Updated: Aug 21, 2022
In my opinion, some of the best films are like the concept of finely aged wines: old, yet better than most similar products. While I've never formally studied film (minus taking a single course in college), I've had an active interest in cinematography since high school. My grandfather and uncle are big fans of films, and I have frequently watched and discussed numerous films with them over the years.
This tagline is one of the best ever written for a film! (Photo credit: Amazon)
Now, while many excellent films are made in any era, I feel there's a certain charm to films that couldn't use computer technology to enhance their films. Enter The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, an excellent example of a movie that relies on practical effects. In fact, Eli Wallach, who plays the character of The Ugly, was almost decapitated doing a stunt involving a train!
Tuco, aka The Ugly, played by Eli Wallach (Photo credit: IndieWire)
I first watched this movie in my sophomore year in high school, and it blew me away. To date, I still haven't found a film I like better than it, and there's a pretty good chance I never will. I remember being blown away by the setting, the music, the three characters, their actions, and much more.
Blondie, aka The Good, played by the legendary Clint Eastwood (Photo credit: Turner Classic Movies)
I feel it's not one specific element that makes the movie so good, but all the elements working together make it unique. Whether it's the fantastic soundtrack, the familiar-looking yet foreign atmosphere the film gives off, the frequent shifts in tone from humorous to profound moments, or the characters and their interactions with others, pretty much every aspect of this film complements each other element during the three hours. That's assuming you're watching the director's cut, as the original 1966 release in America was shortened to 161 minutes).
Angel Eyes, aka The Bad, played by Lee Van Cleef. (Photo credit: Villians Wiki)
For its 55th anniversary (it's old enough to be my father!), I thought I'd relook at my favorite movie and do a plot overview and analysis of the film, scene by scene. Initially, I wanted to cover the entire film, but as the film is three hours long, I found that methodically watching and writing about every scene became too time-consuming. Instead, I've decided to cover the film's opening half-hour. Enjoy!
Warning: there will be spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie and are interested in watching it, turn back now and watch the film.
Plot Overview and Thoughts
The opening credits scene to the film is an undeniable classic, mainly due to its musical score. I have seen the music parodied in numerous forms of media...and I'm sure there's a good chance you have, too! Outside of the stylish nature of the opening, there's not too much else to say besides it being one of the best opening scenes of all time.
After the opening credits scene, the film opens up with a distant shot of a mountain region, a grand view indeed. After a mere few seconds, this view is almost immediately blocked by a closeup of a sweaty-looking man. The man, who rises from the camera's left in a clockwise motion, does a great job of setting the tone of the rest of the movie within the first 5 seconds: the contrast between the nature of good and evil...and everything in between!
The scene unfolds with three men slowly approaching each other for the next couple of minutes before stopping in front of a saloon. They run in... and a man bursts out with food! It's the first appearance of The Ugly, as we see the ugly written on the screen.
(Photo credit for this and the other two intro slides: Art of the Title)
We see The Ugly ride out into the horizon. One of the shot men attempts to shoot The Ugly from a distance...he fails and tumbles down near the dead bodies of his companions.
My thoughts on this scene: I feel this was an effective way to introduce The Ugly. The initial slow pacing of this scene leading to him jumping out a window was a good transition and showed off the nature of The Ugly well through his dramatic, yet subtly comedic, actions. His character is developed later in the movie; however, the character has been given a solid introduction for now.
This is followed by a boy riding a mule around a water wheel for roughly 30 seconds. He stops, looks out into the horizon, and we see a man on a horse approaching him, accompanied by some somber-sounding music. This is The Bad, as we'll soon learn. The boy gets off his horse and runs towards his house. The Bad calmly follows the boy and meets his father inside.
The father and The Bad sit at a kitchen table and silently eat. After a brief pause and over 10 minutes into the movie (including the opening credits), we finally get our first line of dialogue from the father:
It's a basic and straightforward line. However, due to the lack of dialogue up to this point, the line carries a weight that most other opening lines to films don't have.
The Bad says to the father, "Words around you had a visitor...and Baker knows it. Name of Jackson." As we find out, Jackson is the name of the man who has hidden $200,000 of gold coins.
Fun fact: according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $200,000 in 1862 is worth well over $5,000,000 in 2021!
