“Kicking off with a different loner”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…
IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…
Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.
Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.
The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.
“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone
It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.
A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.
Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)
“Welcome to you stranger”
It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.
“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”
Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour.
While not Leone’s first choice, a standing the actor never quite seemed to recover, Eastwood dominates the film. All easy going smarts and strategy, Eastwood takes time for knowing glances at the end of shots, making the most of a raspy delivery that isn’t even the deepest.
While Fistful is now seen as the first example of Leone’s distinctive style – operatic, rhythmic, adding emphasis to sweeping landscapes as much as close-ups, particularly of darting eyes (“eyes are the most important element to me. Everything can be read in them…”) – much of the film’s exposition, necessary in the double-crossing plot is carried through the action. Into the rugged story-telling, the characters are broadly mapped out by set characteristics in this first entry. There’s comedy (Chico), cynicism (Silvanito), disbelief (Piripero, the coffin-maker) or dastardly ambition (in their own way, the Rojo brothers). It’s all skilfully knitted together under Leone’s own eyes, but in the context of the Dollars trilogy, it’s the least sophisticated.
In a lean and iconic film, there are stand-out moments. Despite the intrigue, set-pieces and comedy it’s the savagery that remains in the memory. First there’s the unexpected massacre of the troops, our first introduction to Gian Maria Volontè’s big bad, the meanest Rojo brother, Ramón. Just as he Man proves his skill in through staged draw assassinations, so his opponent Ramón proves himself through distinct use of guns. There’s the machine gun slaughter first, soon followed by the daring and skilled run to take out the hanging threads from that grand plot, then later the practise shot that sows the roots of his downfall in the mind of the audience… And The Man. Of course those hanging threads, the dead militia the Man props up in the cemetery are a ruse. But the way Leone juxtaposes the gunfire across the two corpses with barrel-tapping tips the balance in Ramón’s favour. This feud between the Rojos and the Baxters seems rather one-sided from the moment the Man takes out some of Baxter’s men just to prove his value.
The Marisol mystery
“Strange, how you always manage to be in the right place at the right time”
Despite his psychopathic advantage, Ramon has a weak spot or two.
The first is Marisol. Having distracted the gangs with his cemetery ruse, a trick based on his assumed back story, it’s the Man’s accidental and comical knocking out of Ramon’s squeeze that twists his plans more than anything. Having earlier spurned his look, her earlier disinterest bordering panic becomes clear to the Man and the audience after their not altogether fortunate crossing of paths. A crucial trait of the Man with No Name is an unexpected action, seeming to go against the flow of his machinations. Here’s it’s an unexpected altruism, sticking his neck out to reunite her with a forcibly estranged family and facilitate her escape back to her old life, far away. A detour, taken from the Ronin code of Yojimbo, it’s an action that not only costs the Man a spectacularly savage beating but unravels a plan that was proceeding incredibly well.
“That filthy Americano”
It’s really Ramón’s riled pride that acts as catalyst to the plot . The Rojos’ take down of the Baxter hose may be overplayed, but it’s savagely effective. All sense of Ramon’s earlier planning is out the window in his quest for vengeance, just as the Man’s scheming has fallen apart.
The conclusion lies in Ramón’s other weakness. Brilliantly laid out in the earlier party scene, where the Man ingratiates himself with the Rojos, it’s likely the film’s most remembered scene, and crucially one not taken from Yojimbo. In the Rojos’ den, the Man feigned drunkenness, a measure of the dedication he’s willing to put into a successful operation. But before that, he’d used a suit of armour as target practise, shooting off the codpiece with a .45 before Ramón proves his own skill by shooting out the heart with a Winchester.
“Let’s go, the show’s over anyway”
It’s during the man’s recuperation, having taken the time to observe Ramón’s horrific slaying of the Baxter family from the coffin in which he manages to escape town – death is often a mode of escape in his world – he seizes two bits of inspiration from shooting metal in a deserted mine shaft. It makes less sense in its most famous homage, saving Marty McFly’s life in the third Back to the Future film. But in Fistful it crucially works against a villain who would never consider not going for a man’s heart. “When you want to kill a man, you must shoot for his heart and a Winchester is the best weapon,” he said when the Man was an uneasy ally. And come the end, after the loss of his girl, he really wants to kill the Man.
