Weekend Retrospective - Ecstacy of Gold


"When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk"

In the past I gave some consideration to whether this should be given the honour of being the best ever Western. At one time I could easily have given that title to Leone's own Once Upon a Time in the West. But over repeated viewings this just held up better for a variety of reasons. It was the most purely entertaining, the most engaging, it had a certain tone and a certain character to it all which was never quite replicated anywhere else. So I was forced to reconsider... maybe this is the best. With more thought it eventually made it into the perfect score list.

The previous two films in the so called "dollars trilogy" are watchable, but very hit and miss in terms of overall quality and consistency. Revisiting them recently the flaws are more evident and they certainly aren't nearly as fun as the third instalment, despite the similarities in many places. The music is still good and they have their own memorable set pieces and characters. Clint is iconic in the poncho and they have the same kind of style at times. But they aren't paced as well, and they certainly don't have this much personality. They're just practice runs all building up this one, where every comes together.

He's tall, blonde, he smokes a cigar, and he's a pig!
As a genre, Westerns have never been one of my favourites. There have always been highlights of course, but in general movies from a certain era are pretty downbeat and mean spirited. There are a lot of grim stories where the simple heroism of the Old West is contrasted against a backdrop of bandits, rape and killing. After all, where life had no value, sometimes death had a price. They can often be too bleak, even when that may be the point. But in this case ... somehow it's all transformed into something far more interesting. There are a few cruel moments of course, but there are many scenes that are strangely amusing. It's fun, without ever being too silly (looking at you Sabata) and it's gritty enough without ever going too far. And for a film of this running time certainly never feels too long.

The central characters are one of the reasons this all works so well. And when I say characters, I kind of mean Eli Wallach's Tuco for the most part. He's the comic relief that somehow ends up bringing it all together, without ever feeling stale or overbearing which is quite an achievement. Sometime he takes abuse from Angel Eyes or Blondie, in other scenes he gets mean whether it's in revenge or just as a part of the crimes he commits. But he also turns this all on its head by getting sentimental in the scene with his estranged brother. It's a weird mixture of endearing and filthy, but it kind of makes the movie.

Clint Eastwood was apparently unhappy about sharing the screen time with a third character after Lee Van Cleef had been along for the ride in A Few Dollars More, but it wouldn't work as well without the structure of the eponymous treasure hunters playing off each other this way. But while Tuco's wilding grimacing face and general overacting is always the most memorable part, that isn't to say they don't all have their moments. Angel Eyes is none-more-bad as the sadistic bounty hunter and moonlighting military officer, revelling in killing his target and then taking their money to murder his client in return. And of course the man-with-no-name returns, despite having another moniker. His mean sense of humour and level headedness provides a good anti-hero once again, as well as a great foil against the others. But the cool factor is still maintained despite this added division in lead actors.

However the other big star of the film is the soundtrack, which like many aspects builds on what had been produced before and brings it up a notch or two. The Ecstasy of Gold sequence during the finale in particular stands out, in a scene which is nothing more than Tuco running madly through the graves at a cemetery for what feels like 20 minutes. But it's a magic moment because of the operatic musical choices of Ennio Morricone. There are moments of real tension, some of empathy, and others played for a sly laugh. The main theme can feel a little goofy at times with those vocal elements but all of these parts elevate the story to another level, particularly with the motifs for each character which are created through the use of distinct instruments.

There are various other things that add to the unique style of the movie, whether it's the animated names for each character being drawn on the screen in a freeze frame, or the signature use of extreme close ups which are at their best here. The whole thing is just bursting with personality. It's not jus about revenge or justice, or honour, it's a crazy adventure where all these ideas are mixed together during a treasure hunt. There's a kind of episodic feel as escapade leads into another, but it's why it feels so brisk despite the length. It may take a few strange detours, and the civil war bridge scene feels like a set piece just for spectacle rather than a real narrative progression; but overall I can't knock it. Why not throw in a moment to reflect on the madness of war, since so many other looks into the human condition are included. It's never too heavy handed or too light hearted, but instead a perfect cocktail of greed and revenge, action and drama.