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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Review

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by Chris McEneany May 20, 2009

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Review

    “You see, in this world, there's two kinds of people, my friend - those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig ...”

    The cross-pollinated Western/Samurai riff that was A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and the intense psychological study of For A Few Dollars More (1965) may have been Sergio Leone's reference-heavy homages to the pictures that had influenced him as a filmmaker, but their magnificent finale (cleverly set up as a sort of prequel to both earlier films) with 1966's The Good, The Bad And The Ugly was much, much more than the celebrated director's conclusion to a ground-breaking trilogy of internationally successful genre re-invention. Always possessed of a keen sense of the emotionally heightened and the artistically extravagant, Leone told intensely bravura tales of vicious inter-personal drama set against impossibly broad canvases. Immeasurably macho and thoroughly amoral, they were the dark flip-side of the Hollywood ideal, and from Fistful onwards they took on the might of a nation that believed that it, alone, could portray its mythical, legendary past ... and rewrote it for them.

    Cheeky Sergio!

    Three gunslingers - two devious and resolutely murderous, and one slightly less so - embark on a dangerous quest to seize a cache of stolen Confederate gold from a grave in a secluded cemetery. Despising one another, yet forced to co-exist throughout a violent game of “cat-and-mouse, kiss-and-tell” until they have unearthed the treasure, they must each confront the demons of a greater evil than any of them has ever experienced before, when the senseless savagery of war derails and waylays them and, ultimately, scars them forever more. It is Sergio Leone's indictment of man's innate inhumanity towards his fellow man, written large and colourful, moving and spectacular. Women, typically for a Leone picture, need not apply.

    Part fantasy, part revisionist tableau, part desert opera, TGTBATU is a spectacular take on the Western genre as seen through the eyes of a man who had already deconstructed it and remoulded it in his own unique and visionary fashion. All of the irony that he had so deftly brought to bear in the first two instalments of the Dollars Trilogy was back for the ride but, this time, Leone was going for broke and scooping up the entire American Civil War, the West's frontier spirit and the ripe amorality of nation seeking its own identity by killing everything that stood in its path in his greedy, but ambitious hands. Many cite his later epic, Once Upon A Time In The West, as his masterpiece of the genre, but there was a singular path, wistful and melancholy, with the Bronson/Fonda/Cardinale opus that marked the master's final farewell to the Spaghetti Western by embracing the death of the Old Frontier with the birth of industrialised America. TGTBATU had its lofty ideals too, but it was also, first and foremost, a barnstorming, rip-roaring adventure that just happened to be sumptuously decorative, fantastically directed and performed, and layered with more subtext than possibly all of Hollywood's horse-operas put together. A pulverising powerhouse of furious characters, wry scenarios, grand statements and eloquent, rhapsodising observation on the frailty of honour and the hypocrisy of command, it gelled with audiences the world over, cementing Leone, composer Ennio Morricone and all three of his main stars as absolute, unchallenged, iconic demigods of the Movies. It also banged Leone's third nail in the coffin of the American Western, as the world knew and understood the term, with Sam Peckinpah providing the final one in the form of 1969's nihilistic The Wild Bunch. Under the blanket title of the Spaghetti Western, a phrase that he only grew to accept over time, Leone created a revolutionary means of telling stories that stood apart from tried and trusted cliché and retooled, re-armed and re-evaluated what it meant to ride through the Wild West. But, far from demystifying the legends we had all grown up with, it embraced them and gave them a style and a cool that had been lacking in them for over a decade. Taut, psychological and cynical, the film, along with its predecessors, was designed to pull the rug from beneath the badge-toting system and promote the underdog in brash, unwaveringly corrupt valour. Where Johns Ford and Wayne rode high and mighty on a noble sea of patriotic adulation, Leone sought the refuge of the soulless depths from where he could recruit, train and unleash his own brand of bullet-chasing death-dealers. Heroism could never be seen in quite the same way again.

    “Whoever has the most liquor to get the soldiers drunk and send them to be slaughtered... he's the winner.”

