Rarely has the ‘final part in a trilogy’ been such a richly cinematic experience. The final segment in Leone’s 1960s spaghetti western trio, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly outpaces, outperforms and ultimately outlasts A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965).
The film’s magisterial sweep never underestimates the human story at the film’s core. Three men, Blondie (Eastwood), Angel Eyes (van Cleef) and Tuco (Wallach) become mixed up in a quest for lost gold, their paths crossing and recrossing as the film develops. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Leone’s first masterstroke is to use the conflict as a framing device for the men’s quest. Instead of shoehorning a narrative around political events (Anthony Minghella would have done well to watch this film before his uncertain Cold Mountain ), Leone employs small, almost insignificant episodes to support his own meditations on the American West.
This is a film unafraid to take its time. Little wonder that the film’s distributors butchered the running time to an audience-friendly two hours. The extra footage reinstated here provides more subtle exposition and a greater understanding of the motives of the three main characters. It is also a deeply violent film, and yet Leone is to be applauded for not glorifying or glamorising the horrors. There are many scenes worthy of mention, but the most disturbing is the prison camp sequence, in which captured Confederate musicians are forced to play music to cover up the sound of Union soldiers torturing inmates. There are echoes of Nazi concentration camps here, and this is further complicated by having Confederate soldiers partly dressed in yellow cloth. Whether overt political comment or not, it is a cruel scene, and one can scarcely imagine Ford or Hathaway including similar sequences.
The film cleaves closely to the motifs and sensibilities of the western – bleached cinematography, expansive landscape, revenge, hidden gold – but Leone adds more profound levels of enjoyment. This is paraphrased by Morricone’s most audacious, oft-copied soundtrack, in which dissonant harmonicas and coyote wailing are mixed to unforgettable effect. With its insistence upon crash-zooms and extreme close-ups, it’s hard not to see why the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have lifted chunks of the film’s iconography for their most recent films. Both Once upon a Time in Mexico (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) seem like distaff cousins of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, and the DVD is being heavily marketed as Tarantino’s ‘favourite movie’. However, it seems unlikely that Leone requires, or desires such a seal of approval. Just as Once upon A Time in America (1984) is only now being recognised as a seminal gangster film, this spaghetti western is steadily building a critical reputation which ranks alongside films such as The Searchers (1956) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
Yet within the grand baroque style, Leone’s signature pieces come to the fore. The small puffs of gunpowder as Eastwood cleans out his gun barrel, or the tattered pink parasol shading Wallach from the desert sun, are wonderfully adroit gestures within the greater scale of the drama. The performances are similarly nuanced, and remain fascinating portrayals of three facets of human nature. Eastwood’s ‘Good’ is at his laconic, rugged best, and he expands on his ‘Man With No Name’ persona with a number of character traits – he strokes a kitten in one shot, in another deplores the ravages of a war in which ‘he has never seen so many men wasted so badly’, and in a rare moment of humanity, offers up a cigarette to a dying soldier. Van Cleef really is Bad, his ‘angel eyes’ an apt moniker for such a calculating schemer. His lean physique and awkward good looks further confuse his persona, but his ruthless streak, evident in the prison camp torture scene, provides a raw precursor to Henry Fonda’s similar role in Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1969). Best of all is Wallach, whose ugly, grasping nature is often counterbalanced by broad brushes of humour, a strangely touching piety and the kind of earthy gravitas that Coppola harnessed so brutally in The Godfather III (1990). It seems fitting that the film’s final scene, with its majestically edited and scored stand-off, sees the three characters together alone for the first time.
Revived here in its full three hour glory, this special edition DVD is accompanied by several enticing extras and making-of docs, but is also complemented by critic Richard Schickel’s wry and perceptive commentary. On the second disc there are featurettes on Leone’s West (20 mins), The Leone Style (24 mins), Reconstructing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (11 mins) and a documentary about the historical background, The Man Who Lost the Civil War (15 mins).
The film is violent, misogynistic, and deeply sceptical of human nature. Greed and revenge are the underlying motives, not some idealised vision of the Old West complete with honourable gunslingers and drunks in need of redemption. Instead, Leone offers a witty, bloody and complex replaying of the Civil War legacy. Framed against the petty crimes of the three men resides a far greater tragedy. The scene in which Eastwood and Wallach become tangled up in a huge battle between hundreds of troops for a strategically unimportant bridge lends the film the sort of pathos and reflection often missing in the spaghetti style. That 2003’s The Missing and Open Range, as well as Eastwood’s post-Leone work, are inflected by such compassion is testament to the enduring legacy of this masterpiece.