The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
A Question of Calculation
To understand something of Leone's style is to understand three things. The necessity of selfishness, the pragmatics of sharing and the formal procedures utilised to bring out the difference between the selfish and the pragmatic. How true this happens to be over the course of Leone's work is a debatable point and not ours to debate as we shall concentrate exclusively on the third film in his spaghetti western trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A Leone work like Once Upon a Time in America with its elegiac tone and its tragic sense of a love lost, a life wasted and a past half-recalled, suggests a different problematic while still recognisably a Leone film. Yet when someone proposes what makes Leone a distinctive director they would surely be more inclined to have The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in mind rather than Once Upon a Time in America. When one of the director's most learned disciples, Quentin Tarantino, reckons his favourite film of all time is the former, it makes sense; to propose the latter would have seemed less so no matter how enthusiastic he happens to be talking about it. But when Far Out magazine offers up a hand-written list of his favourite films, there at number 1 is The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tarantino understands too the importance of selfishness, the pragmatics of sharing and the formal procedures utilised to bring them together. But Leone is our focus and specifically The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Anything that might apply to Tarantino or anyone else is secondary; our purpose isn't chiefly to compare and contrast.
Twenty minutes into the film and Eli Wallach's Tuco is trussed up in ropes about to be hanged. It seems that Clint Eastwood's Blondie has handed him over after killing three others who were out to seek the reward of $2,000. But instead of disappearing with the money he instead takes the cash and waits in a nearby barn. When Tuco is strung up he fires at the rope and the horse Tuco has been sitting on takes off with Tuco astride it. Blondie realises that in the long run there is more money to make working in cahoots with Tuco rather than there is from turning him in. Now that Tuco has again escaped, the bounty on his head will go up to $3,000 and after just two scams Blondie will have made $2,500 an extra $500 over what he would have made if he had just handed him over. He hasn't just saved Tuco's life he has assumed an asset. But after two scams, Tuco complains about this second attempt that could have gone wrong. Blondie's first bullet severed the rope but didn't cut it; for a moment Tuco was left hanging there until the second bullet struck and he fell to the ground after the horse had already bolted. As they escape the town, Tuco won't shut up and Blondie figures that if he keeps the money this time he has made $4,000 and to pursue the partnership further isn't worth the grief. He leaves Tuco in the desert with his hands tied and takes off. Whether he lives or dies isn't Blondie's concern; Tuco's an asset that has yielded briefly but well and he can die of thirst in the desert as a car that breaks down could be left to rust.
What Tuco doesn't realise when he shouts and yells at Blondie is that he isn't in a very good bargaining position: Blondie's purpose is to look after number one and number two needs to accept that he can only win a point when he is in the prominent role. Leone's world doesn't work on reasonableness, which may combine fairness, justice and reason, but on calculation, which insists that any action pursued is predicated on the most base of motives. As Tuco shouts at Blondie he still has his hands tied and Blondie has the cash. With Blondie working out that Tuco isn't worth much more money than he has already made why wouldn't he let him try and survive on his own in the middle of the desert with his hands tied? Anybody who wonders how Tuco eventually makes it back to something that resembles civilisation is missing the point: what matters is that a character is left for dead when they have served their useful function. When he does make it into town what matters for Leone is how quickly he will try and get revenge on Blondie; the director doesn't care to explain how he survived an impossibly arduous trip through many miles of desert terrain with his hands tied. There are reasons for this that we will explore later, but for the moment we wish to keep to our first two points: the importance of selfishness and the pragmatics of sharing.
