It wasn’t helped by the difficulties I had in simply watching the film. The DVD played normally in my laptop for just under half the film’s length before freezing, switching off and refusing to reload. I tried transferring it to my portable all-region DVD player, but it wouldn’t even load, because the disc was warped and would not sit flat. I had to take an impromptu ten minute ‘Intermission’ whilst I downloaded a copy to proceed. No pretty usherettes with bored expressions sold ice cream during this break.
The third film, chronologically a prequel if you accept that Clint Eastwood plays the same person in all three films, which I don’t necessarily think is so, was based on a loose and simple plot idea: three gunslingers pursue a buried fortune in Confederate gold during the Civil War. That’s the story the film was sold on and that’s the story it tells, taking almost three hours in the extended version of the story that, in both halves, I watched.
The trio of the title are Eastwood as a gunslinger known only as Blondie, or once the Blonde One (which is weird because Eastwood’s hair is darker than mine was when it was still brown), Lee van Cleef as a ruthless tracker and killer called Angel Eyes, and Eli Wallach as Tuco Ramirez, a Mexican bandit.
Actually, the title is technically a mistranslation, the Italin original being Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo or rather The Good, the Ugly, the Bad: doesn’t scan anything like so well as the American title, does it?
As with For a Few Dollars More, the credits are shot in stylised animation, replete with gunshots, over grainy close-ups of the leading characters. At one point, near the end, a horsed rider gallops to and fro across the street as a foreground cannon blasts it every time it passes the middle, which brought up amazingly distracting memories of Space Invaders.
I was prepared for Leone’s formula: widescreen shots of dry, dusty landscapes, close-ups on faces, scenes stretched out to increase the tension, and at first I slowed myself down to the rhythm. Three bounty hunters, entering from opposite ends of town, closing in on Tuco, who shoots, kills all of them and escapes.
Then Angel Eyes, arriving out of nowhere to kill a man called Jackson who tells him the tale about the stolen Confederate gold. He accepts an opposite commission, to kill Baker who wanted Jackson dead. Angel Eyes never backs out of a job once he accpts it: he takes both men’s money and kills both men, leaving only one who knows the money’s whereabouts, a man going under the name of Bill Carson.
And then there’s Eastwood’s Blondie, taking in Tuco, collecting the bounty, waiting around until he’s about to be hung and then shooting through the rope so he can escape. They pull this Pied Piper-like trick again but Blondie gets fed up of Tuco’s complaints, as well he might, takes all the money and absndons Tuco on foot in the desert.
Only now is the introduction over and this, plus the credits, has taken almost half an hour. I remained patient.
Angel Eyes then disappears from the film for something like maybe an hour. Tuco catches up with Blondie in a Confederate town being bombed by the Union Army. first, he plans to hang him but not shoot the rope, only for Blondie to escape when a shot strikes the hotel. Then he catches up with him in the desert, and forces him to walk for safety, without hat or water, accompanying him every step to sneer and laugh and generally gloat cruelly.
Let me interject at this point that Leone originally thought of Gian Maria Valente (again) for this part before choosing Eli Wallach – with whom he became great friends on set – based on a comic performance in a 1962 Western. Wallach plays Tuco as a babbling, gabbling, stupid-but-shifty clown in a performance that contains more ham than a hickory roast, complete wth the constant cackle that turns the character into a tiresome excressence every time he’s on screen, and believe me that’s a lot of time. and given that Tuco’s the Mexican whilst the two Anglos are played seriously, there’s a racial tist to the whole thing that stuck in my craw.
Anyway. With Blondie half-dead, the pair cross the path of a runaway truck full of dead Confederate soldiers, one of whom is only mostly dead. This is Bill Carson, who barters $200,000 in gold for water. He tells Tuco which cemetery it’s buried in but it’s Blondie who gets the name on the grave.
Tuco has to keep him alive so he takes him to a Monestery to recover. Travelling on in Confedeate uniform, they are taken prisoner by Union cavalry and transported to a prison camp where, without any explanation, Angel Eyes has been acting as Sergeant, beating, torturing and cheating the prisoners, for ages. He recognises Tuco and Blondie, and they him, without ever having met before, and takes an interest in the former when he answers to Bill Carson.
