Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is exactly what a western should be: gritty, violent, and full of double-crosses. There’s no shortage of quotable lines but most of the storytelling is visual; alternating between extreme long shots of the scorched world and extreme close-ups of the hard men that inhabit it. Even today, it’s stunning to look at.
The titular characters are three freelancers united in pursuit of a stash of Confederate gold. The “Ugly” is Tuco (Eli Wallach), an impulsive Mexican bandit currently on the run for God-knows-what. The “Bad” is Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a sadistic bounty hunter with his own twisted moral code. And the “Good” is Blondie (Clint Eastwood), a mysterious gunslinger in full-on Clint Eastwood mode. He’s not much “better” or more heroic than the other two – he’s just smarter and a quicker shot. In this Mars-like world of rock and sky, that’s all that counts.
Watching these three characters trip over each other to reach the gold first is a delight, especially since they so frequently depend on each other. Tuco knows the name of the cemetery the gold is buried in. Blondie knows the grave. Angel Eyes knows neither, so he needs both men alive. Every alliance is fragile, calculated, and temporary, and there are more betrayals here than a game of RISK.
And Leone doesn’t sugarcoat it – this is a deeply cynical film populated by selfish people. While the rest of the country is fighting the Civil War, these guys are fighting for their own wealth. The ongoing war is just part of the terrain to them and later, an obstacle, in the form of a futile battle of attrition over a shabby bridge. Blondie and Tuco arguably do the right thing here – but this “right thing” conveniently aligns with their shared goals. What if it hadn’t?
It’s often darkly funny, too. Eli Wallach’s Tuco is a strangely relatable antihero, whether he’s throwing a body under a moving train or fighting off a bounty hunter from a bathtub (after which he delivers one of the film’s best lines). There’s enough oafish comedy in Wallach’s mannerisms to make him appealing, and enough cold efficiency in his gunfighting skills to make him dangerous. An early gun store robbery is mesmerizing because we never quite know what he’s capable of. All three players are well-drawn and well-performed, but Tuco is easily the most developed. Good and Bad are archetypes pulling together for the inevitable standoff, the outcome of which we have little doubt. But Ugly? We don’t know where he’ll be standing.
Or if he’ll be standing at all.
It’s entertaining as hell, and it’s a classic for good reason. Westerns just don’t get any better.
Check it out this Saturday, February 15th, at 4pm on ThisSpokane. Or see an encore on February 19th or 28th.
Review By: Taylor Adams