Films that inspire loyal homage and comedic parody in equal measure, for generations after their release, are like gold dust. Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of these unabashedly sublime rarities.
“If You Work For A Living, Why Do You Kill Yourself Working?”
This is the question that the titular ‘ugly’, Tuco, asks himself as he plucks feathers from a chicken, contemplating his line of work. For Tuco the statement is literal. To earn his daily bread he hangs from a noose, amassing a bounty and relying on Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, as Tuco ‘affectionately’ calls him, to shoot the rope and save his life. This is a well oiled machine for the duo until Blondie abandons Tuco in the harsh desert to die. The film focuses almost solely on this competitive relationship between the two of them; with the ‘bad’ of the titular trio, Angel Eyes played by Lee Van Cleef hot on their trail as they converge on the same astronomical treasure. But what must be asked is why do they take on this dangerous, immoral work? Because they cannot resist the score. The riches this life could give them, no matter how hard to find or how far to go, is what drives them…
The ecstasy of gold.
The film unfurls to become a truly epic tale as it perfectly weaves into its narrative the harrowing Civil War ravaging the country, as Blondie and Tuco, despite some invevitable protestations and potential backstabbing due to Blondie’s abadonment, once more form an uncomfortable alliance as they begin their pilgrimage to the hidden riches. Even such hardened men, who have killed and face death for a living, halt and stare in bewilderment at the horrors ravaging every inch of the nation. The bloodshed to take a single bridge that becomes the stage for a particularly memorable setpiece hits home for the viewer, as much as it does for the characters, the futility of war.
Pace in Leone’s westerns is much discussed, for some this film may feel like it trundles through its 180 minute runtime. While there is no denying that this sort of pacing is not common place in modern, fastpaced cinema, today’s cinema is worse off for it. The first ten minutes of this film play out in agonizing, near silent tension, the frantic wind blowing ever stronger is our only source of sound as we discover Tuco is being hunted by a group of men that Leone brings to extreme close-up (his directorial signature). Just as you feel like you could burst from said close-ups and perpetual visual pressure, Tuco pounces through a window in a shower of glass, guns blazing, to be labelled: ‘il brutto,’ the ugly. This is what makes Leone so exceptional, the simple concept of build-up and pay-off, it is difficult to argue a director that accomplishes something so basic so effectively or so simply.
While there is a simplicity to his direction in places, there is an equal amount of complex techniques too. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly splices together the already familiar american western come its 1966 release with an Avant Garde sensibility that evoles into something even more profound as the story becomes even more monumental. Leone’s style of direction was pioneering when it first emerged and it is at the top of its game here.
Much of what makes this film feel so Avant Garde is also Morricone’s score. It is simultaneously idiosyncratic and epochal. The whimsical howling coyote is, of course, iconic, but what cements its ingrained familiarity is that it is played via different instruments for each of the central trio: the flute for Blondie, the arghilofono (otherwise and more commonly known as the Ocarina) for Angel Eyes, and a wail of human voices for Tuco. This in many ways indicates the differing nature of the trio, how they perceive their life and their goals and the way they operate morally. But ultimately it is the same howl, the same tune, they have the same drive and the same constant desire: The esctasy of gold.
It is easy to concede that the film would not be as good without his score. And while I completely agree, that statement misses the bigger picture. One could also confess to thinking King Kong wouldn’t be as respected without Willis H. O’Brien’s effects, or that The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be as beloved if it didn’t have the mighty undertaking of the WETA workshop behind it, or that Harry Potter wouldn’t be as magical without Robbie Coltrane’s dulcet West Country drawl and so on and so on. Morricone is no mere piece of an enigma you just remove in order to make the film’s achievements seem less impressive. Film is the honing and conquest of all its parts, in all their multitude and complexity. Leone, Morricone and everyone in between with this project complete one of the twentieth centuries finest filmmaking conquests.
Eli Wallach’s character does warrant such a title as ‘il brutto’, his morals, his methods and his manicly macabre humour all attribute to it. But, honestly, there is significantly more to like about him. Tuco is the very spine of this epic in front of the camera and without him it would not feel quite so sincere, nor so genuine. His performance, a beautiful combination of humourous wit and devious cunning drives Eastwood as much as anything else. He has all the best lines too and relishes every syllable. I mean how could you not love, “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”? It’s a t-shirt designers dream. He was born for this role, and I don’t say that lightly.
There is no denying Clint Eastwood’s presence either. His signature squint is here in full force and it enraptures and inspires as much now as it did then; but much more than that, he is someone that you can truly root for. The Man With No Name is never as slick as he is here and the chemsitry with him and Wallach can only be regarded as champagne casting, the two match each other with such peculiar brilliance, their wit runs parallel to their distrust for each other and it all comes to such a satisfying conclusion. By films end their relationship is perfectly encapsulated the same way it began, at the end of a noose; and once again Tuco’s life is left in Blondie’s hands, and once more the good cannot let the ugly die.
Yet Tuco’s internal struggle about why we kill ourselves for a living and the trio’s ceaseless lust for gold, continues to stick with me more than anything. And now, the more I think on it, I am beginning to understand why. That very routine is timeless, the period, the journey, the methods of earning gold may have changed, but our desires, our dreams, our very well-being depend on working for and finding that treasure. Whether it be buried in a labyrinthian field of unmarked graves or transferred into our bank account at the end of every month, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly continues all these years later to tap into something that at this point feels almost tribal. If a film can frame all of that with style, poignancy and considerable epicness, it deserves all the adoration it receives and then some.
And when Blondie dips below the hill line and the credits roll, one cannot help but feel like the western genre was never this good again, or quite so effortlessly cool. Films are not made like this anymore. I doubt they ever will be again.