After Tuco finds his way back into town he hooks up again with some old friends, sitting alone in a cave they've deserted, and starts speaking of the glories of friendship. The world is divided into two parts: those who have friends and those who are lonely like Tuco. He speaks to himself but as if aware of others, mourning the loss of three of his old friends as though they are dead but, sure enough, in time the people he has come to visit appear: after he discusses how he wishes he had friends who could help him find a son of a bitch who has $4,000. Ropes descend from the hole above which Leone had earlier cut to, and the friends return now they've heard there is a chance of some cash. The expressions on Tuco's face make clear that he knows these friendships aren't worth much more than convenience and it will be the money and not fretting over Tuco's loneliness that drew them out. But they should know too that when it comes to getting the money Tuco isn't interested really in sharing it, just tantalising them with the thought they might get access to some of the cash. When they enter Blondie's room they are quickly shot one after the other before Blondie turns round and sees sitting by the window Tuco with a gun in his hand. His friends, whom he briefly grieves by crossing himself, were little more than a decoy that allowed him the opportunity to take Blondie unawares. It also means that he will get to keep all the money to himself. Selfishness is the priority; others are useful in aiding someone get what they want but pragmatically it makes more sense for them to serve as cannon fodder rather than allow them to live and have a share of the cash. They are collateral damage where, the more damage, the more Tuco gets to keep for himself. It is not that he wishes them dead (they aren't his enemies) but financially it is better for him if they are no longer alive. He can offer the religious gesture as opposed to spitting on the corpse since the difference between a friend and an enemy is little more than the disappointment you might feel that a friend has to die and the pleasure you feel when an enemy does so. Selfishness demands the same result but the aftermath will then require a different gesture of token affection or hatred.
Leone would agree that no man is an island but each person is a peninsula with a tenuous, necessary connection to others. People have their uses would be closer to Leone's dictum and that people are lucky if they outlive it. Rather than seeing life as a question of survival, which could incorporate films as varied as Essential Killing, 127 Hours, The Revenant and All is Lost, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly proposes life is a question of calculation because the survivalist needn't entertain chiefly the thoughts of others but only the obstacles in his or her way. A person who takes on a grizzly (The Revenant), realises he must hack off half his arm to escape the weight of a boulder (127 Hours), or tries to shore up a boat that is in danger of sinking (All is Lost), is concerned chiefly with their own resourcefulness in the face of obstacles that do not have minds as Leone would conceive it: a mind that calculates. One reason why it is irrelevant how Tuco manages to walk seventy miles in the desert is that it isn't a calculative but a survivalist question and thus of little interest to the director. Hell isn't other people but other people can make your life hell one's purpose is to make sure that doesn't happen to you. Blondie is our hero since he understands this better than most. Equally, he happens to be our hero not because he is especially good but that he doesn't harbour the bad or the ugly predominantly. If the third titular character, the bad, Angel Eyes(Lee Van Cleef), is never happier than when making someone's life miserable, torturing and killing as though the personal gain isn't of any more importance than the glee he feels while inflicting misery, and Tuco greedily will do whatever it takes to satisfy his gluttonous pleasures, Blondie accepts that life is constant calculation and lives ruefully within that reality. When Angel Eyes later in the film looks like he might torture Blondie after torturing Tuco, as he tries to find out where the gold they are all searching for happens to be, Angel Eyes acknowledges that Blondie is smart enough to know that talking won't save him so there is no point torturing him to get information: he might as well take Blondie with him in the search for the gold. Blondie looks like he is happy he will escape torture but knows that unless he finds a way of retaining the knowledge of the gold, without telling Angel Eyes, that his life is worthless and that Angel Eyes would be more than happy to have him tortured too.
Here we have the film's most significant calculative gambit: three people all of whom are determined to get their hands on $200,000. But while Angel Eyes knows where the graveyard happens to be since he tortured the info out of Tuco, only Blondie knows the precise whereabouts of the grave. What Blondie doesn't know however is where the graveyard is. Between the three of them, they have all the information but no single person has it. Angel Eyes or Tuco are expendable but not Blondie, yet Blondie cannot find the gold without either Tuco or Angel Eyes. Numerous commentators have noticed how useful the film happens to be in understanding aspects of game theory but we can leave that to the mathematicians while not at all ignoring the reason why they might be drawn to the film. What Leone explores is the question of human life not at its essence (the survivalist film is better for that) but at its interactive base, as though taking Aristotle's comment, "oh my friends there is no friend", which is so important to the great director of friendship in Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and offering instead of Peckinpah's sorrowful examination, a cynical, even gleeful one, no matter Blondie's occasional ruefulness. Of course, friends, there is no friend we might have heard Wallach thinking to himself as the three cohorts get killed at Blondie's door. If there is no friendship usually necessary in survivalist films, alliances are very important indeed to the sort of cinema Leone is interested in, and he utilises characters who between them have all the necessary information having to remain allied because of it.
