Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Synopsis: The year is 1862, and the Civil War is taking thousands of lives each day. Families ripped apart, brothers fighting brothers, and an ungodly amount of blood is being shed. For three bounty hunters, however, there’s something much more important to them: Gold. Buried somewhere in a mysterious graveyard, you could say finding it is more important to them than life or death, but there’ll be a lot of men shot down on their way to find it.
For the third and final film of what would be known as his Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone took his million dollar budget and went all out. He’d redefined the genre with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, disposing the myth that a cowboy had to be pure at heart and that his actions had to be clean in their execution, and their fatality. However, while those two films – as good as they are – were straightforward in their stories and limited in scope, with this finale Leone wanted to excel himself. Continuing to film on built sets in Rome and in areas around Almería, this time he added locations in Madrid and in the province of Burgos, massive settings that highlight just how much more imposing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly actually is.
Quite simply, Leone wanted a “Western to end all Westerns”. So it came to this, the pinnacle of the Spaghetti Western genre, and for many the pinnacle of motion pictures. As evident in the title of this blog, because of how much I love this film, and more so because of how many incredible moments there are within it, I felt a regular review wouldn’t suffice, and that it would be better to go more in-depth in regards to the scenes and moments that thrill me each and every time I watch them.
We can sense in the opening credits that Leone and his crew knew how big this would be, because these first three minutes are grand. The artwork, the explosive pace and actual explosions of cast and crew names onto the screen, it’s a true in-your-face contrast to Fistful and the fake names of “Bob Roberston” and “Dan Savio”. If anyone was still unaware of the name Ennio Morricone at this point, the most famous score in the Western genre and defining piece of music to mark a stand-off forevermore certainly caught those people’s attention – Just listen to the triumph of it, in particular those horns towards the finish. It’s otherworldly.
Following the pomp of Lardant’s title sequence and Morricone’s score is an opening shot that immediately contrasts it, a close-up of Al Mulock’s face, complemented by the sound of dust blowing and the repetitive howling of a dog scuttling about a lonely, dilapidated town. This is Leone’s vision of the west, and it’s not a nice place to be. It’s grim, barren, and the stray shows us a place without leadership. Anything and everything belongs to anyone who wants it most, and the operatic close-up of Mulock perfectly highlights the rugged, sweat covered bandits who are in charge. And who are there to be feared.
As Elam (Mulock) is joined by two fellow bandits in the distance, we get a scene similar to the opening Leone would use two years later in Once Upon a Time in the West: Three gunmen searching for someone. They slowly walk into a saloon and gunshots instantly fly. It isn’t Harmonica, so is it the Man with No Name? Nope! It’s Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez (also know as The Rat or The Ugly, for short), bursting through a window, chicken leg in hand while the main theme plays. If you think it’s the most amazing entrance in cinematic history, I won’t argue against it. Eli Wallach soars as Tuco, the film’s comic relief, and to a degree the most important element of the film. He adds another dynamic that shifts this from being another Fistful or Dollars More, but for all of the laughs he gives us, he’s far from a joke when it comes to his shooting prowess. There’s a reason (or ten) he’s worth a $2,000 bounty, and the fact he leaves two dead and one set to lose an arm here are three of them.
Not wasting time, we’re then introduced to another one of the trio, but only after a familiar face pops up first: Antoñito Ruiz, the “little runt” who Manco tasks with keeping an eye on who’s coming in and out of El Paso in For a Few Dollars More. As he does some housework, we see a rider in the distance and a redemptive, uplifting instrumental accompanies, “The Sundown” – the best thing about Morricone’s score is that the main theme might be the most famous and influential, but it isn’t the film’s best. Unfortunately, we’re not going to see an unofficial reunion between this young lad and the man he swindled a lot of money from in the film prior, because as Ruiz runs into the house, followed by the rider, the music darkens. At first it’s a sharper, cutting riff of the main theme, and it quickly turns into an erratic guitar strum. It’s clearly not who we hoped, and we start to sense something bad is about to happen. It’s another familiar face in Lee Van Cleef, and as Tonino Delli Colli’s camera draws up-close, we meet Angel Eyes. Yes, something Bad is definitely about to happen.
