Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone
Right from the opening chords that sound like a flock of vultures being heckled by a sarcastic mockingbird, you know you’re in a western unlike any other. Welcome to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (available on Amazon). Directed by Italian master Sergio Leone with a game changing score by Ennio Morricone, this is the western that diabolically revised the genre.
The Italians had been playing with the form of the western throughout the sixties. The vast majority of these were products meant to stay within the confines of the home country. At the time, most Americans thought the Italian cinema was under the sole ownership of its art house directors - Fellini, Visconti, De Sica and Pasolini. But, like any other national cinema, only a very small percentage of the films made there were ever exported. The ignorance of other countries would prove to be an advantage for the Italian filmmakers. Lesser known but still extraordinarily gifted directors like Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, and Damiano Damiani had all the freedom in the world to revise existing genres into their own personal statements.
For Leone, that genre was the western. Considered the “most American” of forms, directors worldwide had played with the western by adapting its generic rules to their own history. Akira Kurosawa, for example, used the lessons of John Ford to construct his jidai-geki films, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjiro and Hidden Fortress. No foreign director, though, had been so cheeky as to make a western set in the American west.
With his second film, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Leone would do just that. Shot in Andalucia and Almeria, Spain, the film is, ironically, a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Casting B-list TV actor Clint Eastwood was an acknowledgment that Leone’s plan was to invade the American marketplace, an act that showed if nothing else, Leone possessed brass testicoli. Surprisingly, the success of this movie in the U.S. kicked off a number of similar films that quickly became known as “spaghetti westerns.” After his second Eastwood “Man with No Name” film, For a Few Dollars More, Leone had the street cred to get a big budget and an MGM distribution deal. The result, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, guaranteed that the western would never again be quite the same.
Our westerns had never been the symbol of innocence that many still seem to think they were. The best of them were robust, dealt with themes of loneliness, vengeance and masculinity, and featured some of the best actors and directors in Hollywood. They were also by 1965, pretty much played out. In the late 50’s, fully 60% of the programming on television was devoted to westerns and these had hastened the formula’s exhaustion. The western movies of the early sixties displayed this. They were, with a few exceptions, anemic fodder destined for the bottom half of the bill.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly showed a way out. The west on display in this movie is not mythologized. Quite the opposite, it is presented as a hardscrabble existence where neither life nor death has any real value. Add to this, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is set during the Civil War. This is not the “Noble Cause.” It is, in fact, a war for war’s sake. There is no ideological struggle; these soldiers have no idea why they’re fighting, only that it is something they seem to be required to do. When war has no moral or ideological underpinning, is there any reason to expect that anything else will? Set against this backdrop, our three protagonists (no one would call them heroes) plot, shoot, hang and double-cross each other on their way to what they believe is a fortune in buried gold.
Leone brings a sense of realism to the western that had not yet been seen. This is not the pretty west of American ideal. It is a dusty, messy, blood-spattered land beyond not just redemption, but even the desire for it. Killings here are merciless and done without compunction or comment.
At the same time that he is adding this level of realism, though, Leone is also playing with the form in cinematically daring ways. When he introduces his characters, the director suddenly freezes the frame and uses a title card to tell us which of the characters we are being introduced to (“The Good”! “The Bad”! “The Ugly”!). Yes, we have seen this device many times since, but it started here, and it still feels like a surprising and delightful embellishment in moments that are otherwise violent and messy.
Leone further remakes the ideal by setting western tropes on their ear. There is no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Armies clash over a strategic bridge fueling a spectacular but utterly pointless battle. Most of all, Leone takes the tired cliché of the final shootout and brings it to dazzling life not with a killers’ gun, but with an editor’s knife.
It is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that Clint Eastwood makes laconic iconic. His character, Blondie (at least he has a nickname), watches, judges then metes out his justice, frequently with a slight scary smile on his lips. He is counterpointed by the remorseless Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes while both of them are set in relief by an outrageous Eli Wallach. His Tuco is so over-the-top that he keeps shifting the balance in ways that keep us on our toes. If this was all slit-eyed, cigar-chomping masculine silence it would get pretty tedious. There is no fear of that happening with Tuco around.
The ways in which The Good, the Bad and the Ugly inspired future filmmakers is clear. Even a cursory view of Quentin Tarantino’s work would show this. What is remarkable is that after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Leone would go to even greater heights with his next western, Once Upon a Time in the West (did I mention Tarantino?). The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, though is a perfect primer to that, and one hell of a revision of all that came before.