Yet to talk about Leone it would be naive to ignore the style, a cinematic approach that makes it very difficult to take the style seriously; as though Leone wishes to acknowledge in the human limitations he explores a form that points up those limitations. His style implies that his is an impoverished view of existence that can't possibly be taken entirely straight and he must thus find the means to create a mock-heroic aesthetic, one that wouldn't have any room for subtle psychology and a nuanced ethos. If Leone is a good director but not a great one, if he always insists on drawing upon caricature for characterisation, and melodrama for situation, this needn't be the grounds to dismiss him. It is to see in his work a limitation that starts from the worldview he offers and that aligns itself very well to genre filmmaking and limited thinking. It is the same type of limitation to be found in Tarantino's work but if Leone remains the more important director (while Tarantino may prove to be chiefly a fashionable one) it rests on the rigour of Leone's approach: in his use of music, the close-up, the long shot and the tempo of the film. There are numerous instances throughout cinema history where the director has a close relationship with a certain composer, the 'compositeur fetiche', including Greenaway and Michael Nyman, Fellini and Nino Rota, Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann. Leone's with Ennio Morricone is as significant as any. Morricone was a prolific composer who worked for numerous filmmakers and his soundtracks usually possessed a bombastic sense of the ironic, the political or the lush: the music could serve as a witty underscoring to a moment of exaggeration as we find in the Leone westerns, possess the determined force of political change as in The Battle of Algiers and Burn, or the romantically inclined in Days of Heaven and The Meadow. When at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Tuco screams again at being left by Blondie, he yells "you son of a bitch" and the soundtrack comes in to create an audio match on the word bitch: Morricone's track reflecting the sense that Tuco will be fine no matter how worked up he gets. At the beginning of the film when we are first introduced to Tuco he smashes through a window after shooting those out to get him, a gun in one hand, a leg of meat in the other. As the music comes in it suggests here is a man who gets himself out of all sorts of trouble. When Morricone uses more conventional music during the scenes with the military troops, this doesn't capture the Leone-esque but the standard Western sense of emotional loss. It tells us little about Leone's world and much more about the Western imaginary more generally. What we find with Morricone's music at its best in Leone's work is that it reflects the selfishness of the characters he focuses upon. The music utilised in the scenes with the troops offers a homogenised sense of humanity; the music used through most of the film indicates instead an ironic approach to each person looking out for himself.
Such a method extends to the shot choices. Leone's close-ups are famous and very different from other well-known close-ups in cinema in films by, for example, von Sternberg or Bergman. Von Sternberg often suggests an ethereal quality in work like Scarlett Empress and Blonde Venus, while Bergman's close-ups indicate ferocious psychic selfishness that understands the threat others happen to be for one's potentially fracturing mental health. Leone's close-ups are usually oleaginous and crude, brilliantly capturing vulgar thoughts and base feelings. At the beginning as the assassins set out to kill Tuco, the film shows them in close-ups that leave their face taking up two-thirds of the widescreen frame. The expressions suggest they don't so much have one thing on their mind but very few things available to it: money, food, drink and possibly sex. They look like people whose life has been a constant fight for basic resources and the imminent killing of Tuco just another episode in the struggle. If Bergman's close-ups search a face for the texture of a thought, for the myriad reasons for an expression, Leone demands from a face that it can reveal nothing because that is more or less what it has to divulge. Calculation consists of trying to survive knowing that there are others with the same base priority. The close-up gives to Leone's films an elemental quality which is at the same time a self-conscious use of a device that undermines the elemental. Leone doesn't utilise faces, he utilises the cinematic code of the close-up.