Quentin Tarantino has called this “the greatest directed film of all time“, and interestingly this introductory scene for Angel Eyes features many elements that Tarantino would use for what I believe to be the greatest acted scene of all time at the beginning of Inglorious Basterds. This man has rode into something of a farmhouse from a distance, with the predatory instincts of a hawk and the confidence he’ll get the information needed about who he’s looking for. While Tarantino would echo the trepidation that the family has upon seeing this man, as well as him sitting at the head of the table enjoying their food and drink, the biggest difference between Angel Eyes and Hans Landa is their presentation. Landa is charmingly evil, patronising in his jovial demeanour, but Angel Eyes is silent, and when he speaks at no instance does he stray from the matter at hand. The final similarity to Landa is that when he finds out what he’s there for, he does what he must, and interestingly the music playing as Angel Eyes does this, “Sentenza”, is virtually identical to the harrowing score we hear as Landa calls in his men so they can do their own duties.
Having received more than the $500 he wanted to get the name Bill Carson, Angel Eyes meets his elderly, ill business partner Baker (Livio Lorenzon) and comforts him in saying, “You don’t have to worry, you’ll never say anything to anybody again“, before emphasising why The Bad is very, very Bad.
Having been introduced to two of the trio, it’s back to The Ugly, as the price on Tuco’s head puts him in a precarious position with another three bandits. Unfortunately for them, Tuco has a protective angel, or as Angel Eyes soon notes, a golden-haired angel – his version of the main theme is even elegiac here! Currently Poncho-less, our Man with No Name does what we’ve come to expect of him, and proceeds to bring Tuco in himself.
“I hope you end up in a graveyard! With the cholera and the rabies and the plague!“
This is the first occasion in the film where Tuco shines as a comical character. He kicks, screams and rages with the greatest insults (see above), saying anything he can think of that might be helpful. He bargains and threatens, “You can still save yourself. Let me go and I’ll pardon you“; He lies, “I’m gonna be sick, need water” (before spitting in Blondie’s face), and eventually tells his judge, jury and executioners what they can do with his Wanted poster, “You can’t even read! Roll it up! I’ll give you a good idea of where you can put it!“. Wallach delivers every line superbly, and even when he doesn’t speak there’s brilliance, as he momentarily sets aside his ranting, reacting to his face on that Wanted poster with the most charming smirk and exclamation.
Tuco has been caught, and Tuco is going to be hanged for his sins. Or is he?
“There are two kinds of people in this world my friend: Those with a rope around their neck and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”
It just so happens that the Man with No Name (known in this film as Blondie) and Tuco are in cahoots, secretly working together to rake in the bounty on Tuco’s head, time after time. It’s a relationship of money related friction (it is Tuco’s neck after all!), but there’s seemingly a mutual respect between them as long as they’re bringing in the money. Does it last? Well there’s a reason one’s The Good and one’s The Ugly. Of course, difficulties in executing their execution avoiding task leads to a parting of the ways, but The Good is only good in Leone’s vision, and Blondie’s sudden, brutal termination leaves Tuco questioning his worth, tied together and left with a seventy mile walk back into town – I suppose his “If you hold your breath I feel a man like you can manage it” comment is a little respectful, especially in comparison to the fantastic insults Tuco shouts at him as he rides away. They’re only topped by Blondie’s tut and essential response, “Such ingratitude after all the times I’ve saved your life.”
It’s an understandable decision by Blondie to sever ties, but we know based on the opening scene that to underestimate Tuco isn’t wise, and that’s even more so the case considering he’s already been warned, “Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing!“.
The next two scenes are excellent in contrasting comedy with, well, horror, because that’s exactly what the scene between Angel Eyes and Bill Carson’s love, Maria (Rada Rassimov) is directed to be. Luring this woman into a dark room giving the false impression that he is Bill, Angel Eyes shows no mercy in getting from her what he wants to hear. While the harrowing “Sentenza” later sampled loosely by Tarantino emphasises the distressing atmosphere, the framing of Maria’s horrified face, half covered by the dark, as she says “what are you gonna do to me?” really drives home how dangerous Angel Eyes is, if we didn’t know already.
Meanwhile, Tuco is trying to survive, to recover and to get revenge on the “pig” who betrayed him. This first sees him making a poor shopkeeper’s life misery, looking for the most silent gun available and showing his shooting prowess, before robbing the shopkeeper for everything he has – it’s tragic for the shopkeeper, but remember, in Leone’s version of the west you take what you can get, and few people do that better than Tuco. Now recovered enough, the resident rat needs allies, and this leads to another scene of perfect comedic delivery.
“The world is divided into two parts: Those who have friends, and those who are lonely like poor Tuco.“
Tuco is certainly cunning, definitely dangerous, but let’s be honest, he’s a moron. Luckily for Tuco, though, there are people with less sense than him, and people more gullible than him. As he sits in a cave, plucking a chicken and rambling on about being rich – but oh so lonely – he says enough of the right things to get three of his old bandit friends swinging down into the vicinity, and he has his men. Time to find Blondie!
