5/27/2013

150 Movies in 90 Days: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

May 26: #4, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: people who have seen this movie, and people who won't get the reference.

I'm not sure why I'm always surprised when I end up liking Westerns. After all, I can't even think of one that I've ever seen that I didn't like. From The Searchers, which I saw early in my (lengthy) college career as part of one of my English classes to 80s pseudo-Westerns like Young Guns (and its lesser sequel, which I also enjoyed), I've liked them all. Comedic Westerns like Maverick, modern, action-packed Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, they're all good in my book.

Yet, for some reason, when it comes time to actually watch a Western, I drag my feet. My mom loves Westerns and force-fed me The Outlaw Josey Wales, which was good, but felt every minute as long as its 135-minute running time.

So, when my mom brought over The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to watch on our usual Game of Thrones night, I was a little hesitant. Even if I end up liking Westerns, there's something about the genre that just doesn't have curb appeal for me, I suppose.

Still, I've always wanted to see some of Sergio Leone's famous spaghetti Westerns, and we even ate spaghetti that night to complete the theme and/or undermine the heritage of Italians everywhere.



The thing about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is that nobody can come into the film with a fresh mindset, because unless you've lived under a rock (where hopefully, people are passing the time by thinking of new clich├ęs to replace "living under a rock" with) all of your life, you are much more familiar with the film than you think you are.

Hello? The theme? Who hasn't heard that, or playfully whistled it when some drama was about to go down? Beyond that, have you seen a Quentin Tarantino film? There are dozens of well-worn tropes and conventions that can be traced back to the early Leone Westerns, including this one. Spotting them, even though it takes you out of the film a bit, really makes you appreciate how important The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has been in American culture and film history, as well.

Okay, so it's an influential movie. But is it any good?

You bet your sweet ass it is.

Right off the bat, you know what I love about Sergio Leone? His patience. We don't hear a single line of dialogue for several minutes, and I loved every second of it. Instead, extreme close-ups on grizzled men who were likely not even real actors told the story. At several points in the film, the tension is allowed not to build slowly in a way that today's spastic directors and easily bored viewers wouldn't stand for.

The plot, though, is genius. You've got three guys: a ruthless mercenary named Angel Eyes looking for a stash of gold (the perfectly heartless Lee Van Cleef), a quiet, reserved bounty hunter nicknamed "Blondie" (Clint Eastwood), and a sneaky, treacherous bandit called Tuco (perfectly played by Eli Wallach). After a lengthy opening act that sees Blondie and Tuco take turns double-crossing one another while Angel Eyes performs all manner of reprehensible, cold-blooded acts, all three end up after the same gold. 

However, what makes the plot great is that the money is buried in a grave in a vast cemetery, and while only Angel Eyes and Tuco know which cemetery the money is located at, Blondie is the only one who knows which grave, out of thousands, is the one where the money is buried.

My mom enjoys Tuco more than any other character in the film, and it's hard to fault her. Tuco is a slimy individual, but unlike the other two, he owns his sliminess. You've gotta respect that. Besides, he brings comic relief to the film and makes for one half of a great odd couple with the stoic Blondie.

"No, I have never bought wholesale quantities of meth from a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher. Why does everybody keep asking me that?!?"

Leone does a superb job as director, and the cinematography is often beautiful. Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head when he said that Leone's uncommon filming locations lent his Westerns a uniqueness that the American offerings of the same time frame couldn't compete with, and there are great shots of the vast, desolate landscape throughout the film that are often contrasted nicely with the intimate close-ups of the actors' faces.

Leone also knows how to frame a scene, with one notable example being when a laughing Tuco is forcing Blondie to trudge along in the desert without so much as a drop of water. Tuco's face takes up the left side of the screen as he guzzles water out of his canteen, while in the background, Blondie stumbles about, dying of thirst and trying to keep moving across the harsh landscape.

If I had to nitpick the film, there would only be three things I'd do so about. The first is that the climactic confrontation is well, rather anti-climactic. It builds nicely, as do all of Leone's scenes, but at that point nothing could really justify the epic journey we've witnessed, which is a product of the second nitpick I have, which is that the film is just a bit too long. Finally, the poorly overdubbed dialogue can be distracting, but the man was working on a tiny budget with actors that largely did not speak English. You have to look past it.

It's always a pleasure to watch so-called classics from decades ago and find that they are actually worthy of the label. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a film everybody should see. Grade: A.

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