“Don’t forget the heart. Aim for the heart or you’ll never stop me.”
Leone’s final brilliant addition is to frame Ramón’s death from the villain’s point of view, a visceral move that can’t help but paint the Man in a darker shade in the film’s closing moments. Fistful closes with an immense sense of not something put right or something undone. With one of the Man’s wry summaries of the past 90 minutes or so, him well on the way to becoming a legend, it’s just as if nothing has really changed.
Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965)
“Let’s drink to this partnership”
Each of the Dollars trilogy kicks off with a different loner. In the first of the trilogy it was the Man. In the second, it’s the Colonel. To tackle that elephant immediately, Lee Van Cleef would go on to play the Bad in the final film of the trilogy, a chapter that would itself start with an atmospheric introduction for Ugly Tuco Ramirez. It’s a nice bit of multi-layered interplay from a sequence that people have spent fifty years grouping together ever since the final film’s marketing campaign grouped them into three. But originally, the director had no such pretensions of treating them as a trilogy.
Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel is a fascinating character, new for the trilogy, even if he remains in shades of grey for much of the run-time. From his Bible reading beginning, he’s established as a no mess, highly effective bounty hunter. And one, as we soon learn by proxy, that the Man has his eye on. In the second film, the poncho wearing Man with No Name goes by his most ambiguous name, Manco.
“Tell me Colonel, were you ever young?”
Crucially, the colonel adds the concept of partner to the Man’s journey, one that the few crushed residents of the first film’s Mexican town couldn’t provide. The Bad and the Ugly of the third film would take the idea a stage further.
True to form, Van Cleef’s Colonel Douglas Mortimer proves himself on his first appearance, particularly when taking down a man who interrupted his shave for a gunfight. Even more than Fistful, the second film is all about the details, and Leone is more playful with his increased budget.
“To help you understand what I mean, I would like to relay a nice little parable”
Van Cleef may be destined to return in the third film, but here it is Volontè who warrants the reprise, saved from his character’s demise in the first film to embody a meatier villain. Here, Indio proves one of his defining roles. He’s a vicious, calculating and treacherous killer, with an exploitable weakness lodged and signposted by his past – and as such, he’s a perfect foil for the Man. With a warrant against him that reaches beyond the back town squabbles of the first film, a motivation greater than the success of his family, Indio is a force of nature by dint of his fierce individuality. There’s a twisted joy to the fact that his face is caught on the wanted posters in a static laugh, something that would later come back to haunt him. But more crafting a stronger, more elemental villain then Ramon Rojo, Volontè’s villain has been irreparably damaged by the past. We see the elements line up as the film progresses, from the woozy flashbacks to the musical pocket watch he uses to time his shootouts. That’s no teasing game as it first appears during the obligatory display of the antagonist’s skill with a gun. While the seeds of Rojo’s downfall were laid out during the narrative of the first film, For a Few Dollars More reaches beyond that to shape the trilogy’s definitive villain.
For a Few Dollars More measures the real test of a, if not the, man’s enemies. As compelling as Indio is, real interest comes from the two opposing hunters on his trail, each standing their own side of the same code. While the film takes pains to pit Manco and the Colonel as opposites, and there’s much joy to be had from their lengthy cat and mouse, Few Dollars’ major success comes from their transformation of healthy, guarded respect and of course, partnership.
“Even the bank of San Francisco isn’t that well protected”
Even more than Fistful, deception is tied to the plot, upping the ante and opportunity for double-crossing and deceit. But the real, taut strength at its core comes from Leone framing it around a heist. The impenetrable fortress of El Paso is staked long before the film pulls its rug. In fact, Indio’s gang of criminals easily succeed in breaking into the unbreakable bank.
When we had earlier seen Indio’s men stake the joint, we see it from the Colonel’s point of view. He’s also staking them until he notices the Man doing the same to him. Van Cleef’s uncomfortable reaction is priceless, but it’s particularly rewarding as a mirror of the Man’s first arrival in the town. Paying a boy to update him on strangers, the Man looks towards the Colonel’s hotel only to find the older bounty hunter has clocked him first. Pull that back to the opening sequence where the Colonel’s told that Manco is looking for him and Leone’s laid down an immensely satisfying relationship before the two have even met.
“Who said I was joking?”
