A great many people of our current iPod generation have missed out on some of the most brilliant, daring and artistic endeavours in film during the sixties and seventies. That was a period when film still held onto its artistic impulse, when the modern day blockbuster, complete with stunning visual effects, mind-bogglingly fast action sequences, and miraculously thin story lines and characterisations was still in its infancy. Over time, as some nostalgic folk of the ‘then’ would say, ‘the world has become too fast, and kids today don’t give a damn about deeper stuff’. Indeed it has; through the development of film over the decades, we see – at least a glimpse of – this seemingly reductive summarisation of the vast social and cultural changes in the world. The legendary final scene of this film, where the three principal characters face off, is roughly five minutes long, from the time they implicitly agree to this ‘solution’ to the first ‘bang’ of Eastwood’s pistol. In these five minutes, Leone uses music and recurring shots of the men to create the tension, engineering a sense of finality in the situation that could quite possibly take all three lives. At that critical moment, greater importance is given to this all-encompassing tension, where the entire film’s plot and the journey must culminate in a decisive end, than to the eventual outcome, which would be revealed in all eventuality. As audience, Leone wants us to participate in this tension, to completely transport ourselves into the simmering, immoral West, and feel the presence of death as the characters do, and therefore to achieve a cinematic orgasm that involves both the intellectual and visceral, in turn immortalising it. This painstaking attention to detail, the need to go beyond the bare plot and action, and the urge to create a cinematic environment that transcends, is something that we see too little of today. Indeed, we are privy to this intellectual desire from the very start.
The first shot in the film, of the brusque, brutally masculine face of a minor character (who returns later) that somehow eerily seems directly born out of the harshness of the desert is wonderful example of heightened realism that epitomised films of that time. We can almost smell and feel the sweat on the man’s face; we can delve into his eyes, into his soul, and through it, witness the moral degradation that Leone wants us to observe. This film could easily have been given a title, with something to the effect of earning some ‘dollars’, as are the other two in the trilogy, but Leone decides to punctuate it with an exposition on morality with the title he gives it. As any discerning viewer would infer, it is dichotomous to the nature of the pertinent characters. All three are ‘ugly’, and Leone tries of remind us with his concluding piece that morality is a vague, invariably overlapping concept that is too often oversimplified. Using the west as a setting, we realise that people are too complex, too evil to start with, and any attempt to glorify one is to shun this gruesome reality. This perfectly explains the unique collection of faces in the film, with are all polished with the desert’s sweat that makes them impenetrable to scrutiny of any kind.
The three adjectives that form the title function almost completely on one side of the moral boundary. And yet, no one can call the film entirely immoral or fatalistic, for we witness traces of humanity in the most absurd of circumstances. Blondie offering a cigar to a dying soldier and providing him warmth is once example of this. Understanding this moral equation, we can then justify the labels given to the three protagonists. Unlike the other two, Blondie keeps his sadistic impulses to a minimum. Also, he tellingly suggests the method of resolution to decide the recipient of the money which leads to the final confrontation scene. Most notably though, he underlines his seeming sense of fairness by taking his rightful share of the money, albeit making it virtually impossible for Tuco to collect his. Unlike him, Angel Eyes shows no pretence of such selflessness, and is perfectly willing to brutalise Tuco (another chilling scene) to get the secret out of him. However, even he believes in simply completing his job, and would not resort to the perfidy that Tuco is culpable of, making him the ‘ugly’ version of humanity. As we see, all three differ from one another only in degree, unlike the ironic suggestion of the title.
Overall, this is a complete auteur’s film, where Leone underscores memorable action sequences with great atmospheric detail and an underlying message that is so finely sewed beneath the more palpable layers that most of us tend to overlook it completely. This may not be the pinnacle of artistic cinema of ‘that’ time, but it reflects the sophistication a film can manifest beneath the superficial layers. Its slowly unraveling scenes and attention to detail is perhaps also a reminder to all of us to stop, and sometimes look at life with a keener eye, instead of being constantly pre-occupied with our daily, routine existence.