To understand this a little better, and to understand the mock-aspect of Leone's style, one can think of semiotics and film. There are codes specific to cinema like the close-up, non-diegetic music and editing, just as there are more general codes that cover different art forms like the dandy, the lothario, the whore with a heart of gold: tropes that can work in theatre, literature and film. A lot of films will utilise the latter knowingly but use the former without formal self-consciousness. Leone gives to the form a stylistic deliberation that makes clear he isn't just showing us a face but that he is showing us a close-up. He was interested in the cinematic code more than the world out of which he filmed. In contrast, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a filmmaker and writer who disagreed intensely with other semioticians (he wrote numerous papers on the subject himself), saw in cinema the opportunity to capture an aspect of life that could emphasise the primitive rather than the sophisticated, which was complex and even contradictory but certainly never ironic. When Pasolini discusses using non-professional actors and getting them to be angry by simply asking them to do so, the interviewer Jamie Blue says "didn't this request make him attempt to imitate the way an actor he had seen got angry?" Pasolini replied, "It's not possible, because they have never confronted themselves with the technical problems of an actorthat is, he doesn't have a technical idea of 'anger,' he has a natural and genuine idea of anger." (Film Comment) Pasolini never wanted self-consciousness; never wished for the actor to pass through the ready iconography and self-reflexivity of cinema. Leone wished for the opposite, all the more fascinating in that both Pasolini and Leone used the same cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli. Pasolini was pretty much "happy right away with the 50mm lens because the performers could be seen clearly, even though the backgrounds were closer and [looked] a little squashed," those interviewing Delli Colli, David Heuring and Giosue Gallotti, say. On the other hand, they note "Leone and Delli Colli reimagined the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, taking genre films to the level of art through glacial but tense pacing; innovative sound design; fresh, minimalist dialogue; and, above all, obsessive and almost exclusive use of extreme close-ups and very wide shots." (American Cinematographer) Pasolini was interested in aesthetic questions without a doubt, and wanted his films to absorb the history of pictorial representation, evident in his frequent references to painting. As Delli Colli notes in the same interview, Pasolini "... had pictorial references, such as the painting by Mantegna that he used in La Ricotta [The Curd Cheese]." With Leone, he says, in an interview with Christopher Frayling, "while we were actually working, we didn't refer to paintings. Sometimes we referred to them during the preparation stage as a kind of shorthand for costumes and sets, but that's about it." (Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece.) Pasolini, a poet, linguist and novelist as well as a filmmaker, was fascinated in the arts as a product of civilization and at the same time was interested in what produced that civilization, wishing to work from its source and not its knowing conventions. Leone was preoccupied with those very conventions and knew exactly the effect he wanted to produce. Delli Colli notes, "Technically, he was perfect; technically, he was a great director. Sometimes he would ask for a small dolly of 20 centimetres, and I would say, 'Why a dolly?' but when it was edited, you could notice those 20 centimetres. The public didn't realise about things like this at a technical level, but felt them psychologically. His films were very carefully shot, and it paid off with audiences." (Once Upon a Time in the West: The Shooting of a Masterpiece)
One notices this perfectionism in the contrast between close-ups and long shots at the beginning of the film. Moving from tight shots on the face initially of two of the prospective assassins and then on the third after we see him in the distance getting off a horse, we might initially assume that all three aren't after Tuco, who we've yet to see; that it will be a confrontation between the two who arrive first and wait, and the third who arrives afterwards. But, instead, as the duo moves towards the other man we see them stop outside a tatty, apparently disused saloon bar, with a tattered Reward sign on the wall outside. They go inside and the shooting starts. Tuco escapes through the window, with two of them dead and the third dying. The camera doesn't enter the bar at all: Leone's economic style tells us all we need to know without showing us anything in great detail. The close-ups and the long shots don't serve a