Sergio Leone’s 1966 film opens with an elaborate title sequence. The audience is treated to various images that range from looking like chalk-drawn wanted posters, Warhol pop art concoctions and patient stencilled undertakings. The eclectic array of styles encapsulates the film’s enduring appeal. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may lack the existential grapplings of its future genre brethren. However, it fundamentally puts the Western on its largest canvas and illustrates its potential to sweep, move and enthral.
Leone’s West is contradictory: heightened, mythical, zany and sometimes wryly amusing, the full spectrum of emotions on display flicker like the dusty desert air. Even Ennio Morricone’s grandiose score is wielded to such effect. In Angel Eye’s (Lee Van Cleef) introductory scene, Morricone’s simple use of acoustic guitar gives the impression we are watching a heroic Western gunslinger ride into town with noble and benevolent intentions. However, this is subverted by Angel Eye’s amoral behaviour throughout the film.
The picture is filled to the brim with these push and pulls elements. For every quick death, there is an equally protracted and gut-wrenching variant. On previous viewings, the film impressed me in how it juxtaposed the amorality of the central characters with the ongoing wave of the American Civil War. In this way, the film could almost be read as a melding of archetypes and history. The result is these larger than life figures becoming more human.
Crucially, Leone embodies this quality in the film-making. Some of the long shots are an epic canvas for the mythic characters to have blisteringly tense showdowns, but his use of close-ups reminds us that they are all too human.
On this viewing, I was struck by an added element that enriched my reading. In one scene, Tucco (Eli Wallach) confronts his brother by stating that his way of escaping poverty was harder as opposed to his brother, who chose to hide in an occupation by becoming a Priest. With this scene and later events in mind, the film is illustrating a nobility in the gunslinger’s life. Rather than die of starvation or at the whims of a drunken army captain, the gunslinger takes his life into his own hands and is wholly responsible for it.
Like many aspects of the film, the central trio of characters is different things at various times. One of Leone’s most significant contributions to the Western was the shading of the gunslinger archetype.