Sunday, September 15, 2013

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

So this is the big one of the Dollars Trilogy. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly AKA Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo from 1966. The one that a lot of people point to as “the best Western ever.” I don’t exactly agree with that.

During the later stages of the American Civil War, an uneasy duo of bounty hunter and outlaw hustle law enforcement, until the bounty hunter decides to finally sell out the outlaw. The outlaw wants revenge, and his pursuit of the bounty hunter sets them both on a collision course with buried treasure and a sinister Union officer. 

The movie is much longer than that, though.

“Blondie”: Clint Eastwood (as usual) continuing to be mysterious and inscrutable. He’s still kind of a dick, too, teaming up with Tuco to scam and split bounty rewards. Curiously, he doesn’t start out the story with his trademark poncho. He gets that and his other accoutrements over the course of the movie. That, and his increasing number of occasional kind acts (he is “The Good” after all), hints at character development, which is not something our nameless protagonist has had much of over the trilogy. It’s also never outright stated, but the Civil War setting and aforementioned poncho acquiring implies this is a prequel of sorts to the first two movies. Does it matter from a narrative perspective? Not really.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (known as “The Rat”): Eli Wallach is our viewpoint character, and if Blondie’s kind of a dick, Tuco’s a complete bastard. Robbery, murder, torture, fraud, scamming everyone he meets…Tuco is a survivalist well-suited to the harsh landscape and looks out only for himself. It’s a credit to Wallach’s hammy yet intense performance that he makes such a repulsive character so entertaining to watch. Yet when he gets his occasional comeuppances, its actually pretty deserved, and even in the prison camp interrogation, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Tuco, since he’s been such a backstabbing bastard up to that point. But there are moments where you almost do feel sympathy for him, especially in the monastery where he meets his brother and the viewer gets a glimpse at what makes him tick. He may not be beyond redemption, but he is certainly “The Ugly” and one of the great screen rogues.

Sentenza “Angel Eyes”: Lee Van Cleef returns, this time as the villain of the piece. Angel Eyes is introduced as a sinister assassin who honors his contracts and can’t be negotiated with by his victims, but doesn’t hesitate to kill his employer for another contract. Utterly ruthless, merciless, and pragmatic, he‘s also less disturbing than El Indio. Van Cleef does the role well, but it lacks the nuance and development that Colonel Mortimer had in the previous film. Even his motivation for wanting the gold is vague. Greed, I suppose, but the character is “The Bad” and lacks the layers that make him more than simply cold-blooded.

Alcoholic Union Captain: Aldo Giuffrè plays a side character so minor that he doesn’t even register a name in the credits, yet he is a scene stealer. An officer who knows the back-and-forth fight for an inconsequential bridge is accomplishing nothing but the slaughter of his own men, he copes with nihilistic alcoholism. Until Blondie and Tuco show up and give him an explosive sendoff. 

The Sights
Director Sergio Leone displays a technical confidence in his filmmaking here. Gone are the day-for-night scenes from Fistful. Easily the most polished of the three in editing, composition, and cinematography. Juxtaposition of desolate long shots and extreme close-ups of weathered, craggy faces are also done very well. It’s also the biggest in sense of scale, with large crowds of extras in the towns and even a Civil War bridge skirmish that ends in a sizable explosion. For being about such ugly subject matter, this movie sure is pretty.

The Story
Story by: Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, & Sergio Leone. English version by Mickey Knox. That’s a fair number of names, and the script seems to be the weakest element. Not for the core plot, that’s tightly arranged, and the climactic scene is one of the most amazing showdowns in movie history. Seriously, it is THAT good.

I didn’t warm to the episodic nature of the film. This is a very, very long movie that wanders around in some places.  These scenes aren’t bad by any means, but they lack the narrative tightness of the previous two movies. Things are a little more stretched out. There’s less sense of urgency or of the stakes being as high or immediate to the characters. The bridge battle has nothing to do with the rest of the movie other than “Blondie and Tuco stumble upon it” like it was some random encounter. It’s a well-done scene and hey, I’m not anti-explosions, but it could conceivably be cut and the film wouldn’t lose much. Tuco & Blondie don’t really develop further as a result of it. It just feels like a heavy-handed way of getting across the message that war is full of pointless loss of life over arbitrarily chosen objectives. 

A curious aspect of the film is its sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy. Obviously not for the slavery aspect of the South, but the only Confederates we see in the movie tend to be maltreated prisoners of war: the infantry, the cannon-fodder, the schlubs. The Union has a more even spread of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters (about two and two, regarding speaking roles). Yet this is a movie released in 1966, when racial tensions ran high, and if this were an American production, it is highly unlikely that the Confederacy would have received such a portrayal. Not to imply that there weren’t sympathetic people among the Confederacy. Both sides in a war have good and bad people caught up in them, and a large number of rebel soldiers in the Civil War were not themselves slave owners…

And I’m getting off topic. Suffice it to say, historical reality is a complicated thing, and it is curious that the movie is so well regarded in a country where the shorthand opinion of the Civil War is “Confederacy = Bad.”

The Sounds
Original Music by Ennio Morricone. He really knocked it out of the park on this one. The incredible Main Theme, the Ecstasy of Gold, etc. Like the rest of the trilogy, this is the glue that really holds the movie together and elevates it to another level of quality. It can’t be stressed enough.

The Verdict
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is a good movie, no doubt. Best Western? Nah, that’s a hotel chain. Best Spaghetti Western? Maybe. It’s technical skill is superlative and the climax is amazing. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the overall package is somehow less than the sum of its excellent parts. For me, the best of the trilogy is For A Few Dollars More, which features more consistently good character work, a tighter plot, and fewer digressions about social commentary that lack subtlety. 

Watching this movie is definitely worthwhile, but seeing only this one does a disservice to the rest of the trilogy, which is very, very good overall.

*Note: The trailer lies and switches the Bad with the Ugly.

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