R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly

It’s rare to see a trilogy actually get better as it goes along. In most instances, by the time a series gets to its third installment the results are far below the bar set by the first two films. For every Return of the King, there are five Godfather Part III‘s. It’s even more rare that series without a progressive story have a successful third installment, unlike linear trilogies like Star Wars Trilogy or Lord of the Rings that are hugely successful. Most of the time a trilogy just chronicles three episodes in a characters life, much like the Die Hard films, without any real continuity between stories.

This is the case with Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy. Leone first burst on the scene in 1964 with a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai Film classic, Yojimbo. A Fistful of Dollars was a worldwide smash and made a star out of its leading man, Clint Eastwood. It also created its own genre, the Spaghetti Western. The film was set in the west and had many trappings of the traditional genre picture, but Leone added his own flair to the picture’s formula. Discarding normal formulas of good and evil, Leone’s characters were all bad, some were just worse than others. Leone also started an association with Spaghetti Westerns and composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone’s haunting score for Fistful set the mood perfectly in the film, which would continue through all of Leone’s Westerns.

For a Few Dollars More kept the ball rolling with another successful outing by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. This time Lee Van Cleef was added to mix as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, a bounty hunter out for revenge. Both men are looking for a wanted desperado named Indio, played by Gian Maria Volonte. Eastwood is after the bounty on Indio and his men; Van Cleef is out to avenge the murder of his wife at the hands of the bandit. The film is pumped up with twice the action of the original and just as much style. Van Cleef is actually on par with Eastwood for coolness and the picture is a sequel and yet can stand on its own merit alone.

For the third film, Leone would elevate the Man with No Name from a mere anti-hero to a legend. The scope of the picture would be increased also. The Man with No Name would go from the badlands of the West, straight into one of the most important historical periods of American History; The Civil War. Of course this would be a very Sergio Leone-skewed version of the Civil War, and would be filmed in the deserts of Spain and Italy. This would be the last time Eastwood and Leone would work together, but no follow-up to this picture could ever match up to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. Directed by Sergio Leone.

The beginning of the film is pure Leone. A desert vista gives way to a close-up of a very unattractive man. No words are spoken as the close-up turns into a wide shot showing the man meet up with several others, guns drawn. The group rushes into a barbershop and shots are fired. Suddenly a rough looking Eli Wallach bursts out of the window of the barbershop, a towel around his neck and his face half shaven. A man’s cry on the soundtrack sounds like a coyote as the words THE UGLY appear on screen in a bold cursive and Eli Wallach’s Tuco rides off into the sunset.

The setting changes to show a small boy working outside of a farm. Riding up out of the plains comes a horseman dressed in black. Ennio Morricone’s “Il Tramonto” plays on the soundtrack and Lee Van Cleef steps off his horse, but not as Colonel Mortimer, instead as Angel Eyes, killer for hire. He goes into the farmhouse and sits down at a table in front of a man named Stevens. Angel Eyes questions him about a shipment of gold and a man named Bill Carson. Angle Eyes informs Stevens he’s also been paid to kill him. A counter offer to kill the assassin’s employer does not assuage the killer from ending Stevens’ life. Before he leaves the farm, Stevens’ entire family lies dead, murdered by Angel Eyes’ cold blooded hand. Unfortunately for the killer’s employer, he decides to take Stevens’ offer up and before the man can stop him, gunshots ring out. The coyote howl returns and the words The Bad fill the screen.

Tucco appears back on screen as he is ambushed by three desperados, hoping for the bounty on his head. Suddenly a man on a horse rolls up. The camera pans up to reveal Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. After a few words with the bandits, and fewer bullets, the three lay dead. The coyote sound howls again as THE GOOD of the story finally makes his entrance. Tucco is horrified to learn that the term good is strictly relative as his new savior, that he calls Blondie, is actually out to collect the bounty himself. Tucco is bound and strapped to one of Blondie’s horses.

When Blondie rides into town, and turns Tucco in for the bounty, we learn that the duo are actually working a con. Blondie has been turning the outlaw in for the bounty on him and then busting him out again. The scam continues until a falling out between Blondie and Tucco has them taking turns leaving each other to die in the desert. Tucco finally gets the upper hand on his former associate. Blondie is on the verge of death when the two come upon a runaway wagon of dying soldiers. Riding on the wagon is the soldier posing as Bill Carson. He tells Tucco of the shipment of gold and that it is buried in a Confederate soldier’s grave. Before he can learn what the name on the grave is, the soldier has died, but not before Blondie has acquired the name of the Confederate grave. Tucco rushes to save Blondie in order to learn where the money is buried. The two make a pact after Blondie’s recovery.

The two dress as Confederate Soldiers and plan to sneak onto the gravesite to retrieve the money. The duo has to put their plans on hold when they are arrested by Union troops. They are incarcerated in a huge Union prison fort. Unexpectedly, Angel Eyes is running the camp, posing as a Northern Officer. He already knows of the gold and when Tucco refuses to deal with Angle Eyes, Blondie steps up to make a pact with him for half.

The remainder of the film includes double dealings, exciting shootouts, a full blown Civil War battle, and maybe the coolest/longest running six-shooter duel ever filmed. Blondie, Tucco, and Angel Eyes go on an odyssey of death and destruction in search of their precious treasure. In the end, there is not enough gold for the three of them.

