- Release Date: 23/12/1966
- Cast: Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Aldo Giuffrè, Luigi Pistilli
- Director: Sergio Leone
- Music: Ennio Morricone
“A timeless classic that reminds us in every frame why we love cinema”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is hailed as the greatest Western ever made and I completely agree with that submission. It was not only loved by the critics but was also watched the world over and met with almost unanimous popularity and fanfare. There is very little that has not already been written about the film and to review it in 2020 is generations too late. Having said that, I still believe that there are many in our times who might not have watched this film even though they know of its existence and would get any theme or joke that we might throw at them pertaining to the film. That has been essentially one of the greatest strengths of the film. It is recognized and adored for its distinctive style, treatment, and action and above all, its unmistakable and magical score by Ennio Morricone that has inspired generations of music directors to re-create its magic in their own ways and realm.
Tuco (Eli Wallach) has a knack for inviting trouble as he is by no means a noble man. However, he is resourceful and strong enough to invariably walk out of any mess that the universe might throw at him. He has a reward of 2000 dollars on his head and that makes him a marked man with an interestingly pristine and recognizable poster pasted across different counties. Soon he finds himself between the crosshairs of three men who want to kill him and bag the prize on his head. As is always the case, they are not able to as he is rescued by Blondie (Clint Eastwood), who plans to pocket the reward himself but he has no intention of cheating the hangman and hands him over to the sheriff. Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef) is someone who is employed by the ones who can afford his hefty fees to track down people that they needed found. He also mercilessly executes the people he finds if the ones who hire him desire so.
While on one such search, he realizes that the man he is after may have in his possession a humongous 20,000 dollars. With an aim to bag the cash for himself, Angel Eyes quickly kills his hirer and the man who gives him the information about the treasure. However, before he can get his hands on the man who is hiding the money, his prized asset meets Blondie and Tuco in a fateful coincidence, tells them both a portion of the location of the treasure and unceremoniously dies. Blondie and Tuco decide to go after the treasure themselves but are always suspicious of each other’s treachery. Angel Eyes is hot on the trails of this elusive and now dead man. Some tragic and hilarious circumstances lead Blondie and Tuco into Angel Eye’s hands leading to a final showoff between the three men that is widely considered to be one of the most thrilling climaxes ever to have unfolded on the silver screen. While the climax was as bravura as I expected it to be, it was also the journey of the characters in the film that left a crushing impact.
The film unfolds at a time when the American Civil war between the Yankees and the rebels was nearing its end and was at its bloodiest and most gruesome. Our characters find themselves riding through different battles of this war as they inch closer to the location of the treasure. The war forms a lingering background for the wear and tear that the men have to endure as luck keeps violently oscillating from one side to another. It is the experiences that these men gather through the war that leaves a telling impact. While traveling through the desert, Tuco and Blondie come across a company of Confederates and Tuco being Tuco pounces on the opportunity to denounce and shout out insults against the Yankees glorifying the Confederates. Within, moments he realizes that the men are actually Yankees whose uniforms are covered in a layer of dust making them appear like Confederates. They are immediately arrested.
Tuco is impersonating the same man who holds the location of the treasure and now he is at the mercy of Angel Eyes who is a sergeant in the same army. Angel Eyes and an accomplice torture Tuco to make him spill the location of the treasure. This torture sequence is so real and harrowing that it will easily give some of the most recent sequences of similar nature a run for their money. I was confident that Tuco won’t survive the beating.
Earlier in the film, Blondie tortures Tuco by abandoning him in a desert and he also robs him of his share of a certain deal. Tuco survives and when he finally catches up with Blondie after one failed attempt earlier, he does take a lot of fun in making Blondie drudge through hell. Blondie is almost on the verge of death when by happenstance, he learns of the vital piece of information without which no one can reach the 20,000 dollars. Tuco now has to save the very same man that he was trying to kill as agonizingly as possible and to make the matters worse; time is running out for him to save Blondie. While Tuco’s expressions in these sequences make them utterly hilarious, one cannot take away their attention from the condition of Blondie who seems to be totally battered. It will definitely send chills down your spine.
The first time we see Angel Eyes, it takes him well over 5 minutes to utter his first dialogues. This scene progresses in such a way that even without a single word of dialogue spoken, Angel Eyes makes his presence felt and the behavior of the people around him is enough to tell us that he is not an angel to them. After the meeting ends in shocking bloodshed, he returns to the man who sent him in the first place, and what he does to him is no less brutal. Later in the film, he has a discussion with a captain of his regiment who tells him that he is aware of all the malpractices that Angel Eyes and his accomplices are involved in and he would not let it continue as long as he is alive. Angel Eyes, in reply emphasis only on the captain’s words “as long as he is alive” and he does so in a manner that tells us that the captain might not be very safe with him around. In the climax Leone focus on Angel Eye’s hands moving stealthily towards drawing his gun but as Blondie looks at him in his usual smug manner the hands just as stealthily retract informing us that Blondie is the first person that Angel Eyes might just be afraid of to go up against.