    It often works best to view the Spaghetti Westerns - especially Leone's - as alternate realities, or Western fables set in a parallel universe. Try as you might, you can't help but disassociate those dubbed voices, the Spanish and Italian scenery and those patently un-American faces from the real thing. Now, this isn't a problem, of course. Leone's Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West which was, at least, partially filmed in America and starred many more American actors than Leone had employed before, exist in their own wonderful, skewed milieu. Richly detailed but out of whack with time-lines and factual relevancies, they are, nevertheless, fascinating embroideries of historical and genre conventions. But whereas the other notable Spaghetti directors - Sergio Corbucci, Giulio Questi, Damiano Damiani and Enzo Castellari - who followed in Leone's footsteps would almost gleefully strap on gun-belts of pure surrealism in terms of characters, settings and the stories, themselves, Leone, who amazingly only directed seven feature films in his life, would opt to stretch reality to often ludicrous extremes, yet still manage to have his sagas toil within a framework that was obviously still a part of an established environment. Here taking on the American Civil War's southern theatre of conflict, but actually addressing the madness of all wars, this milestone plays out like the Apocalypse Now of the Wild West. We have three disparate personalities - Eastwood's Blondie (The Good), Lee Van Cleef's Sentenza, or Angel Eyes (The Bad) and Eli Wallach's Tuco (The Ugly) - moving through the peculiar insanity of the war on a collision course with mutual destiny, encountering, along the way, abstractions, betrayals, barbarity and experiencing an odyssey that, unlike Coppola's vision, is not one of self-discovery, but rather one of an increased awareness of the greater catastrophe taking place around them. Someone once remarked to me that the film is actually about nothing, and the curse of having multiple Gemini viewpoints means that I can often see his point. These three mercenaries filter through the broader canvas, hell-bent on their own linked agenda and their arc comes to mean exactly nought to anyone other than themselves - each is left, visually, as a minute blot on Sergio's relocated terrain as if to emphasise their lack of bearing in the grand scheme of things. But, if this is so, then The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is one of the most exciting, most audaciously cinematic and one of the most infinitely rewarding experiences that a big bundle of Nothing can achieve.

    “Hey, Blond! You know what you are? Just a dirty son-of-a-!

    Cue the music with Morricone's iconic ayi-ayi-ahhhhhh!!!!

    That it is actually Wallach's film is beyond question. He steals every scene and his rodent-faced character seems determined to nibble chunks out of the entire story. Bringing an enormous physicality to the role, Wallach is the ever-fidgety, ever-grubby snake in the grass who wins us over with his ceaseless prancing, cussing and railing against odds that are almost always stacked against him. But, despite excellent comic timing and a raw and oily charisma, the man who made The Magnificent Seven's villainous Calvera so memorable is also able to imbue Tuco with a sense of grand pathos. We have massive insight into his motivations, his moods, his inner-workings. Every twitch of those sunburned chops, every squint, glower and gleam of those eyes and every verbal tirade, turnaround and ranting, dirt-scuffling tantrum reveals more and more of what makes him tick. Compared to the scripted two-dimensionality of Cleef's Angel Eyes and the actual two-dimensionality of Clint's iconic Blondie, Tuco is practically Shakespearean. His conniving, duplicitous skulduggery throughout the film keeps revealing new depths of greed, new propensities for last-ditch scams and new expressions for his ratty face to twist itself into. Although almost always amusingly depicted, Tuco is not just a comedy stooge for the infinitely more serious Blondie and Angel Eyes. He is courageous, quick-thinking, physically and mentally strong - look at how easily he breezes through a forced desert march when compared to the hell that Blondie goes through with a similarly sun-baked sojourn, and his ability to bounce back from a ferocious beating later on - and, in a totally admirable fashion, fiercely self-reliant. In actual fact, he should be the hero - certainly he possesses the very traits that most action heroes of the 80's and beyond would extol in their gung-ho adventures. And yet ... ohhhh, there is that pure rascally nature, that volatile temperament and the inescapable fact that you can't trust him for even a second. Yet, as Sir Christopher Frayling will discuss in his priceless commentary, Tuco is a turning point for Leone's writing, as well. For now, with this colourful bandit, we see the first steps that the filmmaker takes to actually humanise one of his characters beyond the level of a stylised puppet or genre caricature. We meet Tuco's brother, the priest Father Ramirez, played with excellent gravitas by For A Few Dollars More's Luigi Pistilli and this painful meeting, in turn, will lead to a subtle softening-up of Clint's character, as well ... further proof that Leone was tapping into a more sensitive side.