And when they do first meet, what an unpredictable meeting it is. It reaches a head with the scene that first sold this writer on Leone’s iconic films. Turning from what looks like an inevitable death into a playful piece of hat play it’s a relief when our main anti-hero meets the “greatest shot in the Carolinas”. It’s a preposterous, stylised sequence. And also perfect shorthand lead in to an equitable partnership, the old and the young, the methodical and the reckless. One that will stand the duration of the film, albeit with a few bullet grazes on the way.
Granted a stronger budget, around triple that of the first film, Leon’s style and ambition grows to suit. Aside from the fuller towns and greater range of geography, it’s particularly clear in the framing of Volontè; as the actor picks out the intricacies of a fantastic villain, the cinematography picks out the grey specks of his hair, the blue of his eyes.
The final act realises Indio as a villain who’d sell out his entire crew as well as a kidder who can’t be kidded. As he tells his confidante Niño, he knew Manco and Colonel were bounty hunters the moment Manco elbowed his way into his gang through a staged jail break, not least when the two partners couldn’t resist risking their deception for some gun-upmanship when the Colonel catches up with Indio’s gang on the road. Despite some brutal attempts to conjure believability, the Colonel’s risky shot at Manco the most obvious, the initial plan is decidedly sketchy. As the bounty hunters’ deception is later scuppered, only for Indio to manipulate the two into whittling down his own crew and increasing his share of the haul, we’re rewarded with a running gun battle before the film’s ready to give up its most telling secrets.
Few Dollars isn’t afraid to wander into the absurd. Take the extra-diegetic laughter that backs Indio’s discovery of the Colonel’s own double-cross: in place of the riches, his wanted poster, still laughing. By this point that laugh’s been reversed, but we’re in no doubt that there’s more reversal to come.
The truth about the man who’s haunted by every kill could only ever come in a flurry of bullets. We see through his dream-like recall, delivered in segments throughout the film… The murder of a woman’s suitor, his rape of her during which she commits suicide. Indio’s gang destroyed, it’s left to an uneven gunfight between the villain and the Colonel until the Man breaks in with an intervention that not only abides by his own rules but also, similar to the first film, tips toward natural justice. The Man unlocks the mystery of the Colonel, justifying his survival. The great bounty hunter, the fair and reckfull gun for hire, is on a quest for revenge. The brother of the woman who’s death still haunts Indio, the revenge waiting to catch up with him. Whether Indio’s haunted by inevitable vengeance or suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, the means of his defeat is another satisfactory conclusion. And that’s saying something when the Man can only take indirect responsibility.
The killer’s flaw
“Maybe next time”
For a Few Dollars More imbues Indio with the traits of a talented gunfighter, sheer villainy, and the crippling hold of a panic attacks for every kill. Like Rojo, the root of his undoing lies with the fairer sex, but Few Dollars further develops the concept of property, power and enslavement that was the only thing that could derail the Man in the previous film; to turn it into not just a crippling phobia but a web of justice. The added depth, that the Colonel is not only punishing but saving the villain, is lost on our anti-heroes but not the audience. And of course it all comes down to the music watch, so brilliantly introduced, so brilliantly explained. In a film that introduces the crucial aspect of partnership to the trilogy, the mystery is unravelled when the watch is reunited with its twin.
Mesmeric and happy to lapse into fairytale, Few Dollars is step up from the brilliant, lean first film in almost every regard. That it was made in such quick succession can only hint at the promise of the final instalment. Come the end of the second film, the shot of the Man piling the bodies to collect his bounty, the wry and quickly resolved joke of one being missing, seems like the perfect close to the Man’s adventure… And so it proved.
For the trilogy closed with what can only be a prequel. And natural to the ever expanding canvas was war.
Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)
“I wanted to show human imbecility in a picaresque film where I would also show the reality of war. I had read somewhere that 120,000 people died in Southern camps such as Andersonville. And I was not ignorant of the fact that there were camps in the North. You always get to hear about the shameful behaviour of the losers, never the winners. So I decided to show extermination in a Northern camp. This did not please the Americans…The American Civil War is almost a taboo subject, because its reality is insane and incredible.” – Sergio Leone
The most telling – and dating – elements of the first two films in the Dollars trilogy are also the most indispensible. The Guns. The Man’s first kills are made with the Single Action Army 5 ½ – the .45 Long Colt, or Quick Draw, that was crucial to the quips of the first’s film’s closing scene. Eastwood may well have sworn by that gun having spent many small screen years drawing the same weapon on Rawhide. Ramón Rojos was undone by the gun he swore by, always taking a Winchester 1892 to a gunfight. And that’s even after getting his hands on what looks very much like a Mitrailleuse volley gun. In Fistful, the Man even the odds at the close of the film by training a 1854 Jennings Rifle Company Volcanic Rifle on Indio, but Colonel Mortimer had earlier proven his skill with a Winchester 1892, before dispatching Klaus Kinski with a deftly concealed Remington 1866 Derringer in one brilliant scene. In all, the majority of firearms seen in the first two films of the sequence were developed post-Civil War. And Leone’s desire to explore his muddled and grey canvas in the frame of the 19th century’s most surreal conflict could only propel the final instalment into prequel territory.
“I never forget old friends Tuco”
It’s sometimes easy to forget the Coyote howl and mania of Morricone’s score, sitting behind the familiar whistle and backing a title sequence that instantly informs us that we’re in the grip of war. There are the faces there too: the Good, the Ugly and the Bad, in that order. There are the infantrymen. Then there’s the cannon that shoots the film’s name onto the screen. To pun from that, there was also a canon to subvert. We may meet Eli Wallach’s Ugly first, keeping up the entrance convention of the trilogy, albeit in a window-shattering style, but it’s not until we’ve been in the company of the returning Van Cleef’s Bad that we hear the first dialogue.
As if to recover from Morricone’s piercing opening fire, we have to wait 10 minutes to hear any character speak.
Sharing screen time
“But when I’m paid, I will see the job through”
The simple plot of the first film may have developed into a greater exploration of character in the second, but by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the narrative has disintegrated to match its war setting. The plot is that most atavistic and mythical of things: the hunt for treasure. In this case it’s gold, a hefty amount by the standards of any time, and around that central drive loops a series of set-pieces that pulls together and pushes apart the three leads at various intervals.
Eastwood’s the Man, here named Blondie, is the main focus only by dint of the previous two films. Here he has to give up vast swathes of screen-time to the screen-stealing Van Cleef, and particularly Wallach. Concerns that he’d be outshone by the latter led Eastwood to wryly remark to the director that come any fourth film he, “would be starring with the American Cavalry.” A percentage cut allayed those reservations for this film, although it would prove to be their last collaboration.
Anecdotally, although there were classic films to come from Leone, he cut an increasingly interesting figure at the conclusion of his definitive trilogy. Wallach admired his lax directing style, while almost coming a cropper thanks to the director’s apparent lack of concern for actors’ safety. Leone was possibly not the man you’d want to talk you into a noose when mounted on a horse. Eastwood had learned to accommodate what he saw as the director’s intricate and repetitive shoots by their third collaboration, as Leone insisted on capturing scenes from multiple angles and never lost his combustible temperament. Eastwood’s main tool of response was some well placed name calling.
“There’s really not much future with a sawn-off runt like you”
The film’s looser, more languid structure allows Leone to stretch beyond the previous two films and quite possibly realise his ultimate goal: the exploration of character in the ultimate Western setting. On the way, the structure lends itself to subversion and deliciously intricate multi-partite jokes. The first comes with the silent, stalking gunmen of the opening scene. Their plans fatally turned on their head when they’re dispatched by Tuco the Ugly, off-screen. We then meet the Bad, his character well set through two scenes, one just overly long, the other perfectly short. We learn everything we need to know about Angel Eyes in this introduction, a character far removed from the same actor’s upright, honourable Colonel in the previous film. The Bad’s nickname in the English films is a bold departure from the finite ‘Sentence’ he goes under in the original script and Italian cut. And it’s all the more intriguing given Van Cleef’s rare heterochromatic eyes, the different colours hidden in the dark and swarthy look he carries here.
Angel Eye’s introduction is the longest of the three main players, but essentially boils down to a punch-line payoff. A punch-line so effective at sketching his character in shorthand that it’s then left hanging. It plays no part in the character’s main journey or final, inevitable payoff bar seeking “what name Jackson’s hiding under now”, although it does inadvertently pull him into the plot. That strong beginning ends on diegetic note as Van Cleef cuts the scene by blowing out his smoking gun. It’s the first of an increased cartoonish sensibility that Leone leverages to great success.
