Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo | The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Once upon a time, westerns used to be an American filmmaker’s playground that, in most cases, sported a classic theme of good vs evil where the hero was the epitome of goodness while the villain was evil personified. Then in the 1960s entered an Italian filmmaker with his unique take on the Wild West and this genre has never been the same, ever since. Completely defying the tried & tested Hollywood formula and introducing his own style of narration that was more character driven, glamourized violence & also added a new dimension of moral ambiguity into its characters’ psyche, thus bringing both heroes & villains very much on the same level, Sergio Leone not only found worldwide fame with his now legendary Dollars Trilogy but, in the long run, also played a key role in reinventing the western genre. The change began with A Fistful of Dollars, got accelerated with For A Few Dollars More but it wasn’t until Leone unveiled The Good, the Bad & the Ugly that the final nail on the coffin of the traditional westerns was hammered for good.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is the third film in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western trilogy and presents the story of three men racing against each other to find a fortune in gold buried in a distant cemetery. The Good amongst the three is a bounty hunting gunslinger, known as Blondie, who isn’t really the good guy as per se but has a certain sense of morals & tries to do the right thing when faced with a choice. The Bad is a merciless hitman, known as Angel Eyes, who is pure evil but even he has a set of principles, always managing to see the job through when paid for it. Finally we have the Ugly, a wanted bandit named Tuco who is completely unpredictable & truly represents the ugly side in all of us, acting as a friend in one sequence but turning into a foe in the very next. The film begins with a stylish introduction of the trio, places its story against the backdrop of American Civil War & manages to create some brilliant situations of escalating tension throughout its runtime that finally culminates with an unforgettable final showdown which, in my opinion, is the greatest climax ever filmed in motion picture history.
The direction by Sergio Leone is an absolute good. Not only this film presents him at the creative heights of his career but also in complete control of his skills. Crafted with enough style, charisma, humour & improvements in other filmmaking aspects, Leone manages to make the entire film an enjoyable & memorable experience for the viewers. There are many scenes in the film where we already know how it’s going to end but it’s the mastery of Leone’s direction who extends & fills those scenes with silence, thus making us wait for that inevitable moment and it’s the waiting only that does the required job of creating a tension-filled atmosphere, which is then broken by sudden violence. The writing is also spectacular as the development of the film’s trio of characters is very nicely carried out along with brilliant use of humour & catchy dialogues that accompany the film. Cinematography always plays a big role in Leone’s pictures as a visual narrator and here, apart from turning the barren landscapes into scenic beauties, also contributes to the drama through multiple close-ups & controlled stillness to add uncertainty to the scenes. And in spite of clocking in at 177 minutes of runtime, the story flies by thanks to its clever editing.
Coming to the performances, this film features three remarkable ones from its trio of characters. Clint Eastwood reprises his coveted role of ‘Man with No Name’, who is referred to as Blondie in this film, and plays the good character with sublime style. Lee Van Cleef stars as Angel Eyes aka Sentenza, the bad character and shows an impressive transformation from his role of a righteous bounty hunter in For A Few Dollars More into a ruthless & sociopathic mercenary in this film. But the real show-stealing performance amongst the three turned out to be Eli Wallach’s rendition of the ugly character of Tuco. With stunning use of wit & expressions, Wallach nails his role of an outlaw to absolute perfection and is also very much responsible for the comic relief this film exhibits from start to finish. Even the story of this film is more inclined towards Tuco’s journey as we eventually learn about where he comes from while the background of Blondie & Angel Eyes remain mysteries. The supporting cast includes the regulars that Leone employed in the first two chapters of this trilogy and in their given & brief roles, each one of them makes their small but vital contributions to the film. Overall, there is simply nothing to complain about in the acting department.
Last but not the least and in my opinion, the most important aspect worth mentioning about The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Captivating from the very first frame, the way the music drives this film is sheer perfection and isn’t only one of Morricone’s finest works of his illustrious career but is also widely regarded as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Staying true to its origins & picking up from right where it left off in the previous chapter, the score makes extensive use of whistles, gunshot & cannon fires that permeates the film seamlessly and the main theme that plays during the opening credits is already one of the most recognisable piece of music ever written which, thanks to countless imitations, you’ve already heard even if you haven’t seen this film. But the one sequence where the score is absolutely breathtaking is during the film’s climactic showdown in the cemetery. The climax was already a grandeur work of art, thanks to Sergio Leone’s direction & brilliant use of camera angles, but the music accompanying it plays an even bigger role in setting up the perfect environment and is a highly integral component of the drama which impacted every single element in that scene, be it the mood, the close-ups, the anticipation, the building suspense & everything else, thus making the entire sequence a truly bone-chilling, unforgettable & haunting experience that remains unsurpassed even to this date.
The only complain people generally have with this film is that it’s too long and I like to differ. Every single scene that made it into the film is significant to its plot or for the development of its characters. Even the scenes where nothing much is happening feel like deep breaths before the plunge and only helped in contributing to the build up of a catastrophe. Also, there is a reason why people continue to revisit this masterpiece again & again, it’s not because this film is a cinematic landmark that reinvented an entire genre almost single-handedly but because it’s just so damn entertaining & enjoyable, in spite of the seemingly tedious runtime. On an overall scale, the ingenious direction of Sergio Leone & musical genius of Ennio Morricone is a combination that yet remains to be challenged & probably may never be equalled. And these two alone make this film pretty good. Add the strong & scintillating performances of Eastwood, Van Cleef & Wallach to that and the mixture just gets better. And finally, on adding this film’s perfection in other filmmaking aspects like cinematography, editing, set pieces, every minute detailing & everything else, we have a cinema that’s simply the best. Immortal for its contribution to western genre, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is a stunning work of expert filmmaking whose significance to art, culture & cinema will never be forgotten. It’s the greatest western ever made. It’s one of the greatest films of all time. And it’s my all time favourite foreign language film as well. Strongly recommended.
P.S. You don’t really have to watch A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More before moving on to this one as the stories are completely unrelated and the only thing that connects the trilogy is Clint Eastwood’s character of ‘Man with No Name’. Also, if possible, try looking for the extended version of this film, clocking at nearly 3 hours, as it’s the closest to how director Sergio Leone imagined this film to be in the first place.