Film Forum’s phenomenal “Spaghetti” Westerns series comes to a close tonight. It’s been an amazing month of well-known and adored consensus-classics, seldom-screened rarities, and near-forgotten oddities. As expected, I didn’t have nearly enough time to get downtown — as you may have noticed, I haven’t even had much time this month to write about movies, let alone see them. Here are my expanded notes on A Fistful Of Dollars and Django, and please be on the lookout for my upcoming piece on Sergio Sollima’s vastly-underseen 1966 classic, The Big Gundown, to which I am trying to pay the kind of tribute it deserves.
Tonight the festival ended with a quadruple-header of Duck, You Sucker!, Death Rides A Horse, Django, and my personal favorite anything, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. I’ve written about this big, beautiful, belligerent odyssey before, and if you haven’t read that yet, please take a minute to do so…
What can you say about your favorite movie? This one is mine.
There is literally nothing I can write about The Good The Bad & The Ugly that hasn’t already been written, and by more famous names. It’s not exactly an underrated movie. It’s certainly the most straight-ahead entertaining Great Movie that regularly makes the greatest-ever lists. (It clocked in prominently on my own all-time top-50.)
Watching it again last Monday, I was struck by the fact that it’s not a movie with much of an agenda beyond pure storytelling. It’s not a grand statement on humanity or history. It’s a story. As the poster’s tagline (one of the best ever written), “For three men, the Civil War wasn’t hell. It was PRACTICE!” Sure, for some characters in this demented picaresque, war is hell, but for the three leads, those monosyllabic archetypes in the title, war is just an appropriately chaotic backdrop for their self-involved quest. The whole thing is about three guys looking for buried treasure!
Good, Bad, Ugly: Does it really matter? They all have the same damn goal.
The Good The Bad & The Ugly is a callback to the previous Leone classic, For A Few Dollars More, in that it stars the blond/brunet tandem of Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad), although it escalates the setting and the scale (and the running time) to an operatic degree. What’s really fascinating to me about this movie the more I watch it is that Eli Wallach (The Ugly) is truly the star of the movie. The movie begins and ends with him, and he seems to have the most screen time by a wide margin. After the first introductory scenes of The Good and The Bad, I don’t think either of them have a scene that doesn’t also include The Ugly. He not only has a first and last name, but a ton of middle names (Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez) AND an alias (a.k.a. The Rat), and he is the only one with the backstory (a life of crime begun to aid sick parents, which has now alienated him from his brother the priest). Meanwhile, Clint’s character has a name but probably one that Tuco gave him – “Blondie” – and Van Cleef is referred to as “Angel-Eyes” – which is hilarious if it was also given him by Tuco, but either way is still an alias. The Good The Bad & The Ugly is really Tuco’s movie.
Again, the underrated scriptwriting of Leone and his staff and the accurately-praised career-highlight score of Morricone, along with the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli, have everything to do with the perfection of The Good The Bad & The Ugly, but the importance of the casting of Eli Wallach to the tone of the movie should not be underestimated. He brings a wealth of serious training to the role, but also a go-for-broke sense of humor. There’s a real mischievous sparkle in Tuco’s eye – he’s a quintessential survivor and a classic rogue. Wallach really commits to this role – you couldn’t call him handsome in this movie, and his accent is as solid as any gringo has ever pulled off. And he’s funny. God DAMN. Holy shit. This movie is so damn funny, without ever losing its mythic grandeur.
It’s weird though – for a movie that defines its three main characters in such rigid terms, “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” the morality (or faltering degree of such) isn’t remotely as rigid. Clint’s character doesn’t do much good for anyone outside of offering and lighting a couple of cigars, and even Angel-Eyes, as unrelentingly violent as he can be, clearly operates under a certain code of behavior. Tuco doesn’t seem to have any rules or boundaries or philosophy – just greed, gluttony, and self-preservation – but at least we have a faint suggestion of how he became that way, so even he isn’t strictly “Ugly.” So it’s not a morality play. It’s just a story. It’s just a story, but it’s the one I’d watch all the way through, any time of night or day, right now if I could.
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