No joke, no hyperbole, Sergio Leone‘s 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is my favorite movie of all time. All time. Do you understand what I mean by that? This is a movie that never ceases to thrill and excite me with its innovative take on the American West. What’s in the frame is not only the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing that exists. I’ve spent many an hour reading books and listening to lectures and analyzing this movie, which is why when a video shows up that looks at something I hadn’t thought about yet, I get all kinds of giddy.
This video essay comes to us from Max Tohline. (It isn’t new, but I’ve never seen it.) It takes the climactic showdown between the three co-antagonists and shows how Leone, using Ennio Morricone’s amazing score, took a scene where three guys literally look at each other for five minutes and made it one of the most tense and exciting sequences in cinema (my unbiased-but-totally-biased opinion).
The scene is made up of shots of Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach) sizing each other up, deciding who to shoot. There’s shots of their hands by their guns, their faces, and eventually just their eyes. The speed and frequency of the shots ramps up in time with the music, leading to the inevitable final moment. But one thing that Tohline points out that I’d never stopped to consider is who gets the most screen time during this sequence.
In the movie as a whole, Van Cleef’s character, “The Bad,” gets the least amount of time onscreen. Even though he propels the plot in his search for the buried Union gold, he sits out huge swaths of the back half of the movie while Eastwood and Wallach and their uneasy alliance have to contend with blowing up a bridge and running in and out of the Civil War. But during the final showdown, Van Cleef’s is the face and hand we see the most—he gets almost 1.5 times more focus than the other two.
This is because Angel Eyes is really the only character with a decision to make. Tuco is probably going to shoot Angel Eyes, but he’s a wildcard, so maybe he’ll shoot Blondie to get the money all for himself. Blondie knows that Tuco’s gun is empty—which Tuco, and we at home, don’t find out until the end of the sequence—and also knows that Angel Eyes is very likely going to shoot at him. But Angel Eyes knows nothing other than Blondie and Tuco have had the uneasy partnership and that both men have reason to take aim at him. So who is the one to take out first? He looks nervous. Far more than Tuco does.
It’s a brilliant piece of video essaying and one that gives viewers, including diehard fans of the movie like me, even more to think about.
Let us know your thoughts on the essay, and on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, in the comments below!