The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

With 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, director Sergio Leone put the spaghetti western on an international stage and in the process made star Clint Eastwood a hugely popular actor worldwide. Leone followed it up the next year with For a Few Dollars More, what some (including this guy) consider to be the best spaghetti western ever. It was all practice though for 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a movie that is bigger than just a spaghetti western or even a western in general. It's one of the best movies ever made.

It's 1863/1864 in the American southwest, and the Civil War is raging as Union forces battle with fleeing Confederate troops. Amidst all the fighting, a Confederate payroll has been stolen and ultimately hidden, buried away in a grave in a cemetery with thousands of near identical graves. The payroll of $200,000 in gold coins seems destined to waste away for all time, but three men know about it and are dead-set on acquiring it. Running a bounty scam, a drifting gunfighter, Blondie (Eastwood) and a Mexican bandit, Tuco (Eli Wallach) stumble across the information, one knowing the cemetery, the other knowing the name on the grave. A third man, a hired killer, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), is also on the prowl and never far behind. Who can get there first? Can they even make it alive?

I try not to throw this term around loosely, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of those rare perfect movies. Everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, all the little things working together seamlessly, impressive considering the scale of this movie. With the Civil War as its backdrop, it is a big, big western, the epitome of an epic. The scale Leone shoots his movie would be jaw-dropping in itself, but it's handled well. The Almerian locations in Spain become an additional character, using the land like so many other spaghetti westerns attempted but failed to do. It is an incredible visual experience. If not beautiful, it is powerful in its image. More details on all of this later, but Ennio Morricone's score is among the most instantly recognizable scores ever, the acting is perfect, the set pieces leaving a lasting impression, and a movie overall that won't easily be forgotten.

Like so many of the best directors, Leone had a knack for casting, and with Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef, the Italian director hits three home runs. Eastwood reprises his role from the first two Dollars movies, the man of few words gunslinger, Blondie (instead of Joe and/or Manco), who usually lets his gun do his talking. There's even an introduction of his infamous poncho. He is the prototypical anti-hero, the silent gunfighter looking for treasure. Van Cleef as Angel Eyes (Sentenza -- means Death Sentence -- in the Italian dubbing) is an all-time sinister villain, the hired killer who always seems to show up when least desired. Sinister, brutal, maniacal, all apply to this gunhand. The scene-stealer though is Wallach as Tuco, a well-traveled Mexican bandit. He's going 100 mph at all times, the fast-talking, quick-draw who is always crossing himself over his victims. These are all characters capable of carrying a movie on their own, but instead they work together to form one of the great lead ensembles ever assembled for a movie.

A couple smaller performances also deliver, regardless of how little screentime they have. Aldo Giuffre plays a Union captain who Blondie and Tuco come across in the midst of a battle. An alcoholic, he questions the lunacy of his orders but continues on because an officer must do his duty. Spaghetti regular Luigi Pistilli plays Father Ramirez, Tuco's brother who looks down upon what his brother has become, a lowly bandit. Spaghetti baddie Mario Brega plays Cpl. Wallace, a sadistic Union soldier looking over Tuco. Al Mulock plays a gunfighter gunning for Tuco after a past encounter. Fans of the genre should also look out for Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, and Lorenzo Robledo as members of Angel Eyes' gang.

What ends up being another character is Morricone's score, as key an ingredient to the movie's success as any score/movie relationship I can think of. The main theme -- listen HERE -- is instantly recognizable, and basically everyone around the world has heard at it some point whether they knew it or not. The unique sound, the whistling, the tune, it all sets the stage for a score that goes from epic and huge to personal and moving with the snap of a finger. Used several times in the movie, Carriage of the Spirits is an ethereal, other-worldly beautiful sample of music that still sends chills up and down my back upon hearing it. That's what Morricone does, he makes his music effective and powerful no matter what the scene or setting. The best though of all -- even better than the GBU main theme -- is a track entitled Ecstasy of Gold, a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. Why's it so good? More on that later (sorry, I will get to it). All in all, an incredible score that serves an integral role in making this movie a classic. One of the all-time great film scores.

A handful of set pieces dominate the film -- several abandoned western towns, a shootout in a bombed out town, a huge, bloody battle between Union and Confederate forces -- but it all pales to the ending, the film's last 30 minutes or so as Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes all near the gold. The extended sequence starts with Tuco finding the cemetery, racing through rows and rows of graves trying to find the name Blondie has told him. Set to Morricone's Ecstasy of Gold, the sequence defies words. It's dizzying and unsettling, Leone's camera breathlessly following Wallach as he runs, finally finding the wanted grave. Watch it HERE. Then it's the showdown, one of the most respected, iconic (drinking game? How many times have I used that?) gunfights ever. Leone's trick though is the build-up. It's almost 5 minutes of positioning and mind games, the camera bouncing back and forth in close-ups and extreme close-ups, a blur of eyes, hands, and guns, all three men daring the other to draw. Watch it HERE, the single, greatest standoff in the history of movies.

Watching this recently on a big screen -- thank you, Doc Films -- I realized something odd and unique about the movie. It took an Italian director in Leone to make the best Civil War movie around. I think that gets lost sometimes with the scale and epicness of the movie. Wrapped up in it all is an anti-war message, and an effective one. All the soldiers we meet are cripples, drunks, corrupt, and dying. We see bodies littered on trails and in streets like discarded garbage. A thief is callously shot down by a firing squad. A Confederate spy's body is lashed to a cow-catcher on a train as a warning to others. Without beating us over the head with his message, Leone effectively shows the horror of war but also the lunacy and stupidity of it all. As Eastwood's Blondie states while overlooking a battle, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly."

There it is, an epically long and rambling review for an epically great movie. Dark and cynical, it is oddly funny -- Tuco's 'When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk' and the running 'There are 2 types of people in this world' line providing some good laughs -- and shows off an underrated script with a story that spans months and hundreds of miles. It is that perfect movie. A buddy-journey story set in the American Civil War with perfect performances, an immensely giant scale, a great musical score, and choreographed action which has been attempted over and over ever since. The definition of what a movie should be. It doesn't get better than this.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly <---trailer (1966): ****/****


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  2. Fully agree, perfect movie. In my opinion THE best western ever, unmatchable. And the 1st or 2nd movie on my top 10 along with the Godfather.
    Thanks for the great review of one of my alltime favs.
    Each of the 3 principles in this give one of their most top-notch performances; like a great quarterback having his greatest game in the greatest Super Bowl ever.
    It has my personal 'greatest sequence of all time' in the 3 way gun-duel at the end, amazing build up and doesn't last a second too long or too short;one of if not the best score ever;it is without any doubt the most perfectly directed film of all time as far as I am concerned.

  3. Can't disagree, mas! I pick up something new with each viewing, gets better and better.