Although I've only seen a small handful of westerns, I doubt that there are many more out there as meticulously-plotted, well-acted and stylishly-directed as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Three rogues of varying moral fiber harbor individual clues as the whereabouts of a stolen cash box buried in a mysterious locale. If they co-operate and pool their knowledge they'll find it with ease, but that also means they'll be forced to split the treasure up three ways. Naturally, each one of them tries to get a leg up on the other two so they can keep the fortune all to themselves. This results in a very uneasy alliance as the balance of power careens back and forth.
This motley triumvirate include a laconic and crafty drifter nicknamed Blondie ("The Good"- Clint Eastwood), a ruthless gun-for-hire with the ironic handle of Angel Eyes ("The Bad" - Lee Van Cleef) and a life-long criminal with a penchant for daring escapes and double-crosses called Tuco ("The Ugly" - Eli Wallach). Despite capture, armed opposition, ill-fortune, betrayal, unexpected complications and even torture, their journey eventually leads to the missing gold and an epic standoff for all the ages.
The movie's mise-en-scène is so surreal and alien that it almost feels like a work of science fiction. The colorful costumes, striking landscapes, unusual methods of locomotion, noticeable dubbing, vintage buildings, antique firearms, weird characters and bizarre musical cues all add up to a very quirky experience. Remove the western trappings and Blondie's tale could very well be an early misadventure in the backstory of Han Solo, Mad Max or Snake Plissken. Indeed, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of the earliest and best templates for the now-classic anti-hero story.
The script is impeccably mapped out and despite the film's prodigious length, it unfolds like an engaging novel. Every single scene has a purpose: either it propels the yarn forward or serves up some tantalizing details into the history, motivation or temperaments of the characters. When the screenwriters aren't world-building, they're wowing us with one unexpected revelation after another. The amount of twists and turns that pile up during the last act of the film will make the average viewer giddy with excitement.
Despite a budget of just over one million dollars, the film-makers manage to wring an epic amount of scale out of the production. The wasteful battle between thousands of Rebel and Confederate troops over a single bridge across the Rio Grande is pure spectacle and a poignant comment about the value of human life. The sets and props are gritty and convincing and the character's costumes are downright iconic. Ennio Morricone's score is also wildly original, drunkenly careening between darkly amusing, oddly uplifting and downright unnerving. If you're not whistling the main theme during the end credits you may want to check your pulse.
The performances are superb. Clint Eastwood is confident, wily and cool under pressure, even when he's laboring under Tuco's worst abuses. His indelible portrayal of Blondie inspired an entire generation of action heroes who might not be great conversationalists but they're a crack shot with a rifle. Lee Van Cleef is a suave, serpentine threat throughout the film and the level of menace and fear he single-handedly generates in the final act is considerable.
Having said all that, the real cause célèbre is Eli Wallach as Tuco. Vengeful, sneaky and prone to lord his fleeting victories over his opponents, Tuco is willing to do just about anything to weasel his way out of a bind. Eli Wallach manages to embody this perfectly but he also generates a surprising amount of empathy for the character thanks to some deft touches of humor.
Wallach's most inspired move is to underscore the character's buffoonery. As a result, both the audience and Tuco's opponents tend to underestimate him until it's too late. Although it's tempting write him off as a boorish oaf, there's a lot more to him then meets the eye. Witness the scene in which he blows away three would-be assassins, all without leaving the comfort of his bath tub!
Of course, most of the plaudits belong to director Sergio Leone. I really miss the days when you could identify a director just by watching the movie for five minutes. Leone pioneered such a distinct visual style he really belongs in the same pantheon as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg. Just by shooting the duelist's eyes in microscopic close-ups, he manages to generate an immediate intimacy between the audience and the characters.
By employing low angles and lingering establishing shots, Leone quickly immerses the viewer in the strange and alien world he's created. Like all great directors, Leone knew that if you let a camera linger on something as innocuous as a glass of water sitting on a table it will eventually generate an unbearable amount of suspense. As our surviving "heroes" run out the clock, Leone uses this technique to produce one of the most protracted and agonizing moments of sustained tension in cinema history.
This movie really is a marvel and you owe it to yourself to see it again for the first time thanks to the newly-restored and extended Blu-Ray edition. That's right, there's now more of this tremendous movie to love!