...Anyway, back to the movie. The Bad asks the father what name Jackson is going under now; the father asks The Bad why he thinks Jackson is under another name. With a slight grin, The Bad says
“I would've found 'em already. When I start off to find somebody, I find 'em. That's why they pay me."
The father asks The Bad what Baker is paying him to murder him. The Bad says $500…to get the name. The father ultimately relents and provides him with the name: Bill Carson. The father gets up, grabs a sack of money, and drops it in front of The Bad.
We find out from the man it’s $1,000. It's implied that the father wants The Bad to kill Baker. The Bad remarks at the sum of money and then says
“When I’m paid, I always see the job through,”
The Bad tells him. Suddenly, the father pulls out a gun...but The Bad is faster and shoots him down! With dramatic music playing, he leaves, shoots the son, and we see the wife faint at witnessing the aftermath of the shootout. We immediately cut to a dark room. The Bad is holding a candle and approaches an older man, Baker. Baker asks The Bad what he found out. The Bad prefaces by stating he learns quite a few things that would interest Baker and one or two that interest him.
He lets Baker know that he got the alias of Jackson about the cash box and that the father has been killed. Baker thanks The Bad and pays him $500. The Bad then informs Baker that he was paid $1,000 to kill him. They both laugh, but The Bad then stops laughing and replies:
"But you know the pity is when I'm paid I always follow my job through. You know that."
The Bad places a pillow over a frantic Baker, pulls out his gun, and shoots Baker four times.
After murdering Baker, he laughs, and his identity is confirmed. If you didn't know before, it's crystal clear this has been The Bad we've been seeing.
The Bad blows out the candle, and the screen fades to black.
My thoughts on these scenes: This is a fantastic scene! The scene starts slow, with the audience not immediately knowing what is going on. We slowly learn more and more pieces of information until a clear picture is formed.
The climax of this scene, the shootout between the father and The Bad, is quick yet tense, and the accompanying music provides further tension to the scene.
The final part of the scene with Baker is not only a good instance of dark humor but also further illustrates that The Bad doesn't take sides or play favorites...he is only in it for the money!
We then transition to a rocky area. A man on a horse rides from the background into the foreground. The camera pans to the right, and we see a lone gunman.
The gunman shoots the horse, causing the man to fall off the horse. We quickly learn this man is, in fact, The Ugly. The Ugly tumbles off his horse, and his pistol flies to the side. He crawls to his gun but is told by the gunman:
"Now. No pistol, amigo. It won't do you any good. There are three of us."
The Ugly is surrounded. One of the three men unrolls a piece of paper and asks the Ugly:
"Hey, Amigo! You know you've got a face beautiful enough to be worth $2,000?"
The men laugh...but this is interrupted by a soft, calm voice.
"Yeah. But you don't look like the one who'll collect it."
This is our first appearance of The Good! The Good approaches from the right-hand side of the camera, lights a cigar, and orders the men to take a couple of steps back.
The camera pans down, and we see a close-up of The Good's hand on his gun's holster in the left foreground and the three men and The Ugly in the right background.
There are roughly 30 seconds of tension, with closeups of the men's eyes as they await who will make the first move. This technique of eye zooms will be frequently used in the film, most notably in the film's ending. One of the men attempts to shoot The Good, but he's a quick shot and manages to take down all three before they can even fire!
The Ugly thanks The Good for taking down the men. As the Ugly picks up his pistol, The Good places his foot down on the gun. The Good asks him how much he’s worth now. The Ugly responds he’s now worth $2,000. The Good and The Ugly laugh…and The Good shoves a cigar in The Ugly’s mouth.
My thoughts on these scenes: The camerawork is excellent here, particularly with the close-ups!
The off-camera introduction for The Good also works well here, as we hear his voice before seeing him in person. Being able to first take in The Good's calm voice helps to better frame the character as a collected type who doesn't let his emotions overtake him.
The classic rapid-fire gunshots are first demonstrated here...something we'll see more of later!
There is an immediate transition to The Ugly on the back of The Good’s horse, tied up. Amusingly, we see him spit out the cigar The Good shoved in his mouth. He starts shouting out tons of swears and obscenities in Spanish and English.