“I’m looking for the owner of that horse. He’s tall, blonde, he smokes a cigar and he looks like a pig.”
It’s around this stage where Leone gradually shifts the the film into half Western / half commentary on the brutality of the Civil War, because as Tuco and his allies look for Blondie, the Confederacy and gunfire that came with it also seeps into this particular town. In fact, it’s gunfire and cannon blasts that nearly lose Blondie his life, as the explosive sounds nicely cover the boots and the spurs of Tuco’s men clicking down the hall way. The only problem for them is that when the explosions subside, Blondie perks up. The intensity of the scene is complemented once again by the unnerving sound of “Sentenza”, but Blondie is equally prepared and skilled to survive this threat.
“There are two kinds of spurs my friend: Those that come in by the door *makes sign of the cross*, those that come in by the window.“
That’s where Tuco’s cunning comes into play, as his brothers in arms were simply pawns for him to sneak up from behind – as referenced in the quote above, Tuco’s persistence in making the sign of the cross is an additional aspect of his brilliance. I also love how he continues to call Blondie a pig, and in a film filled with amazing quotes, it’s “Make sure the rope is tight. It’s got to hold the weight of a pig!” that I find myself repeating on a regular basis. And on the subject of repetition, a cannonball blast blowing throw the hotel sees Blondie get one-up on his old ‘partner’ – a recurring theme throughout the film – and the shots of an enraged Tuco glaring at the empty rope swinging from the ceiling are tremendous. The two cross paths again soon enough, and I love how every point Tuco scores over Blondie is received by our hero ending up scoring two.
While this is going on, Leone continues showing us the horrors of the Civil War as Angel Eyes visits a decrepit army base to find out more about Bill Carson. “The Strong” plays beautifully over the top of this scene, contrasting the harrowing sights of injured, dying men living in filth. The conditions are so awful that even Angel Eyes shakes his head in disgust, but in reality he couldn’t care less, because there’s only one thing that he’s interested in. Another excellent example of how the perils of war are differed by bounty hunters with one concern, and a trivial one at that.
“If you save your breath I feel a man like you can manage it.”
Tuco’s prowling eventually pays off, catching Blondie on the brink of saving another ‘partner’ with a rope around his neck. Our Good is then reminded why you don’t double-cross Tuco and leave him alive.
With his words used against him, we take a dangerous journey across “one hundred miles of beautiful sunbaked sand. Even the armies are afraid to walk through there.” It’s a fantastic sequence, and an interesting one too, because while our hero is in danger – Delli Colli’s operatic close-ups and Morricone’s brooding score, that briefly sees a certain piano melody play, highlight this – I’ve always spent this sequence laughing at Tuco’s mocking. Blondie can’t be doomed (although it looks bleak) so instead of worrying we relax, finding enjoyment in the journey and in Tuco’s joy.
This was Delli Colli’s first time working with Leone, and he definitely made the most of it, adding to Blondie’s worries with great close-ups of Tuco’s repulsive grin. This scene exemplifies the quality of cinematography and landscaping in the framing and placing of specific shots, as well as reminds us how someone is always worse off than you when Bill Carson’s (Antonio Casale) carriage rides into the area.
The highlight of the scene is when a seriously sunburnt Blondie musters up all the strength he has left to grab Tuco’s boot. Unfortunately for him, it’s only the boot, as it’s been placed there as bait while his captor washes his feet. The fact that Tuco won’t even give Blondie the satisfaction of drinking his foot-water is an extreme example of his contempt, and we end up loving that all the more once he changes his tune upon finding out Blondie got the pivotal piece of information from the dying soldier. Tuco is an enigma, and he adds to that when they arrive at a specific church.
“God is on our side too, because he hates the Yankees.“
Religion isn’t a major theme in the films of Sergio Leone, but it’s always there. Eastwood is something of an archangel, arriving at the right time to deliver swift justice, and the same can be said for Harmonica in the 1968 film. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly religion is normally present in Tuco making the sign of the cross, and this following scene where they arrive at a church (turned into a hospital/morgue for doomed soldiers that also takes Tuco aback when he sees these sights) pastored by a Padre Ramírez explains to us why religion seems to be all around The Ugly and consequently around The Good and The Bad too. Fearful that Blondie will die knowing the name of the grave in Sad Hill Cemetery where the gold is buried, Tuco goes to great lengths in keeping him safe, shouting “You don’t know how much this boy’s life means to me!” and at one point even beginning to pray when he sees a painting of the Crucifixion. Of course, we know he only cares about what Bill Carson said, and it’s not even two minutes after his praying that he’s giving Blondie the last rites: “It’s too late for you, Blondie. If I get my hands on the two hundred thousand, I’ll always honour your memory!“, but as mentioned Blondie always scores an extra point. After throwing coffee in his captor and ‘saviour’s’ face he quips, “I’ll sleep better knowing my good friend is by my side to protect me“, and just like that, Blondie is in control.
