MGM // 1966 // 179 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // June 11th, 2009
They formed an alliance of hate to steal a fortune in dead man's gold.
"You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those
with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."
While America is in the violent throes of the Civil War, a mercenary named Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef, Escape from New York) searches for a Confederate officer named Bill Carson who knows the location of a chest of gold. While perpetrating a series of mean-spirited double-crosses against one another, former partners in swindling Tuco (Eli Wallach, Baby Doll) and Blondie (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry) happen upon Carson and are forced back into cahoots when the dying officer tells Tuco the name of the cemetery and Blondie the name on the headstone of the particular plot where the chest is buried. As the shady duo work their way toward the gold, they end up in a Union prison camp where they come to the attention of the sadistic Angel Eyes. Eventually escaping the camp, Tuco and Blondie discover that the Union and Confederate armies are deadlocked in battle on the site of the buried treasure. The duo must destroy a bridge in order to end the stand-off and clear the two armies out of the area. But even if they succeed, they'll have to contend with the deadly Angel Eyes...and each other.
Sergio Leone's lasting influence on cinema is astounding considering he made only six auteur films (as well as a handful of mostly forgettable and mostly uncredited director-for hire movies) over a period of three decades. Adding to the incongruity of Leone's hefty cinematic footprint, four of the Italian director's six movies are westerns. One would assume that the work of a European director who mostly specialized in faux-American genre pieces shot in Spain would be forgettable. One would be wrong. In deconstructing a uniquely American genre, Leone didn't just ape Hollywood conventions, he created a style of stone-cold cool that perfectly fit the anti-authoritarian 1960s, revitalized the western as a genre, and became an enormous influence on prominent Hollywood filmmakers from Clint Eastwood to Quentin Tarantino. Leone's brand of cool -- distinguished by clever, worldly, and fundamentally amoral men as skilled at deception as they are at blowing each other's heads off -- is a cynical statement about human nature and the world in which we live.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best, the most Leone-esque of Leone's work. The director's first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), is a slavish (though immensely entertaining) remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's superior Yojimbo. For a Few Dollars More (1965) is a more epic, sure-footed, and personal follow-up that, while tons of fun watch, feels as though Leone is reaching for a grandeur that is just beyond the grasp of both his skills and budget. The three movies that follow The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) -- succumb to one extent or another to the narrative entropy and scattered storytelling to which Leone was prone. But The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is perfect -- epic in scale but personal in focus, deliberately paced but driven by a strong and compelling narrative through line. It is a series of delicious double-crosses and witty turns of plot punctuated by prescient political statements about war and the more harrowing aspects of the American dream.
Though the film is set during the Civil War, the war itself is mostly relegated to the periphery, occasionally intruding into the main action in order to make circumstances difficult for Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes. But when Leone places the war front and center, he does so with an eye toward showing its horrors and inhumanity. None of the Union or Confederate soldiers' actions are romanticized in the slightest. Instead, we see amputees, prisoners of war, wounded young men, corpses, and an alcoholic Union officer disillusioned with his Sisyphean task of capturing a bridge one day only to lose it the next and have to recapture it the day after that. Even though Leone primarily uses the Civil War as background noise, its weight is always felt in the film's tone. The war's moral gravity emphasizes the apolitical and amoral bent of the quest of the flick's three lead scoundrels. Perhaps for Leone, Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes were the epitome of the American soul. The trio is so obsessed with their quest for material riches that they barely notice the catastrophic moral hell hole that surrounds them.
Because of the rich, dynamic, and incredibly entertaining performances of Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach, the heavy thematic content never weighs down the movie's plot or pacing. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was Eastwood's third and last go-round with Leone. His strong but mostly silent Man with No Name character anchors the film but is the least interesting of the three leads (perhaps because, as far as Eastwood was concerned, his professional relationship with Leone was beginning to fall victim to the law of diminishing returns). Lee Van Cleef joined Leone's stable of regular actors when he took on the role of aggrieved bounty hunter Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More. As great as he is in that picture, he's even better as Angel Eyes, a role that allows him to play the sort of squinting, tight-lipped sadism he'd mastered throughout his early career in traditional American westerns like High Noon. For the most part, war, greed, and cruel fate are the movie's antagonists, but Angel Eyes is the closest it has to a human villain. If Van Cleef's was the standout performance in For a Few Dollars More because of the dramatic tension he created as a foil to Eastwood's laconic gunslinger, than Wallach's is the standout performance in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because of the richness he adds to the existing Eastwood-Van Cleef chemistry. Tuco is an utter scumbag, a greedy, self-serving, murderous, double-crossing liar and thief. But Wallach plays him with such an impish spark that we sort of like him despite our better instincts. His game of one-upmanship with Blondie is a clinic in Leone's penchant for peppering his stories with devious wit and narrative misdirection. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a finely honed epic, but much of its power rests in how easily we connect with Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach.
