Cult films to see before you die: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone and style galore: James Oliver looks at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, most famous of the Spaghetti Westerns...
We can only assume that Clint Eastwood needed the money. Why else would the actor—then playing second string hero Rowdy Yates in the TV show Rawhide—use up some of his holiday time in 1963 to travel to Spain for an Italian director who was trying his hand at that most American of genres, the Western? Still, he probably reasoned that the results wouldn’t be seen by anyone back home so no-one would know how he paid for the new kitchen (or whatever).
Clint Eastwood in Rawhide. Image via allclip
To his credit, Eastwood has never tried to pretend otherwise. He’s never claimed to have had a premonition that A Fistful of Dollars (as that film was called) would be a vast success and launch the Spaghetti Western cycle. He might, however, have got an inkling that he was involved with something special if he ever watched the rushes and saw the images that director Sergio Leone was putting on the screen.
Leone was one of cinema’s great visionaries and, although Eastwood would be more recognisable, Leone was the real star of the pictures they made together. The success of A Fistful of Dollars gave him the confidence, not to mention the budget, to go further, first in For A Few Dollars More and then, most spectacularly, with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
"Once Upon a Time in the West is ‘an opera where the arias are not sung but stared’"
That title very nearly acts as a plot synopsis. It refers to the three main characters, superhumanly gifted gunslingers them all. Clint is ‘the Good’ (here called ‘Blondie’), Lee Van Cleef is ‘the Bad’ Angel Eyes while Eli Wallach hams it up as Tuco, ‘the Ugly’. Each learns of some buried treasure and sets out to recover it regardless of the fact that they’re in the midst of the American Civil War.
This loose plot, though, is of much less consequence than the way that Leone films it. It is very nearly cliché to call his films ‘operatic’—his biographer Christopher Frayling has said that Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West is ‘an opera where the arias are not sung but stared’—but there is no better way to capture the sense of inflation that Leone applied to the humble cowboy flick.
He doesn’t so much direct the film as conduct it, extending and attenuating moments other directors would dispatch in a couple of shots. Take, by way of example, the moment where Tuco visits a gunsmith to replace the weapon Blondie has deprived him of. It is a scene of little narrative consequence but Leone turns it into a highlight, relishing Tuco’s perfectionism:
And if Leone can make trivial moments like this engrossing, you can imagine the fun he has with the final shootout:
The above clip reveals the work of another important collaborator, composer Ennio Morricone. As with his director, Morricone showed scant regard for Western traditions, elbowing aside the conventional orchestral score for one that drew on his background in the avant-garde, flavouring his score with coyote howls, whip cracks and distorted voices. Unorthodox for sure, but the perfect accompaniment to Leone’s baroque vision of America.
But The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is more than just an exercise in (tremendous) style. Leone had a different relationship to America than did the makers of classical Westerns, like John Ford or Howard Hawks, whose American myths depicted the country as it wanted to be.
Leone’s vision was altogether more sceptical, a world where even the ‘Good’ character is an amoral mercenary. His American Civil War was drained of the romance with which native filmmakers depicted it—it is essentially just the destruction wrought by the money-grubbing main characters writ large or maybe even worse: at least Messrs. Good, Bad and Ugly are trying to turn a profit.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was the last film that Clint Eastwood made with Leone: his Euro-Westerns had made him sufficiently famous to make movies at home in Hollywood. He has undoubtedly made some superlative pictures but no one can argue that this is not amongst the very best. It is Sergio Leone at the very height of his powers. And that is quite something to behold.
Read more: A life in pictures: Clint Eastwood
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Feature image via schoolcampus