the last 30 minutes of this film is pure cinematic power, i just had to get that out of the way first. now let me start at the beginning and try to keep this short…the title sequence – there aren’t many films that have a title sequence that is worth mentioning, but this is one of them. not only is the opening theme amazing (morricone at his undeniable best), but the red, white, green and other colors over the faces of the three main characters just looks so striking. it’s a memorable title sequence. each of the three leads turns in a great performance and really embodies the character like only great actors can do with great characters. eli wallach has probably the best performance of the three because his role is tougher and more dynamic, and likely has the most screen time.
roger ebert points out in an essay that comes with the dvd that much of GBU is about what is just outside of the frame and then shortly becomes apparent with a movement of the camera. he makes a good point here about the visual portion of the film. it’s not a new technique that leone employs, but it is a unifying motif of the film – something that is there, but is unseen until leone decides to show it. this doesn’t just happen visually within the frame, it also happens plot-wise with the characters. the best example of this is that each of the characters has a piece of the puzzle needed to get the 200 thousand dollars – wallach and van cleef know the cemetery where the money is buried, but not the grave, eastwood knows the grave, but not the cemetery. in this sense what they don’t know is just as important as what they do know. visually the same thing holds true when, for example, we see eastwood laying on the ground at the foot of a boot. assuming it’s wallach’s foot eastwood grabs the boot in an attempt to trip wallach, the camera pulls back and we see it’s just the boot with no foot in it. the camera pulls back some more and we see a bucket of water that eastwood obviously desires, the camera pulls back some more and we see wallach is washing his bootless foot in the water. leone reveals each part of this scene piece by piece to make the impact greater. had he chosen one long shot that showed the entire scene then we wouldn’t have been as impacted by each disappointment eastwood experiences. i also think that this motif of leone’s relates to another theme of the picture – relativity or fluidity of truth. everything is relative to whatever is in the frame, or whatever leone is showing us. the terms “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” are all relative to each other. eastwood’s character isn’t all that good when you consider some of the killing he does or the fact that he leaves wallach in the desert for no apparent reason.
the film’s score is simply one of the best in film history – it’s the very definition of epic, but has some lyrical passages as well which operate well in the sequence where wallach is getting beaten for information by van cleef’s goon. the dvd transfer makes the film look and sound like it would have at its premiere. it’s a criterion level release so if you’re at all interested in this film pick up this version asap.
the good, the bad and the ugly is an epic and visionary masterpiece by a master of cinema. it’s not the best film of all-time, it’s not flawless, but it is an inspired work by a truly visionary auteur and for that reason alone any fan of film should watch this picture. watching this film for the first time may very well be like listening to ornette coleman’s “free jazz” for the first time. in a lot of ways this film’s style is that much different than the westerns that had come before it.