A gunslinger in the Old West tries to make it to a fortune in gold buried in a remote cemetary before two other men can get to it.
Sergio Leone, 1966
The actual plot of this sprawling Western epic is essentially a treasure hunt, with shifting alliances along the way. The nameless gunslinger (Clint Eastwood), nicknamed Blondie by his associate Tuco (Eli Wallach), acts as a bounty hunter of sorts. He and Tuco start the movie in a kind of criminal partnership – Blondie “turns in” Tuco, gets paid, then rescues him from the hangman’s noose at the last moment. Merciless gun-for-hire Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) starts to become suspicious of the pair and work gets thin, causing Blondie to abandon Tuco in the desert. In revenge, Tuco forces Blondie to walk through the desert with no food or water, and the two of them come across a dying soldier who was being hunted by Angel Eyes for stealing a lot of gold. Each of them has half the information as to where the gold’s buried, and they resume their uneasy alliance in order to find the cemetary, finding themselves in camps on both sides of the civil war on their way.
I wasn’t aware when I watched this that it is in fact the third in the loose “trilogy” of Sergio Leone films about “The Man With No Name”, along with Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. It’s arguably the most famous of the three, with the trio of Blondie (the good), Angel Eyes (the bad) and Tuco (the ugly) scrambling over each other in their search for the gold. There’s a grittiness tha pervades every inch of this movie, a nastiness in the way men in the West deal with each other and their own unquenchable quest for money. While Angel Eyes is the cruellest, murdering a man and his son in cold blood while on the hunt for the man who hid the treasure, all of them are on a spectrum of criminality. Tuco is wanted for all sorts of nasty little crimes and is, in all, a nasty little man, played with gleeful abandon by Eli Wallach, creating a character that is at once despicable and pitiable. Blondie has a total lack of loyalty, abandoning Tuco to start up his scam with another criminal whom he leaves to hang when Tuco catches up to him and holds a gun to his head. I honestly didn’t know how attractive Clint Eastwood was until this movie; his blue eyes are cold but look amazing.
The film is a triumph of style over substance, at least in the sense of a clear storyline. The hunt for the money doesn’t come in until about a third of the way through the film, and is more of a thread keeping disparate ideas together, heading for a goal. It looks incredible, and the sound design is phenomenal, with Ennio Morricone’s famous score dominating some scenes and long stretches of silence over beautiful landscapes in others. I had no idea there was a battle in this film; an enormous battle scene, filled with extras of varying talent that looks something like what I imagine reenactments look like. It’s pretty impressive just how expansive this film is; it gives you a real sense of the old West by exaggerating its characteristics. That’s the real achievement of the spaghetti western. There’s a scene in this film that’s about two minutes of the three men about to draw, close-ups of their eyes narrowed and their hands on their guns, and it’s hilarious and over the top and ridiculous, but in other scenes that stylistic choice pays off beautifully; it makes it believable when Tuco goes on a rambling and self-indulgent monologue about what made him the way he is, for instance, or brings out a laugh when Tuco shoots a man from his bathtub. It’s deceptively clever, and exceedingly pretty, and very, very long and sprawling. At 3 hours, it has a fair few ebbs in energy (and to be fair it ended up taking me about 5 hours to watch while I did other things), but it’s still worthwhile viewing.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on IMDb