses and guns and broad brim hats and brown liquor downed straight. All the familiar elements are here, but merely to serve as feeble context for these three gods striding through and defining the action, straight out of a deck of tarot cards—the two angels of heaven and hell, and the trickster fool with the sad, sad story.

Director and co-writer Sergio Leone worked out a style as dependent on visuals and music as on narrative and words. Not a word is heard in the first 10 minutes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and indeed the first 30 are dedicated to elaborate, stylized introductions, each with a freeze frame emblazoned with the key signifier: “the Ugly,” “the Good,” “the Bad.” He liked it so much, and it works so well, that he repeated it again at the end.

Leone takes his sweet time over and over again setting up the many epic confrontations that populate this movie. We see one person doing something, and then another person doing something else, and then yet another person wandering away from the scene, and eventually all things connect up. But it takes a long time getting there—the picture is nearly three hours. As explosive and quick as the climaxes are we finally start to realize it’s not the point at all. They are repetitive and redundant, an unending random game of rock-paper-scissors. What matters, in true existential fashion, is the beauty of each moment and the ability to grasp and see each one as it goes by. That’s why it’s slow.

There is a cinematic line that passes through Lawrence of Arabia and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and on to Apocalypse Now and John Woo’s Red Cliff, great sprawling epics plunged into history and unfamiliar landscape—unfamiliar to its characters, its makers, its audience. Leone’s work has been labeled “spaghetti western” from the first because he is Italian and brings a penetrating sense of foreignness to these quintessentially American scenes. The classic high-noon drawdown on main street here for example has the additional element of being in a war zone, with shelling. The story takes place in the middle of the Civil War, often intersecting directly with it. At one point Blondie and Tuco become prisoners of war in a Union POW camp where Angel Eyes (aka “the Bad,” Van Cleef) has somehow become a commanding officer.

GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY 4There is also something very funny (funny ha ha, I mean) about the way the plot points line up. Blondie is “Good” only in the sense of being skilled, but he is also a blessed figure in a way, often escaping harm altogether where Tuco suffers enormously. Blondie is absurdly able to operate serendipitously, at one point for example finding a cannon ready to fire and aimed just where he needs it. All he has to do is drop his arm and rest the coal of his familiar cheroot on the fuse. There is a sense of a greater power behind him, as there also is with Angel Eyes, in whose case the source is obviously infernal. By process of elimination that leaves Blondie as “Good.” All things balance.

In a year when European art film was reaching certain enduring high points Leone was relegated more to the back and side of that, though we see better now that he certainly belongs with Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky, and the others. But spawning an international superstar in Clint Eastwood, playing with fundamental American b-movie elements, and incidentally seeing a good deal of commercial success obscured that somewhat, at least until Quentin Tarantino came along a few decades later (since which the problem tends to run in the other direction).

GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY 5The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a movie I return to frequently, not least because so many are willing to agree on it (as they never would for, say, Andrei Rublev), and it works even in fragments, which I know from running across it on TV. It’s slow, but always engrossing—there is a fascinating intricacy to the parts, and there is something pleasingly geometric about the forces balanced against one another and how they play out. The end is represented by the lines of a triangle inside a circle. It has the capacity to surprise very much; I can still never quite get over the scene with the POW orchestra, haunted by “More feeling,” one of the cruel guards barks at them at one point. It’s funny and harrowing and unnerving as hell, and sweet and beautiful and haunting as well. The whole movie balances on the edge of a blade, for nearly three hours, and then pirouettes to an astonishing finale. It never gets old or stale.

My Top 10 of 1966

1. Au Hasard Balthazar

2. Persona

3. Andrei Rublev

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

5. What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

6. Masculin Feminin

7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

8. Seconds

9. The battle of Algiers

10. Blow-Up

Jeff Pike is an arts journalist and professional writer who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music and books of the past.