“One bastard goes in, another comes out”
When Eastwood’s Blondie first appears, he doesn’t. Tied into Tuco’s story from the off, readying us for the oncoming deception, it shows a film aware of its own, and its leading man’s myth. While the second film had him mischievously stalking a competitor (albeit, under a name we weren’t yet aware of) off camera, here it’s the cigar smoke we see first. It’s an especially bold move given this isn’t the full-formed character we’ve seen before…
Yes, the Man just isn’t complete. Aside from the guns, a crucial piece of evidence that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is chronologically prior to the other two films comes with the Man’s acquisition of his iconic garb and kit over the course of the run time. Come the end it’s the iconic poncho, but first it’s those chopped down, stumpy cigarillos (Having brought them for the character himself, non-smoking Eastwood may have come to regret that innovation).
Although this may be the earliest we see the man, the myth was there behind him. Intriguingly, Tuco calls Blondie, “Son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you” early on. That curse, most famously used on film here would be retconned into the myth of arch-slasher Freddy Krueger 20 years or so later. The kind of colourful insult, even when used as a part of a deception that fleshes out an unknowable villain or antihero. It does go some way to suggest the grey world built around this ‘Good’ antihero. Later, shortly before the constantly intervening war helps the Man escape a murderous Tuco, our antihero callously requests the spurs from a man he’s about to unambivalently kill.
“You may run the risks my friend, but I do the cutting”
Of course Tuco and Blondie’s relationship is revealed to be a scam of its own before long. But as much as anything, the film’s the story of how distrust and betrayal is their partnership. The two simply cannot shake each other, even as we see them employ increasingly cartoonish methods of offing each other.
Blondie initially abandons Tuco in the waste, triggering a short trail of revenge until the Ugly can return the favour. Tuco’s finally catches Blondie, condemning another man to a fate that could have easily befallen him, even at the peak of their uneasy partnership, in doing it. And when the film heads back to same desert, the surreality’s increased by a notch. It’s a surreal trip that is just one of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s iconic gifts to cinema. It’s there in Mad Max… And it continues the slightly Looney Tune vibe that’s set by Acme boxes lining the gun shop that equips Tuco when he stumbles from his own wasteland. It wouldn’t be much too much of a surprise to see a road runner beep beep past, and that’s no disrespect to the incredibly balanced, stylised tone Leone playfully sets.
“And so Blondie, it’s goodbye”
The humour is heavy, as is the brutality. Blondie’s ordeal, suffered in silence, is considerable. Tuco’s wild, smug, sadism above a horse, under a parasol, is broad. But strung between two large personalities, the extended sequence is highly effective. Despite the film splitting such sequences into well-honed sketches, away from the more fluid narrative of the earlier films, this is where the film’s plot lines converge. Tuco’s triumph and Blondie’s (impossible) end is broken by the ghostly appearance of the stage coach, all thunderous gallop and packed with death and the film’s crucial secret.
But when we finally meet Carson, another in the long line of characters in the trilogy who’re introduced in dialogue, from a character different to the one who meets them, the film takes us with Tuco. It’s a shameless, desperate fight to stem his cruelty and find some water to keep Carson alive just long enough to impart the secret of the gold. But when we return with him, we’re just as unsure as to whether Carson has imparted the knowledge to Blondie as the Ugly. And so we’re embroiled in the deception that unravels, knowing as much as the unlikeable character it’s impossible not to like, pitted against the antihero don’t know we know so well. Those plot strands tangle, with us none the wiser, an hour into the film.
“You’ve changed partners, but you’ve still got the same deal”
Although Tuco and Angel Eye’s have some undisclosed history, it’s Blondie who reluctantly, or desperately, forms partnerships with both the Ugly and the bad as the film throws slings and arrows at him. For the most part the characters are allowed to grow through self-contained sketches at their own pace.
When the Good and the Ugly encounter Angel Eyes, the assumed name of Carson giving the two away, the Bad takes the Man on board for the same reason as Tuco. It’s the knowledge of the gold’s whereabouts – knowledge that may exist or not, gold that may exist or not – that keeps the Man alive until, we anticipate, the Man is able to gain the upper hand. But The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has a lot of fun with expectations.
