Favorite Movies A-Z: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Not unlike Yoji Yamada’s samurai trilogy, this is also not really part of a trilogy. People speak of “The Man With No Name Trilogy”, but other than Clint Eastwood playing taciturn, wandering gunslingers with a sense of justice and a similar wardrobe there isn’t much to make the three films a trilogy. Lee Van Cleef and a number of the European actors appear multiple times in very different roles, change from villain to virtuous character or vice versa, and even sometimes die in the different films, so positing strong links is difficult.

It’s almost strange that this should be the most lastingly popular of the three. A Fistful of Dollars cribs its plot from one of Kurosawa’s best. This film clocks in over three hours, and the simple plot meanders and wanders across a wide variety of episodes that serve as little more than delays before the film’s final gunfight. Our characters fight their way through the American Civil War in pursuit of a fortune in stolen gold.

Along the way our three titular characters run bounty hunter scams, impersonate army officers, meet alcoholic commanders, blow up bridges, reunite with long-lost family, and resolve several vendettas. A lot happens, and perhaps it’s heretical to suggest it, but it seems like we might could have dispensed with a few things to make the journey to the final showdown a little quicker.

But, oh! What a final showdown! A three-way duel (triel? truel?) where the tension draws tighter than one would think possible. Much of why that is possible is another strength of the movie above the other two: Ennio Morricone’s score. (Yes, I know he did the other two. This one is clearly the best.) The music is some of the most memorable in all cinema.

The other great strength evident in the conclusion which is absent from the other two films is The Ugly (Eli Wallach). It would be too much to claim that it’s not actually a Clint Eastwood film, but Wallach steals scenes throughout with an effortless charisma despite being an obvious crook and scoundrel. With his obvious talent it’s a shame and a mystery to me why he didn’t get nearly so many as leading roles as he clearly deserved.

A modern viewer might find the rougher edges off-putting, I admit. The lines were clearly dubbed in after shooting. Some voices are obviously out of sync because of language differences. It is, after all, an English-language Western, made by Italians and shot in the Spanish countryside. Sometimes the sets and geography work, but sometimes it’s all a bit wonky. Really though, it’s probably pointless to carp. However justified and correct any of these criticisms might be, what results is much more than the sum of its parts. Leone made a genre-redefining Western and an all-time great film.

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