functional, informational role but a stylistic purpose. When later in the film Tuco is tortured by a Heavy as Angel Eyes tries to extract information from Tuco about the gold's whereabouts, Leone cuts between the three characters with a sadistic emphasis. The film edits from the Heavy beginning to gouge Tuco's eyes out as we see Tuco in close up struggling to remove the Heavy's hands, to the Heavy's fat determined face and then to Angel Eyes smoking on a pipe all the shots in a tighter close-up than mere information would demand. Equally, when Tuco manages a little later in the film to escape from the Heavy (who is taking him to be executed), after Tuco throws the pair of them off the train, Tuco manages to knock the big man unconscious and drag him to the railway track. Tuco is on one side, the Heavy literally on the wrong side of the tracks as the train rolls over him and the handcuff attaching the two of them is broken. Tuco is now a free man and the Heavy a dead one, aptly emphasised in a single shot at the end of the sequence. Tuco manages to make it onto the fast-moving train and as he does so we see lying on the tracks the dead man. The deadpan tone, the sense in which one's life is all but over one minute, and the next you are very much alive and your persecutor dead, wouldn't have been as mordant if the film had shown us in a series of cuts Tuco getting on the train and then looking back at the dead man on the track. Leone makes his close-ups and longs shot work as much more than just the cinematic language of necessity.
If we can mention Leone's use of the melodramatic situation and the caricaturing of character, in another filmmaker's work this could lead to obviousness and unoriginality, but in Leone, it contributes to his visual wit and his need to see character as singularly unscrupulous. If one accepts that what matters in the film is how skilfully a character calculates the nature of their situation and that one finds the most agreeable happens to be Blondie, this is quite different from how we feel about characters in the westerns of Ford, Hawks and others. The Ringo Kid in Ford's Stagecoach is a good man determined to avenge his father and brother and, by the end of the film, to look after the prostitute as his attentive gaze has turned her into a virtuous woman. In Hawks's Red River, Matthew Garth is a fair and just man who tries to get his truculent adopted father to see how badly he has been treating the cattle ranchers. In Zinnemann's High Noon, Will Kane is the honourable sheriff who must save the town from the arriving villains, and must do so more or less on his own. Morality is vital to all of them. Morality has little to do with Leone's world and if it does it must come with a requisite amount of humour and cruel intent. At the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie chooses to share the gold coins with Tuco but at a price. Blondie sets up a noose and has Tuco place his head in it as Blondie leaves. Tuco is left standing on a cross, the gold on the ground. There Tuco is, all the wealth he will ever need at his feet, and yet there is the noose around his neck. He is so close to great wealth and even closer to death. If Tantalus could never quite reach the grapes nor arrive at the pool of water as he starves and goes thirsty, Tuco is the western mythological equivalent: the greediest of men who can't access the cash as he will soon be swinging from a rope. Leone cuts from yet another desperate close-up of Tuco to an extreme long shot of Blondie in the distance, to a close-up again of Tuco, before returning to a medium-close-up of Blondie setting up the sights on the gun as the film cuts back and forth between the pair of them. Blondie shoots the rope and Tuco falls to the ground, his head landing on the much-coveted coins. The credits come up showing us Tuco in fixed frame with the word ugly next to him, followed by Angel Eyes as the bad and then Blondie as the good.
Yet Blondie is less good than 'just' in the Leone-esque sense of the term. He both sees that Tuco must be punished for his earlier misdeed (dragging Blondie through the desert in revenge for what Blondie did to him), but also to show once again how reliant he earlier was on Blondie shooting the rope when they were sharing the profits from the bounty. Leone twists the morality of the conventional western by utilising humour and self-consciousness and gives the genre a new sensibility. When he offers us one-dimensional characterisation and constantly vengeful situations which up the ante (as we find when Tuco drags Blondie through the desert as Blondie had earlier left him stranded; as the Heavy tries to gouge Tuco's eyes out and later Tuco leaves him on the track as the train comes), the viewer doesn't see either cliche or melodrama at work. They see a fresh if overly limited point of view on the world, one which indicates the logic of the west.
