Everything is silent. Suddenly, you hear a crescendo of drums. A scream. A whistle. One of the most memorable theme songs, created by a sound magician named Ennio Morricone, instantly makes you both on the edge of your seat and with bated breath. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo), directed by Sergio Leone, is the final installment in the so-called Dollars trilogy, featuring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. The same way as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi perfected the style of showing the life of a Japanese ronin or a samurai, and portrayed the world of magnificent battles, Leone was a master of stylistic gunfights. Both characters and the audience are transformed into bundles of nerves, while the music accompanies it perfectly. In such scenes, even a rustle in the grass can easily set you off. If there’s a single phrase that can perfectly describe Leone’s western movies, that’s certainly gripping suspense.
I’ve avoided writing about this film for quite a while since it’s probably my favorite film of all time, and that’s why this is hard. I feel I’ll never do it any justice. But if I avoid writing about it, that’s even worse. So, let’s dive into it. Creating under Ford’s legacy, Sergio Leone uses long shots and magnificent cinematography in his movies, portraying typical western surroundings and illustrating the vast emptiness of desserts. Of course, there’s Kurosawa as well, especially regarding elements. The vastness of the desert against a small man. Giving your life for a piece of metal, that’s what intrigues Leone the most, trying to figure out how far the human spirit will go for something meaningful or even something meaningless.
However, Ford’s influence is at its finest when Sergio Leone treats western as a modern opera. Every clash is an operatic sequence of drama, tension and music. Leone loved long drawn and close-up filming. The eyes really become a window to a human soul, and the music accompanies the psychological effects slowly revealing themselves in front of us. Face shots are interrupted with long shots. We see the eyes, we feel the thoughts, and our hands tremble while the character’s hand is slowly reaching for a holstered gun. Leone was also a fan of surprise pans with musical flourishes, shocking not only the characters but us as the audience as well.
Leone is not only violence, even though his characterization of crime and violence is almost sublime, which was, of course, a huge influence on Tarantino. But there are various gems throughout the film regarding beautiful framing of landscapes, but also of people in peculiar ways. Heroes are not heroes but anti-heroes. We know that they are not good people, but we still seem to care, even though there’s no one to root for. Dialogue is not as important as picturing the human psyche. I have yet to meet a person who has not trembled during the famous Mexican standoff scene.
Angel Eyes: People with ropes around their necks don’t always hang.
The film wouldn’t be a masterpiece without Ennio Morricone. I have never seen such a perfect blend of music and action in any film. When Ecstasy of Gold starts to play, you start running with Tuco who’s frantically searching through a graveyard for a grave that holds $200,000 in gold. We can see and feel in our bones the mania growing. Tuco loses all his self-control, as if he’s really on the verge of ecstasy. Can’t you almost feel as if you’re a night rider galloping through the landscape in a storm? And then the chorus of women joins the music, signifying victory, at last! The very location of the Sad Hill Cemetery was recently unearthed after 50 years after the filming, and it still feels so real.
The film is claimed to be a satire of the western genre, especially because of the overemphasized tension. However, I consider it the truest western ever made. I do not think of anti-heroes as the deconstruction of the standard romanticist paradigm. Western movies always showed off anti-heroes, and even the kindest of them resolved any issue with a duel. Unnecessary deaths and necessary fights had always been one of the main plot triggers for most of the westerns, and it’s just a matter of a polished perspective of calling Ford’s, Peckinpah’s, Boetticher’s or Hawks’s characters heroes rather than anti-heroes. Taking place in the Civil War, this is also a film that shows you an important anti-war message by picturing how violently people behave during times of war. And finally, this seems to be the plot of the film: how times of trouble affect the human condition.
Union Captain at the Bridge: Whoever has the most liquor to get the soldiers drunk and send them to be slaughtered… he’s the winner.
There is no dialogue for the first ten minutes of the film. And yet, so many words have been spoken using camera only.
The Good: Every gun makes its own tune.
- Cumbow, Robert (2008). The Films of Sergio Leone. Scarecrow Press.
- Frayling, Christopher (2000). Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death. Faber & Faber.
- Hunter, Russ (2012). “The Ecstasy of Gold: Love, Greed and Homosociality in the Dollars Trilogy”. Studies in European Cinema 9 (1): 77
- McClain, William (2010). “Western, Go Home! Sergio Leone and the “Death of the Western” in American Film Criticism.” Journal of Film and Video 62 1-2: 52-66.
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