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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

Leone carves into our cultural zeitgeist in all its goodness, badness, and ugliness.

Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly



Close up of th eyes of actors, Esatwood, Van Clef and Wallace in the movie 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.'
The eyes have it


Leone's Masterpiece


The world of cinema has bestowed upon us several awe-inspiring masterpieces, but few have left such an enduring impression as Sergio Leone's revered trilogy - “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”


It's all there: Cinematic style, Western story beats redefined, music.


Embarking on a journey through these films, one gets to witness an artist's vision unfurling in the most sublime manner. The full spectrum of Leone's artistic prowess comes to fore in the third film, rightly regarded as his magnum opus.


I watched all three back to back, an exercise in joy and hiding from -20 degree weather. As an audience member my sense of story and what makes a movie has refined itself over the years, but I've always loved the process of story: How an artist fully realizes their vision. That process hasn't changed much in thousands of years. Maybe the technology has changed bu the core engine of greta storytelling has not. Aristotle still makes perfect sense.


Technique


"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" redefined the contours of Western genre with its innovative cinematic techniques and storytelling style. The film broke away from the traditional mould, charting a new course that would inspire generations of filmmakers to come.


It certainly inspired my storytelling, and film scoring, it was a great pleasure to revisit the movie.


Leone's trilogy is not just about the beautiful visuals or the engaging storyline; it's about the impactful narrative that resonates with a wide range of audiences. It's an exemplar of how storytelling could be leveraged to create a new audience. They brought an entire new generation into the seats. A played out-genre that had been reduced to John Wayne lugging this old body back into the saddle and to be fake-tough while riding through a saturated technicolor Old West.


Our violent selves


It's tough to watch those old school westerns. They're full of chavaunism and racism, and brutal genocides. Leone saw an opportunity in that turgid genre. Revitalize with brutal truth.


The way he weaved his narrative, the attention to detail, and the unique storytelling style, all contribute to his monumental success. I can just imagine the pushback he endured through this process. The Suited World is never comfortable with an artist pursuing a novel vision.


Sergio Leone offers a treasure trove of inspiration.


The unforgiving landscape of the American West during the Civil War, three distinctive characters cross paths and clash in a tumultuous setting of war and violence - a setting that is the backdrop for the film, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." This iconic movie serves as the climactic conclusion of the legendary trilogy. It highlights not only the brutality and horrors of war but also the profound impact it has on individuals and society at large - a stark contrast to the violence witnessed in a Mexican village in the preceding film of the trilogy.


Leone takes steps back through the trilogy, slowly unfolding and widening his violent landscape to the ultimate vision of horror: A pointless battle over a useless bridge. Eastwood's character cuts right through to the essence of it.


Destroy the bridge and you've destroyed the purpose of the battle. He wades into the shallow stream and blows the bridge in spectacular fashion. In a snit fit of final violence, petulant canons send broadsides across the river at each other, then all grows silent as the troops slink away from the gore. A river of blood to no purpose. The essential theme of Leone's story.


Survive


In the midst of this chaos and turmoil, survival is the name of the game. Each character in the movie is fundamentally driven by the basic instinct to survive in a world that seems determined to crush them under its cruel heel. The unforgiving landscape and the relentless warfare painted a grim picture of the human struggle for survival.


Resiliency, determination, and sheer willpower are key themes heavily emphasized in the movie. The characters are not only fighting against each other but also against the ruthless environment and the cruel circumstances bestowed upon them. The film serves as a stark reminder of the grueling reality of war, and how it pushes individuals to their limits.


It is in and of itself a romantic vision: The lone wolf living by wits and gun. An archetype growing once more in our midst, as false then as now, and Leone bears sone responsibility to it, and Eastwood made an entire career out of it, and none of it helps, to be honest, against the true forces of disruption we face.


The enduring hero


Leone narrative uses violent confrontations and heart-wrenching decisions as tools to draw attention to the human condition in such dire circumstances. Each character's fight for survival is indicative of their individual strengths and weaknesses, painting an intricate picture of human nature under extreme stress. Nothing can bring Eastwood down, of course. It is merely a setup for a final test o pass Will he pass the test is never the question. His is the fastest gun. His is the face people love. His is the unbreakable will.


In essence, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is a profound exploration of survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Yes, the classic hero's journey serves as a reminder of the brutal realities of war and the resilience of the human spirit, but as exciting as this story was, it in its essence it does not wear well. In 2024 we've seen how the classic hero myth can be turned to a much darker side. Every gun fired in a school shooting features a gun slinger myth in the shooter's imagination: The glory of death by gun violence.


It's not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Charles Darwin

The Trilogy is ultimately about the death throes of a culture doomed to be swept away. The fences will be built. The Old West will be monetized. The invisible violence beneath all this is the unstoppable violence of unforgiving capitalism. The Lone Wolf is bad for the Bottom Line.


The useless archetype


It is such an enduring mythos in American lore we are suffering spasms of this dream in 2024, as many Americans think to vote for their latest projection of this fake hero myth in the persona of a corpulent corruption named Trump. That this myth has landed on such an unworthy projection speaks to the desperation of Americans to genuflect to the western lone wolf myth. Their faith is understandable though misplaced. And ultimately will prove tragic.


Leone sets his story in a bright, pale cinematography of light and dust. A boneyard. Ultimately, the characters themselves are covered in the dry dust of the dead, reduced to stealing gold from graves.


The music is angular, percussive, essential. The camera lingers on the eyes, goes deeper into the eyes with each cut, the three characters face off in a circle, a perfect balance of confrontation. Each character does the impossible math, and ultimately the hero makes the choice as to lives and who dies. He chooses the fool to live, as the fool is no threat to his hero manhood. The bad must die.


The good cowboy splits the winnings evenly and rides off into the obligatory sunset, with one last gesture of goodness, an impossible gun shot, as Leone close his epic story with the same image as he began. The loop is closed.


Credits


Ultimately, the Fool runs away with this movie. Eli Wallach turns in arguably his acting masterpiece. Eastwood defined his role for years to come. Van Cleef is the personification of cowboy bad guy. You know he's doomed. You love him for it. The perfect villain.


In the realm of cinematic creation, the screenplay for this masterpiece was crafted by the talented trio of Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and the visionary Leone himself. Intriguingly, there was an uncredited maestro, Sergio Donati, who contributed additional screenplay material and dialogues, adding an extra layer of magic to the script. This cinematic journey was inspired by a tale born from the creative minds of Vincenzoni and Leone.


The visual symphony of this film was orchestrated by none other than the brilliant director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli, whose expertise brought sweeping widescreen cinematography to life. And, enveloping every scene in a melodious embrace, the legendary Ennio Morricone graced the film with his soul-stirring score, including the unforgettable main theme.


I noted that the iconic them was not there in the first film, only as a passing idea, then edges out of the shadows a bit in the second flick, only to fully emerge in the final film. The evolution of creativity. The process I am so enamored of, and the reason revisiting this set is so exciting for me. I'm a geek.


This cinematic gem was not just an Italian creation but a collaborative effort, with co-producers hailing from the enchanting lands of Spain, the industrious heart of West Germany, and the United States of America. While the story may have transcended borders, most of the enchanting moments were captured amidst the picturesque landscapes of Spain. Spain is the final character. The light.


Be a cowboy or girl, light up a cigarillo, preferably in a stinky bar, whistle in your brain, a guilty pleasure, seriously flawed but it is the flaws that raise it into the Hall of Movie Fame, that carve it into our cultural zietgeist in all it's goodness, badness, and ugliness.






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