Sergio Leone is often regarded as the master of spaghetti Westerns. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my all time favorite of his films, possibly one of my favorite movies period. I was never big on Westerns until I saw Leone’s work, and I eventually found a growing love inside of me for classic European and American Westerns alike. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is such a great and entertaining film, I can watch it many times over again and never get tired of it. Thanks to some great performances by the three main actors who skillfully portray characters with varying moral degrees, and a story that endures but never falls flat, Leone’s third film in his Dollars Trilogy is arguably the most fun, brilliant, and mature epic of the bunch.
Set during the American Civil War, a lone gunslinger referred to as “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood) reluctantly teams up with a Mexican bandit named Tuco (Eli Wallach) when they come across a dying soldier by chance who tells them of a gold fortune worth $200,000 that is buried in a cemetery. Only Tuco knows which cemetery it is, and only Blondie knows the name of the grave it is buried in, forcing them to trust each other, even after their previous partnership had gone awry. A hired killer nicknamed Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is also looking for this same treasure, stopping at nothing and killing anyone in his path in order to get to it.
Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes represent different sides of a person in the pursuit of a great profit. Blondie is “the Good,” and although he’s not necessarily good in the traditional sense, he’s the most moral compared to the other two. Greed still drives him to take part in this journey for gold, but he’s not so greedy that he’s not willing to make a deal and keep it to split the fortune. He also won’t hesitate to kill a man if necessary, but he strays away from killing innocents. So in truth, “good” is a relative term when using to describe him. He’s really just “best of the three,” but of course, that wouldn’t sound so good in the title.
I love watching young Clint Eastwood in Westerns. Not only was he incredibly good looking, but he was also extremely cool. He was also a lot more accessible than the older “get off my lawn” Clint Eastwood, although that one is certainly enjoyable in his own way. Eastwood apparently gave Leone a hard time when approached to play the role, but regardless of how much of a pain in the ass he might’ve been, I’m glad he ended up in it, because it was just meant to be. Clint Eastwood is the man who doesn’t even need a name to make a character memorable.
Angel Eyes is “the Bad.” He is ruthless and remorseless in every way and won’t hesitate to cut down anyone in the way of getting what he wants. He is a hired killer, and he always finishes the job, something that he prides himself on. So in this sense, his job is to go around killing people he doesn’t even know, regardless of whether they are bad people or innocent people. He represents evil in the most traditional sense, and he doesn’t have many redeeming qualities to him other than being intelligent and having the skilled capabilities of tracking people down.
Lee Van Cleef, who plays a noticeably different kind of role here as Angel Eyes in contrast to his character in For a Few Dollars More, proves his skill as an actor who can play both a protagonist and a really great villain. It’s ironic that his character’s name is Angel Eyes, because the piercing, evil look in his eyes throughout this movie is actually quite scary. He’s pretty believable as a guy who is so bad, he even kills innocent kids.
Tuco is by far the most dynamic character of the three. He represents “the Ugly.” He’s not good, but he’s not the worst. He’s mostly just selfish. He is the guy who will be your best friend if you have something that he wants, or your worst enemy if you cross him. His character is also the only one whose past is somewhat explored in a scene when Tuco meets his brother, whereas the other two’s motivations and reasons for their acquired traits remain a mystery. I’m not sure why he’s the only character with a backstory, but it works. Bad and ugly are two characteristics that are too close on the moral scale. Without a little bit of backstory, Tuco and Angel Eyes could easily have been interchangeable. They are both out for themselves, and have no problem killing a man if the circumstances deem it necessary. By giving Tuco a past, it separates him from Angel Eyes and gives him an identity that stands out from the rest. You realize that he’s not really an evil guy, but like with any human being, he is motivated by greed.
Tuco is also the wacky, humorous character of the bunch. He made the phrase, “There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend…” famous. He even has a ridiculously long name, Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez, which definitely separates him from Eastwood’s “Man with No Name.” Eli Wallach, another great actor who passed away this year, plays the character so well. He had a natural gift for comedy, and he possessed enough range to be able to play this character who wasn’t just black and white. It’s easy to sympathize with him, even after he tortures Blondie by making him walk out in the desert until he dehydrates nearly to death. Now that’s an accomplishment.
The soundtrack to this movie is iconic in itself, thanks to composer Ennio Morricone. Even if you have never seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the music somewhere else before, that whistling sound that changes mediums depending on which of the three men are in the scene. It just fits the picture so well. You would never be able to hear it out of context without thinking about this movie, making it one of the best original themes I’ve heard.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly also features one of the most famous scenes in history, with Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes in a Mexican standoff. The shots cutting away from character to character, close-ups of their eyes moving back and forth between each other, the camera closing in on their hands inches away from their guns as they prepare to draw and shoot–it builds up the suspense so perfectly as you sit there waiting to find out who will live and who will die. Will each man have a gun drawn on him and will they all die? Or maybe two men will team up on the third. It’s hard to imagine this movie being what it is without this scene, it’s probably the best in the whole movie.
I simply love this movie. From Sergio Leone’s direction and Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography with the sweeping shots of the amazing landscapes, to the backdrop to the Civil War, the contrast of characters, and all the Western clichés, there’s a lot to love here. I know that Westerns may not be everybody’s thing, but I’d still rate this as a must-see kind of movie. Coming from someone who was never big on Westerns years ago, this movie altered my tastes. I have to give my top favorites lists a lot more thought, but I can at least safely say at this point that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is easily in my top 15, if not top 10, favorite movies of all time.