It’s when Tuco meets Padre Ramírez (Luigi Pistilli, also returning after Dollars More) where his character is given most depth, because Padre Ramírez is his brother, Pablo. After being chastised for his sins and his abandonment of his parents and family: “only now do you think about them, after nine years“, Tuco snaps back in stating that when Pablo became a priest, he had to become a bandit and that “my way was harder“. There are no guns are fired, no magical Morricone score is heard, but this might be the most important moment of the film, and Leone’s trilogy. Here we’re given clear evidence that in this life you’re either morally good, or you’re morally bad. You make your choice and there are no seemingly no shades of grey. However as The Ugly, Tuco stands out as a fascinating in-between, and this scene, along with his and Blondie’s interactions as they head towards their destination afterwards, makes us question whether he is truly ugly. Delli Colli’s focus on his face after Blondie shares a cigar gives us Tuco’s most human moment, and Morricone’s “Padre Ramírez” immaculately adds to his pondering – before he grins, the main theme kicks in, and they ride away into the vast Spanish landscape.
“God’s not on our side, ’cause he hates idiots also…“
Similarly to Angel Eyes’ scene in the army base, the 2014 voiceover work from Eastwood and Wallach is very noticeable in the conversation regarding where they’re going, but at this point in the film (and in Leone’s Westerns outright) we should be well accustomed with dubbing enough for it to not be a hindrance. This sequence also gives Leone additional opportunities to convey the impacts of the war with shots of dead men not “worried about anything any more“. It’s said that Leone would walk around his sets carrying a book about the Civil War, and in this book were photos that he’d have his extras replicate to increase the accuracy of his film. Leone’s art imitates life.
This leads to another scene I greatly enjoy, where Blondie and Tuco, coated in Confederate uniforms, see a horde of soldiers wearing the same riding towards them. Or so it seems. Tuco’s “hurrah for the Confederacy” ends up in vain once the dust is cleared to reveal Prussian blue.
It’s inside a Union prison camp (Leone felt it right they be prisoners of the winning side) where our three characters link up for the first time. With the melodic “Marcia” playing, Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega) calls the name of Bill Carson, and Angel Eyes – who has gotten himself a commanding officer role in the camp – perks up. As you might expect, Angel Eyes is more or less running the place, opposing the injured captain’s morally respectable ethics with bloody beatings. Next up for one of those beatings is the man going by the name of Bill Carson, Tuco!
Having met each other prior to where the film starts, Angel Eyes welcomes Tuco in for a meal and the differences in intelligence between the two can’t be any clearer: Angel Eyes is smart, but Tuco can’t comprehend what’s going on. Yes, there’s initial trepidation he’s about to be poisoned, but then carries on as normal. Big mistake. It starts with Angel Eyes trapping his fingers in a tobacco case, and ends with Wallace nearly squeezing his eyes out of his skull.
There are very few directors who use diegetic music to the fullest quite like Leone did, with “Watch Chimes” standing out For a Few Dollars More and “Man With Harmonica” in Once Upon a Time in the West. The piece of music used here isn’t as famous as those two tracks, but “The Story of a Soldier” is very effective during this scene. Played by soldiers to block out the beating (they know it too), their instrumentation and choral is beauty contrasting the bloody, and that summarises Leone’s use of music perfectly.
While Wallace escorts Tuco on the way to his death (almost legitimately, as Wallach was at one point inches away from being decapitated by a train) by the hangman’s rope, Blondie is forced to join Angel Eyes and his crew.
Normally joining the antagonist and his henchmen to play both sides, there’s some nice symmetry in Blondie now having to do this against his will. No need to worry, though, as Blondie and Tuco find themselves together again soon enough, after Wallace and a certain one-armed bandit are disposed of. Remember, “If you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!“. An essential quote and life lesson from Tuco.
Angel Eyes manages to escape the consequences of this reunion, but the same can’t be said for the five henchmen, and it’s mint how the film’s main theme can serve just about any purpose, such as in this scene setting a badass aura for Blondie and Tuco to do the business.
