Having just watched The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo), Sergio Leone’s final film in his Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, I can say rarely has a film trilogy been so instructive as to the step by step artistic growth of its director as an artist. 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars is a solid to good film, and a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It is enjoyable but not that deep. 1965’s For A Few Dollars More is an excellent, almost great, film which showed Leone rising near greatness in almost every facet of filmmaking, and surpassing that bar in some. But it still had a few kinks to work out, and fixed many of the flaws of the first film, both technically and artistically. This 1966 three hour long capstone film sees Leone actually ascend over that bar and on into greatness. No, it is not the unfettered masterpiece of a film that Once Upon A Time In The West, and Once Upon A Time In America, are, but it’s close; held back only by some remanent Dumbest Possible Action tropes. And, since I have not seen Leone’s pre-Spaghetti Western films, and since it’s been decades since I saw Duck, You Sucker! (known as A Fistful Of Dynamite, when I saw it as a kid), having three great films, and one near great film, out of five qualifies Leone as a master of the craft, by any measure, and far superior a make of Westerns than John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, or any of the other directors of that genre that Hollywood produced, for his films have a sense of comedy those directors’ films lacked, and none had the epic sweep Leone’s films did, which are more in line with the epics of David Lean than mere Westerns.
But, in fairness, while The Good, The Bad And The Ugly features one of the best film scores ever, by Ennio Morricone at his creative greatest, and it soars in the way it’s applied to enhance even the most routine scenes; dazzling cinematography, by Tonino Delli Colli, including some of the best and most realistic battle scenes ever filmed; and well written and well acted characters, by the Good- Blondie (Clint Eastwood), and the Bad- Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), this film is dominated by the Ugly, Tuco Ramirez, the Mexican bandito played by Eli Wallach. The character is sort of an even more stylized riff on the bandito, Calvero, he essayed in The Magnificent Seven, which saw that character absorb some of the lunacy of the samurai played by Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai; but that’s what makes it even better. It’s simply one of the greatest comedic performances in film history. He owns the picture, much in the same way as the Lee Van Cleef character owned For A Few Dollars More, and like Van Cleef’s character, in that film, Tuco often outsmarts the Eastwood character, One simply cannot turn away, lest miss a sight gag or joke or wince of frustration that sets the screen alive. Much of this is due to the fact that Wallach is, simply put, one of the best and most versatile actors of the last six decades, but much also has to be granted to the film’s screenplay, penned by Leone, Agenore Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli, from a story by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni. It crackles with depth, humor- especially quotable one and two liners, pathos (see the scenes with Union and Confederate soldiers), and rage, and is one of the rare films that deserves the moniker epic.
The film opens with a man facing down two other men, in what seems to be a looming gunfight. But, when they meet up, they head into a building, guns afire, only to be shot up by the Ugly Tuco, who escapes by crashing through a window. Next we see the Bad, Angel Eyes, enter the home of an ex-soldier, intent on killing him after he gets the name of another soldier he knows has hidden $200,000 in gold. The man is named Jackson, but has changed it to Bill Carson. Angel Eyes is offered $1000 by Jackson to spare his life. The bribe does not work. The killer nails Jackson and his oldest son, leaving his youngest child and Mexican wife (Chelo Alonso, a beauty who looks eerily like Halle Berry) alive. He then returns to the man who paid him to kill Stevens, tells him the information, then kills him, claiming the $1000 from Jackson was to kill the guy who hired him. Then, we cut back to the escaping Tuco, who is captured by three bounty hunters, until The Good, Blondie, kills all three, and turns Tuco in himself. Now, why Blondie is referred to as the Good in this film is pure moral relativism. He is good only in comparison to Tuco and Angel Eyes. All three are murderers, but only Blondie seems to have the ability to realize that there are larger issues in life, as revealed to him in the battles he later sees, and in the kindnesses he extends a kitten and a dying soldier. He also seems younger than in his other incarnations, as well as clean shaven and shorn of the garb Eastwood’s characters wore in the earlier films. Blondie then collects the $2000 bounty on Tuco, who rages at his capture. As he is about to be hanged, Blondie shoots Tuco’s rope, and they split the money. Tuco’s bounty then gets up to $3000, and they pull the same scam, but Tuco complains that he should get the greater split of the money. This is when Blondie abandons Tuco, still tied up, in the middle of the desert, 70 miles from the nearest town. This is an act that enrages Tuco, and also shows that Blondie’s ‘goodness’ is clearly relative, as he has basically sentenced the man to death.
