The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Peak Leone? Some will present Once Upon a Time in the West as Exhibit A, but as seductive as that film is, it has to make do with implacable, chihuahua-faced Charles Bronson rather than Clint (or subsequently James Coburn; you’d have thought Clint getting 10 percent of the North American profits for this stung Leone, but Sergio nevertheless pursued him once again. However, Clint had had enough by this point, and would mostly work with mediocre directors from then on, himself most of all). The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a work of giddy genius, an extraordinary, enthralling, frequently hilarious epic that takes everything that went down so thunderously well in A Few Dollars More to the next level. True, the final showdown can’t deliver a device as flawless as the time pieces martialling the draw, but when you have Ennio Morricone outdoing himself on the soundtrack, that’s a small price to pay.
A slightly higher price is the 2002 restoration of the English-language version of the film to the length of the Italian-release version (amounting to fourteen minutes of footage). Maybe I’m just so familiar with the original that it could only stick out like a sore thumb, but I rather think that’s just one part of it; it’s certainly the case that the sound is all off, that Eastwood and Wallach sound nothing like their younger, ’60s counterparts (the guy doing van Cleef is way more on target). Couldn’t they fiddle with the sound? Compress it, expand it, basify it etc to get them to sound just a little more like they did back then?
The other part is that very little of it feels essential. The addition to the desert scene, sure. And the scene with Angel Eyes and Blondie and the former’s men, after the Union prison camp. The grotto scene, which was only in the Italian premiere, has been argued for similar reasons (explaining where Tuco’s men come from), but it sounds so off to me as to make it an obstacle. Besides, Richard Schickel avers that Leone purposefully removed it for pacing reasons. Someone will need to look at all this again one day, I suspect. Most of this material is in the first half, and doubtless, if I’d seen it this way initially, and with bona-fide dubbing, I’d feel differently. As it is, I suppose I’ll have to stump up for the unmassacred on ultra-expensive ultra-HD 161-minute version at some point (none of this griping even mentions the colour “correction” the trilogy has suffered in most of its available versions).
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly takes the since-traditional sequel approach of getting progressively bigger, such that we now have three protagonists (or protagonist-antagonists). The emphasis is very much on Tuco and Blondie, though, with Angel Eyes kept in reserve for reveals following his introduction. During which he guns down a father and son, takes the money the former has offered to let him off, and subsequently shoots the guy who paid him in the first place.
To a degree, it’s a shame Angel Eyes is so unredeemable. He obviously isn’t the inflamed nutter Indio is in For a Few Dollars More, but he’s given no sides beyond tactical efficiency; he calculates (perhaps optimistically, but it works) that Bill Carson will have to head a certain way, so sets himself up as a Union sergeant and waits (true, you could say this justifies the deleted scene setting this up, but I rather like the mystery of how he landed there, similarly to Tuco knowing Angel Eyes but it’s unnclear from where; Blondie’s acquaintance is perhaps more oblique still). Later, he musters a repeat, sidestepping any messy business and reappearing at Sand Hill Cemetery in time for the finale. It does wonders for his status as a strategist, but we have little to dig into; Leone’s saying it’s enough that he’s a man in black. Albeit, while he may have the brains, he isn’t quite the expert gunslinger Colonel Mortimer was (who was probably a better shot than Manco). Indeed, when it comes to the duel here, we have only the memory of van Cleef in that movie, rather than any The Good, the Bad and the Ugly prowess. Blondie despatches him very promptly.
Geoff Andrew called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly “bitterly cynical” and signalled its “shortcomings as a study in relative morality”. Schickel meanwhile deemed it “very moral” but then had to backtrack rather due to its vagueness. Certainly, the Bad is fairly persuasive, and the Ugly is presumably to cement Tuco as an instinctive, animalistic force rather than a vindictive, calculating one (he enjoys his revenge on Blondie, but because Blondie has it coming). Known as the Rat, Tuco, besides murder and robbery and plunder, is also guilty of “raping a virgin of the white race, and statutory rape of a minor of the black race”. His passion for (and ecstasy in) gold is unashamedly brazen, hence the unsubtle changing of his tune when Blondie has something he wants (“Don’t die, I’m your friend”).
It’s Tuco’s sheer unreconstituted-ness that ensures his enduring appeal. He’s such a contrast with the unflustered composure of his co-stars, he can’t help but endear himself. His brand of insult is to be cherished, particularly the way he says “BAStard” and shows a proclivity for homespun wisdom (“There are two kinds of…” from people to spurs, “… my friend”). Wallach expressed surprise that “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk” has become beloved, but he shouldn’t, as it’s a clockwork punchline to a visual.
