Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nitpickery -- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Hey y'all.  So now it's time to focus on the most popular of the three films in the Dollars trilogy.  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a film that has gone on to make Clint Eastwood one of two most influential western actors in the twentieth century (the other, naturally, being John Wayne).  It's a great film that's possibly one of the best of all time.  It already appeared on my top ten movie list, and I have a feeling it appears on the lists of many others.


For those uncultured miscreants who haven't seen this movie, it's the story of three criminals on their quest for gold during the Civil War.  Angel Eyes, an evil man bent on getting his own, initiates the chase.  He discovers that Confederates have stolen gold from Union soldiers, and goes off after a man named Bill Carson.  Meanwhile, Tuco and Blondie, two more scoundrels, scam the countryside by turning in Tuco by his reward money and rescuing him to secure the reward money somewhere else.  Their misadventures bring the two to Bill Carson first.  Tuco learns that the gold is buried in a graveyard, and Blondie learns the name of the grave.  Keeping their halves of the secret, they go forward.  Thus all three head out to a graveyard where the $200,000 worth of treasure is buried.

---- Top Ten Things to Say about The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly ----

10.  This isn't a trilogy.

That's right, I said it.  A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly don't make any sense as a collective narrative.  Okay, so is Eastwood's character a bounty hunter, drifter, or criminal?  It changes through each movie.  None of the movies have any narrative connection, and since Eastwood changes each go-round, it doesn't even quite reach the connection of a TV show.  That is, where each episode is an unrelated adventure of the same protagonist.

Seriously, I totally would have watched a western TV show where Eastwood solved problems every week in his almost-but-not-quite-moral way of thinking.   Hm...if they tried to make that kind of show today, they'd probably ruin it somehow.  Nobody today really gets westerns, both writers and actors alike.  Of course, if Eastwood directed it....


9.  Have you noticed that good films don't have obvious morals?

In my opposition to modern movies, I've often noticed that they tend to be really obvious in their themes.  Like for example, there was this lame Justin Timberlake movie where everyone buys things with time, and even without watching the film, I knew that theme was "all big businesses are evil".  Seriously, they give away too much in trailers.  Then there was that Elysium film about the economically disadvantaged, and Hunger Games about the same thing.  Hollywood really needs to shake up their stuff.  They're getting boring.

At no point are the themes of this movie stated.  No matter how many times you watch the trailer, you can't learn it from that alone.  Oh sure, you can analyze the movie and come up with some themes, but that's the thing -- you actually have to analyze it.  Nobody says "war is bad" or "gold isn't worth your life" or any other of those really obvious indicators of what a movie is about.  Instead you have Blondie making casual remarks about the waste of war and helping out hurt soldiers, or Tuco with a rope around his neck, staring at a pile of gold that can't save him from being hanged.

So yeah.  I like complexity.

8.  Not all of the added scenes were good or necessary.

People in advertising act as though movies with extra length are worth more than the original cuts.  This is not true.  It doesn't take a writer to be able to notice that added scenes can change the entire scope of a character, muddle motivations, or just ruin the pacing of a film.  A filmmaker should never include scenes that dillute the story.  A major violator of this principle is Rab ne Bana di Jodi, whose extra scenes take an interesting love story to a dragging, romance-novel archetype.

Notedly, GBU's extra scenes are nowhere near that negative on the overall narrative.  Does that mean all of them work?  No.

The first of the added scenes most certainly doesn't work.  It's where Angel Eyes goes to a rag-tag band of Confederate survivors to see if Bill Carson is among them.  This scene doesn't work for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that Angel Eyes actually appears to show sympathy for some badly hurt Confederates. Consider that this is the guy who has already murdered two by this point and will later watch Tuco be tortured with a stone face.  To make it worse, Angel Eyes gives liquor to one bitter Confederate, making him act as though he cares.  Angel Eyes doesn't care, and he doesn't give without expecting something in return.

Also, one of the things about this movie is that it refrains from commenting on Confederates versus Union soldiers.  I like how it stays to the side on the issue, feeling sorrow for men who will die in the war.  This pushes the balance of sympathy too far in the direction of the Confederates, and also it's a bit unnecessary to show their injured, particularly when we already get a scene of wounded soldiers (of both sides) at Tuco's brother's monastery.  This scene of injury hurts the impact of the later scene.

