The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Director: Sergio Leone
'Waa-aa-aa-aa-aaah! Wah wah wah.' It's an ugly score to an ugly movie, a soundtrack intro that is instantly recognisable, even if you've never sat through its epic three hours: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, possibly the greatest western of all time.
The scheming team of Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) have made a lucrative racket out of the price on the latter's head - but double-crosses are common in this neck of the west, and when things go sour for the ugly Mexican, he takes his revenge south-of-the-border style through a scorching stroll in the desert.
Minutes before he meets his maker, a chance encounter with a wayward wagon offers the parched Blondie a tombstone keyword to a buried cache of gold. It's then a race to the death between the 'good' (Blondie), the 'bad' (the steely-gazed Angel Eyes, played by Lee Van Cleef) and the movie-stealing 'ugly' (Tuco).
The film's ugliness is evident in its title and character names, but things run deeper here, stretching to its sentiments and sense of deconstruction. With the first part in his trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, director Sergio Leone had broken down the then-overworked western genre and injected new life with an ultra-realistic sense of Euro-grime. Clean-cut John Wayne types with biblical ethics were replaced with sweaty, stubble-and-squint bounty hunters, for whom profit was the only moral compass.
A style-over-substance mentality pervaded: operatic hyperboles where close-ups were in your face, wide shots took in the entire landscape and everything was cruel, ugly and real. The idea was poorly imitated in dozens of 'spaghetti westerns' by a posse of Italian proteges (hence the pasta reference), and Leone mined the unsustainable one-note territory to its eventual death in the follow-up, For a Few Dollars More.
For the third film, the kernel of killers in lawless towns was still there, but this time infused with deeper slices of life. Over its three-hour running time, Leone zigzags between different stories - opening with a drawn-out bloodbath, jumping to a quick-witted con game and moving to a brutal desert-set revenge piece, before settling on a harrowing civil war epic.
The backdrop of the war offered a body-strewn playground for the director, a landscape where his larger-than-death band of reprobates could run free, experiencing the horrors of war but always keeping their greedy place in the world in mind. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly's influence - on not only its own genre's deconstruction, but the entire strong-silent-type action aesthetic - is almost unmatched. But unlike 'classics' that send many a casual film-goer to sleep, here's a film that hasn't lost any of its hideous charms; a slow-burn epic that builds to a brutal yet almost beautiful graveyard crescendo. A film that's as ugly as it ever was.