The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)
There are two kinds of people in the world my friend, the bastards who adore Sergio Leone’s third instalment in his hugely admired and incredibly influential dollars trilogy and the bastards who don’t. Lazily cantering across widescreen cinemas as the summer of love was promoting the sporting of flowers in one’s hair the acrid widescreen cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli was exploding the romantic myth of the noble and romantic ‘West’, of hardworking men and stalwart woman conquering the wilderness in gingham dresses and sun weathered dustcoats, as even a cursory reading of the real American expansion of the 19th century history reveals a picture more Deadwood than Delmer Daves. Of all Leone’s wonderful films this has always been my favourite, sure the purists celebrate Once Upon A Time In The West as one of the greatest Westerns ever made, precisely because its primary concern are with ‘the West’, with its elemental myths and themes of progress being the hallmark of civilisation, of man conquering the wilderness and erecting technological and social structure to tame a primal nature, of Henry Fonda’s career best inversion of his noble screen persona into the sapphire blue eyes of a psychopath who murders children. Well, sure enough partner we’ll lasso that movie one day as it a monumental film, but I’ve always had a soft spot between the eyes for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and the prospect of catching this in all its digitally restored glory at the Hackney Picturehouse a few weekend’s ago was like Eastwood’s supernatural precision – not to be missed.
For me the entire dollars trilogy – 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1965’s A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly serve as a buttress between cinema old and new, pilfering from the Samurai epics of Kurosawa of the previous decade and prefiguring with the similar stoic superhuman warriors of action movies to come – Ahnoldt, Sly, Van Damage and all the rest, although their return to our screens seem to have financially exhausted it’s hollow-point magazine. Other than sheer movie enjoyment of a terrific cast of characters being corralled through a great story one of the first observations I had when revisiting this movie was structural, it is clearly an action film which happens to take place in a Western genre fulcrum, but the character introductions and distinct phases moving through encounter to encounter to legendary finale is kinetic cinema all the way. In a sweltering late 19th century frontier three ruthless men are thrown into a shifting jigsaw of uneasy partnerships as they all seek to pilfer some buried gold, each given an assignation which determines their thematic character. Amusingly, as only in Leone’s cruel & morally bankrupt universe can a man who guns down roughly three dozen victims, who indifferently betrays his partner to die in the desert and who regularly defrauds decent folk of thousands of dollars through his inventive bounty hunter reward scam be our presumed hero – Clint Eastwood in his iconic ‘man with no name’ role as The Good. Lee Van Cleef is never better as the venom eyed rattlesnake The Bad, his leathery skin baking under a ruthless leather carapace, an indifferent killer who slays with a nonchalant indifference. But the film is clearly the sadly recently departed Eli Wallach’s in the form of Tuco, the unfairly maligned The Ugly as he really gets the most screen time and anything resembling a back story or purpose in this blistering bathetic world, a scumbag among degenerates with no secret heart of gold or at least one that he hasn’t violently purloined from the local orphanage.
Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is really what the cinema is all about, image and sound crafting characters as legendary figures, their faces as inscrutable and granite as the monument valley edifices which shadow their murderous zeal for gold. Like his countryman Fellini the maestro Sergio Leone casts for expressive faces which weather an aura of the grotesque and twisted , a world built on treachery and cruelty baking under the unyielding frontier sun. It’s not often you get not one, not two but three terrific central characters in a movie, and sure they are cartoonish caricatures in one sense without any depth of psychological compulsion, but they all live and breathe on the screen as the genre cyphers they are intended to be, as the plot moves from one inventive twist on the genre’s romantic idealism after another. Care to see a proud frontier family carefully tending and tilling the land? Well sure, but then we’ll gun them down in ruinous cold-blood. Heck, even the forces of authority, the soldiers and generals of the civil war which rages around the margins of the picture are itinerant drunks or gold bedazzled wretches, making Tuco and Blondie as the ‘heroes’ as at least their greed is obvious, unapologetic and unmotivated. Just having three characters bounce off each other is a screenwriting oddity these days when one of the triangle points would be sublimated with a love interest, the hero protagonist and villain antagonist being the positive and negative charge of the movie, if as Schrader remarks action (as in what characters do, not what they say) is character then we quite clearly – the inelegant yet skilled buffoon, the stoic superman, the calm and crafty serpent.