But, Tuco is clearly not an ordinary man, and somehow he makes it to a town, goes into a gunshop, and robs it with its own gun, in a humorous passage. He then reacquaints with three old gang members and tracks Blondie to a nearby town and hotel, where Confederate soldiers are fleeing an approaching Yankee army. Blondie kills Tuco’s men, but Tuco gets the drop on him through a window, and forces Blondie to put a noose on his neck. But, a cannonball demolishes the room and Blondie escapes. But Tuco finds him scamming with a new partner, named Shorty, and stops him from shooting the rope, thereby dooming Shorty to death (for which Blondie expresses regret). He then forces Blondie to march into the desert, to abandon him as he did Tuco. When Blondie collapses from dehydration and heatstroke, Tuco is about to kill him but stops when a runaway Confederate ambulance stagecoach appears heading their way. There, Tuco discovers Carson, who is dying and begging for water. He tells Tuco of the gold and where it is located, Sand Hill Cemetery, but needs water before he gives the grave’s name. Tuco rushes for his canteen, but returns to find Carson dead, having told Blondie the name of the specific grave it’s buried under, and passes out. Tuco commandeers the stagecoach, and dresses himself and Blondie as Confederates, and heads to a mission, run by his own brother, Father Pablo, with whom he fell out with years ago. After Blondie recovers they take off to get the gold, each man knowing only part of the answer. They are then captured by Union soldiers Tuco waves to, believing they were Rebels because their blue uniforms had turned gray in the dust of the desert canyons.
They are taken to a Prisoner Camp, where Angel Eyes is revealed as a Sergeant. He likely ambushed a real soldier and assumed his identity because earlier he was seen in civvies, entering a Rebel outpost. He tortures prisoners regulary, along with his goon, Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega). He tortures Tuco for the location of the cemetery, then sends Wallace to take him to be hanged for his crimes in a nearby town. Angel Eyes then gets Blondie and says he is now partners with him, not Tuco. He takes six of his gang with him, showing he was not really in the Army. He also gives Blondie the civvies we saw Eastwood’s characters wear in the two earlier films- the faded dungarees and the sheepskin vest. This seems to place the film as the earliest of the three films, and as a prequel, to many Leone fans. Tuco, meanwhile, kills Wallace by tossing him off the train while pissing off the side. He heads to meet up with Blondie and Angel Eyes. Blondie has dispatched one of Angel Eyes’ men, and when Tuco joins him they take care of the rest, save for Angel Eyes, who escapes while the town is shelled by heavy bombardment. They need to cross a river to get to the cemetery, but the bridge is the site for an implacable Rebel-Yankee battle. Both sides have orders to capture not destroy the bridge, so Tuco and Blondie simply decide to blow it up. Herein the film’s greatest flaw, for in broad daylight they sabotage the bridge and blow it up without a single shot fired from either watchful side. Just implausible as hell, although the depiction of the soldiers and battle are truly spectacular, far surpassing even David Lean’s treatment of a similar plot in The Bridge On The River Kwai, from whom the narrative is stolen. During the melee the two tell each other their bits of info, with Blondie learning Sand Hill Cemetery is the location, and Blondie telling Tuco Arch Stanton is the name of the grave where the money is located. As they cross the river, Blondie attends to a dying soldier as Tuco takes off for the cemetery, only to have Blondie send cannonballs his way. Blondie puts on a poncho that the dead soldier gave him, and is now fully attired as we saw Eastwood’s characters in the earlier films. Tuco finds Ach Stanton’s grave, and digs. Blondie surprises him and tosses him a shovel. Angel Eyes then reappears, and tosses a second shovel, getting the drop on the two of them. Blondie refuses to dig alongside Tuco, at Angel Eyes’ command, because he lied about the grave in which the money was located. He suggests a three way duel, with the name of the grave marked on the bottom of a rock. More Dumbest Possible Action follows, because even if Tuco or Angel Eyes wins the duel, there is no reason Blondie would have to tell the truth on the rock bottom.
The standoff goes on for minutes, then ends with Blondie shooting and killing Angel Eyes, who rolls into an open grave. Tuco finds that his gun is empty, unloaded by Blondie the previous night. Blondie shows nothing on the bottom of the rock, and says that the money is in the Unknown grave next to Arch Stanton’s. Tuco digs and finds eight bags of coins. Blondie then brings the film full circle, and forces Tuco to stand atop a weakly constructed wooden cross as grave marker, to hang himself with a noose that Tuco apparently was oblivious to Blondie’s erecting. He ties Tuco’s hands and rides off with half the gold. Tuco begs for mercy, and Blondie shoots him down, just as he had earlier in their partnership. Blondie rides off and Tuco curses him.
