Eastwood Reviews — #3

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Poster

“Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We’re gonna have to earn it.”

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Leone
178 minutes, rated R

It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.

Quick rating: 4.5/5

 

I have seen this movie so many times that I didn’t really need to watch it again in order to write an accurate review. But I opted to watch it again because I love it and believe very firmly that it is, in fact, one of the greatest movies ever made. The problem that arose from watching it for the umpteenth time is that I couldn’t really watch it for entertainment value. My intent and purpose in viewing it was not fanboy rubbernecking, but critical examination. Sadly, this approach revealed that this movie is not nearly as satisfying as I remember it.

Is it good? Hell yes, it is. It is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made. But . . . it is overly long. It is stuffed to the gills with material that doesn’t really add anything to the story. Perhaps as a symptom of having watched it so immediately after watching For A Few Dollars More, I find it inferior. The second film in this trilogy is exceptional and tightly-plotted. The third film is a bit more loosey-goosey, lackadaisical in narrative, but vastly superior in production value.

I don’t know. This is still one of my favorite movies. Its importance to the genre (and the career of Mr. Eastwood) cannot possibly be denied. My decades-long love for this movie alone should have been enough to automatically give the movie a five-star rating without having watched it again. But if The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a five-star film, then so is For A Few Dollars MoreFor A Few Dollars More is definitely not a five-star film.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly could be. If it were only a half hour shorter.

thetrio - EditedI’ll explain . . . the plot is deceptively simple and easily summed up in one sentence: Three men forge an uneasy alliance to recover a cashbox of $200,000 in Civil War gold that has been buried in a cemetery. The relationships between these three men are what make the plot incredibly complicated. In order of billing for the title, we have Blondie (played by Clint Eastwood, thematically referred to as “the good”),  a sadistic bounty hunter named Angel Eyes (played by Lee Van Cleef, “the bad”), and a fugitive Mexican bandit named Tuco (played by Eli Wallach, “the ugly”). At the beginning, the three men seem to be unrelated, but we soon learn that Blondie and Tuco are in cahoots in an elaborate bounty scam– Blondie collects the various bounties on Tuco and then rescues him mere seconds before he can be hanged. Soon, they turn against each other. Meanwhile, Angel Eyes learns about the buried money. However, he doesn’t know where it is buried, only that it was buried there by a soldier who goes by the name of Bill Carson. He disguises himself as a Union officer to get close to the soldier. By this point, Tuco has learned about the gold. He manages to discover what cemetery it is hidden in, but has no idea which grave it might be buried in. Blondie has also learned about the gold. He knows what grave it is buried in, but doesn’t know what cemetery the grave is in. Despite their hatred for each other, Blondie and Tuco reluctantly reunite, only to get taken as prisoners of war by the Union army. Angel Eyes confuses Tuco for the (now dead) Bill Carson. He also senses Blondie and Tuco’s mistrust of one another, and he decides to use it against them to recover the gold for himself. From here, the rest of the three-hour running time revolves around either one of the trio using his wiles to pit the other two against the other or two of the trio teaming up against the third, knowing full well that not one of his companions is in any way, shape, or form a stand-up guy that can be trusted. There’s a Mexican stand-off that just might be the most famous Mexican stand-off in the history of movies. None of this ends the way you think it is going to. See? Complicated.

It’s all very engaging, but it’s just not quite engaging enough to fill three hours. Leone, who seems to have no shortage of good ideas, stretches the film out to three hours by padding the story with material that is just not necessary. It’s compelling, but not necessary. Fifteen minutes are spent on Tuco forcing Blondie to walk the desert until he is dehydrated when five minutes would have sufficed. When Blondie and Tuco arrive at the Union camp, they are given a tour of every inch of the desiccated space; another five minutes that could have been trimmed away. We see multiple Civil War battles, battles that are certainly exciting enough, but seem to serve little purpose other than to show off how much more money was spent on this installment than on the previous two. During one of these battle sequences, we see Blondie and Tuco escape their captors long enough to wire a strategic bridge with explosives. Do we really need to see them place explosives on every single post? There’s so much here that could have been excised.