The film is action packed and there’s not much in the way of waste throughout the three-hour trek, although this was a screening of the recently re-mastered ‘extended’ cut which crowbars in a few extra scenes (the original international release with a restored 14 minutes of footage) which doesn’t particularly amount too much other than foreshadowing a few of Tuco’s Mexican crew who don’t last very long. Having enjoyed these films immensely as a kid seeing them again one is immediately struck by just how brutal they are, this frontier is an absolute moral and ethical wasteland and each and every character in Leone’s world is driven by either avarice or vengeance, with the possible exception of Tuco’s priestly brother and even he comes across as a little haughtily superior and gets a whack in the chops for his saintly demeanour. The compositions and breath-taking scope of the movie gets a wonderful digital scrub, they seem to have retained just enough gradients and grain to not sanitize the movie and bleach its vintage, it retains a dark and grubby leathery demeanour which assimilates the covetous tone of the action perfectly. I don’t have a great deal in the way of production anecdotes to share other than despite the previous successful entries this final film was still relatively small budget, Leone certainty drapes all the cash on-screen with the blasted exteriors and Civil War set-pieces, in fact in order to preserve continuity Clint allegedly took his battered poncho and hat back to his hotel every night to preserve continuity, I’ll bet they’re worth a few quid now eh?
In terms of technique Leone was an instinctive and influential master, wielding form and content to hallucinatory effect, giving this long arid landscapes the widescreen treatment they deserve as the moral voids upon which these men do their evil bidding, it is quite the brutal universe he builds throughout the trilogy which then bleed into his final masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America. Other than the brave Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West he doesn’t have much time for women and his cinema is definitively a machismo world, with females as conquests or trophies to be won or exchanged as the associated trappings of power, wealth and glory. The deep focus staging of characters and landscape’s against the prairie dog howling score is all very clichéd now and any ‘hilarious’ comedy show or movie only needs to drop a burst Morricone’s seminal work and cut a few close-ups of quivering hands and nervously shifting eyes together to replicate the spaghetti western flavour, but these clichés have to come from somewhere and there is a reason they etch themselves into our collective visual unconscious. I think it was David Thompson who quantified it best, I’m paraphrasing but Leone and his expert posse brought samurai iconography to those Spanish locations, shot them as brutal revenge and moral plays with capacious CinemaScope compositions, cutting them to music and dispensing with the dialogue, cooking a global feast which appeals to many traditions, legends and cultures around the globe which is why the pictures have endured.
And so finally after an epic journey we slowly canter to the iconic finale, one of the all time great cinema conclusions. Finally seeing this on the big screen was a real goosebump moment which the film significantly earns, it’s taken a long time and a lot of blood has been spilled to get here, the final showdown which again inverts the traditional genre framework – it’s not two killers staring each down with only their reflexes and accuracy standing between them and a dirt nap, but three facing off which complicates the chaotic crossfire. We know they are all expert gunsmiths, but who is gonna go for whom? It’s brilliant in its design and execution, the set-piece is prefigured by Tuco’s delirious dancing among the graves in an ‘ecstasy of gold‘, a rare Leone moment which slows down the plot and gives the audience a breather after the prior bridge dynamite set-piece. Then it’s all about the timing and building the mood to an almost unbearable crescendo, the three competitors prancing like matador’s in a quiet dance of death, cutting long expansive takes between panorama shots and extreme close-ups, letting the music do the work in conjunction with the images. It the absolute antithesis of the current action film, just as an example I’m watching Mr. & Mrs. Smith in the background as I write this which is an entertaining enough flick, but it’s all expressed through manic cutting, through pulverizing sound and gadgets and SFX at the expense of tone and plot, and that’s the bedrock which elevates some movies to classic status while others are forgotten by the time you’ve exited the theatre. So I think we need to saddle up now and mosey off into the sunset just as Blondie makes his triumphant and ironic exit, here in its entirety is one of the undisputed all time great movie endings;