The Dollars trilogy, or The Man with no Name Trilogy, have finally come to an end after three years in collaboration with Clint Eastwood; and ironically enough with each film they work on together, Eastwood’s character becomes less and less on the spotlight. The trilogy itself may not be perfect under my eyes, and my praise for it may not be as immediate as other classics, but I do deeply respect it, especially since it played a large part, among a few others, in the shaping of my current admiration of the medium that is cinema. Clint Eastwood was my first hero of the Western genre, and I guess you could also say Sergio Leone was also my first from behind the camera, exposing me to a genre that I was ignorant of at the time.
For A Few Dollars More may have not sustained its appeal on me as time passed, but thankfully The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly managed to reach even higher, as I found Leone here at the start of his pinnacle. Leone, a filmmaker who remains committed to his sense of style, is here at his third film of a ‘franchise’, finding himself at his most indulgent, but also at his most effective; an approach that no longer loses itself in the self-aware manner that A Fistful of Dollars was, and finds the wonderful balance of methodical manipulation and profound texture that For A Few Dollars More so achingly ambitioned for. Achieving so whilst extending the running time of the feature, a parallel growth to the budget that he has received for the production of the feature, doubling of what was given for his previous film; filmmakers whose budgets increased in quick succession, it is not uncommon for a tendency to lose themselves into the demands of the production, possibly reaching far too high without the appropriate experience and talent to match, thus leaving audiences easily underwhelmed. Leone, much like the transition from the first film to the second, shows his rapid ability to refine his trademarks, no longer implementing style for the sake of it, filling the extensive running time with each passing moment that contributes with great value to the overall film.
Leone returns to the widescreen format, utilising it to the best of his abilities, consuming the frame with glorious close-ups and expansive battlefields; increasingly utilising the deep focus treatment to his shot composition, allowing simultaneous developments to appear at once, ensuring shots are extended to the most of their abilities, unrelying of the constant cut transitions that traditional filmmaking would provide. Much like his previous works, Leone utilises the efforts of his frequent collaborator, Ennio Morricone, in the film’s grandest or most intimate of moments; a musical score that carries a distinct personality, three to be specific, and a mixture of sounds that blend the effort of his previous collaborations with the director; needing not more than a single viewing to embed such wonderful sounds into one’s mind. Leone finally has gained himself the scope and atmosphere that suits the melodramatic energy that pulsates in his story and the relationships of his characters. The director finally features a story that carries a profound sense of weight, even with its cynical characters in focus, he places them in a backdrop of significant resemblance, The American Civil War, and with this, his shots finally are redeemed of their sense of style, adding thought in its moments of patience and anticipation, soaking the atmosphere and speaks volumes subconsciously of the intentions of his characters.
The war that surrounds its characters evoke a judgement of the greed that consumes the hearts of its characters, and in some pausing moments, our leading characters shed personal insight on the act of war, transmitting possibly Leone’s own outlook of such an event. The war in its backdrop exposes the moral integrity of its characters, led by the sound of potential gold, treading through the landscape with at times a too narrow-minded to share any decency for those who fight for such a cause, whether it may be individualised governance or the preservation of slavery from the Confederacy or the preservation of the Union and abolish the concept and spread of slavery; cynical and unwilling to sacrifice or share themselves for the future of their nation. In gaining insight from the travelling characters themselves, we gain a sense of understanding of one’s reservation towards such a cause, the concept of a mass sacrifice of another’s cause, almost leading its soldiers to a definite death, a wasted life emphasised by Blondie’s later remarks; Leone pushes an anti-war theme that is emphasised further in the seen destruction that surrounds the journey of our characters as passing towns are crumbled by the bombardment of canon fire, neutral residents constantly at a transition in hopes to find a sheltering peace from the chaos, and meaningless monuments like a bridge over a river is preserved and fought but carrying little significance to the fighters themselves.
Immoral our three key figures may be in their search for the hidden gold, I feel Leone attempts to push the reward as an unspoken necessity for its characters rather than a simply flaw in their characterisation, especially since they currently reside within a transition of their current surroundings, unknowing of what is to come ahead, wanting to achieve security and comfort in the nation’s eventual reconstruction; but of course such an idea is buried far too deeply to be palpable during one’s run through. Their unworthy attitudes and agendas are however entertaining, Leone finally capturing the wonderful essence of partnership, an attempt that was not as well received by me during For A Few Dollars More, now adding onto this film with a sense of friction and distrust over the other, but bounded by necessity in reaching its glorious reward. It was in Blondie and Tuco’s partnership that chemistry was engaging, drawing us in with its great humour and banter, earning their intentions of betrayal and aid rather than simply having them present to progress its plot. Angel Eyes is however primarily isolated from the other two characters, a journey of his own that would intersect with the others during the film’s intermediate; a character that gains notoriety through his ease to kill, paired with images of murdering members of a family at their humble homes or a man weakened at his bed, based solely on the principle of fulfilling a payment. Despite his evil doings, his devilish motives are not as far from the displayed undertaking and attitude of the film’s two other characters, as Tuco and Blondie also display self-driven and sneaky profiteering acts but simply placed at a more positive light, where we find ourselves in joy from Tuco’s manic reactions and Blondie’s sly deceitfulness, and the ultimate effect from their actions are only felt singularly, as their impact is limited to the suffering caused towards one another.
Leone utilises the strong performance and chemistry between Clint Eastwood (Blondie) and Eli Wallach (Tuco) as attention grabbers in even the film’s most stretched of moments; the camera seems to adore their faces, and dialogue filled between them frequently offer minor revelations of their personality and history, with some scenes being more concentrated and impacting than others, whilst leaving enough curiosity that maintains that sense of unpredictability of their relationship; there were moments where I simply didn’t expect one to do such an act, and the other to retaliate just as unpredictably and excessively. Eastwood still retains that hard-edged squint that gives him that quality of an observer, an intelligence conveyed in his long term planning and anticipation of the potential acts of his rivals; a man committed to the goal, but almost non-penetrative in his structure. Eli Wallach’s contribution was louder than his co-stars, constantly given quotable and entertaining dialogue to shout or snarl with; Wallach never pushes his character to the point of frustration or unpleasantness, using his delivery of humour as a weapon to the retaining of his audience’s attention, and his driven motivation that at times leave his two rivals on the edge. Lee Van Cleef steps further back this time around, motivated by the same stimuli, but achieves towards his goal with a more quiet precision, one that is similar and far more immoral than the tactics of Eastwood’s Blondie, but unfortunately not as intelligent. Leone has already given both Eastwood and Cleef to shine in his previous two films, but this time Wallach is at full display, and his equally captivating performance is arguably the best from the franchise.
Entertaining, profound, atmospheric, and immersive; Leone gives the finale of his trilogy a powerful exit, one that has transcended over the years without a dip of admiration from the critics and the general masses, an epic stretched to such great lengths but compensated with swift pacing and energised performance from his cast. There is no doubt The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly would only ride higher as the years would pass, elevating further the shortened career of once B-movie filmmaker Sergio Leone.