The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo)

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Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone

(1998), Christopher Frayling

Sergio Leone’s first two spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood were narrowly conceived action flicks mainly notable for expanding the boundaries of permissible cinematic mayhem in the years just prior to Bonnie and Clyde. In his third one, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his art took a quantum leap as he turned out an extravagantly plotted epic propelled by waves of free-flowing emotion and a palpable love for the American past. Leone’s reputation would eventually rest on a handful of these feverish, and frequently incoherent, murals, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be the most satisfying of all his vast and violent dreamscapes.

With a happily jaundiced eye the movie follows its three main characters—the laconic bounty-hunter Blondie (Eastwood, then verging on superstardom), the murderous Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and the tragicomic bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach)—as they cross the American Southwest pursuing a fortune in buried gold. As each man works to hinder his rivals with a barrage of lies, beatings, double-crosses, and ambushes, they all must dodge involvement in the Civil War (surprisingly active in that part of the country), with its attendant threats of wholesale slaughter and brutal POW camps. Because no single one of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, the three gunmen are forced into a grotesque game of leapfrog through the deserts, battlefields, and war-ravaged towns that separate them from their treasure.

Of the three, Tuco alone has a past that’s made known to us and Wallach details the workings of this lowlife’s mind through a precise semaphore of twitches and grunts that are at once comic and repellent. (You can smell the ooze coming out of Tuco.) Blondie and Angel Eyes are conceived in more iconic terms, as lethal forces of nature with an almost supernatural knack for advancing their own fortunes. All three of the fortune-hunters carry religious auras about them, but these are less a stab at serious parable than a convenient framework on which Leone stretches out his characters. In the end they’re all about the money—or rather, the pursuit of money. It’s impossible to imagine any one of these men, even with $200,000 in his saddlebags, trading in his adventurous life for an easy chair; so intent are they on their blood sport that none of them even pauses for sex. His eyes glittering with anticipation, Tuco is most fully alive at the end of one of the movie’s quietest interludes, when stoking a cigar back to life signals his game return to the hunt.

Leone works in extremes, switching in the blink of an eye from widescreen landscapes the size of national parks to subatomic close-ups that reduce the human body to a pair of narrowed eyes, a callused trigger-finger, or facial pores that look like open petri dishes. One typically sardonic moment invites us to laugh as Tuco dispatches a foe using a gun festooned with soapsuds from his bubblebath; yet the film’s largest set-piece—the sky-high detonation of a bridge that’s causing a slaughter between the two armies—is a heartfelt protest of the futility of war. (The crowded Civil War scenes look like Mathew Brady photographs that have been peppered with visions of horror.) And, as always, Leone plays with time, stretching out the buildup to his gunfights right to the point where tension and fatigue might blur, before finishing them off in a thunderclap of gunfire and falling bodies.

Leone’s determination to stir his audience sometimes leads him to abuse our credibility even more than he abuses his characters. Angel Eyes inexplicably turns up as a Union sergeant for a scene or two, then conveniently reverts to civilian status. Tuco and Blondie fail to notice a massive army encampment simply because it’s on the wrong side of a bush. Time and again people materialize out of nowhere, even in the middle of wastelands, leaving their opponents unaware of their approach until their doom is sealed. These absurdities pile up like cordwood, but, like Hitchcock before him, Leone irons out the wrinkles in his logic through sheer dint of style. Unexpected bits of grim beauty, such as a driverless carriage being hauled at full gallop across the desert floor, swell the movie’s emotional range, and in its most florid passage Tuco’s frantic scramble through an immense cemetery is transformed by Leone’s telephoto lenses into an exhilarating ballet of desire. And constantly billowing above the action is Ennio Morricone’s apocalyptic score. As Leone’s gunmen blast away at everything that moves, the air is sundered by Morricone’s trumpet-calls, whistling, gunshots, church bells, death cries, and electric guitars, in one of the happiest marriages of sound and image that the movies have ever known.

A restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with a handful of scenes never before shown in American theaters, is making the rounds this summer. Most of the new scenes are included on the DVD, but there they are segregated from the movie proper and still retain the original Italian soundtrack. This newest release incorporates these scenes plus an altogether new one, all of them now dubbed into English courtesy of Eastwood, Wallach, and a voice-over actor working on behalf of the late Van Cleef. The additions are frankly a letdown. Far from adding anything to the story, one can see why they were left out of the original cut and the dubbing in one of them is technically atrocious. Yet in the end it simply doesn’t matter. After nearly 40 years The Good, the Bad and the Ugly remains the ultimate matinee movie. It’s still a kick in the pants.

– Tom Block