Essentials #17 : THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1967)

Perhaps the greatest western of all-time. Sergio Leone’s relentless epic elevated the genre onto a level of cinematic artistry. Like Hitchcock, Leone was a master in the art of foreplay. This is a mandatory must-see for filmmakers, enthusiasts, and casual filmgoers everywhere.

This is one of those movies you just have to see. Call it a right-of-passage. A pop culture phenomenon. Popcorn opera. If you have any sort of interest in movies, you can’t go through life without having seen THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY. This movie boasts a rare occurrence when the acting, writing, cinematography, editing, sound, music, set design, costume, etc. are all in sync with one other. The result?

A+ — A perfect film.

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of how great each department did their job because there are countless essays and books written on those merits. There’s no question the craft is impeccable, so I’d rather talk about how Sergio Leone was an absolute pioneer of the art cinematic foreplay and the close-up.

Aside from the brilliant narrative twists, the story is pretty much like any western:

There’s money stashed away somewhere. The Man with No Name, the outlaw bandit, and the evil villain are all in search of it. Ultimately, a final shootout will settle the score.

No pun intended, but for Leone, shootouts are not really the main draw. He’s more concerned about what happens before the shoot-out.

I call it cinematic foreplay.

If you’re familiar with his work (particularly his westerns), every major duel sequence is stretched out like a piece of yarn. Every movement. Every gesture. It’s all emphasized to the audience through tight close-ups. Watching duels in his films are like the moments in a rollercoaster right before you hit that drop. It’s the dread and suspense that hits you before the wheels actually turn.

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Telephoto Lens framing of Tuco. Death on the left, the money on the right. His possible fate, front and center.

This is because Leone is fascinated by the rituals each character performs before a showdown. He highlights these little nuances because he understands that the audience’s emotional involvement will be far greater as opposed to just showing people spraying bullets at each other. This is an educational lesson for all filmmakers(not just action ones), especially when approaching a set piece for their film.

Take your time. Pace yourself. Build the stakes, its opposition and the punch-line will be worth it.

The payoff of storytelling is far more rewarding when the set-up is well-constructed.

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Mexican Stand-Off

The finale is over 15 minutes long! However, I’d say only 30 seconds of that has dialogue. It’s just mood and visual cues.

Again, it’s the foreplay. A big component is Leone’s use of the telephoto lens close-up, which flattens the image, pinning its subject to the background.

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Eli Wallach as Tuco aka The Ugly
  1. By nature, close-ups highlight an action, a character, an idea; they basically say to the viewer, “This is important. Look at this.”
  2. Close-ups heighten the suspense because we can’t see what’s on either side of the frame so the viewer is forced to imagine the space the characters inhabit off-screen.
  3. Lastly, through precise editing, sound, and music, close-ups create drama.
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Lee Van Cleef aka The Bad

This is why Leone films have such an epic quality to them. There is great emphasis on the details: the faces, their guns, their eyes, their subtle body language. And it’s all juxtaposed against the wide open landscape of the American Frontier, a lawless world where morality shifts from one man to the next. Through geography, we see the contrast of humanity and violence.

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The Good

These^ shots are actual edits from the final sequence. I mean, just look at the blocking. Attention to detail is always important in a sequence like this. The framing of his holster, his hand, and the opposition in the background in one static shot creates more tension than the hundreds of millions of dollars we pour into unnecessary CGI each year.

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While I wax on about how great Leone is at setting up all of these visual components, Ennio Morricone’s score is really what catapults Leone’s canvas to a grand, operatic scale. Just listen to “The Ecstasy of Gold” during the scene where Tuco (ELI WALLACH) looks for the money.

Who would have thought opera singers and the Old West would make such a perfect pairing?

In retrospect, it actually makes sense. Operas are grand stories told in lyrical format. Westerns are lyrical stories told in a grand format. There’s a certain level of theatricality these two genres share. And like music, action is all about movement and tempo. It all builds to the inevitable climax where death is inescapable. For Westerns, it’s the duel.

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Who the fuck doesn’t love a good duel!?

There are so many great scenes in the film but the final duel is really what does it for me. In fact, you can’t have a western without some sort of gunplay or general badass-ery going on. If you want to learn the craft of filmmaking, everything you need to know can be studied and analyzed in THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY. To paraphrase the running joke in the movie, “There are two kinds of filmmakers, those who don’t watch movies and those who watch movies…and actually learn.”

You do the watching.

Other Highlights

  • Eli Wallach is the highlight of this film for me. His portrayal of TUCO, the Mexican bandit, has got to be one of the greatest characters in film history. Wallach got everything down, from the Mexican accent (he’s actually a Jewish New Yorker) to the movement of an outlaw. He has such great physical control in his performance that you immediately have a grasp of the character the minute he is introduced [or shall I say crashes] on-screen. The way he runs in the final sequence is simply incredible.
  • This movie also stars Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Enough said.
  • While it’s a Spaghetti western set during the Civil War in America, starring Americans, and made by Italians, the movie was actually shot in Spain.
  • The script is actually is quite incredible. The banter is witty, the timing is right, and you actually don’t see the twists and turns.
  • Quentin Tarantino cites this as one of his favorite films and its influence on his work is obvious. I can see why. The dialogue, the high stakes involved, and stand-offs in his films are all first-rate and it’s because he’s learned from the best.
  • If you like this movie, I recommend the trilogy: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
  • If you like the trilogy, I highly recommend ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (more of an Art Western)
  • This is my father’s favorite film. He, along with my brother, introduced this great film to me and it’s shaped me over the years.
  • Tuco: “Id…idd…” Blondie: “Idiot.” (hands paper to Tuco) “It’s for you.”

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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