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Three Men and a Coffin of Gold
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (DVD)
Member Name: berlioz II
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (DVD)
Date: 25/03/09, updated on 25/03/09 (107 review reads)
Advantages: A classic
Disadvantages: Maybe too long for some if you don't like Leone's way of doing things, but it's a classic
Following the popularity gained by Sergio Leone's first two westerns, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, the Italian filmmaking industry really got into the swing of producing this type of movies by 1966, with the likes of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima among many others wanting to cash in on the new Leone'sque western craze, producing plenty of westerns which, outside of a handful of the hundreds produced during the late 1960s and early- to mid-1970s that truly were inspired and have gained a classic status, were certainly not much else but trashy, badly acted train wrecks. Still, this sort of film had a lot of popularity back in the day, though most of these endeavours are completely forgotten today, and many still remain impossible to find on any recorded medium. Leone himself was now, even if the elitist film industry still felt he was nothing particularly special, at the height of his popularity and it was not long before he began what was to become one of his greatest creations, even in the circle of only the fistful of films he actually did fully direct himself in his lifetime, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Much of the crew and actors he had been dealing with in his previous two films also followed, including actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, his composer of choice Ennio Morricone, his co-writer Luciano Vincenzoni, and art and costume designer Carlo Simi among others. This was also a good example of the ever far-reaching sights Leone entertained in making everything all that more bigger the farther he got, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly certainly was a considerably bigger production that either of the two last westerns had been, both in scope and plot.
The basis of the story is once more rather simple. Three men find out about a hidden Confederate gold shipment hidden somewhere by a soldier named Bill Carson, and all three set out on their own ways to find said treasure. Along the way there's a lot of backstabbing, humour, action, camaraderie, shoot-outs, humanity and a good dose of social commentary on war and such. Indeed, it is once more the journey there that is the most rewarding aspect of this film, not so much the goal itself. The three titular men, Clint Eastwood's Blondie as "The Good", Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes as "The Bad" and Eli Wallach's Tuco as "The Ugly" make for a wonderful trio, never a happy bunch of people going about in a merry companion way, but all three prepared to betray or kill the other when ever a chance comes their the way, and the only things usually keeping them from doing this is the information each may have of use. Eastwood returns once more with pretty much the same character he had played for Leone previously, but is this time around a bit less of a loner. In the beginning he is in league with Tuco as a con artist posing as a bounty hunter. By catching Tuco over and over again, handing him over to the authorities in order to get the bounty, and then in the next instance shooting Tuco's hanging rope for a getaway to reprise the same somewhere else, the general opportunistic partnership gives the two men a sort of touchy feely friendship that requires trust (particularly on Tuco's part) but is at the same time a very professional a friendship.
Of course, it's not long before this partnership dissolves and the two become enemies... that is until the two end up needing each other again once they find out about the hidden gold, with one knowing the general place it is buried at and the other the specific place. And then there's the ace in the deck, Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes, who is not really seen too often during the film, but who is close on the trail of the gold as well having learned of it from another source, and he at times ends up following his own trails, or groups with the other two in order to reach the same goal, while doing so with no remorse on who gets killed. Therefore, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a film that more than ever is rich in its characters, and the chemistry between the trio is undeniably good. Of the three, it is Eli Wallach's illiterate, loud-mouth Tuco who ends up being perhaps the most memorable character, not only for his splashing personality, but also because he is the most conniving and unpredictable of the bunch. And while not being terribly smart, he has a lot of common sense and instinct that aids him in at times getting on top of even Blondie's highly refined sense of his surroundings. Furthermore Tuco's standing is helped a lot by the fact that Eastwood's mark as a "main character à la Fistful" is considerably diminished in favour of him being more part of an ensemble than his solitary self, and also that Van Cleef makes generally only sporadic appearances, at times disappearing entirely for long stretches of the film at a time.
Another facet of the film comes in the main story being juxtaposed with the on-going US Civil War of the 1860s that at first makes its presence known only in hints of soldiers here and there, of signs of struggles along the roadside, or cannons blasting at other times in the distance (one of these resulting in a rather original rescue of Blondie from Tuco's hands), which around the half-way point escalates into the war literally entering into the lives of the main protagonists as Blondie and Tuco end up in a POW camp, and later on as they find themselves smack in the middle of a bridge skirmish between the Union and the Confederacy (this last one also showing one of Leone's favourite tricks of within one shot transforming an intimate scene into a spectacle). This brings out a point in how the scale of Leone's visions started to grow ever larger and larger when this major conflict is being wrapped around the almost petty quest of the main characters, while at the other offering also a criticism on the wastefulness of war as Blondie remarks "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." There's a lot of this type of human tragedy thrown around, which gives the film considerably much added depth to convey a sense of the uselessness and senselessness, as well as human brutality, of war, perfectly shown in the war camp sequence which cannot but make one draw parallels to the Nazi death camps. These aspects also find further resonance in a touching moment between Blondie and a dying, young Confederate soldier he comes across with, as well as at the extensive graveyard filled with fallen soldiers Tuco spends a good three-and-a-half minutes running around in. This all finds Leone being considerably more critical than he had been in his previous, more light-hearted adventures before.
The style of the film retains many aspects of For a Few Dollars More in its composition of again juxtaposing very wide vistas with extreme close-ups, while the film at no point is in any haste to get to the next point. Lasting almost three hours, Leone really gives each scene a sense of gravitas, taking his sweet time in building tension or allowing the characters to think of their actions first. And yet none of this makes the film ever seem slow at all. No, everything feels perfectly paced as if the calm tempo creates a sense of absorption for the viewer that could not be speeded up without losing a lot of the power behind each action. This comes perfectly on head in the final shootout, which can be found from almost all of Leone's films as it was one of the western mainstays Leone was sure not to neglect, and then spending a good five minutes in setting up the tempo of a ritual waiting to explode, building up an incredible amount of tension with quick edits, extreme close-ups and waiting. Also, as always, helping the film along is Ennio Morricone's brilliant music, which this time gives each main character the same theme (an imitation on a wolf's howl) and then assigns specific instruments and sounds for the three instead of specific individual themes. All of these elements bring about the oft-noted adage that Leone was really doing operas of violence, so large is the scale yet so thoughtfully each little detail is presented that there is a very intricate sense of movement one can't help but notice... even instinctively if in no other way. In many ways, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is perhaps the best of the trio of Eastwood starred Leone films, and certainly the most rich in detail and incident. Certainly it more than lives up to its fame.
© berlioz, 2009
Summary: Spaghetti Westerns Vol.3