Angel Eyes and his Sergeant beat the cemetery’s name out of Tuco, who is sent off for execution but escapes. Knowing it won’t work on Blondie, Angel Eyes frees him to go with them. Blondie catches up with Tuco and together they kill all Angel Eyes’ men but he escapes.
By now, we’re two hours in and, to be honst, I’m flagging. The comes the interlude with the drunken Union Army Captain and the bridge the two sides are fighting over. This was too much for me. It’s twenty or so minutes of the film, taken at a dragging pace, none of which is in any way essential to the story. It’s just one more incident made up to stop us getting nearer to the quest’s end. The whole sequence could have been cut without anyone ignorant of the film noticing anything missing and quite frankly I wish it had been.
Finally, we reach the cemetery. Tuco runs round in in a widening circle for three minutes, looking for graves before finding the one Blondie’s told him about: Arch Stanton. He starts digging. Angel Eyes arrives out of nowhere, gets the drop on both. Only Blondie’s fooled everyone. He sets up a three-sided duel for a riock with the right name written on it.
Cue much close-ups on faces, eyes dartling left and right. Hands hovering near pistols. Until Angel Eyes cracks. Blondie shoots him. Tuco would shoot him only Blondie’s unloaded his pistol. The gold, eight heavy bags, is in the grave marked unknown, next to Arch Stanton. Blondie takes four, leaves four for Tuco. Only by now Tuco’s standing on a wooden cross under a tree-branch, hands tied behind his back, neck in a moose and wobbling. Blondie rides away.
And as the icing on my cake, with two minutes left, the sound cuts out. Blondie turns, shoots, severs the rope. Tuco runs after him screaming things I can’t hear, probably abut revenge. Don’t care by now. The end.
Once again, ultimately the film, at just under three hours, is too long, especiaally for so simple a story. Essentially it’s a journey story, and these pose two inherent problems. One, what happens when the characters arrive, is well set-up and played out. The other is the journey itelf. Is this to be a picaresque tle, or one in which, rather like a games story, the incidents of the journey build up and provide the platfrm from which successful completion can be reached?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly settles for picaresque, though I doubt Leone ever thought of it in such terms. But to be successfully picaresque, the incidents of travel must themselves be interesting. They must feel as if they are worth experiencing for themselves. Leone operates on tension, dramatic presentation. He saw the film as a satire on the West, though it has no real satiric element, just an instinct to dirty up the cliches, heavy on the brutality. van Cleef was chosen early on because he’d played a good guy in For a Few Dollars More and this was a role reversal: early on he brutally slaps a woman across the face, five or six times, enjoying himself.
The various scenes do, to some extent build upon one another, or at least they lead to one another, excepting the bridge sequence, which is just in passing. But in the end the slowness with which Leone approaches every step starts to drag, and I found myself eager for the end to come.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was filmed in 1966 and show in America in December 1967. The three films of the trilogy were all therefore premiered in the same calendar year. But is it a Trilogy in the sense of being three stories about the same character?
If it is, this is definitely the first, chronologically. Eastwood wears mainly a long grey Confederate coat, over a patterned dark blue shirt, later acquiring a sheepskin waistcoat: he dons the famous poncho for the cemetery scene. They call him Blondie. Is this just an asinine nickname because he’s not blonde? It could have been, except that Angel Eyes refers to him as the Blonde one.
In A Fistful of Dollars he’s a drifter with no name, nicknamed Joe in the Town, and in For a Few Dollars More he’s a bounty hunter named Manco. Are they all the same person? What happened to the $100,000 in gold coin he rides off with in this film? How come he doesn’t recognise Gian Maria Valente or Lee van Cleef when he’s aa bounty hunter, especially as he’s shot and killed van Cleef.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but at what point does consistency become foolish. I’d answer that when you can’t reconcile two things, we’ve gone beyond foolish, and for me, much as they strive to create the appearance, I think the ‘Dollars’ Trilogy is really a Trilogy in theme only. I wish I could like it better.