The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Original art for the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 January

 

 

Lee Van Cleef born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr was born, in New Jersey, USA. Best known for his portrayal of baddies, Lee Van Cleef served on submarine chasers in the Second World War before becoming a time and motion man when the war ended. Not looking enough like a traditional penpusher to satisfy his colleagues, Lee was persuaded by them, and his friends, to give the stage and film world the benefit of his hawk nose and eyes, each of which was a different colour, thanks to the heterochromia iridium mutation. Van Cleef’s career hit a high note early on when he was cast in 1952’s High Noon (he was taught to ride horses by Ron Howard’s father, Rance), after which he would regularly play black hats in a variety of film and TV offerings, generally of decreasing quality. Whether this was down to poor choices, or Cleef’s serious drinking is moot, but by the time Sergio Leone came looking for him (Lee Marvin having turned Leone down) for A Few Dollars More, Van Cleef had become a carpenter/decorator and occasional artist; his face wasn’t even listed in the actors’ directories. Leone cast him again in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Van Cleef cashed in with a run of back-to-back productions that paid him handsomely. Once again the quality began to slide, though Van Cleef could always be relied on to deliver a “fresh from hell” performance, the distinctive eyes burning with intelligence and passion. His last great role came in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, in 1981, as the appropriately named Hauk (hawk, geddit?), with Kurt Russell deliberately aping Clint Eastwood as the badass Snake Plissken in what is essentially a futuristic western. After which another slide. He died in 1989, aged only 64. Who knows what great role might have come along in another few years, and then again a few years after that.

 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, dir: Sergio Leone)

As I write this, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the number 5 film on the IMDb’s top 250 list. Not bad for a western, hardly the hippest of genres right now. It’s one of Sergio Leone’s best remembered spaghetti westerns, thanks in no small part to its title, and the fact that it refers to its three leads – the good being Clint Eastwood, the bad being Lee Van Cleef, the ugly being Eli Wallach. Actually, the relative virtuosity of those first two is partly what the film is about (but Wallach, we can all agree, is the Ugly). Told in great big operatic slabs, with faces treated in close-up as if they were mountains in Monument Valley, it’s all about three men hunting for a vast amount of Civil War gold against the backdrop of a war that’s sputtering out. All three men have to stay alive to find the gold – they each have fragments of the location – but once the three are in the cemetery where the gold is hidden, the power dynamic shifts, and we are treated to one of the most gloriously drawn out Mexican stand-offs in cinema history, a sequence of narrowed eyes, sweat, stubble and one of Ennio Morricone’s most recognisable soundtracks. This remarkable score, which spent a year on the Billboard charts, comprises standard western fare (orchestra, choir), plus Morricone’s usual unusual instrumentation (ocarina, twangy guitar, jew’s harp) along with yodelling, shouting, whistling and gunshots. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the last of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. As far as Leone was concerned this was the last western he was ever going to make (he was strongarmed into Once Upon a Time in the West). So he’s going full tilt, especially towards the end, telling a story in pictures and sounds, using few words (the incessant babbling of Eli Wallach’s Tuco delivers very little information). And the message? Greed, guns, they don’t mix.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the greatest westerns ever made
  • One of Ennio Morricone’s greatest soundtracks
  • Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful deep focus cinematography
  • The typical Leone long, dialogue-free opening sequence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. A sprawling Western epic that follows the adventures of three gunfighters looking for $200,000 in stolen gold, Sergio Leone’s `The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ is a masterpiece, one that continues to get better and better with each viewing. In a way, it’s a morality play, weighing the consequences of good and evil, but it does so in a realistic manner. Sometimes, crime does pay, at least in the short term, and sometimes good does go unrewarded. This film probably signaled the death knell of the traditional John Wayne `White Hat/Black Hat’ Western.

    The three main characters make the film. Lee Van Cleef (`The Bad’) is evil personified. Totally ruthless, he’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Clint Eastwood (`The Good’) is the Man With No Name, not really `good’ in a traditional sense . . . but he has a certain sense of honor and tries to do the right thing. (Watch the scene when he gives a dying Confederate soldier a puff of his cigar – powerful, and it sums up everything that the Man With No Name is all about, without saying a single word.) Eli Wallach (`The Ugly’) is Tuco, and he’s easily the most complex – if not the best – character in the film. All impulse and rage, Tuco spins wildly throughout the movie, stealing, lying, pretending to be Clint Eastwood’s best friend in one scene, trying to kill him in another – Tuco truly represents `the ugly’ side of people.

    The movie is long, but there’s not a wasted scene in the film. Each one slowly lets the film unfold with a certain style and grace, revealing more about each character and what’s going on. The pacing is incredible, as is the direction – Sergio Leone manages to build a lot of uncomfortable tension in the film, keeping the film from ever getting predictable. Any typical Western cliché that you can possibly think of is either given a unique twist or utterly destroyed by Leone’s masterful storytelling. Of special mention is Ennio Morricone’s score, which is absolutely perfect. Two scenes – one in a Union prison camp, one in the climatic gunfight in the cemetery at the end of the film – are amazing on their own, but they become absolutely astonishing with combined with Morricone’s powerful score.

    This movie is absolutely brilliant. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly urge to do so. Immediately. (And then, go watch `Unforgiven’ . . . in a way, I think that `Unforgiven’ is the sequel to `The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – it’s the story of what eventually happened to the Man With No Name.) `The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ is easily one of the best Westerns ever made. A++

  2. This is the third,and arguably the best, of the so-called "spaghetti western" trilogy. It is ironic that, at the time the three Sergio Leone westerns were released, they were largely panned by critics as being poor and even laughable imitations of American-made westerns. The fact that they were filmed in Italy and Spain resulted in them receiving their amusing nickname which was intended to degrade them at the time.