    “When you have to shoot - shoot - don't talk ...”

    Yet whilst it is easy and accurate to celebrate Eli Wallach's performance here as the best of the three leads, it would be wrong to assume that his co-stars somehow drop the ball or don't do enough to carve their own legendary niche. Their parts are deliberately underwritten, their iconic status already guaranteed. Clint is Clint - he never once needs to be, or do anything else. A man of mystery, resolve and a wit as quick and deadly as his draw, Blondie moves through Leone's fantastical West with almost narrative impunity. We don't need to know anything about him other than his current mission. Receiving in this movie the iconic accoutrements of his sheepskin waistcoat, his denim shirt and, eventually, his poncho, Clint's anti-hero is, by turns, a guardian angel, a canny trickster and a catalyst for the celebration of non-redemption. As he does so in a huge number of his movies, Eastwood is reduced to a point of near-death after his Tuco-instigated desert wander. But, more often than not, this condition is normally brought about by having his characters beaten to a pulp in the course of their misadventures. Leone started this trend with A Fistful Of Dollars, carried it on with For A Few Dollars More (in which he and Van Cleef taste the grubby fists of gleeful extinction together) and Eastwood, himself, ensured that he would spit teeth and blood in High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven and The Gauntlet, whilst Don Siegel had Scorpio batter him senseless in Dirty Harry. What this trend of physical annihilation seems to inspire is something approaching a Christ-like rise from death, his characters, including Blondie, who requires days of rest and recuperation after near fatal exhaustion and exposure to the sun, are forced to undergo such torment in order to return with deeper intent, resolve and commitment to get the job done. Usually this is all about revenge. But here, in TGTBATU, vengeance is far less burning a motivation for his survival than simply that of the desire to win. He wants to outgun and outwit his rivals, and this is certainly one of the primary reasons for his momentous return from the grave. He kills with economy and usually only when he has no other option. This story would also see that his levels of compassion would be considerably higher than we had seen in either of the other two Dollars entries, with even his most outlandish, and brilliantly poetic, final trick on poor Tuco ending with a beautifully manipulated show of almost arrogant charity towards his long-standing nemesis.

    “Thunder or cannon fire, it's all the same to you. Adios, Blondie.”

    Lee Van Cleef, on the other hand, positively revels in the mean-spiritedness of his mercenary gunslinger. Often relegated to side-screen heavies in Westerns, famously in High Noon, of course, but a regular-enough visage in TV oaters to strut through saloons and stare down the end of a six-shooter with surety, Sergio Leone had recognised that distinctively lean and pointed look and whisked the actor off to Spain's pseudo Tex-Mex stand-in of Almeria a year before to ally him with Eastwood's fellow bounty hunter in For A Few Dollars More, as the highly principled avenger, Col. Mortimer. Such was the devastating power of his steely eyed allure, that his return to the saddle for Leone was assured. Now furnished with a cut-throat sensibility and cruel streak that would make a Great White Shark turn tail and flee, Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes navigates the arid mythical West like the very personification of all the Civil War's hatred and bigotry rolled into one bag of bony brutality. The lengths that he will go to in order to secure himself this stash of Confederate bullion know no bounds. He even enlists in the Union Army just to get himself into the infamous death-camp that he believes Bill Carson - the man who knows the exact whereabouts of the gold stash - is incarcerated in, his ever-opportunist desire for both despicable violence and racketeering finding possibly the perfect venue in this cesspit of misery and decay. At times dominating the film and, at others, missing for large swathes of it, Cleef's terrifying spur-jangling bogeyman looms ominously over the whole enterprise, his nefarious hooks digging into the raw flesh of each situation that Blondie and Tuco find themselves in. And yet, having mentioned his ruthlessness and those famously steely eyes, I must also remark about the fact that this same cold stare can occasionally soften and even begin to show some degree of warmth, too. There is a vague sense of tragedy and a sad vulnerability to Lee Van Cleef's moist eyes that, no matter how hard he tries to appear otherwise, can lend him a puppy-dog look. And, ironically, this false humanity only makes him more dangerous.