Then, bridging us to the final portion of the film is Leone’s best depiction of the Civil War within The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a scene that stuns us when we remember this film was only a year after For a Few Dollars More and its smaller set locations. It had its problems on-set, with cameras breaking causing Leone too much stress, but the final result is magnificent, given that extra elevation by Morricone’s “Marcia Without Hope” and “The Death of a Soldier”. The heart of the sequence is the Union Captain (charismatically played by Aldo Giuffrè) who wants to stop the fighting and save thousands of lives, before ultimately losing his in a brutal battle. It’s during one of his final moments where we get another example as to why Blondie is The Good, with him being respectful, caring and then going onto honour his wishes by blowing up that damn bridge. Once on the other side of the water, Blondie again comforts a young Confederate soldier, offering him a final smoke and covering him with his coat. He isn’t interested in the politics, he just sees these people for who they are: People.
Still, he’s a bounty hunter who takes what he can get, and as he walks away we see him grab something. Something familiar. Considering he’s just given away an item of clothing, and remembering there’s a certain, famous item he hasn’t worn in this film, it can only be one thing: The Poncho! An imperative moment for his character, this also makes us realise this third film’s place in the timeline is actually before the previous films – which is fantastic as it validates our impulses to watch the trilogy on an endless loop.
Taking advantage of Blondie’s compassion for others, Tuco shows his true colours (again) by riding off, now knowing where the gold is buried in Sad Hill. Unluckily for him – and luckily for us – Blondie takes advantage of a cannon in sight, and with a couple of explosions derailing his ride, Tuco is launched into a tombstone, and into the film’s most euphoric moment.
We briefly heard this opening piano melody as they headed into the desert, but what was saved until now were these following instrumentals and vocal, which combine to give us Ennio Morricone’s magnum opus, “The Ecstasy of Gold”. It’s one of the finest examples of what great composers are capable of, a glorious piece of music to accompany Tuco on his voyage through Sad Hill Cemetery. Beginning with a sign of the cross and a startling from a stray dog, the editing of Nino Baragli and Eugenio Alabiso shows us a blurry haze of desire from a moron running across hundreds and hundreds of graves, occupied by people who died violently and needlessly, all for this and people like Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez. Whether it’s the best scene in the film depends on how much you love the following one when you wake up each morning, but what’s for certain here is guaranteed joy, joy as great as Tuco’s when he finally finds Arch Stanton’s grave, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Tuco’s digging is interrupted by Blondie and that rising poncho shot – with the main theme accompanying it, it’s one more shout for the film’s best moment – before they’re both interrupted by Angel Eyes, who appears out of thin air, accompanied by the sound of deathly organ. Maybe his sudden arrival makes his name more significant than we think, but regardless, he’s here in the flesh, and all three men can’t share the $200,000. There’s only one way to settle this, and it’s time for Sergio Leone’s chef’s kiss. Watched on by an audience of spirits waiting to welcome new friends, we’re treated to a masterclass in framing, tempo, music (Morricone even includes “Watch Chimes”!) and tension. The Western to end all Westerns needed the duel to end all duels, and you’re damn right it got it. Cinematic bliss.
“See in this world there’s two kinds of people my friend: Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.“
Before our hero can ride off with his winnings, however, there’s still the matter of punishing someone who needs to spend some time with a rope around his neck. As Blondie says prior to “The Trio” scene, they need to earn their money, and Tuco still has to redeem his sins. Do these few moments of personal terror redeem him? Absolutely not. When he eventually frees his hands he’s likely going to take his half of the money and do exactly what made him worth $3,000 in the first place, but he needs to free himself first. Until then…
“BLONDIE! YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE?! JUST A DIRTY NO GOOD SON OF A-“
In 1961, Sergio Leone left a cinema after watching Yojimbo with the desire to make a Western using its premise. Two years later he concluded that story on the highest level possible. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he intended to retire from making Westerns after this. The thought of him or anyone bettering it is daunting, and not even Once Upon a Time in the West evokes the same kind of magic. Equal parts Western and anti-war film, the combination of cool, cunning and devilishness from Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef allows for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to satisfy just about every spot, while the groundbreaking cinematography of Delli Colli and the all-time great soundtrack of Morricone hit the rest of them. What it lacks in audio synchronisation it makes up for in sweeping settings, essential quotes and its influence. It defined the legacies of Leone and Morricone, propelled Eastwood’s career to immeasurable heights, and guaranteed Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef’s careers would be remembered across generations. Without doubt, a masterpiece.