The Clint Eastwood series has hit the ground running, and I’m so glad to be a part of it. Eastwood has become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and respected figures, and has done what very few others have ever managed. That is to evolve from a good actor, into a great one, while simultaneously becoming an incredibly successful, award winning and prolific filmmaker as well. You cannot serve up enough respect for him, and he remains a vital and relevant component in an industry not massively geared towards octogenarian actors or directors. Impressive.
When this season was first announced, I found myself just tripping over movies I felt jazzed and eager to write about. I could easily have picked twenty films or more. Such is the rather amazing filmography of Mr. Eastwood. In the end I have reigned myself back to half a dozen or so films starting with this one.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (or GBU for short), is one of Italian Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Leone’s most celebrated and indeed ‘epic’ movies.
The third of Leone’s movies to star Clint Eastwood as the venerable ‘man with no name’ (in this instance; he is simply ‘Blondie’), that began in 1964 with A Fist Full of Dollars and continued with For A Few Dollars More a year later. GBU completed what’s now the ‘Dollars’ trilogy, another year later in 1966. In this movie, Clint’s character is of course ‘The Good’, although as with most Leone westerns, ‘good’ is a particularly subjective term, and certainly more often a matter of degrees than absolutes. Incidentally, this is an aspect of Leone’s westerns that becomes quite significant when discussing the genre in a much wider sense than we have either the time or need for here.
The film came out some six years before I was born, and as I mentioned; was a bit of an epic. But nearly 3 hour run time and civil war setting aside, the expansive feel begins of course with the gloriously wide anamorphic scope of the film. Growing up, I would have watched the movie in typical TV pan & scan, it was only on widescreen VHS, and then DVD much later that I finally saw it the way it was shot. May the gods bless the existence of 50+ inch TVs nowadays so we can comfortably watch movies shot in scope. My good friend and Filmwerk colleague Chris Bulman and I are in total agreement when it comes to this. Go watch Richard Donner’s 70mm Superman: The Movie (1978) and drink in those glorious, expansive wide wide wide shots, and then go watch Aliens, and you’ll wonder why the latter (as awesome a movie as it is), almost looks made for TV by comparison. SCOPE my friends, SCOPE, and Sergio Leone used it to make GBU look utterly gorgeous, vast and as I said ‘Epic’.
The movie starred of course Clint, and joining him as the pipe smoking, black hat wearing, super sharp cheek-boned, badass hombre, and owner of the proudest nostrils in the old west, was Angel Eyes himself Mr. Lee Van Cleef (The Bad). It’s a common misconception that Van Cleef (having appeared previously in Leone’s For A Few Dollars More), was somehow reprising the same character (Colonel Mortimer) here. But aside from the fact that this movie is actually set some time before ‘For A Few Dollars More‘, it seems pretty clear that this is not the case. We the audience are, I guess just expected to go with the flow and accept Van Cleef as Angel Eyes, and forget all about Mortimer. I always liked playing with the idea that it’s the same guy (even though it makes no sense whatsoever), and felt (rightly or wrongly) that Leone himself was ever so slightly ambiguous about it too.
So this brings us to Eli Wallach as ‘The Ugly’ (poor guy being saddled with that moniker). Wallach’s character ‘Tuco’ is a comical, but surprisingly dangerous bandito who forms the final part of a dysfunctional symbiont circle (or triangle in this case), with Blonde and Angel Eyes. He starts the movie in cahoots with Blonde, operating a ‘wanted’ scam, but the two part ways once Blonde decides he has no further use for their partnership, and leaves Tuco stranded and bound out in the desert (like I said, ‘The Good’ is a matter of degrees). He’s a bit of a bastard actually (Clint) in leaving Tuco stranded like that, and although it sets up the later flip flop of their predicaments where Tuco is more sadistic and exacts a heavier payback on Blonde; one does rather wonder why it was felt necessary to be so unashamedly harsh on Tuco to begin with. It does serve to set up their increasingly uneasy interdependent partnership again though once they encounter the runaway union stagecoach and learn about the hidden gold, so I guess it all harmonises ok.