    And, as distinctive as these three are, just look at the supporting cast of dishevelled Johnny Rebs, Union aggressors, Mexican bandits and weather-beaten cow-pokes. I've said it before about Spaghetti Westerns having the most amazingly ugly faces populating them, but it bears repeating here, for TGTBATU must surely hold the record for the most grizzled, blotchy, gaunt and downright unpleasant cast members ever amassed. Even the basically normal-looking Union captain, who must take a strategically redundant bridge from the Confederates at all costs, seems to have far too many teeth for just one mouth, doesn't he? But this rogues gallery of sagebrush faces anchors Leone's vision in a pared-down, warts 'n' all environment that spits in the eye of Hollywood's glitz and glamour and gives almost literal meaning to the term chiselled features. Glass eyes and limb-loss seems to have been on the casting call agenda and the film is often a freak-show of war-torn, flesh-torn resilience.

    “Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We're gonna have to earn it.”

    The set-pieces are, in my opinion, the best that Sergio Leone would ever conceive. The constant tit-for-tat relationship between Tuco and Blondie - rope-swinging, bounty-collecting and endless double-dealing and black-stabbing - is one of the greatest sparring matches in cinematic history. Each time we see Tuco's grizzled head in a noose, the tension and the comedy is ratcheted-up another notch. His splendid pick 'n' mix in the gun-shop is another classic scene, Wallach (who, in real life, knows diddly-squat about weapons) customising his new gun by listening to each part that he uses to construct it. The chance meeting with a Southern medical wagon filled with the dead as it thunders, uncontrolled, across an unforgiving desert - literally coming out of the blue. A bedraggled Blondie and Tuco singing wild rebel yells when they encounter a column of grey-clad cavalrymen, only to discover that the troops are Unionists caked in dust. The shocking torture scene in Angel Eyes' office-cum-killing-house in the prison stockade - those meaty fingers going for the eyes makes you squirm every time - whilst the prisoners outside are forced to sing over the top of the screams. Tuco's simply awesome escape from the prison train, Mario Brega's savage Cpl. Wallace meeting a supremely grisly, but well-deserved end by skull-bashing rock and the unyielding wheels of the next locomotive to come roaring along. Tuco's bath-time gun-play and the terrific sequence when he and Blondie team-up to take on Sentenza's motley crew in a fantastic, battle-ravaged township on the border of reality. All these moments deliciously and insidiously build up to the infamous bridge-blowing episode that, in one of the greatest re-takes a film-crew was ever forced to undergo, showered not just our leads with shrapnel, but the entire body of Western excess that gone before it, as if blasting a hole through the genre to clear a path for a new breed to come pouring through.

    “I like big fat men like you. When they fall they make more noise.”

    But if all these sequences help produce a film that plays with what cinema can do, as well as majestically orchestrate an audience along a darkly deep and convoluted path of deception, dishonour and dirty doings, then the moment when Tuco experiences his “Ecstasy Of Gold”, as he scampers maniacally about the most bizarre sprawl of ramshackle gravestones you can imagine, surrounding a stone-clad central arena in the middle of nowhere, is when TGTBATUactually seems to lift up and away from everything you've seen before, creating its own set of rules and entering the realm of the all-time classic. With Morricone's score driving onwards and upwards with intense and agonising expectancy and Tonino Delli Colli's camera whirling about the scene with dizzying finesse, 75mm and 25mm lenses strapped on to either end of a long pole to provide Leone with both close-ups and long-shots of Tuco's demented darting-about at exactly the same time, the scene serenades blind obsession. I just love the slightly camp way in which Wallach runs, flitting aggressively through the rows, yet with his hands outstretched in an almost dainty and effeminate manner. We have been along for the entire ride, as well, and we implicitly understand the maddening jubilation that has swept up the gnashing little bandit.