The Good delivers a captured The Ugly to the town's sheriff. Some of the responses are pretty amusing! My favorite of these occurs when The Good walks into the sheriff's office and the sheriff comes out. The Ugly's response?
"Who the hell is that? One bastard goes in, another comes out!"
The sheriff confirms The Ugly's crimes to him. The Ugly rages on and insults The Good.
"You know who you are? You're the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you!"
This line, amusingly enough, is referenced again at the very end of the movie!
After The Ugly's insult session ends, there's a quick transition to a man reading off The Ugly's crimes. There are...quite a few colorful crimes, to say the least! The Ugly is being hanged and is sitting on top of a horse. While reading these crimes, we see The Good come out from the balcony of a sable.
The horse is about to be whipped, but The Good suddenly shoots the rope, causing The Ugly to break free! The horse he is sitting on runs off with him. We also get amusing shots of The Good shooting the hats off of a few men.
This all looks unusual, but we quickly discover that The Good and The Ugly were in on this scheme from the beginning to make money off The Ugly's bounty!
The Good lets The Ugly know he's now worth $3,000. The Ugly responds to him by saying:
"There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck and the people who have the job of doing the cutting. Listen, the neck at the end of the rope is mine. I run the risks, so the next time, I want more than half!"
The line "there are two kinds of people" becomes a motif throughout the film, as we will see several other instances before the movie ends! So how does The Good respond?
"You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage, it's liable to interfere with my aim."
Fair play, The Good! The picture does a barrel roll for its transition, and we see The Ugly being hanged again similarly. The Ugly's crimes are, once again, listed. While they're being read, we see The Bad listening in. Suddenly, a legless man walks...err...moves toward The Bad.
The man, named Shorty, provides him intel about the cash box. Yankees ambushed an armed unit that had the cash box. Only Stevens, Baker, and Jackson survived. The Bad also learns that the gold coins are still missing, Carson re-enlisted in the army, and Carson lives with a prostitute named Maria in Santa Anna. The Bad leaves after paying Shorty, who naturally goes into the saloon to buy whisky!
The Bad approaches a carriage with a woman. The woman tells The Bad that it's good that they're hanging The Ugly. The Bad responds by telling the lady:
"People with ropes around their necks don't always hang. Even a filthy beggar like that has got a protecting angel."
As expected, the camera transitions over to The Good. Angelic-sounding music plays...adding a great touch to this part of the movie! Smiling, The Bad says:
"A golden-haired angel watches over him."
Once again, The Good shoots The Ugly down from the rope. He shoots the rope...but it doesn't immediately cut! He shoots again while The Bad is hanging in the air, freeing him in the nick of time! Again, we're treated with The Good shooting the hats off a number of men! This...is still extremely fun to watch, and I'm not exactly sure why! The Good and the Ugly run away from the town.
My thoughts on these scenes: Tuco is hilarious in these scenes! The first time I watched the film, I was confused about why The Good shot down The Ugly's rope. The movie definitely subverted my expectations here!
I thought it was also cool that they had a legless man in the movie, as I don't know if I've ever seen another movie with a legless man before or even after this.
I also thought it was interesting how The Bad was aware of The Good being the "guardian angel" of The Ugly. It is telling about his observational skills, that's for sure!
By this point in the film, we're at the 28-minute mark, roughly 1/6th through the movie. Here are some of my key takeaways from the first 1/6th of the movie:
-I don't know if this is my favorite opening to a movie, but it's definitely got to be in the top 5 if nothing else.
-We don't know it yet, but The Ugly is probably the most developed character in the film. While The Good and The Bad are more stoic, calm figures, The Ugly is nothing like the two. He is crude, loud, and emotive. However, as we'll see later in the movie, he has a more human side. I'll go into more detail about the nature of the three main characters and what I believe they ultimately represent later.
-The Bad is a stone-cold badass with principles. He reminds me a lot of Darth Vader: calm, collected, principled, but ultimately a villain. As we've seen, he is not a black-and-white villain like how many other films portray the main antagonist.
-The Good is the epitome of cool. 'nuff said.
-The camera work in this movie is top-notch, and some of it is incredibly iconic. In particular, the closeups of the eyes and hands have been copied and parodied in various other films.
-The music. The music! It's incredible! It's easily my favorite soundtrack to a film...which is saying a lot since movies like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more exist!