Sergio Leone jumps into the American West once more with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a 1966 spaghetti western that formulates the final pieces of the so-called Dollars Trilogy. Along with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was responsible for bringing the pairing of Leone and actor Clint Eastwood to international awareness.
It’s also an exhilarating compilation of western tropes, with an exploration of innate human greed splashed against a Civil War backdrop. It speaks to the nature of mankind and to the blend of traits within humanity, as the “good,” “bad” and “ugly” parts of this glorious and chaotic species lingers regardless of the disaster raging outside.
The mercenary Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is introduced as “the bad.” He is a mercenary and he’s looking for a stolen cache of Confederate gold after both completing a mission and killing his employer. The Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach) is “the ugly.” He and Blondie (Clint Eastwood) work out a scheme to cheat towns out of reward money. Blondie, by the way, is “the good.”
When Tuco and Blondie get wind of the aforementioned Confederate gold, their lack of trust in one another comes to bear. But information is in fragments: Tuco knows the graveyard where the gold is located, while Blondie knows the name on the headstone. The two have to work together again, whether they like it or not. And Angel Eyes’ sadistic nature complicates matters.
Throughout this search for gold, the Civil War rages. It is, for the lead characters, an inconvenience. This is demonstrated eloquently when Tuco and Blondie come upon Sad Hill and find Confederates and Union troops battling it out over a bridge. The armies are in the way of the cemetery where the gold is, so a rather explosive solution is necessary.
Leone structures this sequence wonderfully, showcasing the raging battle through the rather distant perspectives of Tuco and Blondie. They sit on the hill as observers before kicking an injured soldier off a stretcher and transporting their clearly-marked explosives through the battle and to the bridge. All the while, soldiers are toppling around them.
In Leone’s western, history is mere backdrop. It’s never the main event. The characters, even the “good” ones, are self-interested. Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli reveals this through a series of gorgeous close-ups and wide shots, encapsulating the internal and external worlds of deserts and towns tossed in twain by enduring ruthlessness.
At times, the better angels shine through. Tuco meets his brother Pablo (Luigi Pistilli) at a frontier mission and they discuss how their lives diverged. Tuco went on to become a bandit, while Pablo became a Catholic friar. The proud Tuco believes his brother looks down on him, but he suggests it took courage to follow his path.
For all the good in the world, darkness overwhelms it. The vicious Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega) pounds on Tuco as prisoners perform a haunting reverie. The torture, the audience is told, goes on as long as the song. Wallace is at the behest of Angel Eyes, who has the sick decorum to feed his victim first. And the prisoners are acquainted, flinching as they play the song through to its end.
Ennio Morricone’s iconic score is arranged to fortify this notion of darkness in the hearts of men. It tinkers around the perimeter for most of the picture, settled in a series of bleats and howls. It never really reaches full orchestral swell until the beautiful and exultant “The Ecstasy of Gold” commences and sends Tuco running through the graveyard.
And of course, the nature of man meets in the middle for the closing shootout. This is splendidly arranged, with Morricone and Delli Colli managing to put all three men in the frame to indicate the inseparability of goodness from badness from ugliness. They are inherently linked by gold-leaf, by the affecting plummet into the dirt of the grave.
With The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone concludes his Dollars Trilogy with a bang. This is a ferocious and beautiful tale, one that exemplifies the contemptuous keystones of the spaghetti western and one that engages in necessary truth-telling. Best of all, it’s a vastly entertaining three hours and a shining example of pure cinema at work.