Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack wails, gunshots ring out, and Lee Van Cleef’s psychotic Angel Eyes (‘The Bad’) slinks his way onto the screen, catlike and sensual. The world Sergio Leone has created, along with the sweeping vistas and dust devils, is a world of brutality where ‘good’ is a relative term and life is a game of cross and double-cross.
The third film in Leone’s western trilogy (after A Fistful of Dollars (1964)) and For a Few Dollars More (1965)) has arguably surpassed its predecessors in film lore. Quentin Tarantino voted it the best film ever made in a Sight and Sound poll in 2002, and again in Empire Magazine’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time (September 2008). The story is a simple treasure hunt: three gunslingers, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Van Cleef are on the hunt for buried gold. Throw in the American Civil War, the raw beauty of the Spanish locations, all the makings of a buddy movie (with Eastwood and a scene-stealing Wallach), and perhaps one of film’s most sociopathic villains in Van Cleef and you can see why Tarantino holds it in such high regard.
The violence is visceral, whether it’s Angel Eyes gunning down a young boy in cold blood, or his hard-to-stomach brutalisation of a prostitute for information. For almost the entirety of the film, life is treated callously, any aftermath of violence ignored until a touching scene when Eastwood eases a young soldier’s passing. The humour in the film does lighten the mood and prevents the film from being relentlessly grim. Wallach (’The Ugly’) especially makes for a likeable villain and you find yourself rooting for him as much as you do for Eastwood’s Blondie (’The Good’). Eastwood mirrors the mood of the film – quiet, brooding and saying more with a flicker of the eyes than a scenery-chewing thespian ever could.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is more of an event than a movie, a good old-fashioned story told in the most cinematic of ways.