If a man has to do what a man has to do, if what matters is who has the fastest draw and that the western hero must remain solitary, then most westerns will acknowledge such fundamentals but soften the truths behind them. Shane must ride off into the sunset but not before he has become a vital member of the rancher's family he helps out. Near the end of Stagecoach, The Ringo Kid must avenge his brother and father but that doesn't rule out eventually living with the ex-prostitute with whom he has fallen in love. Usually, in the classic western, the filmmakers attend to the humanity of the hero so that the tenets which define the genre are tenderised by the milieu in which the western hero exists. At a certain point, the logic of the western's assumptions accommodates the needs of others beyond the hero: the characters negotiate a world rather than purely calculate within it. Ringo, Shane and Kane all have similar value systems even if the first is an escaped prisoner, the second a gunslinger and the third a sheriff. But Leone insists on pushing the logic of the western to its presuppositional limits so that a man really has got to do what a man's got to do. If Ringo becomes more sensitive through the course of the film, or as the titular hero in Shane sees at least the value of family life, Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes remain the same throughout. Angel Eyes becomes no less bad, Tuco remains avaricious and gluttonous, and Blondie will allow Tuco to live yet again. It isn't even as if Blondie is especially good; it is more he is a good shot. He enjoys making Tuco squirm and will in the process show just how perfect a shot he happens to be. Tuco lives less because Blondie is a fine man than a fine shot and shooting the rope proves the latter and as a byproduct allows Blondie to pass for the former. Leone isn't interested in suggesting characters growing, developing and changing. They remain essentially the same and he then insists on finding a logic within the story, and an inventiveness in the style, that can absorb the cliches of the genre by making clear that it is the form that matters.
Yet there are many filmmakers for whom the form is important while at the same time using the form to comment beyond the form. Whether it is Godard, Antonioni or Bergman, they do not use the form to comment on the film itself but use form to go beyond film. When Antonioni films Milan or Rome in La notte and The Eclipse, it is to record the cities as they are around the time the films were made. When Godard makes Two or Three Things I Know About Her he wants to capture Paris in the mid-sixties. Bergman's close-ups aren't utilised to show us knowingly the film grammar but to suggest that the close-up can make us see faces anew. Leone does not wish to use the form to go beyond the form but to remain even more securely within it. A stranger coming to the ranch in Shane is a trope but a stranger coming to a ranch in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is an expectation: a generic demand on the audience's part that Leone implicates the viewer in rather than demanding there is a character with whom we identify. In most westerns before Leone's, the viewer identifies with a character; in Leone's work one is implicated in the form. No contemporary filmmaker has absorbed this aspect of Leone's world more than Tarantino but others who are loosely called post-modern and possess a dimension of it, including Almodovar, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers. It isn't that identification is ignored, of course, but instead that the viewer knows the character isn't only inside the diegesis but also an agent producing the story. While Godard, Antonioni and Bergman in different ways want to suggest a world beyond the story that constantly problematises the world that is shown to us on film and the world that the film shows, then Leone was central to instigating a world that is shown to us on film and containing that world by making us aware that we are watching a movie. If Godard can often be seen as a post-modernist this is a misconception if one sees the post-modern as a reflexive device that insists what matters is the diegesis controlled by the filmmaker on their own terms. As Tarantino says in speaking of his admiration for Leone: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was "the movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera...how to give your work a signature." (IndieWire) Godard was always more interested in acknowledging the impossibility of that control by shooting on the streets, by working without scripts, by trying to trust his instincts on the set. As Godard says in a mid-nineties interview with Gavin Smith. People like to say, 'What do you mean exactly?' I would answer, 'I mean, but not exactly.'" (Film Comment) The work always escapes him. In contrast, Delli Colli says, "Sergio was a real go-getter, a very meticulous artist who paid attention to everything he did, right down to the smallest details." (American Cinematographer) This doesn't mean that Godard was negligent as an artist; just someone acutely aware that choices always contain other choices that could be valid as well, and wishing to acknowledge constantly the option as fret rather than mastery.