Blondie’s partnership with Angel Eyes doesn’t last long as a running gun battle in a bombed out, deserted ghost town provides a great example of how cowboys survive through war (“when you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”). And Blondie is soon back with Tuco, the Ugly found again in surreal situation, taking a bath in an empty hotel. While the Bad remains as slippery as ever, those protagonists have achieved a level of super-invulnerability by this point, something Tuco acknowledges when he asks, “Hey, hey Blondie, how the hell did you get out of that pig sty?” From that point, even in its heightened universe, The Good the Bad and the Ugly has to level up mortality by the end. And that’s something war can be good for…
Fabric of war
“If you save your breath, I feel a man like you might manage it”
It may be there from the titles, but Leone brings war to this epic film through the details; the humour, the horror and unexpected intervention. Until they’re perilously close to their goal, reluctant partners Blondie and Tuco do a very good job of pretending that the Civil War’s a minor inconvenience. But the war is omnipresent.
Early in the film we meet Shorty, a double-amputee veteran. Later, in the superb scene where Blondie is stalked to his room by Tuco, a master class in sound design that makes the most of pauses in the sound of garrisoning soldiers outside, our antihero is only saved by well-placed collateral fire. Marking out the Man for a hanging, Wallach’s superb in wringing chilling efficiency from the character’s broad palette. He’s so close to claiming his revenge just a short few scenes after the comedy of his extended – and considerably improvised – ‘acquisition’ from the gun store. Yes, the Acme-stocked gun store.
“I sleep better knowing my good friend is by my side to protect me”
The film’s thrilling when the two lapsed partners’ cat and mouse, laced with its own humour and momentum, plays out against the war. And among many zinging comments on the murky insanity of the conflict, one of the best and most comical lands the Good and the Ugly in the hands of the Bad. It’s quite brilliant, typically simple and plot advancing: In a war where many southern troops resorted to home clothing rather than the grey Confederate standard, in typically ebullient style Tuco mistakes the pale coats of the approaching troops. In fact they are union troops, their blue coats turned as grey as the southerners by the dusty country of the deep south. Just like those uniforms, war is a distinct fabric of the film.
Unseen for some time, something dealt with in the longer prints of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it’s chilling to find Angel Eye’s in the middle of the camp. The longer Italian cut stemmed the gap before some superb set-pieces like the Bad’s visit to a destroyed fort were excised. Such segments also went some way to deal with the film’s apparent bias biased towards Union troops, in what was, as Leone described, “almost a taboo subject”.
Posing as a Union officer or simply able to assume the rank in the madness, his ‘commanding’ officer incapacitated, he is never more noticeably influenced or influential as a ‘bad guy’ then when exploiting the war. His torture of Tuco plays out against the soft band outside. As those who’ve been in the camp long enough well know, Angel Eyes always punches “as long as the song goes”. The sequence reminds of the watch’s hold over Indio in the second film. In this case however, dating back to the gun he extinguishes the first time we see him, this bad guy has total control over his surroundings. Again, there’s no holding back from some horrific violence. Angel Eye’s gouging of Tuco’s eyes as he warns, “The war’s over for you,” is barely watchable.
“What? You gonna die alone?”
Other sketches of the murmuring conflict foreshadow war films like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. When the hapless and reluctant partners fall into Confederate hands and a stalemate of a bridge, it’s Blondie who devises the destructive plan to kill two birds with one stone. They can force their Confederate hosts and the Union forces across the river to disperse, granting a clear route to the graveyard that’s their destination, as well as end the pointless bloodshed they and we witness first hand. The bridge is its own graveyard, with floods of troops from either side pointlessly sacrificed in attack after attack. It’s a storm that proves the presence of the canons in the title sequence. War is madness.
“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly”
After some wonderful forced team-work and bonding under the bridge, again with a plot advancing element, the frenemies are almost caught by the explosives they set. Up above, a delirious and mortally wounded Union captain takes the emotion of the scene. Earlier given a sympathetic sip of liquor by the Man after another costly, futile raid, he smiles at seeing the bridge lost to both sides before he expires. The scale of the skirmish is gigantic, a long way from the deserted town of A Fistful of Dollars. The next morning, post bombardment the two stroll off to the endgame through the devastation left by the madness. Leone had the resources to put his vision of this insane war on the screen and makes the most of it.
