The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly • Spaghetti Westerns
Greenscreening Series #30
April 21, 2023
April 21, 2023
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For three men the Civil War wasn't hell... it was practice! Clint Eastwood returns as "The Man with No Name," this time teaming with two gunslingers (Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) to pursue a cache of $200,000 and letting no one, not even warring factions in a civil war, stand in their way. - MGM
Find The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly via Reelgood
Clint Eastwood stands opposite Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, wearing a poncho, squinting at his foes. The camera cuts back and forth between the men, and their hands near their guns. The camera moves closer and closer between cuts, to the point where their eyes are the sole focus of the widescreen shots. And of course, Ennio Morricone's score swells and builds to the moment where they draw. Leone drags the scene out for nearly three minutes. This is the iconic scene of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and one of the great scenes in film history.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly captures the essence of the Spaghetti Western - the Italian movement that reinvented the Western during the 1960s, blending homage to the classic Western with high style, 1960s sensibilities, lots of violence, and above all, a love of spectacle.
The film was Sergio Leone's third in the "Dollars Trilogy," starring Clint Eastwood as roughly the same character: "The Man with No Name." The first, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), a film about a wandering samurai who gets mixed up in a small town squabble and pits both sides against one another, which Kurosawa made as a kind of tribute to the John Ford Westerns he grew up loving.
Leone also grew up loving classic Hollywood Westerns, including B Westerns, but always felt the villains were more interesting and far cooler than the heroes. In Kurosawa's film, he saw a kindred sensibility he could apply to the Western; a morally ambiguous outsider at the center of the film.
Instead of the virtuous and honorable Western hero archetype like Marshall Will Kane in High Noon, Eastwood's "Man with No Name" was an anti-hero who operated outside the law and was driven by his own self-interest. This character helped to redefine the Western genre and paved the way for more complex and nuanced characters in future films.
Eastwood's Man with No Name was also the embodiment of cool detachment as the world around went crazy. As Eastwood said in 2009:
What we now call the tough style. Sergio taught me that it’s doing as little as possible. The less I did, the more impressive I was. In Leone’s film, everyone was running, chasing each other on horseback, shooting at each other. And I was supposed to stay still and stand up straight in the middle of a battlefield.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly takes place during the American Civil War, and follows three men in their overlapping search for a fortune of buried gold. The title refers to the three men: each is given a label, somewhat ironically, since in Leone's world, everyone exists in a sort of moral gray zone. The film is an epic, running nearly three hours. It's filled with amazing set pieces and iconic moments; but the film's high points are in the first hour, as the story and characters are set up, and in the last 40 minutes, as the story reaches its climax.
One of the hallmarks of Leone's style is his use of widescreen cinematography.
Widescreen cinematography began to gain popularity in the 1950s as a response to the growing popularity of television. Filmmakers realized that they needed to offer audiences something that they couldn't get at home, and widescreen became one way to do that. The first major widescreen format was CinemaScope, which was introduced by 20th Century Fox in 1953.
Sergio Leone was part of the second wave of filmmakers who embraced widescreen in the 1960s. Leone used the widescreen format extensively in his "Dollars Trilogy" films, which were shot in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. For reference, the typical YouTube video has an aspect ratio of 1.77:1, so Leone's films were super wide. Leone's use of the widescreen format was distinctive for its use of extreme close-ups and sweeping landscapes, which helped to give his films a sense of epic scale.
Leone's films were hugely influential in popularizing widescreen cinematography, particularly in the Western genre. Many other filmmakers followed in his footsteps, and widescreen became the norm for most Hollywood films by the 1960s.
But Leone's style is fairly distinctive, as he blended iconic cinematography with innovative editing, cutting between close-ups of the characters' faces and wide shots of the landscape, creating a sense of scale and grandeur, and building tension within scenes. This is particularly evident in the aforementioned iconic standoff scene, where the three main characters face off against each other in a tense and suspenseful moment.
In addition, Leone populated his films with interesting side characters. The director Bernardo Bertolucci contributed to Leone's script for Once Upon a Time in the West, and got his start by flattering Leone with his observation that he liked the way Leone filmed horses' butts. Leone filmed the marginal elements that Hollywood ignored, but which add color and realism to the world. There's a character actor in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without legs, who uses bricks to push himself around. The character is an informant, who, after receiving money for his information, immediately heads into the saloon and delivers a great line: "hand me down a whiskey."
Much has been made of the film's violence, especially in contrast with Hollywood Westerns. Westerns were always violent, but in a cleansing way - the hero is forced to use violence to expel threats to society. In Spaghetti Westerns, violence is at the center; it's used for thrills and sometimes comedy.
The violence in the film was a reflection of the times. The mid-1960s saw increasing social and political upheaval, marked by protests, riots, and acts of terrorism, both in the United States and Europe. The film's violent and nihilistic tone reflects this sense of chaos and uncertainty, and Leone sought to capture this feeling in his work.
Leone also pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in a Western film, by depicting violence in a more graphic and visceral way. A lot of the effect comes from the sound. Alongside traditional sound effects, Leone often used the sound of cannon fire, exaggerating the gunshots to a whole new level. In fact, to contemporary eyes, the violence feels almost cartoonish. But to audiences in the 1960s, seeing close-ups of guns on a giant screen, and hearing explosions, would have been transformative.
The catastrophic effects of WWII were still front of mind for Leone and his contemporaries. You can see this in the way the film skewers traditional notions of heroism and questions institutional authority. Corruption abounds. The characters often wear disguises or use aliases, including impersonating Union officers. Eastwood and Eli Wallach witness a Civil War battle over a remote bridge that offers little strategic advantage, but results in countless casualties.
