We open on a long, wide shot of a desert with some mountains in the background. Nondescript, almost featureless, there is nothing about it that grabs your eye. Suddenly a face enters the frame and we are looking at a close-up of a gunfighter. Dirty, grizzled and scarred, the face fills the screen. We can barely see the desert behind him. With this shot, director Sergio Leone helped to reinvent that uniquely American genre, the Western.
In the films of one of the quintessential directors of American Westerns, John Ford, the land serves as a formidable backdrop, sturdy and imposing. Adding a kind of majesty to the narrative, it becomes a tacit commentary on the actions of the people below as they struggle and flail about, in search of some peace of mind. You will never see a single figure blot out an entire landscape in a John Ford Western.
The gritty face of the new Western
Leone, on the other hand, is interested in a different kind of landscape, the landscape of the human face. Weathered and worn, his faces are a genuine reflection of the lives they lead. Leone is not afraid to put it all on display in magnificent close-up (how did they manage to get those flies to land and crawl across the actors' faces?).
And unlike the people in a Ford movie--John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara are beautiful monuments in themselves--there is nothing noble about Leone's characters. Backstabbing and corrupt, they only look out for their own self-interests. They don't trust anyone, nor can they be trusted. It is a world of utter amorality. Even when they appear to be performing a good deed, they do so because it serves their own personal agenda. Late in the movie, two of the characters blow up a bridge because, ostensibly, it will put an end to a lot of senseless killing between two warring factions of the Union and the Confederacy. The truth is that they need to get to the other side of the river. By getting rid of the bridge the battling regiments will stop fighting and go away, allowing our "heroes" to cross safely.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is about three men (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach) on a quest for a treasure in gold coins. Because each of them has only partial information regarding the gold's whereabouts, uneasy alliances are formed along the way and a trail of bodies will be left in their wake.
The epic and the violent
The story takes place during the Civil War, giving Leone a chance to show his skill at handling epic scenes. At one point the camera starts close on Eastwood and Wallach. As they begin to enter a Union camp, the camera follows them and it becomes a panoramic shot of an entire encampment, battered and broken.
Leone also manages to walk that fine line between the glorification of violence and the depiction of its deplorable waste. The scene I mentioned earlier--about the Union and Confederate soldiers fighting and dying over a bridge that is of no real consequence--calls to mind a scene in "Hamlet" where the young prince is talking to a Captain about two armies fighting over "a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name."
Of course, you can't have a good shoot-'em-up without some impressive gunplay. Leone succeeds in putting together some of the best gunfights and one of the most memorable showdowns in all of cinema.
From the lyrical music of the Spaghetti Westerns, the passionate compositions in "The Mission," and the tender themes in "Cinema Paradiso" (to name a few), Ennio Morricone is, without a doubt, one of the most gifted composers--and one of the greatest gifts--to the legacy of motion pictures. One would be remiss to forget to mention his contribution to this and any other movie on which he has collaborated. I don't remember where I heard this but it bears repeating (and I am paraphrasing): If there is not a special place in heaven for Ennio Morricone then I don't need to go there.