The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This is not going to be another post about a western that I preface with “I hate westerns, but...” I do hate some westerns. But I also like a lot of westerns, the more I explore the genre. I hate John Wayne-era westerns. They feel so campy and neat and pretty to me. In my imagination, the west was a dark, gritty place, and I see that come to life in this movie. For those unfamiliar, it was directed by Sergio Leone in 1966, and I just adore his over-the-top version of the west.

I think it can be hard to remember what was so groundbreaking and new about this movie when it came out. Clint Eastwood is a household name, but he wasn't in 1966. He was a TV star that no one thought would succeed. “In those days,” Ebert writes, “it was thought that a movie audience wouldn't pay to see an actor it could watch for free” (Great Movies II, 161). He got paid barely anything for his work with Leone, but it paid off. People were also much more used to the Wayne west, where there was not so much blood and dirt, where everything was filmed in the US. Here, Leone gave us big sweeping foreign vistas. People with dark, sun-stained skin. Blistering, peeling faces and grit covering everything. It was sort of alien, almost. I know there were many critics who didn't like Leone's emphasis on style, but I really love it.

The film is about three guys – Angel Eyes (The Bad), Tuco (The Ugly), and Blondie (The Good, and yunno, Eastwood). Tuco and Blondie enter into an uneasy alliance as they search for a buried fortune. Tuco knows the graveyard where it is buried, and Blondie knows the grave that it is buried in. Since they won’t give up the secrets to each other, they have to struggle to work together to find it. Angel Eyes was hunting Tuco and Blondie, but found out that they were searching for a fortune in gold, and tries to tag along with them even though he doesn’t know any information. The film culminates in an incredibly long and awesome Mexican stand-off between the three of them.

It’s close to hitting the three hour mark, so there is much more plot here, but the one above is the main one. There are a lot of unrelated little stories with the characters, even a brief jog through the Civil War. I like it when movies are like this. For me, it helps to build up a relationship with the characters. In this movie, and countless other westerns, the climax and end of the film is a shoot-out. You have to create really interesting characters to get them to that point. If you have people having shoot-outs every three minutes, it’s not really an important plot point anymore. I like that Leone has all these little side plots so that viewers can get to know these mysterious characters a little bit better. You see tiny moments of humor between them, and other moments of tension. We see how they act in a variety of situations. Then, when we get to the shoot-out, it’s more tense. We care for some of these characters, and hate others. The unpredictability of the standoff suddenly is more suspenseful, at least for me.

Ebert discusses the standoff, writing, “Leone draws this scene out beyond all reason, beginning in long shot and working in to closeups of firearms, faces, eyes, and lots of sweat and flies. He seems to be testing himself, to see how long he can maintain the suspense. Or is it even suspense, really? It may be entirely an exercise in style, a deliberate manipulation by the director, intended to draw attention to itself. If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures” (Great Movies II, 161).  I think this is a great analysis of the scene. It’s tense, but it’s also a little ridiculous, but to me, it works perfectly.

I really love the soundtrack of the movie, too. It’s a little off-kilter, but it’s pretty much become synonymous with westerns at this point. I know that the west was probably, in reality, not like Leone’s, so I like the way that the soundtrack sort of emphasizes the strangeness and foreignness of the film. It’s not something that people in 1966 were used to seeing and hearing, and it really helped the film to stand out. I think it holds up well today, still, despite it’s infamy. I know everyone has heard the theme song a million times, but watching the movie today, I was still interested in the different ways it was used. I really thought there were some clever ways to use the theme song - playing after a particularly badass moment, or when Tuco screams “You son of a bitch!” at Blondie. I just really like that even the soundtrack is highly stylized, and used in really interesting ways.

I love this movie. I love westerns like this. They use the backdrop of the west to tell a really cool story, and have unique and interesting characters. Directors can convey really fascinating messages through this medium (like Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch), and I love it when the setting is used well. The westerns I like use the setting they are in to enhance their story in different ways. Leone uses it like a character, the dominating landscapes taking over his wide screen shots. He lets his camera linger over the mountains, the grit, and the tiny specks of people riding around on the horizon. It’s not just people who are cruel, but also the landscape. Does one bring the other? I’m not sure. I just really enjoyed watching this movie tonight. It’s everything I want out of this genre, and it’s right up there with my favorite westerns. I know I complain often about them, but this feels right for me, just like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

If you haven’t seen this yet, check it out! I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not quite as violent as Peckinpah, but still gritty and nasty. I love it enough to own it on Blu-ray, and it looks incredible. It was really a treat to be able to sit back and see these huge vistas in such great definition. Let me know if you see it!

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Ebert’s Great Movie Essay on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
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