Monday, May 27, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A celebration of death

When the 1966 Italian western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, opened in American theaters in January 1968, it was a box-office hit (#21 in distributor’s rentals for the year), but pretty much reviled by critics and the guardians of morality. The latter included The Catholic Universe Bulletin which placed the film on its “condemned” list where the occult thriller Rosemary’s Baby would also earn a place of dishonor later that year. Today, the film starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone enjoys a reputation as lofty as its principle personnel.

Eastwood was a fairly minor TV star and still unfamiliar to most U.S. moviegoers when the film opened, but would soon emerge as the world’s most popular movie star, and, much later, a highly respected Oscar winning director. Leone would only make three more films, but he is hailed as a master by Quentin Tarentino among others. The film, regarded as a violent, morally reprehensible entry in a disreputable genre (an “Italian western,” as opposed to an American horse opera), is now a nearly unassailable classic; not quite Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but certainly equal to The Godfather and Star Wars. It was recently ranked fourth on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 films, as voted by its members, and when writing an appreciation for a recent DVD reissue, critic Roger Ebert admitted that it was a four star movie and that he knew it in 1968 when, aware that the film was considered, as already noted, disreputable, he gave it a mere three stars.

And yet it’s hard to fault the Universe Bulletin for condemning the film. It deserves high marks in every area, from Leone’s direction to Ennio Morricone’s evocative music score, but it is a celebration of death and the worst possible human behavior. The three main characters, played by Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, may be described in the title as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but they’re all bad, motivated by greed and even less admirable impulses. One can argue that the film is not endorsing such repellent behavior, only portraying it, but the general tone is one of moral ambiguity. It’s a brilliant film, but an unsettling one, at least to a middle aged man who feels a bit differently about life than he did when he first saw the film as an 11-year-old.

Brian W. Fairbanks
January 30, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


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