The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966.  Directed by Sergio Leone. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach.

There is an essential cynicism at the heart of the so-called "Spaghetti Western," and a troubling moral ambiguity. The heroes of the Italianate western happily exterminate the bad guys without the pangs of conscience and the bad guys are REALLY bad, so they deserve their fate. The good guys, if one can use that phrase to describe these characters, are almost always motivated by money, by greed. The salient characteristic that elevates them above the bad guys is that they are cleverer than the bad guys and don't go around behaving like sadistic creeps. They are no less lethal, but they don't take it out on the extras, if you know what I mean. Clint Eastwood, who is the dubious "Good" of the title of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, is a good example of this. At the outset of the movie, Clint's "Man with No Name" is happily defrauding law enforcement agencies with the aid of Eli Wallach's "Ugly"--Clint turn in his partner for the reward money, then shoots the rope and helps him escape when they turn out to hang him. Hardly an upstanding citizen. Of course, the other two central characters in this movie are a lot worse. Wallach's "Tuco" is amoral and belligerent, faults compounded by the fact that he is uncooth, as well. And Lee Van Cleef's "Bad" guy is just as evil as they come, a remorseless murderer who will kill his friends as readily as his enemies when it suits his purposes. The plot of the movie is motivated by greed, too, revolving around a fortune in Confederate gold that awaits the man ruthless enough to find it. The main problem with getting it, though, is that the Civil War is going on around our trio of gunfighters. If you stop to think about all of this, the Spaghetti Westerns--The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, in particular--become somewhat repellant, which explains why they occupy a place just outside the mainstream of the Western proper. It is well know that John Wayne himself HATED the Spaghetti Westerns because they presented an ugly and untrue picture of The West--he reportedly said this to Eastwood's face. Even so, it didn't stop the Spaghetti Western from influencing some of Wayne's later movies (The Cowboys comes to mind).

Leone's Westerns ambush this kind of deep thought, though. They load the screen with unforgettable images and utilize the essential ugliness of the material to transform his movies into brooding meditations on alienation and existentialism. As his movies progress from A Fistful of Dollars to Once Upon a Time in The West, they begin to look less and less like Westerns and more and more like opera, with Ennio Morricone's screaming, iconic scores providing the overture for the action.  The length of the later movies (both TGTB&TU and Once Upon a Time in the West clock in at three hours or more) bespeaks their intent as epics--but they are strange epics, filled with lonely vistas and empty streets that seem miles wide. There are long passages where nothing much happens except the staring of opposing gunfighters, their steely eyes cold beneath wide-brimmed hats that fill the screen in tight close-up. These long, languid passages are almost always shattered by gunshots as loud as thunderbolts. In the formal particulars of his movies, Leone reveals himself as a gifted pop artist, one who, like Andy Warhol, takes his material from (metaphorical) car wrecks.

As a final note, a public service message: Sergio Leone's movies, without exception, should be seen in widescreen editions. Widescreen editions of his four principal Westerns exist on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD. Beware of pan and scan editions, particularly the editions put out by MGM home video in 1999--these are not only pale shadows of their widescreen glory, but these editions use the TELEVSION edits of the films!! A word to the wise, folks.


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