In a poignant scene of the film, we follow Tuco and Blondie who are yet again picked up by the Yankees, and this time they try to lie their way out of an arrest by informing the captain of the regiment that they have come in to volunteer. The captain played by Aldo Giuffrè is a man who has apparently had a pretty harsh experience of the war and looks battered. He is perennially drunk and whatever he shares with Tuco and Blondie can be looked at as his commentary on the war. His words have the same ring to it as the phrase “Have I not the reason to lament, what man has made of man”. This portion of the film made me uncomfortable and sad. Ironically, it is Tuco and Blondie who carry out a daring feat that lets the captain slowly slips into the eternal slumber with a sense of relative peace and content. They accomplish the feat to enable their own passage to the other side that would take them a step closer to the treasure. However, there is a hint of inspiration from the captain’s earlier words in their mannerisms as they pull off the feat fanatically.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is about a simple treasure hunt that can be summarized in a paragraph. What makes the film special is not the overall plot but the individual sequences involving the principal characters and how organically these sequences run and lead into each other. There is a sense of seamless flow and energy as the proceedings get increasingly personal through the course of the film. Sergio Leone spends a lot of time on expressions, reactions, and surprising spates of violence throughout the film. The sequences develop at a snail’s pace but the performances and the execution is so terrific that the audiences are usually glued to the sequence without realizing the passage of time.
This was one of the films that made Clint Eastwood the icon that he is today. His style and mannerisms have been talked about, marveled, and even ridiculed over the years. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that his rendering of Blondie has stuck with him for the rest of his life and we can see a faint image of Blondie in every subsequent character that he has ever played. He had played the character twice before in the films A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and this allowed him to catch the beat of the character better. He used this sense of comfort to essay Blondie in a manner that overshadowed the others in sheer screen presence and gusto.
Eli Wallach is sensational as the loud and obnoxious Tuco. While he excels in the principal traits of his characters, it is the more subtle emotional moments that add weight and warmth to his essay. Tuco takes Blondie to a hospital run by some Brothers and it is here that we have the first and only sequence that gives us some idea about his past. His meeting with his brother is brimming with so much energy and so many different emotions that it is hard not to be in awe of it. After the discussion between the two ends abruptly, Tuco returns to the carriage, now driven by Blondie, and makes up a story about how close he and his brother are just to maintain the charade of having a caring and doting brother. Blondie sees through the façade of the moment but still chooses to play along with Tuco maintaining his play. This was one of my favorite emotional bits in the entire film and it was special because of how well Eli Wallach rendered the emotions of it. He was supported equally well by Eastwood.
Lee Van Cleef is the best bad guy that one can ask for in a film like this. He is a fearsome adversary and through the initial sequences, Leone sets his character up as someone who is not afraid to kill even children. This feeling sticks with us through the film and we are wary of whether Blondie or Tuco would fall prey to his brutalities. He is also someone who is hell-bent on earning the money that is up for the taking and that makes his character also a calculating villain which is even worse. Lee Van Cleef sells every aspect of the character and also adds some much-needed gusto of his own to the character. By the time we reach the climax, we want him dead and punished for all that he did. More than that, we want Blondie and Tuco to come out trumps. That’s how much Cleef makes us hate the character. For all that and more, Lee Van Cleef deserves a standing ovation for his stellar performance.
Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography is outstanding. Every frame of the film looks so beautiful that one can save it as wallpaper. The film uses wide takes and innovative angles to capture as much of the life as possible on the screen. The editing is slow and lets the camera linger on characters and vistas long enough for the viewers to appreciate every ounce of beauty and grandeur on display. It also gives us an opportunity to understand what a particular character might be contemplating through their expressions and without a word said. This is one of the definitive styles of Sergio Leone and was repeated in almost all his films. However, it is the best executed here. I must add that if it wasn’t for the stunning performances from the ensemble cast, this ploy might not have worked so well.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a Masterclass in filmmaking. It is one of those films that will appeal as much to the serious audiences for its craft as it would appeal to the casual viewers for its characters, style, execution, and the sheer heart in the storytelling. The interpersonal drama between the characters is an added bonus. For a film that is now part of the film folklore, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly still feels contemporary and relevant in its style, characters, treatment, and story. It has been a film that I have gone back to every year and that I believe is the case with all serious movie buffs. It is one of the timeless classics of cinema that reminds us why we love films.
Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)