Sergio Leone's next movie and the final part of the 'Dollars Trilogy' was 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'. It is perhaps his best-known film, remaining immensely popular to this day.
To star with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, Leone attempted once more to get Charles Bronson, this time to play the character Tuco. Bronson was already committed to 'The Dirty Dozen' so instead Leone recruited method actor Eli Wallach - once again the casting is perfect.
The story revolves around the search for confederate gold and the forming and breaking of uneasy partnerships between the three protagonists - Blondie (The Good) played by Clint Eastwood, Angel Eyes (The Bad) played by Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach's Tuco (The Ugly).
These characteristics assigned to each of the protagonists are not that clear-cut however, to the point where the English language trailer made the mistake of calling Van Cleef 'The Ugly', and Wallach 'The Bad'. Certainly Tuco is no more ugly than Angel Eyes, and all three of the protagonists are fairly bad, driven primarily by their greed for gold bullion. But there are traits that separate the three and, all things being relative, the names are justified. Through the course of the film Angel Eyes guns down a family, beats a woman for information and tortures prisoners of war. He is all Bad. Blondie is by no means good. His scam with Tuco to collect reward money early in the film is not exactly above the law. On the other hand he shows compassion for a dying soldier, and even for Tuco on occasion - he is Good in the Spaghetti Western anti-hero sense. And then there's Tuco. His badness is not in the same league as Angel Eyes - there are times when we feel empathy for him (for instance when he justifies his way of life to his preaching brother, Padre Ramirez) - but overall his behaviour is pretty Ugly none the less. Leone was making the point that there are different degrees of good, bad and ugly in all of us.
The film effectively uses the American Civil War as a backdrop to proceedings and Leone never shies from representing the true horror of what is considered the first modern war. Blondie's sums up the carnage on the bridge, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly". For authenticity, Leone based much of the look of these scenes on period photos, particularly the work of Matthew Brady. (In acknowledgement, Brady is represented in one of the scenes photographing Union Troops.)
Ennio Morricone's score excels his previous work for Leone. There are so many memorable themes in this film - the main theme, 'The Sundown' which plays over our introduction to Angel Eyes, and the 'Ecstasy of Gold' that accompanies Tuco's frantic search through Sad Hill graveyard - the perfect merging of image and music in what, to my mind, is one best five minutes ever committed to celluloid.
For the final showdown, Leone went one better than the climatic shootout from 'For A Few Dollar More'. Here we have the all three protagonists facing each other, and the montage to Morricone's 'Il Triello' ('The Trio') showcases Leone's style at it best, with plentiful use of the extreme close-up of course.
In one scene Blondie and Tuco blow up a bridge that is being fought over by Union and Confederate troops. With the bridge wired with explosives by the effects team, Leone shouted 'Pronti' ('Ready') as a cue for the cameras to start rolling. However, the guy with the push button thought this was his signal and blew the bridge before any of the cameras had started. The bridge had to be totally rebuilt to be blown-up a second time.
AMC (American Movies Classics) recently funded a remastering of the film by MGM film archivist John Kirk. As well as a new 5.1 surround sound mix, several scenes only previously available in Italian were dubbed into English with the help of Messrs Eastwood and Wallach, together with a Lee Van Cleef sound-alike. Of these scenes, some were previously available in Italian as stand alone extras on the UK release DVD. Other scenes were also added, including the infamous 'chicken cave' scene, where Tuco enlists the three Mexican bandits to assassinate Blondie. The remastering has been met with mixed response by fans, and while it is certainly interesting to see the additional footage, one can see why Leone chose some of these cuts himself - The 'chicken cave' in particular seeming awkward and out of keeping with the rest of the film.