The post-modernist might also acknowledge that the choices they make are their own but also in the process insist on making out of that choice a categorical assertiveness: one which we see as readily at the beginning Pulp Fiction, as the film freeze-frames at an important dramatic moment before going back in time, as in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Leone wittily freeze-frames after showing us Tuco going through the window escaping the three bounty hunters. The Italian filmmaker knows that many a director would show a shoot out in the salon but he is absolutely assertive in the way he chooses not to show it that way - and turns the scene into an amusing moment of virtuoso cinema with an added freeze-frame to top it off. It is an approach that needn't create any anxiety in the viewer about a filmmaker's freedom even if we feel nothing but freedom in the choices Leone has made. Godard's work is full of that anxiety. In this sense, whether it is a character within the film or a director commenting on it as if a character puppeteering the proceedings, it doesn't matter. What counts is the confidence in the self-reflexivity. When Blondie insists Tuco stands on the cross and that he puts the noose around his neck, Blondie is both a character reckoning Tuco needs a lesson but also a diegetic director throwing another twist into the mix by leaving us to wonder whether he will allow Tuco to hang. If Blondie earns his status as the good it lies in him letting Tuco go, but how good can he be if he is willing to string a man up in the first place? Yet Leone, in such a scene that concludes his film, can't resist one final act of sadistic manipulation in a movie full of such moments. He shows how much he is in control by showing a character who mimics his manipulative ways and allows Leone to assert his aesthetic.
There is no anxiety in the film's form even if there is nothing but anxiety for the characters at various moments in the film. These, however, are two distinct forms of anxiety: one is the tension of not knowing what will happen next characterisationally; the other is a spectatorial knowingness that indicates Leone is a very safe pair of hands indeed, utterly in control of his craft. This doesn't mean there aren't numerous errors, as IMDB notices, but they don't call into question the story; they only prove a problem for the pedant who is likely to watch or rewatch the film to notice mistakes. It might be showing more stars on the American flag than there would have been at the time, or utilising a gun that hadn't yet been invented. These are small details easy to overlook, not anachronisms that force upon the viewer a proper questioning of the diegesis. When Godard shows a woman travelling into town and arriving in different clothes in Slow Motion, we might wonder if it is a continuity error, a play with continuity or that the cycling trip she takes into town and her arrival aren't necessarily cause and effectual. The convention suggests if we see someone going somewhere and arriving in the next scene then we usually assume that unless the film makes clear it is a different day, the character is arriving on the same one. Godard asks us to call into question film form at its base. If it is an error, Godard has chosen to leave it in even though it creates a question around the story; Leone's numerous minor errors needn't cause us to fret too deeply over what Leone might be saying by using the modern American flag rather than a 19th-century one. Godard's 'errors' do. When Sofia Coppola shows people wearing sneakers in Marie Antoinette this is a post-modern anachronism to cue us to see the knowingness in the work that is deliberate, part of the knowingness Leone helped introduce into cinema rather than the anxiety Godard insisted on generating.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly is an important, influential and in its own way logically rigorous film. It is also, however, a work that doesn't really create the ground for innovation in cinema but instead insistently shows how well a director can shut cinema's possibilities down while also ostensibly allowing the director all sorts of freedom. When we look at Tarantino's work we may know that he named his company after a Godard film, A band a part, but the Leone presence is by far the stronger. Leone managed to offer what Tarantino has continued to ape: an aesthetic which indicates a liberty available to the director that they can do anything they want but must be careful in how interrogatory their films happen to be within this notion of aesthetic sovereignty. Leone helped usher in a directorial self-consciousness but one oughtn't to mistake this for thinking thoughts anew with the cinematic image. Leone's calculative reasoning, his knowing style and his careful use of established tropes, do not finally allow for this type of freedom; yet let us not pretend there isn't a masterful filmmaker nevertheless.
© Tony McKibbin