Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1968)

The three faces of America
With it's enormous, panoramic vistas, larger-than-life characters, and operatic score it is easy to see why The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is widely considered one of the great westerns. As I watched the film, sucked in by Sergio Leone's hypnotic shots, I felt like I was watching a movie about the dark side of the American dream.

America has long been the place to pursue happiness, yet often happiness is pursued with little regard to the consequences for those left in the wake of the pursuit. Going after glory, seeking new lands, building a better life are all good things, of course. Hurting others, destroying feelings and communities is bad. And, the ugly...well, getting what we want is often an ugly process, like cleaning out a closet; it has to get worse before it can get better.

The film is defined by this idea -- that it has to get worse before it can get better. No moment better embodies the sentiment than the one in which Tuco (Eli Wallach) finally arrives at a cemetery he has been searching for, seeking his fortune hidden in one of the graves. The camera draws back as he enters the scene, revealing a panorama filled with nothing but an expanse of dead soldiers' graves. The fact the graves belong to Civil War soldiers underlines an even deeper truth: the pursuit of happiness is never ending, a repeating cycle, and will always end in death.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a dark film, but it's also very funny at times. Despite its lofty reach, the sense of humor never makes it feel like it has exceeded its grasp. When Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is introduced, we discover he and Tuco are con men, roaming from town to town to claim rewards on Tuco's head for all sorts of crimes. Every time, Tuco is strung up to hang and it's up to the sharpshooting Blondie to shoot through the hangman's rope and rescue his partner in crime. Eventually, Blondie, sick of Tuco's bullshit, decides to double-cross him. After he's successful he walks away and the camera freezes. The title, "The Good" appears, announcing that Blondie is the moral center of the movie. It's done so comically that it's easy to think this movie is satire, but I don't think so.

The tone of the film is earnest and sincere; despite the judgments of the main characters, we are allowed to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in each. Tuco (the ugly), we discover, is the brother of a Catholic priest. His decision to be a criminal almost feels like an act of rebellion to find personal definition in the shadow of his brother's goodness. Angel Eyes (the bad) shares a bottle of liquor with a defeated Southern officer as an act of pity as much as he does it for the practical need of getting information about a man he's tracking. And Blondie is a double crossing son-of-a-bitch who's not above resorting to tricks to get what he wants.

I think Leone wants us to think on each men interchangeably. Any of these men, shown in a different light, could take on the others' role easily. And that, in and of itself, is a statement about the true face of America. It's a changing, shifting face, that embodies all three of the title's characteristics simultaneously. "Good" may win out in the end, but we are left asking if who won was really "good." That's the mark of a great film -- despite seemingly giving us easy answers, it actually leaves us with none at all. We are forced to consider the actions of the characters and make our own opinions about them. This makes the climatic three-way shootout that much more intense. Leone's camera lingers on each man's face for what seems like forever in extreme close-up, intercutting with long shots of the distance between them, demanding that we think about who deserves to be the winner. The answer is the only logical one.

As great as the storytelling is, it is Leone's style that sets this movie apart from other westerns. It's often referred to as a "spaghetti western" because of Leone's Italian descent. That's cute, of course, but misses the point. This film is as American as the great westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. Leone takes the epic style of those directors, and infuses it with his own personal flourish: alternating extremely long establishing shots with close-ups; focusing on haunted faces as desolate as the landscape the characters walk and ride across; going on storytelling tangents to build on grand themes; and using the score of Ennio Morricone to both set the scene and deliver the punchline.

It's always interesting to see what perspectives those from other countries have about America. As much as we'd like to say that outsiders don't understand, or are jealous of what we have, it's amazing to think that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly still ranks as one of the most popular westerns of all-time. Obviously there's something elemental and true in Sergio Leone's film. I think it's because no matter how critical the film is, it's never patronizing, full of rich humor, and made with breathtaking style. Despite being made by an Italian, this film is certifiably American.

Read Roger Ebert's essay.
Buy the film at Amazon.com.

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