The second inserted scene is definitely the worst.  It's where Tuco goes to a cave to recruit some bandits to help him out in finding Blondie when the latter stole the reward money and left him in the desert.  This scene is awful, and is the only one of the deleted scenes that is genuinely unwatchable.  For one thing, the sound editing is terrible.  See, for many of the scenes on the original film, the sound was corrupted and the actors -- many decades later -- had to come back and re-dub the lines.  Not only is this obvious for this particular scene, but the sound for the scene feels much more amateur than the rest of the movie.  Even including other re-dubbed lines.

Also, the plot for this bit doesn't work.  See, you only add backstory to the characters that matter, and yet here Leone is inexplicably showing Tuco making a persistent effort to convince these guys that they need to join him.  But you know what happens to them next?  They die like redshirts.  They get shot in a pile and become the butt of a joke about spurs.  Yet the added scene makes them far more important than they should be.  To make it worse, the three slide down on ropes when they enter the scene, adding unnecessary goofiness in contrast to the stark and fairly realistic film.

Those two are the worst.  The others aren't nearly as bad.  The third is actually very fitting.  It's where Tuco has dragged Blondie into the desert to avenge his hurt pride, and he tortures Blondie by eating and drinking in front of him.  Technically speaking this scene isn't at all needed, but it's interesting and doesn't hurt the film at all.

The fourth added scene is an unnecessary bit where Tuco, pretending to be Bill Carson, attempts to get help for Blondie when the later is badly hurt.  Sure, it's cute to see Tuco acting so well, but the scene adds nothing to the film, and perhaps makes Tuco look smarter than he really is.  Besides, I like the idea Tuco decides to go to his brother's monastery on his own rather than being told.  Also, for some reason it's really obvious here too that the vocals were re-dubbed.

Next in line is a segment where Tuco and Blondie are discussing their plans for getting the gold.  This scene is alright, but it feels like it borrowed dialogue from other scenes.  Also, because it's inserted, there's an odd bit where at one point Tuco is driving the carriage, then suddenly Blondie is, and then back to Tuco in only what could only have been a few hour's time.  Nitpick, but yeah.

Then there's number six, a scene I sort of like but am confused by.  It's the bit where Angel Eyes reveals that he has other men following him and Blondie.  Blondie then replies that there are six of them, and he has six bullets.  Pretty obvious implication there.  While this scene is very well acted, it doesn't make much sense. Angle Eyes at this point has -- he thinks -- gotten rid of Tuco, and claimed that he and Blondie would split the money just Blondie and Tuco agreed before.  Bringing other guys into the quest shows Angel Eyes' cards and reveals that he's not likely going to give Blondie what he promised.  For that matter, Blondie has cards of his own to show, and he does so by his bullet joke.  Basically, the two say without saying that they will destroy the other, leading to an inevitable break.

Sheesh.  Angel Eyes might technically have a higher IQ, but not even Tuco would be that dumb.  As for Blondie, who knows why he does anything?  He probably wouldn't have threatened Angel Eyes if the latter hadn't already shown himself to be scum.  More on that later.

There's one last added bit where the drunk Union captain asks Tuco and Blondie their names, which the don't give.  This scene is fitting and in no way interrupts the flow of the story.  I didn't even notice it was added in.

7.  Characterization: Tuco is made of magic.

Seriously, Tuco is amazing.  He's a low-down criminal, not with the observational smarts of Blondie or the manipulative power of Angel Eyes.  His nickname is "The Rat", which fits him very well.  Rats are creatures that can survive in many amazing circumstances, and they have no dignity.  That's our Tuco.

But it's not just his ability to survive that makes him amazing.  Tuco has done all kinds of horrible crimes, as listed by the executioner when he's about to be hung.  He scams towns.  He attempts to hang Blondie, then sends him through the desert with neither hat nor water.  He robs a mousey general store owner.  And yet we like him.  In fact, we want him to win.  How the heck did he get us to that point?   And this is coming from the person who hated the protagonist in Catch Me if You Can.  Seriously, I spent the whole movie wanting him to get caught.