With that said . . . and this will indeed sound like I’m contradicting myself . . . there is something in Leone’s attention to detail that is distinctly worthy of praise. The film is long, but it is never boring. The set pieces (including a bombed-out and abandoned town comprised of buildings that are half torn apart) are awe-inspiring sights to behold. The Civil War battle sequences are harrowing in their intensity. The final shoot-out in the graveyard is so majestically shot that the cemetery itself appears to extend miles beyond the edges of the frame. This is a beautiful film. An otherwise cheesy western elevated into high cinematic art. A film that deserves repeat viewings. On a big screen, if you can manage it.

When I rewatched this movie recently, I put a status on my Facebook feed that alerted my entire circle of friends that I was watching it. Every single person who commented on that status mentioned that this was either their favorite western or their favorite film, regardless of genre. And I get it. I do. This movie has earned the respect and accolades lauded on it over time. But I can’t personally shake the opinion that this would be a much better movie if it were shorter. I can’t get over the personal opinion that it isn’t nearly as good as its predecessor because it’s less contained and more of a free-for-all. The problem with that assessment is that running time is the only thing that For A Few Dollars More has over The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. This third installment is in every other way a vastly superior film. Hell, the final fifteen minutes alone– featuring the most famous Mexican stand-off to ever be depicted on film– is worth any three or four scenes in For A Few Dollars More combined.

mexicanstandoff

Acting alone makes this the better film. Lee Van Cleef, who also shared billing in the second film, is so menacing as “the bad” that you can’t hardly stand to watch him. Eli Wallach, who is already one of my favorite actors, gives an especially inspired performance as a fast-talking roughneck that never shuts up. Even in scenes by himself, he just talks and talks and talks. He has a knack for humanizing an otherwise despicable character with razor wit and levity. It’s Clint Eastwood here who really impresses me, though. His performance in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a distinct progression from the previous installments. In those films, he had little dialogue and little personality beyond a squint.  In those films, he created a persona. Here, he creates a character. Blondie’s machinations as he pits his two rivals against each other eventually become the heart and soul of the film. We learn, by the end, that he has absorbed everything he has seen and has calculated accordingly to use it for good. More so than the other characters, his characterization as ‘the good’ in this film’s title becomes a statement of who he becomes by the movie’s end rather than who he is when he is first introduced.

clintgbu

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Ennio Morricone’s score. In the last review, I cited his scoring as something about the film I particularly liked, but the score he presents here is the masterpiece of his entire career. It’s not just thematically important in this film. It’s almost a fourth character. This might be the single-most instantly-recognizable score in the history of cinema, second only maybe to Star Wars.

Better production value. Better acting. Better character development. Interesting subtext. Why am I being so nitpicky about running time? What difference does it make that the film is just shy of three hours when it doesn’t remotely feel like a three-hour film? Why squabble over five minutes here or ten minutes there when I have acknowledged, here in this very review, that I was never bored and will gladly watch this movie a few dozen more times before I die?

Because it’s showy, and that showiness feels forced. Subtlety went a long way in the previous two films. In some respects, this film is tonally completely different, making the film feel less like a continuation of the trilogy and more like the beginnings of a different one. As if, in some ways, Leone responded to flaws in his previous work with a grand gesture of bigger, better, faster, more that, ultimately, took me out of the trilogy. The previous films are flawed, to be certain, but I love those films in spite of those flaws. With The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Leone seems to desperately want to pull a viewer’s attention away from those flaws, hoping perhaps that we might forget them. Leone also has an agenda this time around, spending large amounts of time on a bombastic anti-war subtext that comes across as heavy-handed. This is not a subtle film. And I would have an easier time accepting that if the other two were not either.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an incredible film. But it’s not my favorite. It’s about thirty minutes away from that.

 

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