Scene Is Believing: The Good, The Bad And The ugly

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Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is, in Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling’s words, “the most carnivalesque of all his films – a black comedy about the craziness of war, a Catch – 22 of the American Civil War.”

Tuco / Ugly (Eli Wallach) and Blondie / Good (Clint Eastwood) are a Mexican bandit and American bounty hunter who team up to con the authorities out of reward money. Angel Eyes / Bad (Lee Van Cleef) is after a consignment of Confederate gold, and seeks Bill Carson, the one man who knows the whereabouts. Tuco later gets the location from the dying Carson as Sad Hill Cemetery, while Blondie discovers a further vital piece to the puzzle. All three converge for a final showdown in the huge military grave yard following various picaresque escapades through the unlikely, but historically true, Texan war zone. The climax to the film will be discussed through quotes from Leone and his collaborators.

Leone equated his films to “fairy tales for grown ups,” and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as a kind of “Don Quixote.” He said:

“The films are for grown ups, but they remain fairy tales. For me, cinema is about imagination, and the imagination is best communicated in the form of parables. The fusion of realistic setting and fantasy story can give film  a sense of myth, of legend. Once upon a time…”

The huge cemetery is a stunning setting for the climactic discovery and duel, a circle of graves stretching to the horizon in a valley, within which is a central hub – a wheel of death. Production Designer Carlo Leva was asked by Leone to elaborate on the circular duel from For A Few Dollars More: 

Carlo, can you make an arena for me, with the stones positioned around it in a circle? It must be a circle…The Cemetery in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly was specially built for the film, when we found a valley that was suitable for it. Each grave looked like a pile of earth after a battle, with a wooden cross stuck into it. Because  Sergio wanted this cemetery to have great presence, I decided to locate it within a civilian cemetery – with more noble columns or crosses or tombs here and there. And because he was difficult to please, the seven hundred graves soon became four thousand, five thousand!”

the good the bad and the ugly Carlo Leva Sad Hill Cemetery drawing

Before the duel, Tuco is the first to stumble upon the site. DP Tonino Delli Colli recalled:

“When we filmed Eli Wallach running around the cemetery, I had the idea that in order to cut the close-up and the long shot together, I’d put a pole on the tripod and put a camera at each end of it – at one end a camera with a 25mm lens and at the other a camera with a 75mm lens. The cameras turned together, so if the actor was framed with the 75mm lens, the 25mm lens would automatically be better for editing as well. In this way, we made a lot of circles all at the same time, while Eli Wallach did a lot of running.” 

the good the bad and the ugly sad hill cemetery

Screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni elaborates on Leone’s circle obsession:

“The last duel in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in the cemetery…he (Tuco) goes running, running, running to the music…he had this vision. he liked – and I liked – dry dialogue, very few words. But then you have a scene like this one – with no dialogue – you write: “Cemetery – the Good goes there – the Ugly runs around looking for the tombstone – the Bad comes – and suddenly they stop, watch each other, and shoot.” You write six lines, and Sergio Leone makes twenty minutes, and they are lyrical. I only started to understand the greatness of Sergio Leone when I stopped working with him.”

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Leone’s invaluable composer, the great Ennio Morricone:

“There are some moments in Sergio Leone’s films that have already become historic moments in the story of cinema. The pre – finale in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – which is called “The Ecstasy Of Gold” – when Tuco arrives at the cemetery to find the grave where the gold is hidden. Those three minutes and twenty seconds are a cinematographic moment of enormous expressivity – but also great editing techniques, great camera techniques, and a great way to think out a scene. Also, I must say, the music did its part…”

I’ll leave the final word on the legacy of Leone to Max Tohline in his video essay below on the editing of this sequence, and to admirer and friend, Martin Scorsese:

“The bottom line is that in his films, you can see a real love for movies, for cinema, for spectacle. And there’s no doubt that he created his own genre, and there’s no doubt that he created his own special body of work, which is almost the reinvention of film language…ultimately, I think he was a romantic who loved what he did and certainly believed in it.”


Originally posted 2013-11-17 18:43:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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