    Somehow, over the quarter century or so since their release, the critics have tended to change their opinions, and now these movies are generally regarded as classics. Perhaps this is because Clint Eastwood was principally known only as the second banana, Rowdy Yates, in the television series "Rawhide" when the films were produced but since then has achieved superstardom. But I also think it goes beyond that. I believe the critics decided to take another look at these films and realized that they had been premature in writing them off. Actually, I believe the three films were considerably better than most of what Hollywood produced. In fact, I think that TGTBATU ranks among the best westerns ever produced bringing to mind the magnificent films of John Ford, the undisputed master of that genre, and his protege, the incomparable John Wayne.

    I have nothing but praise for this film. In fact, I rank it as one of my favorite films of all time. I could write volumes of what is good about this film. But since its qualities have been oft repeated in other viewer reviews, I will focus on what others didn’t like about it. Most of the IMDb reviews had only one major complaint: the film is too long. I disagree. In fact, in spite of its nearly three hour length, I was disappointed that it ended. I was so absorbed in the film that I was disheartened to have to return to reality. The combination of story, cinematography, acting and musical score left nothing to be desired other than more of the same! The sequences that seemed to drag on in the opinion of other reviewers were necessary to fully create moods and to drive home important points. For example, the opening sequence might be regarded as needlessly long as Angel Eyes taunts a hapless man over a leisurely meal. But to me, scenes like that are what makes the movie great! The time allows the viewer to fully appreciate the amazing replication of the primitive home and the pitiful life of its dirt-poor inhabitants. I felt as though I was sitting there at the table; I was half tempted to reach for a bowl and spoon to partake of the meal. And all the while the suspense was building towards the inevitable climax. You know it’s coming but not when and the length of the scene drives you crazy but makes it all the more satisfying when it does happen.

    Another example is when Tuco punishes Joe by forcing him to walk through the desert. This is possibly the only time that one might become bored with the film. But again, I think the time for the scene was justified in that we are able to receive the full impact of that experience and enjoy the haunting music at the same time. Joe’s subsequent predicament might not have had much credibility had this sequence been abbreviated.

    In my opinion, one of the essential elements of a great film is creating moods that absorb our attention. This often takes time, lots of time. For example, many of the scenes in the magnificent film "Dr. Zhivago" were almost painfully long but they were necessary to create those startling surrealistic moods, and the film would not have been great without them. In many ways, TGTBATU has this same sort of greatness. It is a sweeping epic with very compelling characters and magnificent settings that draws the viewer in and doesn’t release him until the closing credits begin to roll. When it’s over, you feel that you’ve been on a long and exciting journey. Such a journey takes time.

    In summary, if you haven’t seen this film, buy it right away. Don’t rent it because you will not want to part with it once you’ve seen it.

    Then curl up with it on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon when you are in no hurry to do anything.

  3. This is without a doubt my all-time favorite western.

    The beginning of the film is so memorable, with the young, rough good-looks of Eastwood being labeled "The Good", the absolutely evil look of Lee Van Cleef being labeled "The Bad", and a dirty, unkempt, desperado Eli Wallach with booze and food flying being labeled "The Ugly". The ending fight scene with its 3-way showdown is one of the most memorable pieces of film I have ever watched.

    Leone did a great job with the camera direction in this movie and the acting is impressive. Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach are absolutely fantastic.

    The only thing that might scare some viewers off is the length of the film. It is long, but you just don’t seem to notice it when you are watching the film – you are just too damn busy watching the best classic western of all time.

    Do yourself a favor and rent this movie if you haven’t seen it. If there was ever a perfect western, this is it.

  4. Ok- first, as mentioned in another review, the geographic/historical errors in this film are GLARING. You’ve got men carrying revolvers that look like old style cap-and-ball pistols, but they’re loading them with metallic cartridges- historically about five years early. Eastwood carries a rifle that hasn’t been invented yet, Tuco assembles a "superpistol" out of a Colt, a Remington, and a Smith and Wesson- impossible. And there was nothing of merit taking place between the North and South during the Civil War in the Southwest. Now, that aside, I must say that this is the Greatest western ever. I first saw this film when I was about ten. I’d never sat through an entire Western befor, even though my Dad watched them constantly. Since then, I’ve been through film school, watched hundreds of Westerns, learned to appreciate them- but NOTHING matches up to this. The Searchers, Stagecoach, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane- all great films, but saddled with the standard American Western morality- the good guy never takes liberties with the eastern schoolmarm, the bad guy wears a black hat, etc. Coming from Italy, TG,TB &TU isn’t bound by these conventions. Blondie’s the "good guy"- but he’s also a bounty hunter. He makes a living in a highly immoral way, but is obviously the "good"- not because we’re told, but from small acts- giving the dying soldier a cigar, making sure the Captain knows to hold on till he hears the bridge blow, the genuine regret he feel for having to let Shorty die. And while Angel Eyes may be the Bad, we at least know he has prinicpals- when he’s hired for a job, he always sees the job through. And Tuco may be more immoral than the other two, but he’s so savvy and his role so humorous that one can’t bring oneself to look upon him disfavorably. In other words, historical inaccuracies aside, TG, TB, & TU maybe one of the most accurate portrayals of the West ever put on film- there are no clear-cut lines of conduct, no black and white, or even grey, but just a swirled palette of various facets of the human condition.

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