If you’re looking for an accurate insight into the American West, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is not the place for you. What Sergio Leone did with his third Man With no Name installment is in essence make a fantasy film. The film is built of rudimentary classic Western images (horses, deserts, shootouts, the Civil War) but with Leone’s own artistic flair to make the film into a full-blown operatic masterpiece. He does not stop to get accurate weapons or clothing of the time, he simply wants to present striking images and music that will stir an audience.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly stands on the shoulders of its images more than any other device. Leone was known for picking extras for his films that had amazing faces, and it mattered not to him whether they could act or not. Leone fills the screen with little old men and amputees, as well as plenty of roughnecks and brutes. The film is so dependant on beautiful shots that no dialogue is actually spoken for the first ten and a half minutes of screen time.

Two sequences in the picture are classic examples of the Leone style. The first is the huge battle that takes place toward the end of the film. Two armies are protecting a bridge and have been fighting for advantage in the area for weeks. Blondie and Tucco need to cross the bridge because the graveyard they are looking for is on the other side. Northern and Southern Troops are seen rushing into battle several times, but the sequence is devoid of close-ups or individual combat. In fact the sequence appears as though the soldier run into a gigantic cloud of smoke and dust, and only casualties are left behind. Leone’s picture of war shows it as only device for death, with no real winners coming out of it. The battle is a futile struggle for dominance between the sides even when neither side actually believes in their cause.

The scenes before and after the battle are dominated by Captain Harper, played by Antonio Molino Rojo. He is a good man driven to drink by the hopelessness of war. He only wants to blow up the bridge so the two sides will stop losing men. It is this idea that gives Blondie and Tucco the inspiration for blowing the bridge themselves. After the explosion of the bridge the Captain, who is mortally wounded in battle, dies with a smile on his face, knowing no more men will die for this futile cause. The explosion itself was handled by the Spanish Army, who built the bridge and agreed to blow it up if they were allowed to do it themselves. Unfortunately when they did blow the bridge, cameras were not rolling and caught none of the fantastic explosion. Feeling terrible about the accident, the Army built the bridge again and repeated the scene.

The next sequence that is signature Leone is the final duel of the film. Blondie, Angle Eyes, and Tucco stand in a huge open courtyard in the center of the graves, which is built like an amphitheater of death. In the center of the courtyard is a stone with the name of the grave where the gold is buried. The men just stand there circling the stone. On the soundtrack, a roaring trumpet belts out Ennio Morricone’s “Il Triello” as the camera anticipates the violence yet to come. Close-ups reveal the calm cool of Eastwood’s Blondie, the menace in the soul of Angel Eyes and the nervousness of Tucco. As the images and editing swell to utmost intensity, the soundtrack goes quiet, and then starts building again. Leone draws out the anticipation to the breaking point and then a half a second of gunfire finally releases the tension. Leone draws out his scenes and makes every second count. The effect is startling and beautiful.

Ennio Morricone is also a heavy contributing factor in the success of this Spaghetti Western Classic. His score for the picture is one of the most recognizable music pieces in cinematic history, ranking with John Williams’ Star Wars score and Nino Rota beautifully composed music for The Godfather. With Leone’s pictures and Morricone’s music The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly reaches out and grabs its audience by the shorthairs, giving them images and music that strike as familiar and yet completely foreign. Of course without intriguing performances from the film’s stars, the images would fall flat.

The Man with No Name reaches a mythic level in this third film. The role is the most iconic in the career of Clint Eastwood, as it is the one that defined most of his career with many of his other characters closely resembling his blonde angel of death. Throughout Eastwood’s illustrious career, he will most undoubtedly be remembered for being the stranger that rode into town and rode out with bodies lying in the dirt, personified in performances such as in High Plains Drifter and Two Mules for Sister Sarah. When Eastwood won his Oscars for Unforgiven his William Munny in that film was a former killer trying to leave that way of life behind him, but has to come to grips with his true nature. When Eastwood was playing Munny, it was a way to look back on a career of playing men that slaughtered others with six-guns blazing. This was a career that would not have jumpstarted if he had not put on the poncho of The Man with No Name.

Lee Van Cleef is a wonderful villain as Angel Eyes. A man with an unflinching code of evil, Angel Eyes has ethics in his own mind. He never fails to kill who he is paid to kill, even if he is paid by a man he is about to assassinate. The threat of violence is always there with Angel Eyes. His body language is that of a hungry predator ready to spring at a moment of weakness. Angel Eyes is a parallel of Blondie as both are cold blooded killers, but unlike Blondie he has no mercy for the innocent.

Eli Wallach almost steals the film as Tucco. His wisecracking and wild nature in the film give him a screen presence that actually matches up with Eastwood. Tucco is unbridled by man’s law, giving him a sense of unpredictability on screen that makes him the wild card. In the final duel, we are unsure if he will side with Angel Eyes or Blondie, or if the two will side against him. It is Tucco’s nature that gives the end of the film part of its tension.

If I were to pick my favorite Western, ten times out of ten it would be this one. With its music, scope, and colorful characters, it is unmatched in the genre for sheer entertainment value. The film is the premiere film of the Spaghetti Western genre and was a huge success for Leone artistically and financially. He would go on to make other Westerns, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, but would never have a star that had the screen presence of Eastwood (though Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda would come close). Leone packs this film with action and humor and cares not whether scenes actually would have happened in history. Leone does not care that no major Civil War battles actually took place out west or that piecing together parts from three types of pistols to make a super gun would not work (Tucco does this at one point in the picture), he simply wants to entertain. With The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone would do so better than he ever had before or ever did again.