    “Unka ... unka ... there's no name on it!

    “There's no name here either ...”

    And then, ultimately, we come to something that defies narrative, internal structure, physical logic and real time and becomes, in the process, one of the most emphatic, satisfying and devoutly euphoric sequences that a movie has ever produced. The final gunfight - protracted, elaborate, operatic - is the single most hauntingly cathartic climax that this, or any other film for that matter, could ever hope to expect. Patently ridiculous, it nevertheless batters down the gates of intellectual truth and realism to rise in stature and emotional glory and enter, proudly and exultantly, into the eternal Hall of Iconic Moments. Famously choreographed and edited to Morricone's score, most of which was composed and recorded before the shoot even took place, this is a tour de force of nervous eyes, sweaty brows and itchy trigger-fingers. Awesome close-ups reveal rage and fear in Tuco, a jittery darkness in Angel Eyes and an implacable, stoic acceptance of inevitability in Blondie. This entire sequence, played out with almost unbearable tension and a style so beautiful that it makes death seem positively entrancing, is a movie within a movie. Like the working parts of Tuco's smorgasbord of fire-power, the set-piece shoot-out selects and connects the imagery from Leone's previous two Dollar films to create something that is new, unforgettable and inordinately devastating. I've annoyed my wife so many times by talking this scene through to her, frame by frame, in the hope that she would, oh I don't know, just get the majesty of what is happening to the characters and the story, what is being achieved by Leone, Morricone, and Delli Colli, and what this marathon of miraculous suspense and splendid denouement is doing for the art of film-making, that I've become something of a bloodthirsty bore, I'm certain. And the urge to run through it all again right here and now is nigh on irresistible ... but this disc will allow someone eminently more qualified to do it for me, and I advise that you all listen to Sir Christopher Frayling's fascinating and enthusiastic commentary for the sequence. I actually found it quite weird to have somebody else talk over it for a change!

    “I've never seen so many men wasted so badly.”

    Leone's lament for the Civil War was allegorical, of course. By the time the film was released Stateside, America's involvement in Vietnam was hardly winning hearts and minds in Europe, let alone on home-turf, and the depravity and desperation of futile conflict weighs heavily in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. From the experiences of two world wars and the terrible collateral damage that Europe suffered at the exterminating hands of the Nazis, Leone stitches together a tapestry that references atrocities and sacrifices with equal respect. The bitter struggle for personal gain and the supremacy of reputation that our three main protagonists undergo plays out against a bigger picture of wholesale slaughter and inhumanity. All three of these amoral rivals exhibit a degree of pathos, horror and even dignity in the face of such random death - their own war, if only for a fleeting second here and there along the cigar route, paling in comparison. A wretched gaggle of rebel wounded and dying in a forsaken desert outpost; the thirst of a pivotal soldier on the brink of death; the lunacy of a battle over a bridge to nowhere; Morricone's heartbreaking ode to the soldiers, sung first by the troop of Confederate prisoners in the veritable concentration camp of the Betterville outpost to cover-up the harrowing beating and torture of a fellow inmate, and then reaching searing symphonic proportions when Aldo Guiffre's dutifully doomed and alcoholic Union commander makes it back to his dug-out with fearful wounds and Blondie and Tuco find a way to both ease his repetitive Groundhog Day-style suffering and aid their own quest into the bargain - all bruising accusations towards a world gone mad.

