This has been on my to-watch list for years, but it took the possibility of seeing the referential The Good, The Bad, and The Weird at IFF Boston next week to finally push me into seeing it. It is my first spaghetti western, so bear with me as I sort through some of the things that I guess are conventions but still new to me. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly concerns three central characters whose mutual lust for a hidden treasure inextricably links their fates.
A loner known only as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) partners with infamous scoundrel Tuco (Eli Wallach) as con artists, but when a dying soldier tells them the location of a pile of gold, they cautiously search for it together, constantly fearing each other's betrayal. Meanwhile, the assassin Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he hunts down the soldier, and eventually, sets his sights on Blondie and Tuco.
As you probably are aware, this is one long movie, and sometimes the dubbing is distracting, but for the most part it works. The three central characters are entertaining enough to keep me interested for the nearly 3-hour running time (well, we also paused halfway through for some quesadillas), and there's a good amount of action, adventure, and intrigue to the story. Van Cleef and Eastwood seem to be fighting for ultra-cool dominance, and Eastwood sneaks by with a win mainly for rocking that poncho at the end. Their performances just ooze with smooth one-liners and charisma, truly living up to their now-iconic status. Wallach, on the other hand, is all sneers and suspicion, throwing jokes right and left and just generally living up to his "Ugly" title. His character is despicable, but Wallach is lucky that he's enjoyable to watch as an actor. Not so sure about his (presumably?) Mexican accent though.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, filled with soaring desert landscapes and decidedly dusty sets, with a high-contrast edge and intricate costumes. Leone incorporates a range of shooting techniques for a dynamic look, but sometimes I think he gets too wrapped up in his own stylization (a few too many dramatic close-ups, for example). Though I'd say the opening titles alone are enough of a visual treat to please me for the rest of the movie. Of course the music is great, and while it's a bit repetitive, it's really used perfectly to fit the mood of every scene, and often serves to either create or relieve tension.
I think my main complaint with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly rests with its story. Here's a western taking place during the Civil War, which, while time-wise it's appropriate, is thematically something I usually wouldn't identify with the genre. I'm a little shaky on my Civil War history, and so admittedly I spent some time trying to figure out exactly where this was all taking place, and what the hell Confederate soldiers were doing in the desert (afterward I found out about the New Mexico Campaign). While that was frustrating, I know it's not the movie's fault that I wasn't knowledgeable about its historical context.
However, the Civil War aspect still felt really out of place within the over-arching plot. There are a few run-ins with soldiers, and towards the end Tuco and Blondie are caught up in a massive battle, but every time something war-related popped up, it felt irrelevant to the actual story and just took up more time than it needed. The gold-hunting narrative seemed to be the dominant one, and the war stuff was awkwardly worked in around it. If the two had been integrated more fully, or the Civil War subplot was lost altogether, I think the script would have been much more successful.
Anyway, it's still a really awesome film with excellent performances and cinematography, and I'm looking forward to seeing the other entries to the "Dollars" trilogy (especially since A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of that epitome of cool, Yojimbo).