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Review: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Premise: The third entry in the Man with No Name trilogy. A pair of outlaws (Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach) form an uneasy alliance while in search of a stash of gold. They are pursued by a ruthless bounty hunter (Lee Van Cleef) who also has designs on the treasure. 

What Works: Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone reinvented the Western genre with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. An unsolicited remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movie Yojimbo, the movie was the story of an anonymous gunman, played by Clint Eastwood (in his first starring role), who manipulates two warring families and makes money in the process. A Fistful of Dollars heralded a darker and more violent tone to the Western and reinvigorated the genre. For a Few Dollars More continued the story of Eastwood’s character. With both films international box office hits, Leone completed his trilogy with 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. With what was at the time a lavish budget, Leone created one of the greatest and most iconic motion pictures in the Western genre. One of the key things Leone did in his Westerns, and this is probably best observed in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is reimaging the West while retaining its mystery and mythology. The heyday of the Western saw the Old West as a wild place to be tamed by sophisticated and genteel people. The Old West of the Spaghetti Western was a lawless and brutal place ruled by vicious characters. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is among the best, if not the best, presentations of that new conception. The movie takes place during the American Civil War with the characters occasionally running into the front and alternatively taken prisoner or drafted into combat. That background is especially relevant because The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is actually a prequel to the other Man with No Name films and the Civil War creates the conditions out of which Eastwood’s character is forged. The setting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly gives rise to the three characters indicated by the title. The Good is Clint Eastwood’s gunman and this film seals Eastwood’s cinematic image as the mythic Western antihero. The Bad is a bounty hunter played by Lee Van Cleef and the actor manages to be threatening even in Eastwood’s presence. The Ugly is Tuco, a bandit played by Eli Wallach. The film is really Tuco’s story as the bandit is witness to a mythological figure in the making. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has an extraordinary visual style with many great images and several often-imitated set pieces. It also has one of the great scores in all of film music provided by Ennio Morricone.

What Doesn’t: As was the case with a lot of Spaghetti Westerns and other Italian films made at this time, almost all of the voices of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were dubbed in post-production. The looping is better in some places than it is in others. In a few places the looping is distractingly out of synch with the actor’s performance or the voice does not fit the person it’s associated with. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is part of a trilogy with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More but the connections to the earlier films are tenuous. The movie physically transforms Eastwood’s character into the figure from the other movies, mostly by assembling his outfit. But The Good, the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t really put Eastwood’s character through an arc. He remains a mythological figure and so he doesn’t have depth. For that matter, no one in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly really has a character arc. This is less a story about character development and more a study of distrust, self-interest, and greed set against the backdrop of the Civil War. As that it works but in order to preserve the mystery of its characters most of them are kept at arm’s length.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailers. 

Bottom Line: Few films have been as influential as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s an important title in cinema history but it’s also an extraordinary viewing experience more than half a century since its release.  

Episode: #657 (July 23, 2017)