A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are good, even top-notch Westerns. Certainly, lesser movies have remained classics for longer, and if Sergio Leone had never put his name to another film after 1965, I have little doubt that we - by which I primarily mean Western fans and Italian genre cinema aficionados - would still eagerly talk about the guy who made those two really good movies with Clint Eastwood.
We do not, however, talk about those films as merely the ones where Clint wore a serape and had no given name. We talk about them instead as near-legendary works of mythmaking, two legs of a trilogy that changed everything that a Western could be or do. And not to take anything away from the Dollars pair, because I have a great deal of fondness for them both, but most of that legend comes from the reflected glory of Eastwood's third go before Leone's camera, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It's with this film, by far the most ambitious Italian Western made to that date (nearly three hours long and with a wildly high, by the industry standards, $1.3 million budget) that Leone secured his place as a pantheon director, and did all of those things he remains beloved for: using the CinemaScope frame to create a unique vision of the American West as place of desolation and ruin on a truly epic scale. It is, in many ways, the culmination of his art - while I privately prefer his next film, Once Upon a Time in the West, it's easy to argue that the later film simply builds upon the aesthetic space Leone created with the final film in what history has come to call the Dollars Trilogy.
In this case, there are no dollars in the title, in either language (the Italian Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo actually translates as The Good, the Ugly, the Bad; I think we can all agree that in both cases, the right choice was made to create the most mellifluous flow); there are, however, dollars, - 200,000 of them - and the three figures identified in the title are all in pursuit of the cache, hidden somewhere in Texas (once again, Leone, abetted by co-writer Luciano Vincenzoni, appears uncertain whether New Mexico is in fact a separate place from Texas or not - but since it's the American Civil War, and specific reference is made to "laws of the state", I'll go with history on this one). Not immediately: in fact, it takes over a third of this vast, lumbering thing for two of the three to even learn that there is a buried treasure in gold. But I'm doing this all wrong.
Of the three men in the title, the only one whose proper name we ever learn is the Ugly: he's a Mexican bandit working in the States, name of Tuco Ramirez (Eli Wallach), who we meet as he escapes from a trio of bounty hunters. He actually has the most screentime in this purported Eastwood vehicle, though the film lacks a "protagonist" as such; but in between the implacable forces of nature on either side of him, he's arguably the most recognisably human character, so it's just as well. Next up is the Bad, a bloodless sociopath who goes by Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), who first appears in the act of capturing and interrogating a target (he, too, is a bounty hunter), and indulging in some mean-spirited cat-and-mouse games before killing the man and, just for lagniappe, his son. The Good, and it's only in the context of the other two creeps we have to choose from, is a stone-faced, unspeaking gunslinger that some call Blondie (Eastwood); he's not wearing that famous serape, but it's obvious from the mannerisms and the squint and the cigarettes that this is the same man with no name.
Blondie and Tuco have a little con going: the American captures the bandit, takes him in for the reward, and shoots the rope out just when he's about to be hanged. In exchange, they split the loot (though, as we're introduced, it seems that Blondie is just a random stranger to Tuco; I am always in awe, every time I watch the film, of how well Leone carries off that little dollop of subterfuge without having to lie to us even a tiny bit). Blondie, however, is getting tired of Tuco's constant whining, and double-crosses his partner; Tuco manages to survive a 70-mile trek through the desert, and immediately starts planning his revenge. While this lover's spat plays out, Angel Eyes is on a new, private mission: his last mark told him of a Confederate soldier named Jackson, who made off with a huge pile of gold and is now back in the war under the name "Bill Carson". The bounty hunter sets off on the trail to find this soldier and wring out of him the exact location of that missing gold.
Unfortunately for him, "Bill Carson" is just about dead when Tuco and Blondie stumble across him (by this point, Tuco has found his former partner and is currently marching him through the deathly hot desert sun). Tuco listens to his gasps just long enough to learn that the gold is buried in Sad Hill Cemetery; but while he's hunting for water, Blondie listens to the soldier's dying breath, and is thus the only one who hears the name on the marker, out of the hundreds of graves, where they have to dig. The two men form an extremely reluctant alliance that takes them from the desert to an apocalyptic war zone where the Confederates and the Union are battling back and forth over a strategically dubious bridge; and in a fit of very peculiar luck, Angel Eyes happens to be in the same battlefield, disguised as a Union officer.
That's a relentlessly pared-down version of the story: as I said, Tuco and Blondie don't even meet Carson until the one-hour mark has been passed.
(A moment to discuss running times: the film was cut by 16 minutes for its English-language release, and for 35 years, this was the only version available outside Italy. In 2003, an extended cut was assembled, including one scene that Leone might have taken out on purpose; since the full 177-minute version was never released in an English-speaking region, the now considerably older Eastwood and Wallach gamely dubbed in their new lines, and replaced some old ones as part of a general restoration. Without question, the longer version is better: this is a case where the new material adds nothing of particular narrative value, but deepens the mood and atmosphere, which is of paramount importance in a film of this kind anyway. That said, the 2003 edition suffers from an abominable 5.1 audio remix that does simply terrible things to off-screen speakers, and it is tremendously gratifying that the same DVD/Blu-Ray that boasts the extended cut also makes the original Italian mono soundtrack available).
