An Appreciation – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The “Bad” character is Angel Eyes, performed by Lee Van Cleef. Angel Eyes is one of the baddest of western bad guys; he’s a ruthless killer who can shoot a person from point blank range without a hint of remorse. In an early scene, Angel Eyes visits a man whom he has been paid to gain information from and then kill. When the targeted man offers him more money to turn around and take out his initial investor, he decides to kill both and keep all the money for himself, because he’ll always finish a job he is paid to do. Seeing the film again, I noted how convincing Van Cleef was in his performance. I would say that most people would initially point to either Blondie or Tuco as the characters they remember the most, which is understandable. But Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes is so good at being this wormy, snake-like character. He’s a dangerous man who can also elicit a sense of authority—no one would ever dare try to talk down to him. Which makes it that much more believable that he would sneak his way into the Union Army dressed as a Sergeant, in search of a person who has ties to hidden gold. It would seem that Angel Eyes has a kind of enjoyment in the pain that he delivers to other people, and when he has Tuco beat up and tortured for information, I don’t necessarily think that he would see this as a hard day’s work.
And so they are all on a collision course toward Sad Hill Cemetery, where the hidden treasure is waiting to be found. I appreciated the inspired way each man hates the others, but needs them for their own benefit. Each of them has a piece of the total puzzle, and if one were to die, the treasure would be lost. Along the way, Leone fills his three-hour film with scene after scene of tension-building suspense, where we find characters in shootouts, taken hostage, and even brought into a Union prison camp. Leone builds his suspense in a masterful way. Very often little dialogue is spoken, and shootouts are broken down into moments of characters staring at each other, waiting to see who will blink first and what will inevitably go down. The violence, thus, is stripped down to moments of vicious outbursts and memorable chaos. The only exception to the rule, possibly, is the grand military war scene in which Tuco and Blondie witness Union and Confederate troops along a wide ravine, highlighted by a spectacular bridge explosion. It feels as though the scene comes from a different movie, but it falls in with the idea that Leone presents, making this film about something much bigger than what the main characters are going through.
The film has one of the best closing sequences that I have seen in a western. This is where our three leads finally make it to the cemetery, find the gold, and have the famous standoff to see who will walk out of there alive. I like thinking about this passage in three parts, each fantastic in its own way. The first is the discovery of the cemetery, with Tuco literally tripping his way on to it, trying to avoid being blasted by cannon fire by Blondie. But when he finally starts running through the graves, with the camera spinning faster and faster, it exhibits the kind of ecstatic thrill that the characters (and we) feel. Both they (and us, for watching all the way up to that point) feel a sense of relief that the journey is finally near its end. The next part involves the emergence of Angel Eyes and the final standoff. It’s amazing to think that the accomplishment of this sequence is purely made out of direction and editing. Angel Eyes, Tuco, and Blondie are pretty much statues at this point, with only their eyes pinpointed against each other. But somehow Leone pulls this off on an almost exaggerated level, building the suspense even though no physical action is happening on screen. And then there is the closing moment, where Blondie forces Tuco onto a noose and then apparently rides off and leaves him to die. While there is no real reason for Blondie to do this, it does leave us with one last moment of apprehension, to see if Tuco will make it or die while dangling above his gold.
Is there a feeling or mood that Ennio Morricone can’t create the perfect score for? He has popped up a number of times in my writings, each time giving just the appropriate music to the films in question. Sometimes talking about Morricone’s contributions to film scores can sound a bit like a broken record, but I think for this movie in particular we must revisit him. And I say that because the music here is so incredibly remarkable, I would argue that the music makes up half of the success of the film. Everyone recognizes the music here, even if they haven’t ever seen the movie. From the opening credit sequence, the music kicks down the door and makes itself known. It is not something that is quaint and subtle, acting like an element that supports everything else. Instead, it’s a major factor in itself, being just as overwhelmingly vast as the large spaces that fill the environments. From the main theme to “The Ecstasy of Gold,” Morricone’s score is vibrant, energetic, and full of life. The beauty of it is that, if you were to listen to the music on its own, you would know exactly where in the movie it is placed, and that goes to show the perfect marriage between sight and sound.
I find it amazing that, with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being as great as it is and being one of the finest westerns ever made, Leone would follow that only two years later with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a western that can rival this film in just about every aspect. That tells us what kind of director he was: a man full of ambition and drive, who fueled his films in the same manner. Only one of his major works was under two hours, and the final cut of his gangster film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), runs at a meaty four hours. But that’s what makes his movies so fascinating and enjoyable—the way he creates these fully formed stories and invites us in to sit down and experience them with him. The lengths of his stories are barely noticeable since they are told so well. We have characters that can be good and bad equally, set in expansive worlds that feel bigger than the story itself, and captured in a style that only Sergio Leone could have created.