I’m running the risk here of going too much into a review and extended play by play synopsis driven angle on this piece, which I wanted for the most part to avoid. Rather, I would like to just revel in how good a movie GBU actually is, and linger more in the true sense of ‘retrospective’ (without adding too much ‘self’ context this time around – and everyone sighs in relief!).
The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ was obviously coined (and certainly used) in a less than positive or complimentary way by many in Hollywood. However, this is so disingenuous to filmmakers like Sergio Leone that I’m glad that whole generations of fans (like myself), have grown up with these movies, and have no such derogatory interpretation for the term. Suffice to say that when I say ‘Spaghetti’ western (which I don’t often do); it is with a wholly positive and respectful sense of appreciation of this key sub-genre.
There are so many things about this movie to mention. Just the opening is fantastic. There’s no dialogue for a full ten minutes; Leone unafraid to let his camera linger, and drift over rugged landscape and faces alike. The simmering silent menace of the first scene at the homestead is edge of the seat tense. But even under tension; he allows his scenes to open out, breath and move slowly and gently towards the often violent conclusion. Sometimes letting music play a vital role (I’ll get to the genius that is Ennio Morricone later), and sometimes using nothing but ambient sound. For anyone raised on a diet of the likes of Michael Bay, this type of filmmaking is unheard of, and probably excruciating to watch. But if you can get into it; it offers so much more to savour. In a way, it’s a higher pleasure masquerading as a lower one. Leone always gives his characters, shots, situations time to develop, his camera loves discovering objects of interest in a frame, be they landscapes, inanimate objects, animals or people. He often just gazes at them with no sense of hurrying along. The movie even starts with an extreme close-up of a random craggy, weathered face staring into the camera. Why? Dunno, why not?
This time and space also allows the violence when it happens to become vivid and tangible. It’s actually violent as hell, and there are some brutal scenes in it (Van Cleef putting the pillow over the old man’s face and shooting him repeatedly is a good example, or his torture of Tuco later on). But, no sooner has the violence ripped itself across the scene, we almost always withdraw back to the most loving and subtle attention to other more humdrum things. Close ups of weathered faces, switching between long (sometimes really, really, long) shots, and so close you can see individual pores. It’s joyous and I absolutely love drinking it all in.
While I’m talking subtleties; another little thing that I always liked was the way Leone gave Van Cleef’s gun a distinctive sound that’s noticeably different and somehow more deadly sounding than those of the other characters. Reminds me of the similar attention to detail bestowed upon the lightsabers of the original Star Wars universe. In that case, Darth Vader’s weapon has a certain deeper more aggressive and growling idle hum than the Jedi weapons, which have a much lighter, sweeter timbre. It’s subtle to the point of being massively nerdy to have even noticed, but it’s there nonetheless. Van Cleef’s gun sounds like it’ll kill ya to death just a bit more painfully than the common or garden Colt.45 hand cannon. It’s also interesting to note that Leone also has all three of his characters wear their guns differently too.
There are just numerous character moments, and as I said before; good and bad are always just a matter of degrees. Even Van Cleef (who really is badass), has a compassionate moment (when seeing the carnage of the war torn Confederate fort), it doesn’t last long but it’s a nice close-up on his face that transmits a certain grief or understanding of the piteousness of war from any side. Blonde has a similar, more lingering moment later on, but it’s interesting that Leone’s focus, and the main characters themselves seem to float in and around the civil war backdrop. Somehow removed from it. It’s a slightly disorientating sensation at times, as the war is obviously not the film’s primary focus, yet a part of you almost feels ashamed into thinking it should be. It’s almost like there’s a whole other movie going on about the war, some other director and camera crew are covering it, and our movie drifts into theirs from time to time. It lends the film an extra, slightly otherworldly quality that I really like.