    Ennio Morricone, by the time of TGTBATU was already a hugely established figure in Italian Cinema, but it would be the score that he composed for this film that would catapult him on to the world stage. Mimicking the howl of the coyote for that glorious title theme and employing all manner of percussion, bells, chimes and ethnic guitars throughout, he provided the heart, soul and emotion of the tale. Finding ample inspiration in the film's Civil War theme to provide the haunting lyricism for The Story Of A Soldier (with lyrics by Tommie Connor) and other military ballads, and enticing wonderful signature motifs for the three leads - soprano flute for Blondie, the terra cotta arghilofono for Angel Eyes and an amazing human voice for Tuco's shrieking desert-yowl - that could be combined to immortal effect, Morricone struck gold of his own with this score. For me, however, his best title theme is that for the first filmed of the series, A Fistful Of Dollars, which I find more exciting and catchy, but this is certainly the most ambitious and diverse of the scores for the three movies. If you listen, you can hear little references to the earlier scores within this one, particularly the melody from Col. Mortimer's pocket-watch that so fascinated Gian Maria Volonte's psychotic Indio in For A Few Dollars More, and the foundation for the harmonica that would epitomise Charles Bronson's character in Once Upon A Time In The West. But the human voice was the best, and most versatile instrument in Morricone's orchestra - the colossal ethnic yell of Gianna Spagnulo for the more aggressive likes of Navajo Joe and Moses The Lawgiver, and, quintessentially, opera singer Edda Dell'Orso, whose ethereal vocal harmonics would break hearts here during Tuco's "Ecstasy Of Gold", and again in Once Upon A Time In The West and in Guns For San Sebastian. Right from the word go, with A Fistful Of Dollars, Leone was aiming high and truly stepping up a league from his contemporaries just by employing Morricone to supply the soul and the passion for his movies.

    In my opinion, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is not only the best Western ever made ... but also one of the best films ever made. It goes the distance in terms of emotion, action and the psychology of myth. It amplifies history within its own unique depiction of the events that spiral around the central plot, and it pushes the boundaries of what Cinema can achieve, exploring, as you watch, the facets of human nature and the magic that the camera can conjure out of them. With truly unforgettable performances and a sheer sense of scale that still elevates it high above others of its genre, it feels grandiose, flamboyant and wilfully over-the-top, yet it is so brilliantly constructed, densely poetic and deadly motivated at the same time, that it stands up to repeated viewing and packs just as much of a punch today as it must have done way back in 1966. It is a film that, like Jaws, I can never tire of. With all sorts of cuts of it floating about and the desire to thrust excised scenes and long-lost material back into it showing no sign of abating, its mythos just gets more and more powerful all the time. Whilst some are not too happy with the extra scenes that have made it into this version (which is the same one that was restored by Triage in 2002 and saw a release on Special Edition DVD), making it the most complete one so far - one lengthy sequence has been lost altogether save for a couple of seconds of footage left in a French theatrical trailer - I can only applaud the addition of more time spent in the company of these rogues. With both Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach able to supply their own voices to some of the now vintage scenes, it was left to actor Simon Prescott to imitate the late Lee Van Cleef for his newly-integrated moments and, as far as I am concerned, they do a reasonable job of breathing life back into these originally Italian-only scenes. Certainly, the inclusion of these episodes adds a little more filling to some of the plot-holes that once existed, such as how Tuco suddenly appears in town with a trio of fellow bandits out gunning for Blondie - we now see him gathering his former gang together in a nicely evocative cave-set sequence. Plus, the radical shift in exactly which army now holds sway over the territory Blondie and Tuco are travelling through is given a bit more relevance when we see the field of bodies all around them, and hear them discuss having criss-crossed both Southern and Northern battle-lines.

    The cumulative effect of the expanded version actually gives a more rounded viewpoint about the mechanics of this trio of gold-seekers, too. With Angel Eyes' reflective moment when surveying the carnage in the wrecked rebel fort, Tuco's tactical scheming brought to the fore when he rounds up his men and Blondie's shoot-first, ask questions-later mentality revealed when he wastes one of Sentenza's clumsy men at the riverside bivouac, it can be truthfully ascertained that all three hombres have attributes that could be considered good, bad and, indeed, ugly.

    Well, folks, If I go on any longer I'm in danger of stretching this out to something approaching the lengths of Leone's original four-hour shooting script ... so, let me just finish by stating that, like any masterpiece, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly just gets better with the passage of time. Important. Iconic. Peerless. Leone's best is still there with a bullet ... and a gleam in its eye.