The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – A Cinematic Review

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: It’s a title that almost everybody knows. With a myriad of references, pastiches and imitations, it’s almost certain that you’ll know something about the film, even if your knowledge is limited to the critically acclaimed title theme. It’s anything but a stretch to call this one of the most iconic films ever produced. Opening up a new dimension in the Western genre with its novel approach, the film is arguably the magnum opus of its director, Sergio Leone (although others would credit that specific honour to the 1968 film, Once Upon A Time In The West.)

The film, released in 1966, and starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as Blondie, Angeleyes and Tuco Ramirez, also known as the titular Good, Bad and Ugly, follows the three protagonists in a journey across the southern states of America, as they cross a country divided and ravaged by civil war in a battle to unearth a fortune of stolen gold buried beneath an unmarked grave.

The plot is surprisingly deep and very complex, combining bloodshed and betrayal with a cynical look at the American Civil War, filmed to resemble the battlefields of the First World War. Cynicism is very much the order of the day throughout the film, as the protagonists occupy a world where the “Good” only ostensibly lives up to his title. Sergio Leone delights in his role of deconstructing the once-tired myth of the West, substituting the cliched puritan and upright ethos of preceding Westerns for a seedy standpoint where morality is subjective, and never interferes with the main characters’ desire for money. The frontier spirit of the early Western conquests is captured, and despite the fact that the film was shot in Spain with mostly European actors, it arguably does a better job of recreating the Old West than many American-made Westerns.

Key to this cynicism are the characters themselves. The Man With No Name is considered to be the “Good” only because he refrains from the blatant banditry of his fellow protagonists. Yet, within the opening scenes of the movie, we see him shooting other would-be bounty hunters, obstructing the law by shooting the hangman’s rope tied around the neck of a notorious bandit, then, once the source of money from his ploy has dried up, he abandons the bandit in the middle of the desert with a fifty-mile journey to the nearest town.

If the “Good” doesn’t quite live up to his billed title, the same couldn’t be said of the “Bad”. Angeleyes, a mercenary-for-hire, has absolutely no trouble in playing two sides against each other, in torturing, in exploitation or murder. We see this hammered home within the first fifteen minutes, as he shoots down two paymasters in opposition to each other as soon as he’s collected the money that they offer him. Yet, Angeleyes still works to a steadfast principle: “When I get paid for a job, I always see it through to the end.” Despite his lack of loyalties and his impartiality, he still works to something at least resembling a moral code, even if the details leave much to be desired.

While the “Good” and the “Bad” represent the closest things to moral absolutes in a film which delights in its cynicism and loose morality, the “Ugly” is an altogether more complex character. With the film opening as Tuco Ramirez smashes through a window in order to escape a group of bounty hunters, we immediately see his volatile and unpredictable nature. Despite that, though, he shows considerable charisma and charm. In contrast to Blondie, the taciturn bounty hunter, or Angeleyes, the murderous mercenary who lurks behind the scenes, Tuco is a more fleshed-out character. Tuco’s notoriety has led him to a growing list of crimes, which almost seems comical in its length and variety, but we see later that Tuco’s behaviour seems more selfish than abjectly “good” or “bad”, fuelled by the same money-lust that drives the other protagonists, only with a more unpredictable and more driven personality behind it.

With these characters comes a great deal of unpredictability, as such strong personalities don’t lend them well to teamwork, and the film is full of betrayal and shifting, uneasy alliances, which will keep the viewer asking themselves questions to the very end, and making the plot far less derivative and more riveting than would be immediately expected from a Western.

Cinematically, this film is a masterpiece. Sergio Leone proves himself an able practitioner of the “show, don’t tell” principle, eschewing dialogue in favour of the cinematic approach. With some of the most able and competent uses of cinematic techniques in a movie, ranging from sweeping camera pans over the battlefields of the Civil War, to framing of the characters, right through to some of the most fantastic close-up shots ever, particularly during the shoot-outs, with close shots of darting and squinting eyes and fidgeting hands (bonus points for those who notice the missing segment of Lee Van Cleef’s middle finger), Sergio Leone creates a fantastic sense of style about the film, from the fabulous beginning sequence with its abstractions all the way to the very end, with a shoot-out so stylish that it entrances.

While Leone never relies on his dialogue to propel the movie, managing to do more with a single person’s expression than most film-makers manage with most characters’ dialogue, when the characters do speak, it’s usually something worth listening for. The characters fire off ripostes from their mouth almost as often as they do from their guns, and the lines in this movie prove themselves able to withstand repetition by never seeming forced, and always seeming natural. Of particular note is Tuco’s response to a man who has cornered him and gives him a monologue about how long he has waited to find Tuco – a surprise shot, followed by four more, and a reply, “If you need to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”, which perfectly illustrates both the emphasis on action over dialogue in the film, and the one-liner nature of the entire film, where nearly the whole film is worthy of quotation.

While the film would be notable for these preceding characteristics alone, proving itself a fantastic deconstructor of those over-used tropes in the genre, there is one element not yet covered which ensures and cements this film’s deserved iconic status.

The music in this film goes beyond good. It goes beyond brilliant. It is quite simply masterful, the work of a virtuoso at his very finest. Apart from the iconic title theme, which is deservedly one of the most well-known tunes ever, Ennio Morricone builds tension throughout with his outstanding score and the unpredictable and inventive use of instruments not usually encountered in the sort of classical music which Morricone composes. Out of this fabulous score, we see two stand-out successes: L’Estasi Dell’Oro (known in English as The Ecstasy of Gold), one of the most fitting and masterfully orchestrated pieces of music found in cinema, a sweeping epic backed by the entrancing wordless vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and Il Triello, a powerful, tension-building piece of music which backs the final shoot-out, once again backed by Dell’Orso’s vocals, this time at soprano levels.

With the fine mixture of cinematic art, dialogue which never grates and the plainly beautiful music, there’s very little to criticise about this film. It is, however, a very long film at 156 minutes (171 for the extended version), and while the film sustains its pace over its entire length, it is not a film which one can go into with the idea of wasting time. It must be watched from start to finish as a cohesive package, because this film is an epic in the most traditional sense, twisting and turning enough to keep people excited throughout.

If there was one thing I would criticise, I would note some of the editing decisions made in the extended version of the film. Adding 18 minutes of extra footage, the extended version adds to the film several scenes which were formerly excised from the cinematic release, for American audiences which had grown accustomed to shorter films, usually only an hour and a half long. Unfortunately, these scenes are not of uniform quality, ranging from those which actually add a bit of extra flavour to the film, to those probably best left on the editing floor, and as somebody accustomed to the cinematic release just as much as the extended version, the extra scenes can occasionally grate.

Despite this minor criticism, there is very little that can be said against this film. Forcefully sweeping aside the puritanism of prior Westerns, it stands as progenitor of a new sort of Western film, one that would more accurately look at the Old West as a cynical, blood-stained chapter of American history. Combined to some of the finest cinematic technique ever seen in a film, sparkling and imaginative dialogue and music which fits perfectly and remains utterly memorable more than forty years after its first release, it’s not hard to see why The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is so critically acclaimed, and why I give it such a recommendation.

Bottom Line:This film is epic, this film is art, but most of all, this film is enjoyable. There’s no reason why any self-proclaimed cinephile should not have seen this film.

Recommendation:Watch it. DVD boxsets of the “Man With No Name” trilogy go for comparative pennies these days, and along with one of the finest and most artistic films ever made, you get two films which are enjoyable in their own right and show just why Clint Eastwood’s career was suddenly elevated from that of a lowly television actor into that of a superstar.