Reading the Meaning of a Scene (“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”)

Prior to writing this blog I saw the last 45 minutes of “The Good, Bad and The Ugly” and I feel it helped me understand the scene and the motivations of the characters better. The scene before this scene was very touching and explained how and where Joe/the Good (Clint Eastwood) acquired his poncho. Personally, I loved the contrast in costume, from the long coat he was wearing previously to the poncho, because it made the dueling scene stronger.

Filmed in 1966, but set during the Civil War, this part of the film features three mysterious men, Joe/the Good (Clint Eastwood), the Bad (Joe Van Cleet) and Tuco/the Ugly (Eli Wallach). They’ve arrived at an arid and deserted graveyard to settle an obvious dilemma. Suspense hangs heavy in the air, as they gravitate to three different points of a large triangle as if pulled slowly by an invisible rope and the camera takes an extreme wide shot.

Joe walks to his spot first, with a slight swagger. Silently placing a craggy white rock on the ground in front of him, his hand lingers over it briefly, in a close-up, then he stands and throws the end of the poncho over his shoulder with a swish. The garment and the accompanying soundtrack transform him into a glamorous bullfighter in the ring. But instead of a bull, he’s examining his opponents-the Bad and the Ugly.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Extreme close-ups of the characters’ guns, holsters and faces are the only preambles to the final action. They quickly draw, aim and Joe shoots the Bad. Lying on his side, his body flails awkwardly, and his face in close-up looks determined and confused as he grabs his gun and tries to shoot Joe before Joe kills him and he falls wounded into an open grave. A wide shot is used to capture this. Meanwhile, in a medium wide shot, Tuco fumbles with his gun and tries to aim and shoot Joe, but there are no bullets in the gun, so he fails and appears frustrated.

Emotionally they’re operating from various degrees of stress and anxiety but show it differently on their faces and bodies. Joe seems cool and calm, yet bristling with a need to overpower the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco is afraid and nervous to the point of desperation. The Bad appears to be as cool as Joe, but he displays a devilish serpentine quality, through the constant licking of his lips. If these three characters were animals I’d say Joe is an eagle, Tuco is a rabbit and the Bad is a snake.

Initially, when the camera establishes the scene with an extreme wide shot and places the characters within the scene, it feels tense. The size of the men compared to their surroundings is unsettling. Ranging from medium wide shots to close-ups the camera effectively contrasts the dueling body language between Tuco and the Bad causing the tension to ebb and flow as they size each other up before moving to their places in the duel.

The extreme close-ups of the eyes, faces, and hands of the three right before the duel, provides the most thrilling part of the scene. The viewer knows something’s going to happen but they don’t know what. Finally, after the gunfight, when the camera moves back into an extreme wide shot, it feels like there was a resolution that brings the viewer back to the beginning of the scene.

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