#28 - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)

note: article contains spoilers

Ecstasy of Gold

Sergio Leone established himself as a director of considerable repute in Europe after the box-office success of “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More”, so the follow-up was more than a given. But his films have not yet been presented to the American audience, and they will not be until “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was finished and screened in Europe. Soon after this magnificent film had its splash United Artists picked up all three Leone films for the US market and presented them as a trilogy for the first time, with the ingenious marketing ploy of “the man with no name” spearheading the advertising campaign.

Still, everyone knows that the man with no name actually has three names. Joe, Monco and Blondie. But, apart from the naming, these characters could be easily seen as the same. I personally prefer to look at him this way primarily because of how he is presented in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. You could actually make quite a convincing case that Blondie throughout this film becomes the figure from the previous two "dollars" films.

It is certainly true if you only go by his wardrobe. Throughout the film it gradually goes from white to what we’re more familiar with. The most intriguing aspect of this is the scene where Blondie finds his trademark poncho. He uses his coat to cover up a young, dying Confederate soldier (who looks very much like a young Blondie) and offers him a puff of his cigarette before picking up the poncho and completing his transformation in to the mythic nameless figure. It is certainly a scene that can be read in a vast variety of ways and it is also a scene supports the anti-war sentiments that are riddled throughout the film.

As I said in my “For a Few Dollars More” article there are inherent connections between these three films that go well beyond the simple marketing scheme. They are the most apparent in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” which borrows the concept of two warring factions from “A Fistful of Dollars” by placing the central story against the backdrop of the American Civil War, and the story mechanics from “For a Few Dollars More” by having the plot revolve around three central characters. There is a sense that Leone is indeed growing as a filmmaker with these films, and with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” he definitely comes over as a complete filmmaker, working at the height of his prowess.

Now I am not saying that this film is copying the previous two, but Leone is picking certain elements of those films and placing them on a canvas of a much grander scale and with that he introduces some elements that the other two movies lacked. Apart from the mentioned anti-war theme, the most obvious for me is the humor.

The previous films did have a few nice gags but it was very reserved because of the nature of the characters, while in this film we have Tuco, “the ugly”, played by the brilliant Eli Wallach. And Wallach brings energy and a very playful but human side to Tuco that was also a bit absent from Leone’s previous films. He is most certainly the heart of this piece, and the fact that he is so despicable as well as likable makes him even more effective in this role, simply because he usually plays off the stoic and cool Clint Eastwood, or the cold and calculated Lee Van Cleef who plays “the bad” Angel Eyes.

Van Cleef was a great companion to Monco in a “For a Few Dollars More”, but in this film he does feel slightly more at home as the villain. And he is really great - I mean there is a calm and truly scary ruthlessness to him. He also is very much the opposite of “the good” Blondie, not only in name, but also  in the fact that he has no backstory either, giving him the same mysterious sheen only that in his case it works very much to the opposite effect.

This idea is further supported by the fact that in this film Leone for the first time employs the white-hat black-hat trope of the western genre, at least early in the film. A trope he mocked profusely in his prior two pictures. It very much serves a purpose since Blondie’s appearance gets less and less pure as the film goes along, sending a clear message about Leone’s view on the world. There really are no white hats, and the few that you may come across get soiled eventually. In a way that is clear from the very start when you even consider that the “the good” in this film is Blondie, who at the very start tricks his partner and abandons him in the desert.

And “the good” is certainly not that classic western hero in this film (or the previous “dollars” films). He is very far from Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and John Waye of the Hollywood western. If anything he is the anti-John Wayne and a pretty clear forerunner of the American anti-hero of the 70’s. This is all a part of Leone’s western, a new kind of western that was dubbed the spaghetti western.

Not that Leone was the first Italian to make a western as there were a dozen Italian westerns before Leone ever made “For a Fistful of Dollars”. Nor was the western a primarily Italian affair, in fact the Spanish and Germans made westerns of their own as well. The “Winnetou” series was extremely popular in Europe at the time; a German/Yugoslavian co-production. However these Euro-westerns all copied the cinematic language of the American western, while Leone made his own.

In a lot of ways Leone’s western is a kind of super-western. Leone himself was a great fan of the genre obviously but never set foot in America until later in his life (After filming “For a Few Dollars More” I think; not sure), and the western itself is a mythic genre by default. So Leone in a way mythified a myth with his films, if you will. A distillation of the iconography and a reversal on all the expected and established genre tropes, even in the cinematic language. For example, in an American western you never saw a man shoot and the target fall in the same frame. Today, together with the extreme close up, that is probably the most well known Leone shot (pardon the pun). And the term “spaghetti western” was coined only after his “dollars trilogy” made a splash on the global box office, and what followed were even more Italian westerns. Hundreds of them. In fact some are truly great films in their own right. And Leone only made one more. But I digress.

If anything is to be said about Leone’s trajectory up until “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” then it is that he wants to do movies on a grander scale. And with this film he gets to play with a canvas of epic scale and he truly shines. This is indeed his arena. The film is not confined by its locations and in fact the movie really never stays put. It also has a clear forward trajectory and does not feel restrained in its scope. Sure, the story it tells is a rather small one when you think about it, but it has a very grand backdrop.

Actually a major theme in the film is the very juxtaposition of these acts of violence that the three main characters perpetrate to one another and the violence of war in the background, which is on a very grand scale. The purpose fueled by greed and in the backdrop the purposelessness of war. There is a clear cynicism but also a strong anti-war sentiment, and both themes climax in the duel at the end of the film which takes place on a vast confederate graveyard.

The duels are always the highlight of Leone’s westerns and when the dollars trilogy is concerned there is a clear growth in the duels from film to film, which culminated in the three-way duel in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” between the three main characters of the piece. And these duels are very much indicative of Leone’s very style of filmmaking since a lot of his scenes tend to play out like a duel. Drawn out build-up with an explosive payoff. And in this duel he brings that mechanic to almost unbearable levels of tension, before the cathartic release.

For me the ending sequences of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” are some of the most memorable ever put on film. I personally regard “The Ecstasy of Gold” sequence that precedes the duel to be one of the best shot/edited/composed sequences of all time. It is not only a visual and aural feast but it also brings the core themes of this film (and the unofficial trilogy) to a zenith. In which Tuco is feverishly running through the endless graveyard, looking for that chest full of gold.

The religious symbolism of these last scenes is also worth noting. It’s something that seems to frequently crop up in Leone’s films, and in a sense the shots of Tuco standing on a shaky cross with a noose around his neck could be very telling of Leone’s own spirituality, who had a very strict catholic upbringing. It is certainly a thing worth pondering about, as is the inherent surrealism of this imagery. Come to think of it there is quite a bit surrealist imagery in this and other Leone films. Just the image of Tuco forcing Blondie to walk the desert, while he is on a horse with a tiny umbrella directly evokes the surrealist classic “El Topo”. Yeah, I can absolutely see Jodorowski loving this film.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is one of my favorite films. It is a film that gets a lot of playtime in my house, and it is obviously a film that I can rave on about for quite a while. It is one of those films that when I put it on, I do not want it to end. The magic it weaves is too captivating for me. And when people ask me “what is your favorite film” it is the title that I often reach for the first. It is pure cinema.

Original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo


Clint Eastwood - Blondie
Eli Wallach - Tuco
Lee Van Cleef - Angel Eyes
Luigi Pistilli - Father Pablo Ramirez 
Mario Brega - Cpl. Wallace

Original language: Italian

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