(ANNOUNCEMENT: This will be the last post in the “My Favorite Movies” series. It’s not that I’ve run out of favorite movies, or that I’ve lost interest in writing about the ones I love. The issue is that the series title has become a burden. My personal top 100 list is always changing, which means I need to be open to letting films slide off. Sometimes, my feelings about old favorites become complicated over time. In any case, I don’t want to feel bound to a template. As a matter of fact, I’ve decided to shuffle my entire list of favorites, leveling the playing field. When I write my annual movie-watching summary in June, the additions will be unranked. It’s a Wonderful Life will have worn the crown for only a year at that time, but I feel that a decisive break with my childhood rankings will be beneficial in the long run. Besides yearly top tens, I’m not going to attempt any serious ranking project until the end of the decade. In the meantime, I’ll still be writing about old favorites at the end of every month, starting in February after my Buñuel retrospective. The series will have a new title, and I’ll let the re-evaluations go where they may. It could be interesting to write about why I used to love a certain movie but don’t anymore, if that’s ever the case. First of all, though, I thought it would be fitting to finish the “My Favorite Movies” series as it began: with a Sergio Leone western.)
Sergio Leone’s contributions to cinema are so easily compartmentalized, reduced to a collection of mannerisms. Looking just at this film, it’s all there in the opening shot: a beautiful widescreen landscape gives way to a grotesque close-up, the weathered, sweaty face of a killer signalling the brutally slow prelude to a shootout. These aesthetic signatures are always a delight, but being conversant in them will in no way prepare the viewer for all the crazy places this movie will go. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — a phrase that has long since entered the cultural lexicon, denoting the sum total of human archetypes — portrays a grand western treasure hunt that weaves its way in and out of a war movie. Sardonic and somber in turn, the film makes arguably the definitive statement about the trouble men can find for themselves in a desert frontier.
One of the first things to notice is that the monikers given to the three main characters are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. The moral shadings aren’t nearly that rigid, although “the Bad,” Angel Eyes (played by Lee Van Cleef), is pretty rotten. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, “the Good,” is roughly the same laconic mercenary hero that the actor played in Leone’s other Dollars Trilogy films. Partnering with Tuco, “the Ugly” (Eli Wallach), Blondie is at first only better than his accomplice in the sense that he doesn’t have a reward hanging over his head. Their relationship goes sour, and they take turns gaining the upper hand. Through it all, Leone treats them as co-protagonists, each fulfilling some unconscious need in the other — the ego and the id, perhaps.
Eastwood in this period is one of the great icons of rough-hewn masculine cool, so I was surprised when I first saw the film by how much punishment he takes in it. He doesn’t simply get beaten up like in A Fistful of Dollars. Instead there’s a whole protracted sequence in which he’s nearly killed by heatstroke and dehydration, marched through the desert by Tuco in retaliation for a double-cross. Blondie’s blistered face stands out in the memory just as much as the later sight of him lighting a cannon with his cheroot. The laser-focused steel in his eyes during the final shootout might be the poster image, but Leone also knew how to photograph Eastwood so that he’d look downright cute in some of his exchanges with Wallach. The character is given no backstory, and the film’s plot is exceptionally simple, but through these various circumstances Blondie comes to life.
The character of Tuco is developed in a much more detailed way, and for all his coarseness, he’s very easy to love. The film even stops in its tracks to fill in the character’s history, by way of an encounter with Tuco’s “not mad, just disappointed” priest brother. Having a family makes Tuco feel like someone with ties to a specific place, whereas Blondie and Angel Eyes are mysterious, always on the move. Even going by his real name sets him apart. Tuco’s travails are in a much more comical register than Blondie’s. Though he also has to trek through the desert at one time, his agony is almost entirely off-camera, just as his opening shootout with three unnamed assassins is unseen, a droll punchline. Whenever he finally seems ready to finish off Blondie for good, an unstoppable historic force steps in to foil him. That force is the American Civil War.
Leone’s film doesn’t pick sides on the subject of the Civil War. His purview is quite narrow, overlooking the larger reasons for the conflict so as to focus on the less consequential, less meaningful battles in the American southwest. Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco set their sights on a cache of Confederate gold buried in a cemetery. On the way, there’s an aborted showdown on the streets of a town that’s in the process of being shelled, and a visit to a prison camp at which Angel Eyes oversees a campaign of torture. The individual criminal schemes are slowly rolled into a larger story, and with each encroachment of the war, the sense of futility and despair becomes more pronounced. Finally, Blondie and Tuco decide to become (very unconventional) soldiers. Here’s where Blondie finally lives up to the title of “Good.” He decides to blow up a bridge so that the armies will stop destroying each other to take it. Tuco joins him only because one of the armies stands between him and the treasure. The explosion of the bridge is an immensely satisfying moment, even though it’s about as negative a “victory” as can be imagined. It postpones the slaughter and, for the moment at least, leaves room for hope that the next battle will be about something that matters.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly rolls on for nearly three hours, from one great moment to the next. The terse, aphoristic dialogue has its own pleasures — Tuco’s simple statement, “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” renders all subsequent diatribes against “Talking Killer Syndrome” and “monologuing,” ironically enough, redundant. But it’s the synthesis of Leone’s visual compositions with Ennio Morricone’s score that gives the film true immortality. Familiarity hasn’t dimmed the thrill of the final three-way reckoning, with editing that stretches time into abstraction and escalates the tension into a mythic realm. One might even forget that this dispute is only about money. Leone often nods to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, at one point even going so far as to chain one of his characters to a dead man. But there is almost no anger in this story of vice and destruction. Suffering is merely the price of admittance to a happy ending.