Much debate among critics and fans of the film rages over whether or not the characters played by Eastwood in all three films are the same man or not, and clearly Leone knew that the baggage of the earlier film’s main ‘characters’ would carry over to this one. This confusion is due to the Man With No Name campaign mounted by United Artists, over Leone’s protests. Leone insisted they were not the same character, only the same type of character, an archetype, and those who claim it is three separate characters point to the differing names given Eastwood, and that the films seem set in periods wherein each subsequent film is set in an earlier time than the previous one. Those who support the idea that the character is the same point to the fact that Eastwood’s character only has nicknames, not real name- a fact played with during this film’s encounter with the Union sergeant at the big battle. They also support the inverse timeline of the three films, and say that Eastwood only gets his poncho and sheepskin vest in the earliest set film, and that the earlier films show his development as a character. In this film, he’s a con man. By For A Few Dollars More, he’s a ruthless bounty hunter, and by A Fistful Of Dollars he’s beyond even money, and wants to just manipulate others for amusement, or good ends, and his reference, in the first film, as to why he saves Marisol from sexual slavery, seems to refer back to his inability to help the dying soldier in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The truth is that only the final film is set in a definite time, the Civil War. But even this film has numerous anachronisms. The two earlier films seem to be set in the post-Civil War period of the late 1860s through 1870s, although some fans claim as late as 1900 for the first film, and others claim the films are not even in reverse chronology. But, many of the claims of dating, for all three films, are clearly simple anachronistic continuity errors, not vital markers of narrative, a point many fans do nor understand as a typical part of the creative process. In looking over the evidence the answer becomes crystal clear, the character is both: Blondie, Manco, and Joe are the same character and are not the same character. Leone’s films (as opposed to Leone, an important distinction for artworks often reveal things the artist is not consciously aware of) allow for both interpretations to be valid, depending on the will of the viewer, thus creating an empathy due to a necessitated co-creation on the part of the percipient who wants to do so.
Then, again, the films seem intent on undermining all logic and causality, and thus are often claimed as Surrealistic (note the exaggerated effects of gunshots that is used over and again). In essence, the Dollars trilogy is a trilogy of stylistic rather than narrative continuity. Furthermore, in his commentary on this film, film critic Richard Schickel refers to Van Cleef’s character as the Ugly and Wallach’s character as the Bad, which is in line with the film’s trailers’ claims. The two disk DVD, from MGM, is a good one. Disk One has the film, restored and in good shape. The film is seen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with about 18 minutes of restored footage cut from the original American release. The Schickel audio commentary track, though, is a big disappointment versus the two very good ones by film historian Christopher Frayling on the first two films. Whereas Frayling is excited and filled with anecdotes and scene specific comments, Schickel seems almost bored with this film. His comments are rather rote and obvious, and the commentary is punctuated by long silences. He makes some rather obvious points about Leone’s being more concerned with the lead up to violence rather than the violence itself, and how that is the opposite of what Sam Peckinpah was doing in his films, and some good points on how the film contrasts the relatively petty crimes and silliness of its three protagonists against the mass murder of the Civil War, and its facts like this that also give the film a philosophic weight absent from its predecessor films. Schickel has done commentaries before, but one wonders why he is still hired to do them, as none are memorable, and too often punctuated with his hemming and hawing. The sad thing is that the best film of the trilogy gets the worst commentary. They should have stuck with Frayling for the trifecta. Disk Two has deleted scenes and several good featurettes: Leone’s West; The Leone Style; The Man Who Lost The Civil War; Reconstructing The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone And The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; and the original theatrical trailer. And, as with the earlier films, this film shows, convincingly, that dubbing, if done well, is far superior to even the best subtitled films. Imagine all the visual majesty and subtle physical comedy that would be missed if reading lengthy dialogue for a second or two. Anyone who claims that dubbing takes away from a performance needs to see the pathos of some of the foreign actors in their minor, but affecting roles. Subtitling is an abomination that should be avoided at all costs. However, realizing that DVD companies have limited resources, there are excuses for some films being subtitled; but not the great films of the great masters, and English version supervisor Mickey Knox did a great job throughout this film.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, despite some flaws, is a great film, for it is so engaging and well written that it moves far faster than its three hour time, actually ‘feeling’ more like a 90 minute film; an effect that often occurs in the long and slow films of Bela Tarr. From its opening credits to its end the film never takes itself seriously, which helps mitigate said flaws, and the trilogy, as mentioned, and as a whole, is probably the best example of an artist recognizing his own flaws and correcting them with each subsequent film. This trend would reach its apex in Once Upon A Time In The West, but it started here, in this trilogy. Watch all three films, and especially this one, to see the proof that the terms ‘high art’ and ‘fun’ are not mutually exclusive. Now, get goin’!
©2010 Dan Schneider
We will be adding new content every day over the next week as we begin rolling out the new site, culminating in the full transition to the new site along with the debut of our Facebook page next weekend.