While it's easy to talk about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as though it's an almost academic deconstruction of the American western, it's important to remember that it's also a deeply entertaining film, a great western in its own right. The movie (along with the other two entries in the Dollars trilogy) is Leone's love letter to a genre he admired. Consider the flick's climactic gunfight. Countless American westerns feature duels between gunfighters. Leone's is simultaneously conventional and unique. His precise shot selection and editing (even using the close-ups of hands poised above pistol butts that one expects in classic westerns) bow to the conventions of the genre. His use of a distended period of tension-building inaction that explodes into brief but definitive violence is homage to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. His reformatting of the gunfight convention into a battle between three antagonists instead of two is an expression of his aspirations as an epic storyteller. Combined, these features make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly's climactic standoff one of the most memorable in the entire history of the western. But the scene isn't iconic because of the way Leone synthesizes his Eastern and Western influences, or because of his deep knowledge of the stylistic flourishes of the genre in which he's working. It sticks in the mind because it's so off-the-chain cool, the capper to a flick with a surplus of bad-assed, steely-eyed machismo.
The contrast between wide shots of barren landscapes and tight close-ups of actors' grizzled features is the hallmark of Leone's visual style. It's a style that benefits enormously from high definition. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may have been made over four decades ago, but it looks great on Blu-ray. The 1080p AVC transfer captures every crevice, mole, hair, scar, and bead of sweat on the actors' faces. Wide shots aren't quite as impressive, but they're still noticeably better than on DVD. Colors are accurate throughout, while black levels are mostly solid. Though digitally restored back in 2004, the source print still shows signs of minor age-related wear. It's not a problem, though, as a pristine presentation would be an odd mismatch with the rugged aesthetics of the movie itself -- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is designed to look a little rough around the edges. Like the 2004 Special Edition DVD, the Blu-ray presents the restored, 179-minute cut of the film meant to approximate the version shown at the movie's 1966 premiere in Rome.
The Dolby 5.1 surround track created for the 2004 DVD has been upgraded to a DTS HD 5.1 lossless audio mix for the Blu-ray. Given the limitations of the original mono source, the track is far from reference quality. It suffers from shrill high end, a flat and unnatural ambient space, and isolated instances of distortion. Still, the flaws come directly from the source and are not a digital transfer problem. Purists will be delighted that the original Italian mono track is also included. They'll be less happy that the original English mono is not. Instead, the available English mono track is a down-conversion of the restored surround mix, which includes some sound effects like cannon blasts added to the original source. Everyone but hardcore purists will find the disc's audio more than adequate given the vintage and limitations of the original analog recording.
The disc houses a hefty dose of extras, though nearly all of them are ported over from the previously released two-disc Special Edition DVD. The only new supplement is a feature-length audio commentary by film writer Christopher Frayling (Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone). Film critic Richard Schickel's commentary from the DVD is also included. There's a fair amount of overlap between the two tracks, though Frayling's is the more academic while Schickel's is full of technical observations and production anecdotes.
In addition to the two commentaries, there are a five featurettes:
Leone's West (19:55) features Richard Schickel talking about European produced westerns and Leone's role in the history of the spaghetti western. The piece also includes interviews with translator Mickey Knox, producer Alberto Grimaldi, and Clint Eastwood.
In The Leone Style (23:48) Schickel, Knox, Grimaldi, and Eastwood analyze the hallmarks of Leone's style -- his sometimes languid sense of pacing, his emphasis on tight close-ups, his painterly compositions, and the dark wit and vicious irony of his plots.
The Man Who Lost the Civil War (14:24) is about the Sibley Campaign, a trench battle in the deserts of Texas similar to what is depicted in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Reconstructing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (11:09) details the work that went into recreating the full-length Italian theatrical cut of the film. The piece covers the restoration and transfer of the original Techniscope negative, modern ADR sessions with Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood to dub dialogue for scenes that were cut for the American release and never dubbed in English back in the '60s, and recording of new effects for the 5.1 mix.
Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (7:48) -- film music historian Jon Burlingame (Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks) talks about Ennio Morricone's storied career as a film composer with special attention given to his iconic work on Leone's spaghetti westerns.
In addition to the featurettes, there are two deleted scenes. One is an extension of a sequence in which Tuco is tortured by Angel Eyes. It matches the scene as it originally appeared in the Italian version of the film, but the original negative was too badly damaged to be restored to match the quality of the rest of the transfer. The second is a reconstruction of a three-minute scene in which Tuco harasses the citizens of a small town called Socorro.
Finally, the disc contains the original American trailer for the film as well as a French trailer.
As great as it is to see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in high definition (and it's great, indeed), MGM missed an opportunity by presenting only the extended cut of the film on Blu-ray. Moving the documentaries and featurettes to a second disc while using Blu-ray's massive capacity to present both the European and American cuts of the movie on Disc One via seamless branching would have made this release something special. Instead, it's merely a reasonably priced replacement of the old two-disc Special Edition DVD (although the standard Blu-ray keepcase packaging makes this disc feel far less special than the two-disc DVD, which was housed in a heavy-duty cardboard box and included an oversized insert booklet and postcard-sized reproductions of international poster art for the film).
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is arguably the greatest and most influential revisionist western ever made. Its story is riveting and its characters iconic. Fans of the film will be pleased with how gorgeous it looks in high definition.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 179 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes