Sergio Leone directs Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, Jose Calvo, Lee Van Cleef, Mario Brega, Klaus Kinski, Eli Wallach, Luigi Pistilli and Aldo Giuffrè in this sequence of Spaghetti Westerns where a mercenary drifter sets the world’s wrongs right through guile, bullets and amorality.
When asked what my favourite movie is, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my go to answer. Is it really though? Really? I’ve watched Trading Places, Die Hard and True Romance way, way more often – though TGTBATU is no less entertaining nor any less comfortingly familiar. If I were ever to make a movie I’d almost definitely rather mimic the fractured editing, and the decaying beauty, of British Seventies cinema like Don’t Look Now or Get Carter. And as much as I love the western genre, I actually am not all that au fait with any other Spaghetti Westerns beyond Leone’s – the few I’ve experimented with feel oafish and lacking his distinctive, patient elegance and eye for the iconic that this trilogy thrive on.
I guess what captivates me every time are four things.
1) Eli Wallach’s swirlingly volcanic central turn as Tuco Ramirez. The greatest, most unguarded piece of acting in cinema history. Hilarious too.
2) Clint is one of my favourite stars, The Man With No Name is his best role, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best film featuring that role (despite having to play second fiddle to the full orchestra that is Tuco).
3) Ennio Morricone. All his scores are amazing for Leone.
4) This is the first film where there is no real good guy (ignore the title, it should really be called The Bad, the Evil and the Rat) yet you root for them all… even vicious, cold, old Angel Eyes.
Crime, killers and corruption in cowboy hats… What is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly if not the tale of three hoods in period dress? Let’s ignore all the murders as obvious and pay special attention to Tuco and The Man With No Name’s hangman scam, or their impersonation of unionist soldiers, or even their mercenary act of good grace in blowing up that goddamn, lousy, stinking bridge. The Macguffin itself (a grave full of gold) is the ultimate symbol of the heist not having gone right from the start. Crime doesn’t pay, especially if you have to treat the booty like a corpse. Ignore the ponchos and clunky six shooters and you have a crime film with the skewed morality that didn’t truly permeate cinema proper until the likes of Dirty Harry, The Getaway or The Long Goodbye four years later.
From the drawn out set pieces – a mixture of tension and hysteria emphasised in Ennio Morricone’s howling, bonkers and unforgettable score – to the vistas of harsh torn up arid land, Leone wants you to know the only way to get on in this world is to get ugly. Clint is ostensibly the star, his “Blondie” picking up his gun, hat and ponchos that were his armour in the first two of the Dollars trilogy, making this a sequel and a prequel in the same breath. Yet it’s Eli Wallach’s completely unique take on Tuco who feels like our protagonist on further viewings; a pugnacious little survivor hustling and threatening and conniving his way through whatever this cartoon interpretation of civil war America has to bombard him with. He’s got goals you want him to achieve, whether they be greed or revenge, and the film explodes whenever he’s onscreen, flinting off of Eastwood and Van Cleef deadpan stone cold hunters. Revisionist yet entertaining, enthralling yet disgusting – this is the finest western, finest crime thriller and finest film ever made.
The trilogy as a whole is quality from top to toe – starting with A Fistful of Dollars as a simple remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Sure, the debut film is more indy barebones but Clint is at his most amoral yet heroic best. It is exciting watching a star being born. A great visual action director too. The focus altering use of foreground and unflinching long close ups are all here. A turbo of tough tension throughout.
For a Few Dollars More is only imperceptibly the weakest. The addition of a charming and well written role for Lee Van Cleef and a great dusty heist set piece make up for a slightly shaggy plot. Clint completely hits his stride here. Relaxed enough to hang back and let Van Cleef do the heavy lifting. While The Man With No Name is almost ethereal in his invincibility, the Colonel feels both paternal yet excitingly at risk. Their cool macho chemistry crackles even more than “Blondie” and Tuco’s.