Eastwood, Van Cleef & Wallach - The Good, The Good & The Great
In 1964 Sergio Leone gave us the raw but impressive "A Fistful of Dollars", the next year he built on that with "For a Few Dollars More" giving us a glimpse of what was to come. And what was to come came in 1966 with what is widely claimed to be the greatest western ever made "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" or "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo." to give it its original Italian title. A western of epic proportions and of epic length despite being shot on a very low budget. Not only is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" such a great western but the directional style of Sergio Leone, used in all these three spaghetti westerns, have since influenced other directors most notably Quentin Tarrantino who you could say paid homage to Leone with his "Kill Bill" movies.
If you've seen Leone's previous movies it really isn't such a shock when I say that "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" has a very simple storyline, uncomplicated and easy to follow. To break it down it's about 3 men during the Civil War, you guessed it one good, one bad and one ugly who all end up in search of the same buried treasure, $200,000 in gold buried in a grave in a cemetery. And that is really it when it comes to what is the basic main storyline, the storyline behind nearly 3 hours of movie which may make it sound like a painful, bum numbing experience which couldn't be further from the truth because it is quite literally marvellous.
The things is, and this is true of all of these 3 spaghetti westerns, is that Sergio Leone takes his time to build into the storyline developing depth to all the main characters. So in the case of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" almost the first half of the movie is about the three characters only hinting at the main storyline to come. We get introduced to each of them so by half way mark we know that "The Bad" - Angel Eyes is a hired, ruthless killer who really is bad, in fact he is more than bad and borders on the plainly evil. We understand that "The Ugly" - Tuco is not ugly visually but ugly because he is despicable, willing to do what ever under handed deed necessary to get what he wants. And then there is "The Good" - Blondie who in fact is not really good, he like the others is a man lead by greed but in comparison to the others he is the best of the bunch.
We also learn by halfway mark the relationships between them most notably Tuco and Blondie who run a scam where Tuco is turned in to get the reward on his head and then just as he is about to be hung for his crimes Blondie rescues him so that they can pull the same scam in another town. And with such a high risk scam we witness them splitting leading to a sort of game of cat and mouse where firstly Tuco goes after Blondie and then vice versa, a theme which carries on through out the movie with Blondie often teaming up with the untrustworthy Tuco.
Once you hit the halfway mark and we become aware that all 3 of them are heading for the same buried treasure an extra element of storyline sort of kicks in with the back drop of the Civil War becoming more prevalent. Although saying that, whilst the Civil War is pivotal to the storyline and Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes all realising that there after the same thing it doesn't over crowd things, it just adds a sense of realism to the back ground.
Whilst all this is going on and you become immersed in this slim but surprisingly compelling storyline you are quite literally wowed by Sergio Leone's styling. Using lots of long shots capturing the expansive vistas, and then quickly snapping into a close up, maybe of eyes or a gun it's beautifully put together. But it's not just the stunning camera work which makes it impressive as there is also the fabulous score from Ennio Morricone which helps carry you along on a tide of emotion as the peaks on troughs of his orchestral movements are punctuated by the main theme, the howling which has now become as iconic as the movie.
And to top all of this off is the grasp that Sergio Leone has on creating atmosphere. I lost count at the number of little scenes which slowly build, delivering an edge of tension before they climax. Scenes such as Tuco just about to be hung, the fear creeping in before Blondie rescues him, it's magnificent. But the most magnificent is the big shoot out which with the accompanying music builds to such a peak of tension that you just cannot take your eyes off of what is happening. And I could go on because Leone is unique when it comes to visual presentation but he also seems a little edgy giving us rawness with the styling so the violence, the beatings feel in your face and brutal.
What is quite funny is that many remember these spaghetti westerns and most significantly "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" for giving us Clint Eastwood as the ultra cool "man with no name". Well in all three movies Eastwood had a name, this time he is known as Blondie and is as cool as ever with that smile and stare. He is equally matched by Lee Van Cleef who is brilliant as the blatantly evil Angel Eyes. But for me the best performance in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" comes from Eli Wallach as Tuco. Wallach one of the best supporting actors in Hollywood steals the show with not only creating a truly despicable character but also a funny one at that. So when we watch him lie his way out of one thing or another it's got that slight edge of comedy to it which makes you like him, despite being "The Ugly".
What this all boils down to is that "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" truly is a great western, maybe even the greatest. It is long at just short of 3 hours but with Sergio Leone's brilliant styling and grasp on making the most simplest thing exciting it never becomes dull or tiresome. Add to that 3 strong performances from Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and most notably Eli Wallach as well as a wonderful musical score from Ennio Morricone and you have a movie which is just fractions away from being 100% perfect.