By Kris Tronerud
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – dir Sergio Leone – 1966
In 1965, as Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More was enjoying a runaway success in Italy (it was the most profitable Italian Film to date), its screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni brought his good friend Ilya Lopert of United Artists to the Supercinema Theater in Rome to see see FAFDM. Greatly impressed by the vocal enthusiasm of the packed-to-the-rafters audience, Lopert offered three times what producer Alberto Grimaldi was expecting for the rights to FAFDM, and, in true Hollywood fashion, sought to secure the rights to Leone’s ‘next film’ in advance. There was no ‘next film’, but with an assenting nod from Leone (who spoke little or no English) Vincenzoni began to riff… The story, he said, concerned three rogues in search of a treasure at the time of the Civil War. To which few words Lopert replied: “Okay, we’ll buy it.” And so, after one of the shortest pitch meetings in film history, was born one of the great westerns of all time, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Though somewhat miffed that his next film’s concept had arisen from a colleague’s bluff and not his own inspiration, Leone was smart enough to recognize that with United Artist’s backing, he could finally realize his ambition of creating a truly personal film. Since his early days as an (at first uncredited) director of sword and sandal films, through the world wide success of the first two Eastwood films, Leone had felt constrained by the constant second guessing and interference of his producers and collaborators. Now, armed with the largest budget of his career, and his sudden reputation (in Europe at least) as a director to be reckoned with, he could make a film from the heart. Leone also realized that Vincenzoni’s casually-tossed off story synopsis dovetailed perfectly with the film that was already growing in his mind: Leone wanted to take the established Western myth of the triumph of untarnished good over unvarnished evil and turn it inside out. Though Leone’s world view has often been inadequately explained as merely cynical, Leone, like his childhood inspirations, (the locally performed commedia-inspired puppet shows, with their raucous, amoral but lovable characters, and the colourful tragic-comic adventures of Don Quixote), saw the world as a raucous, jumbled mix of honor, brutality, romance and betrayal in which humor and savagery were inseparably mixed, and in which the traditional notion of strictly admirable heroes and purely evil villains was not particularly useful. With these formative attitudes as his starting point, Leone set out to paint a vast historical canvas on which the adventures of his flawed but fascinating characters would get at some deeper truths lying behind the spectacle: like his inspirations, a popular entertainment with an underlying understanding of the human condition just below its surface. It is this beautifully realized ambition that gived TGTGATU its uncommon and enduring resonance and power.
Though The Italian Western had already been born two years earlier with Leone’s tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, For A Fistful of Dollars, and undergone further refinement in its masterful sequel For A Few Dollars More, the style, flavor and tropes that would be relentlessly imitated for much of the next decade were forged, cemented, and reached world wide acceptance in TGTBATU. From its first moments, as Luigi Laudini’s savage, throat grabbing credits (an innovative combination of real and re-created Mathew Brady tintype and gaudy 60’s animated slices of color) slashed their way across the screen, their booming cannon-shots a literal shot across the bow to the traditional western, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s daring, seminal music; what had already been apparent to western buffs and inner city audiences became clear to everyone: Something New Had Been Added. Audiences enthusiastically embraced its audacious, confident mixture of cynical violence, gripping emotional drama, humor, and its affectionate, in your face parody of western convention. Time after time TGTBATU fearlessly flouts movie western convention and gets away way with it; starting with those startling, freeze frame written-out identifications of its principal characters. And what characters they are. From the moment fugitive bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach in a career-defining role) mows down the first in a string of hapless opponents and comes crashing through a storefront window (“The Ugly”) we find it impossible to resist this amoral rogue. Wallach’s Tuco is a sensual, Rabelesian incarnation of ancient characters, from the rascally Brighella of Leone’s puppet show inspirations, all the way back to the ‘trickster” character of Native American lore, and a recurring character thread in most of Leone’s work; an attractive and charming brigand capable of cold-blooded murder one moment and sincere, tearful regret the next, whose worst transgressions and misdeeds cannot prevent us from sympathizing (and perhaps identifying) with him. The introduction of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is no surprise: his freeze frame “The Bad” comes after he has slaughtered an entire family for ‘a scrap of information’ and murdered the man who hired him to do it. Van Cleef (a Hollywood bit player who spent the last years of his life an unlikely B-movie star thanks to Leone’s ability to hone in on even the most unlikely actors’ essence, and render them physically, vividly compelling) plays what seems at first to be a version of his far more complex Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars more, but is, in TGTBATU, an incarnation of pure, rapacious evil; more a plot device, (albeit a chillingly believable one) than a character (tellingly Van Cleef’s character is named Sentenza, as in Death Sentence, in the Italian dub). But it is in the appearance of bounty hunter Blondie, just in time to save Tuco from a trio of competitors, that Leone’s most enduring contribution to film iconography stepped into film history. There is arguably no film ‘hero’ more instantly, mesmerizingly and hypnotically fascinating than Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; clad in gambler’s hat and long duster, eyes in an unknowable squint, the movements of his half smoked cigar punctuating that hissing, hypnotic whisper; and while no one could guess at that time that this charismatic gunslinger would himself become one of the great directors, it was clear to film audiences, male and female alike, that a star had been born. When Blondie’s freeze frame “The Good” appears as he is betraying his partner Tuco, leaving him to walk eighty miles of desert back to town alone, we know we are in Sergio Leone’s personal, and peculiar, moral universe.