He’s also Leone’s consistent go-to for Looney Tunes cartoon visuals, be it hanging from the end of a noose on a horse that’s bolted, throwing Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega) out of a train and then using a subsequent passing locomotive first to decuff him from his escort and then provide a ride, or being the object of Blondie’s target practice… with a cannon. But he’s also practical, and despite being an idiot (“It’s for you”), he has a “This is simply how the world works” gumption that will resurface in Rod Steiger’s peasant bandit in A Fistful of Dynamite. His scene with his monk brother (Luigi Pistilli) sees him disabusing the honourable choice with the truth of simple necessities. This is Leone’s cynicism about right and wrong, or rather, brandishing it as apparel. His brother is a hypocrite raised angrily to violence, only usually tempering it because he doesn’t put himself in such provocative situations (van Cleef noted that Tuco’s the only open book of the three, and that the character was close to Leone’s heart. Leone said Tuco had “my most profound sympathy” with “all that tenderness and all that wounded humanity”).
Clearly, Blondie has a certain affection for the bandit, despite welching on their early deal and knowing Tuco would happily off him. He shares a cigar after the bruising brother encounter, and he doesn’t leave Tuco hanging in the final scene. Indeed, Schickel suggested Blondie has a “mysteriously darker” persona in the first half of the movie – his arbitrary reason for splitting with Tuco – but is also more human than any of his Dollars incarnations during the second (the exception is his first-half “Sorry, Shorty” when Tuco nixes him saving his latest bounty partner). The final scene is part of that, as is the (again) cigar he offers the dying soldier. Leone gives us enough unremarked-upon evidence of the folly of war, entirely disinterested in suggesting one side is more justified than the other. He shows a raped woman being thrown from a cart by soldiers, a spy tied to the front of a train, and another summarily executed as an almost impromptu aside. It’s Blondie, though, who makes the actual moral pronouncement “Never seen so many men wasted so badly”.
Which doesn’t mean we should get carried away about the Good. If we’re talking ends justifying means in a utilitarian sense, maybe, but Blondie never pretends to be anything other than Service to Self (Self wants that gold). Leaving Tuco a share is perhaps a glimmer in its own way, but blowing up that bridge was practical rather than altruistic. Still, he does have sympathy for the captain’s plight, the insanity of holding the bridge an equivalent to the impasse of No Man’s Land, and urges him to “Keep your ears open”.
Blondie, per Schickel is “not quite moral”, but he is always objective and resolves the proceedings in a “morally satisfying” way. Which is an astute assessment. When the movie(s) is over, we feel justice has been served. Tuco will doubtless meet with appropriate measures, in the fulness of time, but they should not be by Blondie’s hand. Blondie’s also the wittiest character, and therefore clearly the good-est (“Such ingratitude. After all the times I’ve saved your life”; the aforementioned “It’s for you”). And the clincher is: Blondie likes kittens.
Another indicator of the relative morality – to coin Andrew’s phrase regarding its denial – is that the “good” characters (or less bad) have punishment meted upon them to show they’re deserving. Angel Eyes receives none. Blondie must endure the instant karma of his desert ordeal for betraying Tuco. Tuco, meanwhile, suffers a particularly unpleasant torture – superbly staged by Leone, even if it was even longer in unmangled form – to a choral accompaniment (the best moment, however, is the tobacco case snapping shut on Tuco’s fingers as a sign it is starting).
There are other curious intonations here: “Even a filthy beggar like that has a protecting angel” remarks Angel Eyes (his name is ironic, but his observation is more literal). Blondie will be twice saved from death at Tuco’s hands by “divine” intervention, namely that of the Civil War (first, when a cannon ball gets him out of a hangman’s noose, and then later when the runaway stagecoach full of Confederate soldiers grants him the name on the grave).
Obviously, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly pumps everything up to glorious levels. Morricone’s all-timer score announces as much, the signature notes a punchline, either triumphant (Clint does something) or comedic. The protracted duel is still a wonder to behold; the preceding Ecstasy of Gold sequence, as Tuco runs through a rush of graves looking for the prize one, is almost as magnificent. The bridge sequence is masterful, naturally. I suspect I’m so used to the sureness of the pacing and flow from the long-time release, that the picture feels that much more broken in the dodgily revoiced one with bits and pieces of scenes dropped in to break it up. One of the things I always admire about Leone’s films is that he makes the segues of plot seem natural and inevitable, even if they are (at times) absurdly otherwise. His canvas invites suspension of disbelief.
Pauline Kael admitted to its appeal (“The change of scale is rather fascinating”) while Andrew’s review summed it up nicely, that it “delights through its subversive, operatic parody of genre conventions, undercutting heroism by means of black comedy and over-the-top compositions, all deep focus and zooms… It’s enormous fun”. Mostly, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s pure cinema (and as Schickel notes, however violent it’s said to have been, it isn’t really, especially, the torture scene aside. With Leone, it’s all in the anticipation). Clint observed, slightly mockingly, that Leone fancied himself as a purveyor of epics, “Lean or someone”, while his own approach was to get to the point and stick to the story. The quantity over quality results speak for themselves. Eastwood was never a great director; in near-40 films, he has summoned maybe one outright classic. Leone could argue for five out of seven.