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is certainly not a movie driven by the mere contents of the plot, however, but by the world in which that plot unfolds. It is a war-ravaged Southwestern landscape in which there is only death, all around. A lot of the movie is dedicated solely to scenes exploring the places and people: a protracted sequence in a Catholic mission filled to the rafters with wounded soldiers from both sides, a lengthy visit with a drunk Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè) whose cynically humanist view of warfare confirms what is already easy to tell, that the extreme (by 1966 standards) violence and devastation on display is presented for our horrified disgust, not our entertainment. The film surely does depict a vision of the West that is mythical and epic and all that - but it also makes it clear that the myth is rotten to its very core. Only in a horribly dysfunctional world could a man as selfish and casually nihilistic as Blondie deserve the title "the Good", after all.
Even more than it is brutal and hard and nihilistic, the film is primarily a sensualist Western. "Sensualist" meant in a special way, of course, which is that Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli put so much effort into capturing the physical essence of the landscape they're shooting that watching the film is very nearly a physical experience itself. The scene in which Tuco torments Blondie out in the desert is a great example of the tactility of the whole feature: we are aware, to a dreadfully uncomfortable degree, of the brightness of the sun, the dryness of the sand, the sweat on the faces, and the crackly texture of the not-entirely-convincing sunburn makeup Eastwood wears, as revealed in the trademark Leone close-ups.
This sensuality is itself, obviously, as brutal as the film's narrative content; but it is unmediated. I have not tried it, so I do not know if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of those films that you can watch with the sound off and still be able to follow the plot, but I am certain that you would be able to follow the feeling of the thing, the decay and desolation. You would, admittedly, lack the music... but more on that shortly.
In addition to capturing the feel of the Spanish landscape to an absolutely uncanny degree, there are of course those close-ups: Leone, as much as any filmmaker this side of Ingmar Bergman, had a particular gift for filling the frame with a human face and letting that image be its own kind of landscape, of work and emotion. There may not be a better example of his use of this kind of shot than in the film's justly renowned climax - for my tastes, the second-best sequence in any Leone film - in which Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes have a standoff in a dusty ring in the middle of the cemetery. It's too well-known a sequence for me to add anything to it, but certainly the fact that only three kinds of shots are used - extreme close-ups of eyes, close-ups of hands near pistols, and a couple of wide shots of the three of them, standing what feels like a mile apart - and that the whole exchange (which lasts for several minutes) can thereby still be so absurdly tense, is beyond impressive.
Let us not give too much credit to Leone, though: this sequence relies, to a great extent, on the work of composer Ennio Morricone; it is likely that even if you've never seen the film, you know its theme music - even if you don't know that you know the theme music. It is, after one or two marches from Star Wars, probably the best-known composition in the history of film scores. And like many things that everybody knows, it's hard to describe it: the composer wanted it to recall the howl of a coyote, what it's always suggested to me is a surf rock song played by Hell's mariachi band. Whatever the case, it is a deranged piece of music - just how deranged is, I suspect, obscured by how familiar it has become through over-use.
It's also not the best piece of music in the film, though it dominates the soundtrack. The piece that always knocks me on my ass is a cue titled "L'estasi dell'oro" a choral piece accompanying Tuco's frenzied search for the buried gold (throughout, Tuco is paired with choral music, including a choral statement of the main them), building in intensity until it is at pitch that fully earns the word "ecstasy" in its name, before cutting off dead and then building up again in the straining, sun-bleached horns of "Il triello", the cue that accompanies the standoff. Honestly, Leone's gift with close-ups is almost unnecessary at that point: the soaring, fatigued melody could pretty much do all the work of the editing and cinematography all by itself, and still result in a climax that is one of the very best sequences in the history of action cinema - and all of it based on people standing as still as possible.
There is no defense against the claim, frequent in the '60s and still likely to crop up sometimes here and there, that the movie is nasty and cruel and violent - it is all of those things. There is as mixture of fascination and disgust regarding the evil men do found in every scene of the film that is too harrowing and at times too borderline-exploitative to ever say, with a straight face, that it's nice, or morally uplifting (which is not the same as calling it immoral: it is, at any rate, fairly outraged at the excessive violence it portrays, and cannot be held accountable for those viewers who don't get the joke). Even the overwhelming operatic scope of its narrative and aesthetic are, ultimately, brutal: the audience leaves feeling worn out and battered; happy for it, maybe, but battered. But that's the thing about legends and myths, they reveal our darkest nature as well was - better than! - they reveal our best selves. And in this film, Leone managed to turn that darkness into visual and aural poetry of the most electrifying sort.