Though it was clear from the earliest frames of The Colossus of Rhodes, and certainly in For a Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More, that Sergio Leone was not an ordinary journeyman director; in TGTBATU, Leone comes into his own, not only in the complexity of the themes which are the undercurrent of what seems, on the surface to be merely a terrific western, but in his absolute mastery of the film medium. The long sweeping pans and crane shots which seem, in a few brief moments to define a place and time, the attention to detail, physical, historical and emotional which provide the emotional weight to those great vistas, and the love of texture, both visual and auditory, all gloriously inform and fill out every nook and cranny of the screen in TGTBATU. Leone loved the details of the physical world; the look and feel of things (his widow Carla says his favourite pastime was endlessly polishing his beloved antiques collection) and TGTBATU revels in every crunch of boot on gravel; every rustle of wind, every slurp of food (the two most terrifying scenes in TGTBATU, the murder of the farmer, and the interrogation of Tuco by Angel Eyes) are accompanied by the sensual eating of meals) and in the texture and appeal of objects like the gun collection that Tuco lovingly assembles and disassembles before using them to rob their owner. Leone is supported in these obsessions by long-time collaborators set designer/art director Carlo Simi, the extraordinarily authentic nature of whose creations undoubtedly sprang from the fact that he was a practicing architect; and the equally extraordinary Tonino Delli Colli (Lacombe Lucien, The Name of the Rose) who captures Simi’s creations and Leone’s obsessions with a breathtaking clarity, and the eye of a painter. With their help, Leone achieves that peculiar combination of hyper-realism and intensified fantasy which was his own peculiar and inimitable (though many certainly tried) style of filmmaking. Leone’s fellowship of creators is completed by the dynamic and heartrending music of a young Ennio Morricone, whose music becomes a mature and fully developed presence in TGTBATU. From the mournful majesty of the theme which accompanies Van Cleef’s approach at the doomed farm in the opening sequences, to the war theme, whose discordant trumpets convey both the surface glory and the essential tragedy of war, to what is probably the most universally recognized piece of film music ever, the aaahh ah ah ah aaahh… main theme, it is impossible to imagine TGTBATU without Morricone’s resplendent score.
Though considered a classic western, TGTBATU is, in a certain sense, not a western at all, as its episodic, picaresque journey takes place against the vast, constant backdrop of the Civil War, and forms a context of corruption and senseless, unthinking brutality against which the actions of our two deeply flawed ‘heroes’ seem positively noble by comparison. The war weaves a thread throughout the film, from the early scene in which a legless veteran puts Angel Eyes on Blondie and Tuco’s trail for the price of a drink, to the fly-ridden mission hospital run by Tuco’s monastic brother, to the horrific prison camp of “Betterville”, to the ghostly retreat of the defeated Confederate army across the dusty wasteland; culminating in the film’s justly celebrated set-piece: the siege and destruction of Langstone Bridge. This epic and sorrowful sequence evoking, (and easily equal to), historic cinematic evocations of the futility and ugliness of war from DW Griffith to Lewis Milestone to Kubrick; is Leone, Simi and Delli Colli at their best; their long, corpse-filled trenches and vast rows of booming cannons (which would become the centerpiece of the hugely successful American TV ad campaign) etched in equal measures of expansive historic scope and grimy blood soaked detail. The sequence also signals the deepening development of character missing in TGTBATU’s predecessors, as Blondie and Tuco take time out of their treasure hunt to fulfill the dying wish of the Union commander by blowing up the bridge, thereby ending the battle; their skeptical and larcenous partnership gradually turning into a grudging friendship. (It is also hard to imagine the Man with No Name of the first two films stopping to offer his last cigar to a dying soldier). Against this backdrop, TGTBATU‘s irreverent journey become increasingly surreal; alternately stretching out certain sequences with a resolute unwillingness to rush its evocative, moody visuals, at others collapsing time and physical space in an almost absurd fashion (Angel Eyes goes, seemingly in a few weeks, from being a lone bounty hunter to second in command of “Betterville”, and Blondie and Tuco fail to notice that they are one shrubbery away from a monumental battle until sentries improbably appear from out of frame to confront them) that betrays TGTBATU as the bizarre, almost dreamlike journey across the landscape of human folly that it is.
All of the above notwithstanding, it must be emphasized that TGTBATU is no rarified art-house musing on the nature of existence, but a rousing good action film that can be, and often is, appreciated simply as a ripping good western. Full of violent, splendidly wrought gun battles, genuinely funny moments of sardonic humor, intrigue, double-and-triple crossing, and thrilling action set-pieces, and fleshed out by a superb cast of Italian character actors and Euro-Western regulars, (Mario Brega as Angel Eyes’ loutish sidekick, Luigi Pistilli as Tuco’s priestly brother and especially Aldo Guiffre as the tormented Union commander are standouts), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly just happens to have been made by an exceptional crew of film artists, at a rare and signal turning point in cultural history, and can be appreciated as either a whacking good cowboy movie, or as a deceptively deep piece of personal filmmaking; or, hopefully, as both. A perfect ambassador to represent United Artists’ 90th Anniversary, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is even better than you remember it.
The author wishes to express his appreciation for, and highest recommendation of, Christopher Frayling’s monumental Leone biography “Something To Do With Death”, whose extraordinary insights and biographical information were so helpful in writing this article.