Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Directed by Sergio Leone
Three men search for $200,000 in stolen gold. The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) is the Good, an amoral loner who roams the desert conning local constabularies out of bounty money. Angel Eyes Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef) is the Bad, a sadistic lawman who found out about the money by torturing the secret out of one of his victims. And Tuco Benedito Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (Eli Wallach) is the Ugly, a flamboyant, wisecracking outlaw who spends most of the search trading betrayals with his partner Eastwood. As they converge on the treasure's rumored location, a confrontation becomes inevitable.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the final and by far the best film in director Sergio Leone's Man with No Name Trilogy, a landmark achievement in the history of Western films. "Spaghetti Western" is a blanket term for Western-themed movies produced and financed by European filmmakers—usually on the cheap—between the early 1960s and mid 1970s. Westerns have always been popular with Europeans, who love the frontier archetype, but they fell out of fashion in the United States after the late 1950s due to changing tastes. Because Americans were not making and exporting Westerns anymore, European producers began making them in greater numbers. The first few spaghetti Westerns were fairly low-quality and didn't get much exposure outside the Continent. Then in 1964, Italian director Sergio Leone hired a second-tier TV star named Clint Eastwood to play a mysterious Man with No Name who rides into a small Mexican town and plays two rival families off each other for his own benefit. Leone called the film Per un Pugno do Dollari—"A Fistful of Dollars"—and history was made. Leone and Eastwood followed up A Fistful of Dollars a year later with For a Few Dollars More, and in 1966, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. With these three films and a later one, Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone cemented in the public's mind what the spaghetti Western was about.
Whether you've seen one "traditional" Western or a hundred, probably the first thing you'll notice about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is how dirty everything is. The sun beats down on an unforgiving West where dust is always in the air, and Eastwood, with his ever-present stubble and hand-rolled cigarillo, is constantly coated in a layer of unsexy perspiration and grit that makes you want to take a shower just for watching it. The ever-present dirt and grime is part of a conscious effort by Leone to reinvigorate the Western genre by dramatically de-glamorizing it; even in other "serious" Westerns like The Searchers and High Noon, the characters and settings have an unrealistically scrubbed feel to them, which doesn't really become obvious until you've seen a movie without it.
Another characteristic feature of Leone's Westerns is the moral complexity of all the major characters, a radical notion in a genre that had been defined up to that point by classic struggles between good and evil—the proverbial "white hats" and "black hats." John Wayne played his share of scoundrels—the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit—yet whether his character was nominally a good guy or an outlaw, he was always portrayed, one-dimensionally, as the hero, and if he came off as a sonofabitch, well, sometimes heroes have to be like that. Clint Eastwood is no hero in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Leone makes sure you know that—if he's the Good, it's only by comparison to Lee Van Cleef. "In the world of the spaghetti Western," writes one critic, "pretty much everybody's an asshole. Kind of like life."
There are great films, and there are fun films, and there are just-plain-cool films, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is easily one of the coolest films ever made. Even if you don't like Westerns, I bet you'll like this one.
Some points to ponder:
- It is said that there are two types of people in the world: John Wayne people and Clint Eastwood people. I know which type I am. How about you?
- The films in the Man with No Name Trilogy are often called anti-Westerns. Why do you think this is?
- If it seems at times that the characters' lips match up poorly with the dialogue, you're right. The three leads spoke English, but the rest of the characters spoke Italian and were dubbed into English for the U.S. release. For the Italian release, of course, the situation was reversed.
- If you know one Western theme, it's Ennio Morricone's classic theme from this film. The theme's whistles and howls have become the de facto representation of Westerns in movies, TV commercials, etc.
- Like most spaghetti Westerns, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
was filmed in Spain, in locations that are very geographically similar to northern
Mexico and the American Southwest, which is why most of these films are set
in small border towns on either side of the border.