There’s a moment early on in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when Clint Eastwood’s panchoed badass strolls into frame, lights a thin cigar, and scowls for the camera. In that instant of savage cool, the Monument Valley Western was forever demolished. John Wayne’s false-modest bravado and Jimmy Stewart’s hem-haw heroics couldn’t have felt more antiquated. Sergio Leone’s masterpiece makes it official: The frontier is now the dominion of the anti-hero.
This might seem like a strange comparison, but I can’t escape it: What the Beatles did for rock music, Leone did for the Western. Both of those genres were settled and stale, to the point they were almost parodies of themselves. Like the Moptops, Leone took something he loved and shook it like a snow globe. The result was something new, infused with an essential dose of European post-modernism and some infectious cockiness.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the ultimate embodiment of Sergio Leone’s auteurism: At three hours, its simplicity is sweeping in scope. Long stretches amble in stylish silence, as characters swagger and stare through puffs of cigar smoke Much of this wordlessness gets filled with Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal soundtrack, which sets a series of crow-caws and menacing whistles to the pounding of a jungle war-drum.
Our story focuses on three disparate men plunk in a desperate quest: The American Civil War rages, and a Confederate cashbox has vanished somewhere in the New Mexican badlands. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is an icy thief who will kill anybody anywhere to find the money. Eli Wallach’s Tuco is a loud-mouthed bandito who always seems to be in the wrong place at the right time, or vice versa. The Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) has the least twitchy trigger, and in this cast of rapscallions, that qualifies him as the hero.
That might not sound like enough to prop up 178 minutes of movie, but Leone’s infectiously eccentric touch makes the time fly. The script may be light on dialogue, but the world-class trio of leads put the right spin on every syllable. If the earlier Dollars movies proved that Eastwood could carry a movie, Good shows that he has enough star power to put the entire Western genre onto his shoulders. His performance isn’t just good or great, but the stuff of legends: Rarely has a superstar shot so high with such lean material.
Ol’ Clint ain’t alone, neither. Few character actors convey menace with the alarming twinkle of Lee Van Cleef, and his Angel Eyes is a mastered mix of cheerful and monstrous. Meanwhile, Wallach runs off with every scene he’s in, like a running back in the open field. Few performances have settled into Leone’s groove of self-assured silliness with the efficiency of Wallach’s ornery bastard. Leone and Eastwood get a lot of the glory, but this movie truly feels like a team effort.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly isn’t just a Spaghetti Western. It’s the Spaghetti Western. Filmed on gorgeous Spanish and Italian locales, Leone rewrites in the rules, and he does it in style. The overrated Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proved that John Ford’s hokum had finally outlived its relevance, and it was past time for something different. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly reminds us that if you want to start over, sometimes all it takes is a fistful of dynamite.
178 min. Not Rated.