By 1966, Sergio Leone had proven himself a master forger, a filmmaker whose exacting replications of Fordian vistas and the grimly observed honor codes of Akira Kurosawa showed an artist of great technical skill still in search of his own vision. He certainly found it with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, perhaps the most far-reaching film of the 1960s in terms of its lasting impact, influence and iconography. It definitively marked the moment that Leone ceased to be a copycat and instead became the one copied. Even today, the film’s epic scope overwhelms, driven by a series of perfect compositions that mask a cynical revisionism that is now as canonical as the sentimental tone it subverted.

The opening sequence of the film establishes Leone’s evolution as a director, proceeding almost wordlessly through the desert and to a bar where the camera remains outside as a firefight erupts, peering in only after the last man standing makes his escape. Elsewhere, bounty hunter Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) silently enters the domicile of his target, Stevens (Antonio Casas), and helps himself to some of the man’s beans as the ex-Confederate looks on, sweating. Stevens fills the air with prattle, a rambling self-defense that circumnavigates a direct plea for his life with tacit bribes and half-hearted protest. Angel Eyes, of course, dispatches his prey, slinking off in a long shot of him ominously ambling away toward the door in a nightmare rendition of John Ford’s famed archway shots.

The amount of visual storytelling in this movie is second to none, ingeniously working around the bilingual production challenges by keeping dialogue to a minimum. Leone lays out the strange anti-camaraderie in the con between bounty hunter Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach), a slimy criminal with a rap sheet as long as Middlemarch, through actions, not words, threading together a delicate miniature action scene of Tuco’s capture, public trial and Blondie saving him from the noose after collecting his bounty, a grift they can keep running to endless profit as each escape boosts Tuco’s worth. After Blondie double-crosses Tuco and leaves the man for dead, the crook’s rage boils over in silence, and their subsequent cat and mouse game unfurls in a series of dazzling images, such as Tuco marching Blondie through a desert as he himself rides on horseback and covers himself with a dainty pink parasol. Leone uses multi-planar compositions to emphasize the bleak expanse of nature, with faces in massive close-up off to one side of the frame as figures wander in the deep background of the other half of the image.

The film kicks into high gear when word spreads to the three main characters of a trove of Confederate gold buried in an abandoned cemetery, and the thirst for wealth provides the overriding narrative impulse for the remainder of the movie. Nonetheless, Leone frequently grounds the film with social commentary. The Civil War rages around the periphery of the story, occasionally intruding in a blaze of Union cannon fire as the Confederacy crumbles. There’s no Lost Cause here, only the terror and misery of rebels in a state of constant retreat. Blondie and Tuco first learn of the buried gold, in fact, when a Confederate carriage filled with dead and rotting men rides into view, a wagon of waste that lends sick irony to the “CSA Headquarters” painted on the vessel’s side. In one comic scene, Tuco and Blondie, disguised as Confederates, see a row of cavalry in gray, prompting Tuco to exclaim platitudes in support of the rebels, only for the lead rider to slow and beat at his sleeve without saying a word, revealing Union blue under a thick layer of dust and sand. It’s a great bit of subtle humor, but it also calls attention to a recurring theme as the bounty hunters and criminals wade through nebulous lines of rebel and Union territory where the only real distinction in muted rage, weariness and self-serving greed is the color of uniforms. Certainly the businesses in each nearby town could not care less who is who, taking Confederate scrip and Yankee gold in equal measure.

The film’s final act is a towering achievement in sustained suspense, starting with the leads dealing with a standoff between Union and Confederate forces by destroying the bridge that separates them in a warped act of pacification. Then things come to a head in the cemetery, a Mexican standoff shot from extreme distances and extreme close-ups in a disorienting blur made yet more manic by the swell of Ennio Morricone’s score, perhaps not his most complex work but certainly his most fervent, delirious soundtracking, turning twanging electric guitar, rolling toms and demented choruses into one of the most subtly psychedelic musical works of the 1960s. Much of the film it scores has a subtly mind-fucked vibe to it, not so much in any camera trickery but in the sunstroked longeurs that turn the trio’s trudge toward gold into its own kind of trip. Certainly, you’d find far worse moments of druggy highs in literal drug movies from the era than in the swooning camera movements and total joy on Tuco’s face as he reaches the cemetery and goes for his prize. The ecstasy of gold, indeed.

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