Wallach’s little pieces of business are really nice. I’m not sure I can think of a more skilful performance than his in combining comic, and almost court jester like fall guy attributes with unflinching, ruthless violence, sadistic pleasure, and deceptively smart thinking (maybe Heath Ledger’s Joker hits all those marks in a very different way). Tuco is a brilliantly fleshed out and animated character, and Wallach sells every scene, every line. He has a steely eyed mischievousness and a talent for misdirection and being underestimated. It’s really nice, and would be almost impossible to do within the framework of most modern filmmaker’s sensibilities and grammar. Thank goodness for Sergio Leone, and his interest in character (and for that matter to Clint himself for also mastering this quality).
Strangely enough, in re-watching the movie; it is Clint’s character that suffers most from his co-stars being so good. He is of course iconic, and looks amazing. He’s cool as fuck at all times, and his schtick was fully formed even then. However, it is definitely a menage ‘o three, and he is possibly (and I understand the gravitas of these words), the least interesting of the main characters, at least some of the time anyway. He’s no Dudley Do Right as I’ve already said, but I guess the good guy often suffers in being a little less interesting than the baddies in the movies. I guess by that rationale; Tuco corners the market. One does still root for Blonde however, and of course the poster I had on my wall as a young kid was of Eastwood, all Poncho, hat, blue eyes and gun, not either of the others.
So a word now, if I may on the music, as this film is characterised for many by its legendary main theme. Ennio Morricone of course had scored the previous ‘Dollars’ movies, and these too have become highly regarded, influential and oft parodied works. However, it is the main theme from GBU that has passed into legend and lore, and gone way beyond the realm of the mere western fan, or even just those who’ve seen the movie. People who have never even heard of Sergio Leone, or Ennio Morricone for that matter, can sing you the opening stanza of GBU’s main theme. I mean, if you want to quickly do an impression of a cool gunslinger; what do you do? What does almost everyone do?…….you walk slowly, say something cool, draw your imaginary gun, shoot, and then whistle the GBU theme while walking cool into the sunset. Am I right? I’m right.
I love how the movie itself opens with a coyote call that mimics the theme’s initial and signature repeated ‘fifth, tonic’ interval. I don’t know if this was coincidental or something Morricone was inspired by somehow during production, but it’s wonderful. The main theme is used in many different forms and reprises throughout the film, and acts as a Leitmotif as well as a dramatic sting. In fact, the theme is so strong and thoroughly exploited that it overshadows some of the other hauntingly brilliant pieces in the movie. I’m thinking in particular ‘L’Estasi Dell’oro (The Ecstasy Of Gold), which is just as killer a piece of film music as you’ll ever hear. At once heart wrenchingly beautiful, majestic, desperate and moving. The whole score is a great repeat listen soundtrack, and Morricone’s eclectic approach of combining orchestra, choir, bells, mariachi trumpets and Fender Stratocaster (in full on ‘Twang’ mode), is breathtaking and rightly puts GBU into many people’s list of top movie soundtracks (if there’s any room with all those John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith ones to consider!!). It is truly one of those soundtracks (like John Carpenter’s minimalist score for Halloween), that adds so much character to the movie, that without it; you would lose a disproportionate amount of the power the film has. Amazing.
Ultimately, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly has stood the test of time really well, and transcended the niche of its own genre to become so much more than just another Spaghetti Western. Some folks may prefer one or other of the earlier ‘Dollars’ movies over this one, and i guess from a ‘Clint Eastwood’ fan point of view, this is understandable as some of these other movies give the man with no name more chance to shine (at least in some ways). However, as an overall package, and as a genre piece that crosses over into much wider popular culture; GBU is hard to beat, and impossible to ignore.
Clint Eastwood was just innately cool (in fact, for an octogenarian he still is), and I have to thank my father for allowing me to absorb so many of his films at such a tender age (especially considering the violent nature of so many of them).
The Good The Bad & The Ugly is certainly my favourite Leone western, and although some of that is no doubt subjective to time and place, I still think it noses out the competition in some significant and measurable ways.
It certainly had an immediate effect on the fortunes and nature of the western in Hollywood, that’s for damn sure, but also a subject for another discussion some other time.