But not Tuco.  I wanted him to get the money.  Maybe the turning point was when we get to see him meet his brother and find out his past.  Or maybe it's because he's such a determined schlub we just can't help but feel bad for him.  Or maybe it's the idea that he and Blondie make such a good team.  Blondie's the observant one, and Tuco's the adaptable one.  Seriously, Tuco was on the ball when escaping from Angel Eyes' henchman and when talking to the Union captain.

I was thinking about the three main characters, and I realize that they made mistakes.  Tuco made two that really messed up his fate.  Well, actually, he had three if you count dragging Blondie into the desert, but the movie wouldn't have happened otherwise, so that's not going to count.

Mistake number one was not telling Angel Eyes about Bill Carson.  Tuco could have mentioned most of the truth -- that he found Bill dead in a carriage -- and then Angel Eyes might actually believe that Tuco didn't know about the gold.  But by not acknowledging that he took a name from a dead man, and not realizing that Angel Eyes could find out, Tuco got himself beat up and sent away.

Another mistake is near the end when he ran away as Blondie was showing pity to a dying Confederate.  By doing this, Tuco was showing that his lust for gold was more important to him than cherishing life, and that's a no-no when you're dealing with someone like Blondie, who holds strongly to his morals.  Tuco could have spared himself the embarrassment and near death of the "joke" hanging at the end if Blondie didn't feel the need to teach him that gold won't save you from death.

Note that talking about Tuco's character like this is not trashing the movie.  In fact, it makes this movie better, because no one goes through life without making mistakes.  Characters that don't make mistakes can't be sympathized with, and come across as arrogant and uninteresting.

6.  I think I might like Lee Van Cleef as a bad guy more.

Yeah, yeah, blasphemy, I know.  Certainly Lee Van Cleef was good in For a Few Dollars more, but in this film he's fully realized, and he feels much more in place.  Possibly has more to do with an improved handling of the plot than any adjustment in Van Cleef's acting.  That, and there's more close-ups of his eyes.

One reason why people might find Lee Van Cleef's Colonel Mortimer more appealing than his bad guy persona is that we get to know Mortimer.  I personally love seeing Van Cleef's menacing side, and how Angel Eyes expertly manipulates those around him -- all except one that is, but we'll get to that when we get to it.

The apparent thing about Angel Eyes is that he treats every person differently.  Each personality requires a different reaction, a different way for Angel Eyes to get what he wants from them.  The first example of this is when Angel Eyes goes to Stevens' house at the beginning, the man whom he wants to meet so that he can find out the new name of an associate of the man who hired him.  Now, Stevens is clearly a man who just wants to stay with his family and live a happy, normal life, and he'll do what it takes to keep things that way.  Angel Eyes knows this, and he gets what he wants by simply staring.

I'd like to take a moment to point of the brilliance of the filmmaking by saying that we learn all of this through action.  For several minutes, there are no words.  And yet the audience knows immediately that Mrs. Stevens is afraid, Mr. Stevens is desperate, and Angel Eyes is determined.  This piece of silent storytelling is what makes old movies far better than modern ones.  Some directors wouldn't know silent storytelling if you filled their homes with mimes.

In any case, when Angel Eyes does talk, he keeps his words few.  He makes it appear that despite being dangerous, he's a reasonable man that can be convinced to back off if he gets what he wants.  Unfortunately for Stevens, this is a lie, and not even the name Bill Carson and a thousand dollars will stop Angel Eyes from killing him.  Then Angel Eyes pretends to be "honest" by claiming Stevens paid him to kill the person who hired him in the first place.

Next is Maria the whore.  Angel Eyes wastes no tactics on her; he simply beats her until she complies.  At least she gets to live.  The primary difference between Maria and the guys is that Maria has no self-respect.  If she had, then she wouldn't have become a whore.  Those with some self-respect Eyes chooses to deceive, until he gets the chance to destroy them.

This is evident in the way Eyes treats Tuco, when Tuco, posing as Bill Carson, gets thrown into a Union prison camp.  Tuco the Rat, is of course more concerned with getting his own than about being eloquent in the way he gets it.  Angel Eyes, however, combines his above methods when dealing with Tuco.  First, there is deception that leads to betrayal, and then Eyes has Tuco beaten until he talks.  Like Maria, Tuco's self-diginity isn't exactly well preserved.  And Angel Eyes knows it.

