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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (DVD, 2009, 2-Disc Set, Collector's Edition)
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The Good, the Bad, the Pasta: Sergio Leone Goes West in Style
Jun 9, 2001
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:While everyone remembers Clint Eastwood, it's Eli Wallach who gives the best performance
Cons:Less-patient viewers might get restless at the nearly three-hour length
The Bottom Line: One of the best American Westerns ever filmed (courtesy of an Italian director), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is full of stylish menace.
Sergio Leone’s landmark Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is, truth be told, really not a Western at all. Oh sure, it has horses and gunfights and squint-eyed Clint Eastwood; but if you want to be nit-picky about it, you’d have to call it a Civil War movie.
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But it’s the strangest Civil War film you’re likely to see. Unlike its brethren Glory or Gettysburg which were clearly on blood-stained American soil, Leone’s 1966 film filters the brother-against-brother conflict through an Italian lens. It’s a camera that transports battles to the sandy deserts of what look like the American southwest, but are actually the plains of Spain (where the rain mainly falls). To a degree, Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (somehow the Italian title just feels better on the tongue, doesn’t it?) rewrites American history and geography, but in the end none of it matters. It’s not history we’re watching, it’s cinema. And it’s all good—none of it bad or ugly.
As he did in his other so-called “spaghetti westerns” (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West) Leone crafts the land west of the Mississippi with the kind of style and technique that will make your scalp tingle and your trigger finger itch. It’s amazing that Hollywood (with the exception of John Ford) hasn’t done a better job recreating 19th-century American cowboys and bandits. It took an Italian to show us how it’s done.
In fact, Leone’s movie is so essentially Western in style, setting, music and sparse dialogue that if you ask ten clerks in a Blockbuster where you’ll find The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, nine of them will point to the Western section (the tenth clerk will be a fifth-year college student majoring in U.S. History and minoring in Nit-Pick). So, for the purposes of discussion here, I’ll cave in and call the flick a “Western.” But if any big-for-his-britches Blockbuster clerk ever takes you to task on the matter, don’t say I didn’t warn you first.
Now, without further ado, I’ll mount the high horse and ride into the “review” part of this review. [Clears throat, leans over and spits in the dust, then kicks spurs. Yells “Hi-ya!” for good measure.]
The first, inescapable truth of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the music. You’ve all heard it, that distinctive trademark theme of twangy whistle and the whistling guitar twang. Brilliantly composed by Ennio Morricone, the music has been used countless times in commercials, spoofs and sitcoms—any time producers want to dramatize the entrance of a bad guy.
It’s a lonesome, plaintive theme which cannot be hummed or sung. It can only be whistled. Try singing it sometime when you’re doing chores around the house and see how ridiculous you sound.
It’s also the kind of movie theme that crackles with the promise of action to come (the 007 theme is, of course, another). Morricone reportedly was trying to duplicate a hyena howl, and it’s certainly a piece of music full of laughter, growls and snapping teeth.
As the opening credits to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are snapping across the screen, Morricone’s theme is right there, keeping time with cracking gunshot effects and strumming guitars. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice a neat little trick Leone does just after the credits: as the music stops and the scene opens on a dusty Main Street: you can hear a coyote howl off in the distance and it sounds just like the trilling-whistle theme.
After the coyote howl dies, complete silence fills the soundtrack. Well, almost complete silence—there is the eerie sound of wind, a flapping wooden door and the clop of horse hooves. Then we are introduced to three gunmen, coming from three different directions, walking with a slow, spur-jangling menace toward each other. Just when you think they’re going to draw and fire at each other, the trio takes a detour into a saloon. The camera stays outside the swinging doors and we must wait to find out what happens. Suddenly, there’s a burst of gunfire and a fourth man comes crashing out through the front window. Morricone’s score bursts to life, the film freezes and we’re told this is “Ugly” (a loudmouthed, bad-lucked bandito named Tuco [Eli Wallach]).
Without any dialogue, the movie continues in this mesmerizing, flashy fashion as we meet, in separate instances, “Bad” (Angel Eyes [Lee Van Cleef]) and “Good” (the Man With No Name, also called “Blondie” [Eastwood]), all of them ending with a freeze-frame and Morricone’s ear-tingling music. This kind of haunting, speechless opening is something Leone often used to grab our attention (I will never ever forget the haunting opening to Once Upon a Time in the West where, without uttering a single syllable, Henry Fonda guns down a pioneer family).
The film's plot deals with a chest of gold buried in a grave, the exact location of which is a secret kept by a dying Confederate soldier. Blondie knows which grave it's buried in. Tuco knows where the graveyard is located. And Angel Eyes keeps close tabs on the other two, tracking them across what are supposed to be Civil War battlefields. It’s a story of greed, revenge, betrayal, double-crosses—just another typical day at the A-OK Corral of our cultural imagination.
The Italian director’s vision of the American West is one of a vast landscape where the omnipresent wind fills the silence between gunshots. Through this desolate, amoral world, villains and anti-heroes (there are no real heroes) pursue money, women and drink. His characters are men fueled by greed and revenge. It’s a place where mean-eyed gunslingers chuckle in the face of those who beg for mercy. In this film, everyone is bad or ugly; no one is good, not even Eastwood’s Man With No Name. His character is the kind of drifter who might help others out of a bind, but all the while he’s only looking out for himself. There is no charity, only stoic-hearted acts of mercy (but for every “Good,” there’s a “Bad” just around the corner of the saloon, waiting to gun down the merciful).
In this and the “Dollar” movies, Eastwood gives Leone the perfect Western anti-hero, a sympathetic son-of-a-bitch who loads his six-shooter with nihilism. There’s a reason he’s called The Man With No Name—Leone intends for him to be Everyman of the West. The first time he appears onscreen, we don’t even see his face, just the back of his head and that whispery growling voice of his. It’s a voice that sounds like the prairie wind moving sand across rocks in the Badlands.
For some, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly might be too long, too laboriously paced. Certainly, at two hours and forty minutes, Leone’s masterpiece starts to feel like thin spaghetti. There’s not always enough story to justify its length. But who cares about story here? It’s the director’s visually-arresting style that keeps us hanging on every frame of the film.
Aided by the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli (who also lensed Life is Beautiful), Leone artfully composes his shots with perspectives that draw our eyes to a single focal point—watch how often lines converge on a lone figure in the distance. Leone was also famous for his use of close-ups and he certainly doesn’t skimp on the tight-n-sweaty shots in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Starting with the very first shot of a man’s face popping up into the frame and continuing all the way to the final climatic three-way showdown between the three leads, Leone uses the lens like Shakespeare used sonnets. In increasingly rapid edits, the screen is filled with pairs of eyes flicking nervously from side-to-side, holstered guns, twitching fingers. And then suddenly it’s over in a quick blaze of gunfire, the bullets ricocheting with a musical twang.
Just as striking is Leone’s minimalist script (which was written with four other Leone regulars) which includes memorable lines like “Every gun makes its own tune” and “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
You better believe this film talks—boy, does it ever! It speaks in the poetry of landscape, gritty violence and tense silence. It’s Good and Beautiful.
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