In such a world, we can't help but root for Eastwood's Man with No Name to make off with as much gold as he can, and to do so with stylistic flair.
Ennio Morricone's score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an essential element of the film's success and enduring popularity. The music is so iconic that it's recognizable from just a few notes, and has become inseparable from images of the West.
Morricone used unique instruments and unconventional techniques to create a distinct sound, including the iconic whistling melody. His score is also notable for its use of sound effects, such as gunshots and whip cracks, which were incorporated into the music to create a sense of rhythm and excitement. This was a departure from the traditional approach to film music, which typically emphasized melody and harmony.
Morricone's score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has had a significant impact on popular culture and has been referenced and parodied in countless films, TV shows, and commercials. Its influence can also be seen in the work of many other composers, who have borrowed elements from the score or been inspired by its unique approach to film music.
In 2007, the score was included in the United States National Recording Registry, which recognizes recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
We can't talk about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without talking about The Bad and The Ugly. Especially The Bad / Angel Eyes: Lee Van Cleef.
Earlier in the series, we met Van Cleef as a sidekick in High Noon. He's the first character to appear on screen, smoking a cigarette and looking super cool as he waits for others in the gang. Leone was a fan as well, and decided to cast Van Cleef in a more central role.
In Leone's second film, For a Few Dollars More, Van Cleef plays a sort of sidekick to Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, and they form an uneasy alliance.
Here, Van Cleef gets to play the main antagonist. He's introduced as "The Bad" and it's hard to argue with that label. He's a cold blooded contract killer who seems to enjoy his work. But he's also incredibly competent, a worthy foe for Eastwood's Man with No Name. His performance in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" was widely praised for its intensity and charisma, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
Van Cleef went on to star in a number of other successful Spaghetti Westerns, including Death Rides a Horse, Sabata, and The Big Gundown.
Alongside Eastwood and Van Cleef is Eli Wallach as Tuco / The Ugly. Wallach was a student of The Method and worked on Broadway for years, delivering highly acclaimed performances in Tennessee Williams plays. He went on to become one of the great character actors in film and stage history. These days, he's probably best known for his role as the cute old man in Nancy Meyers' The Holiday (2006).
In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Wallach carries a significant amount of the film, delivering more lines than Eastwood and Van Cleef combined, and surviving three separate near-death situations doing stunts for the film. See if you can spot the stunts in question.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has had a profound influence on cinema. In addition to helping create a genre that thrived for another 15 years, the film inspired two generations of filmmakers.
Hollywood was on the verge of a seismic change, as we'll see in the coming weeks. The Production Code was in its final days, and a new generation of filmmakers was inspired to push the boundaries of content. Like the French New Wave, the New American Cinema would be highly personal, in love with the idea of cinema, and would emphasize style as much as substance. The same is obviously true about Spaghetti Westerns as well. As we'll see, the hyperviolence, nihilism, and antiheroes of the New American Cinema are as close to Sergio Leone's films as they are to Breathless.
Several filmmakers have paid direct homage to Leone (and Morricone) in their work:
Quentin Tarantino: Tarantino is known for his love of Westerns, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of his favorite films. He has cited Leone's film as a major influence on his work, particularly on Django Unchained (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). The latter film's fantastic opening scene that introduces Christoph Waltz's SS Agent is essentially lifted directly from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) takes its title from two of Leone's films: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
Martin Scorsese: Scorsese has also been influenced by Leone's work, and he has cited The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as one of his favorite films. He has paid homage to the film in several of his own works, including Gangs of New York (2002), which features a climactic battle scene set to a Morricone score.
Robert Rodriguez: Rodriguez is another director who has been influenced by Leone's work, particularly his use of close-ups and extreme camera angles. He has cited The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a major influence on his film Desperado (1995), which features a similar "gunfighter" storyline.
The Coen Brothers: The Coen Brothers have paid homage to Leone's work in several of their films, including The Big Lebowski (1998), which features a dream sequence set to a Morricone score, and No Country for Old Men (2007), which features a similar "cat-and-mouse" storyline.
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Iñárritu has cited The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a major influence on his film The Revenant (2015), particularly on its use of natural lighting and long takes.
One of my favorite tributes to Sergio Leone's work is in Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future trilogy. In Back to the Future Part 2 (1989), when Marty visits the alternate 1985, Biff is watching A Fistful of Dollars. That scene inspires Marty when he ventures to 1880s Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part 3 (1990). In fact, that entire film is full of references to Leone's "Dollars Trilogy," the most telling being Marty McFly assuming the alias "Clint Eastwood."
The "Dollars Trilogy" and especially The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made Clint Eastwood a star. In fact, he became one of the biggest stars in the world during the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually a highly successful and well-regarded director.
Sergio Leone continued to make films, but he never quite achieved the same level of success as he did with his "Dollars Trilogy." His artistic aspirations increased, but he ran into issues with production costs and sometimes the coherence of his storylines.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as Leone's next film. He moved away from the "Man with No Name" character and focused on a new cast of characters. The film starred Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, and it was praised for its stunning cinematography and Morricone's iconic score. It's widely regarded as Leone's best film, but didn't reach the same box office success as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Leone's next film, the delightfully titled Duck, You Sucker! (1971), was a political allegory set during the Mexican Revolution, starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger. The film was less successful than Leone's previous Westerns, and it received mixed reviews from critics.
His final film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was a sprawling epic about Jewish gangsters in New York City, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. The film was initially released in a heavily edited form, but it has since been restored to nearly full length and is now considered a masterpiece of the gangster genre.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America were all ranked in the top 250 of Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll, with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly tied for 169th. It's worth noting that Leone's films tend to be much more popular with audiences and film enthusiasts; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the 10th highest rated by IMDb users.
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