The arrival at the cemetery comes with a new level of surreality. Another classic scene has the Ugly blown off his horse by the Good’s unflappable use of a canon. Then Tuco running wildly through the huge cemetery, the one place the epic film had to end. Madness, from greed combines with the onslaught of the war, in a long scene, packed from side to side by Morricone’s score. When he finds the grave, the name given by Blondie during their bonding – uncoincidentally during their main impact on the war that’s around nothing but apathy and exploitation from them previously – Blondie appears, at last kitted out in his poncho.
“It’ll be a lot easier with that”
The gun-side stand-off soon shifts to a three way stand-off for the name of the real grave Blondie’s placed in the centre of the centenary courtyard. It’s quite probably the most famous shootout in film history, close and snapping rivals coming from the other instalments of this trilogy. Leone takes his time picking out the three, from long shot to the iconic medium close-ups, to sitting just behind each opponent’s shoulder. It’s long, tense and there’s even the hint of the watch chime. The cutting speeds up, the guns, the eyes… Until the Bad’s taken out first. Falling into a convenient grave, there’s a nod to For a Few Dollar’s More as the Man shoots his hat. An incredible vole-face for Van Cleef’s characters across the trilogy.
Of course, it turns out Blondie has tilted the odds in his favour. But one of the greatest antiheroes of the genre can’t be begrudged as he proves why he’s the Good. Taking his money and trussing the Ugly up in a noose again, from distance he shoots his partner down, landing on his own share, albeit with his hands tied.
“You’re joking Blondie”
And yet, this Man is no angel. It’s Angel Eyes, the undisputed bad of the piece, who picks up the lowest body count of the three main players.
Pulling them into order
Some have argued that the middle film, as is often the case, is the strongest of the three. For a few Dollars More picks up and carries through the themes of the first film without being bogged down by the more abstract, epic quality of the third. And they’re not wrong. Each film shines with a distinct gleam, the second as the purest fulfilment of Leone’s vision for the man, but crucially not pitched against the insanity of war that comes with the final film. The Good the Bad and the Ugly is a remarkable fulfilment of the potential, but crucially with the promise of something so much more than the sum of its far more sketch-based parts. In many ways the third film shouldn’t work without the linking dependent beats of the previous two. But instead of falling short, it excels. While it’s hard to imagine a middling reaction to its release, it’s not hard to imagine that it took reappraisal to reach its current classic status.
Leone’s technique rose a notch with each film, betraying the fact that all three were shot so closely together. The easiest answer was the increase in budget, with the astonishing $1.2m backing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being put to very good use. The result is the only film of the series that can be legitimately described as epic. Its gamut is huge, aided both by the sketched structure and a combative creative approach that fund Leone and newly arriving cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli testing the potential from the start. The variety of shots were good from the start, but by the final film there’s little that could possibly rival the framing of a human at such a distance, at that ratio, with such character.
A particular note on the role of women in the trilogy. The Man is no travelling minstrel prone to singing a song around the campfire, but he’s also no romantic figure. We may meet a woman early on in A Fistful of Dollars, and she may play a dramatic role in the Man’s unfolding plans, but she is a victim he rescues and returns to some kind of normality rather than a potential for romance. For a Few Dollars More may be affected by a female character more than the films either side, but it’s from the grave. Haunting the villain, driving the Man’s partner, but never affecting Manco’s journey to any great extent at all. And come the epic final instalment there’s no room for a female character at all. A scene that found Blondie in a hotel room with a Mexican woman ended up on the cutting room floor as the longest of the pieces played out against a very male madness.
From crash zooms to extreme close-ups. From the Man who defied a name, matching villains shot for shot but occasionally, unpredictably sticking up for the good guys. From the iconic score that broke the rules and in the very best way, the eardrums of passing coyotes. From the savage and unflinching suffering and violence. From the flashes of innate physical and verbal comedy. Leone may not have been aware of the conventions of the stagnating American Westerns, but he sure knew how to break them.
And to restrict it to one genre while it formed the basis of a sub-genre is to dismiss the achievement. Leone didn’t simply challenge the conventions of the western, but of Hollywood. While the Western continued to plummet from its once lofty heights, to this day there’s much for film-makers to learn from one of Italy’s greatest directors Sergio Leone today. Creator of Il buono, Il buono, Il buono.