The only people Angel Eyes can't deceive is the crippled Union captain and Blondie.  Both of these characters are moral, you notice.  Unlike the others Eyes manipulates, they aren't that willing to compromise themselves morally to get what they want.  Sure, Blondie might pull a quick scam for cash, but he still cares about people, and severing his scam partnership with Tuco early on indicates that he felt it was too questionable to continue on with such a man. The camp's captain, on the other hand, cares about morality in and of itself.  Which makes him the only character in the film that does.

However, none of Angel Eyes' legitimate intelligence could save him in the end.  He made two mistakes.  One was to beat up Tuco.  Sure, maybe he didn't realize how dedicated Tuco is to avenging his pride, but it was still a mistake.  The other mistake was his whole life as portrayed by this film.  Angel Eyes is no one's friend, and while he has a bit of a cheerful spot in him when it comes to fellow criminals ("A golden-haired angel watches over him"), he only cares about getting what he wants.  This doesn't even get him true friends with criminals, and certainly gets him in trouble with Blondie, who does care about people -- even pathetic people like Tuco.

5.  This is more Eastwood's film than the previous two.

Clint Eastwood was a bit upset about this film, because now he's not only sharing the spotlight with Lee Van Cleef, but also Eli Wallach.  He felt like he wasn't getting the spotlight.  I disagree.  I think his character is getting his best portrayal in the entire trilogy.  The first film made him a generic, television-western sort of guy who is all action, no personality (except for the mule speech).  The story in For a Few Dollars more was better, but he really was being overshadowed then -- Manco had no backstory at all, and Mortimer's motivation was clear and emotional.

In this film, Clint is actually a character.  It should be noted that it's not the length of time someone is on screen, but how well they perform.  The oracle in the Matrix is an extremely influential character, despite having maybe ten minutes of screentime. Stephen the Irishman from Braveheart was focused on maybe a total of twenty minutes, and yet he's one of the most interesting people on screen.

Here, Clint is used effectively.  He's always been a very stern, stiff kind of actor, who isn't the kind of guy whose personality leads the way.  He works best as a mysterious character, or a symbol of a male archetype.  Thus he needs to be used effectively.  Here his mysterious demeanor is kept intact by allowing Tuco's personality to drive the day, and the audience watches him react.  We learn more about how he thinks and feels here than we did in the past two movies combined.  All we knew about him then was that he didn't like bad guys and didn't take well to insults.  He we learn that he has a complex sense of morality and mercy for those that don't necessarily deserve it -- and also doles out his own punishment on those that definitely don't.

Granted, it is a bit out of place that he left Tuco to journey through the desert and took the entire pay from the scam.  At the very least, Blondie should have given Tuco's share before abandoning him.  Tuco told Blondie right to his face, that he'll get his revenge if Blondie betrays him.  And Blondie didn't listen.  Of course, I understand it by assuming that Blondie was attempting to accomplish what he succeeded in at the end of the movie: to teach Tuco that life is more important than money.

So basically Blondie is a great judge over those around him, and takes actions according to his judgments. Huh.  I can think of worse people for the job.

6.  No, the movie isn't perfect.

Granted, this movie is near about perfect as any movie will ever get.  It not only fulfills all the requirements of a western, but it transcends its genre, becoming something any fan will enjoy.  It's still not absolutely perfect. I can think of a couple flaws.  I mean, sure, there's the little nitpicky anachronistic stuff about the bullets with paper versus metal cartridges, but that's too nitpicky even for me.  If it doesn't distract the casual moviegoer from enjoying the film, then it's not a problem.

Also, I'm not sure if I can count the scene where both Blondie and Angel Eyes show their cards.  It's an awkward moment, not only because they're making it sure that conflict arises, but because Blondie shoots one of Angel Eye's guys and nobody seems to care.  Wasn't that their friend, or maybe someone's brother? No one's even going to bother taking off their hat?  It isn't in the theatrical version, so I'm not sure if that should be a negative.

