Next to Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and James Bond, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name is one of cinema’s most iconic heroes. The poncho, the small cigarillo, and an uncanny ability with a piece of cold, hard steel, the Man with No Name is, like most Leone heroes, defined more by action than words. Take, for instance, the opening of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Over the course of perhaps a half an hour, we’re introduced to the three characters via titled freeze-frames. When Tuco (Eli Wallach), the ugly of the trio, is introduced, Leone begins the sequence with the approach of three bounty hunters. His direction of space and time is grueling: we’re not sure where people are in relation to one another, time seems to stand still. The sound of a dust-storm and the warping of wood and tin fills the soundtrack (Once Upon a Time in the West begins similarly). Finally, the three bounty hunters converge upon a building. We hear gunshots and the camera pans to the right to a window from which Tuco jumps out. Freeze frame: “The ugly.” There is no dialogue exchanged before, during, or after the shootout. Leone toys with our knowledge of the space, as we didn’t even realize Tuco existed (more on that in a bit).
Personally, the joy I take in watching Leone’s films stems from his manipulation of film form. These characters are defined by type, not so much psychology, and their consequential actions. Of course, you need a story to provide some momentum to a three-hour Western, but the plot of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is fairly easy to explain: three men (Eastwood, Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef) are drawn into an uncomfortable partnership on the hunt for a cache of gold that has been buried in a grave at a cemetery. Eastwood’s Good knows the name of the grave, Wallach’s ugly knows the name of the cemetery, and Van Cleef’s bad? Well, he just has a gun and some assistants who muscle their boss’s way into the economic venture. The three hours of time are filled with gunfights, exploding bridges, small tactical maneuvers to keep betrayal at a minimum, and long walks across the Southwest as the three men search for the treasure.
Yet, the stripping down of the plot and character opens the film up to so many other investigations. First, there’s Leone’s absurdist sense of humor. The barren, apocalyptic landscape of the West is unforgiving to all of its inhabitants (just look at Eastwood’s face after a stroll with Tuco), making them all the more violent and savage. Yet, while these hustlers are fighting each other off for the top-dog position of acquiring the gold, the American Civil War wages on. More often than not, the war trumps the trio in a gunfight. For instance, when Tuco corners Eastwood’s Blondie at a hotel and strings him up from the ceiling, the attempted murder is derailed nearby cannon fire. The seemingly safe and serene locale of the hotel is destroyed by a cannon ball, which rips a hole in the floor, forcing Tuco away from his adversary, while also freeing Blondie. Later, when Tuco and Blondie face-off against Angel Eyes and his men, cannon fire also turns the tide in the fight. The irony of the situation is that these men may be amazing with guns (as we see, in particular, in Tuco and Blondie’s handling of multiple groups of assassins), their continued existence is not owed to themselves but to uncontrollable, external factors. As any fan of the Western genre will tell you, it’s pretty hilarious when the Cowboy’s survival owes more to fate than to rugged individualism.
Leone’s films are often seen as satires of the genre, baroque manipulations that critique the American ideology of the Western by pointing out how capitalist and misguided they are in their portrayal of society (just look at the names of the two previous MWNN films: A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More). When the films were initially released in America, critics were pretty pissed off about the violence and desecration done to the profoundly American form of the Western by an Italian director (see my friend Bill McClain’s essay “Western, Go Home!: Sergio Leone and the “Death of the Western” in American Film Criticism” in the Journal of Film and Video if you’re interested in this aspect of the film). Yet, while they obviously critique the Western genre, they also undercut the classical conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. Most notably, and this is what drew me to the film in the first place as I’m writing an essay on how the comic book based off of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower owes much to Leone which owes much to comics, the establishment of space is illogical. In classical storytelling, we’re given an establishing shot before the camera moves closer on the action. In Leone, we’re often given the opposite. The opening frame of the film is of a barren hillside in the desert to which a man’s head enters the frame, in close up, from the side. While it appears that we’re being handed an establishing shot of nothing significant, Leone is giving us a close up…for the first shot of a film! Film is often seen as means of representing reality (due to its ontological similarities to photography) and yet the reality presented in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly owes more to the plastic arts or comic books, which do not have the physical room to play by the classical rules of storytelling, than photography.
While teaching Spaghetti Westerns this last spring, my interest in Leone was re-ignited. Hollywood doesn’t make many Westerns anymore; it seems to be a dead genre (at least, in its pure state—-one could argue that No Country for Old Men or Inglourious Basterds were Western generic hybrids). The students, despite the comedy, the choreography of violence, and the subversion of formal norms didn’t seem drawn into the material. I began to ask myself if the iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook that has increasingly defined Generation Z had robbed them of any cowboy fantasies. Or, perhaps those fantasies had been fulfilled in the form of the Toy Story films. Then, I got in line to purchase Red Dead Redemption (2010) at midnight at a Gamestop. There were people of all ages and ethnicities in line to buy the game (one of the best of the year, in my humble opinion) which is essentially a Spaghetti Western. How had a dying genre become such a hit (the game sold 5 million copies in less than one month)? Had the Spaghetti Western simply become something that was more fun to play than to watch? I’m glad the interest is still there but as I hope this review has articulated, there is still a lot to see in the video game’s older sibling form of the movie.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.