What can be a negative are two things, at least.  One is the transition between when Tuco and Blondie blow up a bridge and then go to get the treasure.  Sure, it's artistic and efficient, but it gives no real sense of time passing by.  It's confusing when Blondie says he unloaded Tuco's gun the previous night, and earlier on when they had just finished speaking to the Captain, we actually see Tuco loading his gun.  So unless a night passed when the bomb went off, then Blondie produced a continuity error.

That's pretty forgivable, though, since most won't remember that Tuco loaded his gun.  The only error that glares out at me is a very small moment at the Union prison camp.  Angel Eyes has just been confronted by his superior about stealing from and abusing prisoners, and yet next time he's on screen he sends away one of his minor partners in crime.  What does that minor partner do?  He walks out of an open window.

I know, I know, nitpicky.  But if Eyes' superior was watching things with binoculars, then surely going right out the window is the very thing to make either the superior or anyone loyal notice that the guy is attempting to sneak out.  If the crony had gone out the door, there would have been no reason to suspect either good or bad of the guy.  Instead he goes out the window for no reason but to show the audience that he's some sort of creeper.

It's distracting, okay?

4.  Huh.  The ending is pretty similar to For a Few Dollar More's ending.

It's not just the fact that it's three men in a circle, or that several notes of the music sound very similar.  It's also the thematic position of the three.

So in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, all three men end up in the graveyard having a truel -- a duel with three instead of two.  There are several intense moments where the three are forced to decide who they intend to shoot at first, and you can see in their eyes that all three of them know the depths of their individual situations.

In both FAFDM and GBU, the bad guy has absolutely zero chance of getting out alive.  In the case of For a Few Dollars More, Indio couldn't win because Colonel Mortimer had backup.  Even if Indio had managed to shoot Mortimer first, Manco would have gotten him in the end.  Likewise, Angel Eyes had zero chance. First of all, because he'd beaten Tuco, Tuco's pride ensured that Angel would be his target.  Plus Angel Eyes offended Blondie's sense of morality.  Not to mention that since Tuco and Blondie had been partners, they'd be at least slightly more likely to work together.  As far as Angel Eyes knows, they planned in advance to kill him.  So in the end, Eyes' choice is irrelevant.  Sure, maybe Blondie is the best shooter of the three, but we've already learned that Tuco isn't exactly unpracticed in the area.

In both roles in this movie and that, Blondie has little to fear.  In FAFDM, he wasn't even a part of the duel, and had a much better angle at shooting Indio -- the chances of Indio being able to shoot both Mortimer and him were virtually none.  Likewise in GBU, Blondie has stacked the deck in removing Tuco's bullets.  He's in a bit more danger, as he has to make sure he shoots Angel Eyes first, but he's already proven himself over the trilogy.  His eyes show his relative calm.

There's a bit more difference between the third of each triad, but Tuco and Mortimer do have things in common, including morally iffiness (what, did you think it was a good idea for Mortimer to suggest freeing a prisoner for the sake of a plan that could very well have gone wrong?), but primarily they're people that Manco/Blondie has sympathy for.  And both of them were taken by surprise by Blondie's machinations.  In fact, Blondie saved both their lives.  Giving Mortimer a means to defend himself was obvious.  Taking away Tuco's bullets meant that during the truel, Blondie didn't need to shoot Tuco, not even for self-defense.  You can bet that if Tuco'd had bullets, he would have been a threat to Blondie.  As it was, he did make it out with lots of gold.

But let's go in Tuco's mind for a moment.  Tuco could have chosen either Angel Eyes or Blondie to shoot (assuming he had bullets).  While Blondie did insult his pride, they'd been through a lot together, and a man like Tuco might assume that dragging Blondie through the desert taught him his lesson.  Angel Eyes, however, did not learn the lesson.  Namely, that those who mess with Tuco regret it.  Thus, though Tuco's options are much more 50-50 than the others, he clearly is going to try for Angel Eyes, as is shown.

I really like the ending, in other words.


Actually, I'm out of things to talk about in this movie.  This movie is just really, really good, and any person can look at this film and see meaningful things in it.  It's a movie to think about and enjoy, and to understand why it is that western fans are so enamored of their chosen genre.  It's almost as if Sergio Leone needed each of the two previous films, with all their flaws, to finally make a perfect product.  Well, that's better than other directors have managed.

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