Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY – Ennio Morricone


November 27, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The commercial success of the Spaghetti Westerns A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few More Dollars caught the eyes of studio executives at United Artists. They contacted Italian screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, offered him a contract, and expressed a desire to purchase film rights for the next installment. The Italian creative team of producer Alberto Grimaldi, director Sergio Leone and Vincenzoni met and agreed to collaborate. They proposed a story set during the American Civil War, where three rogues join in an uneasy alliance in search of buried treasure. United Artists agreed to the storyline and provided a generous budget of $1.2 million. Vincenzoni joined with Leone, Agenore Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli to create the screenplay that was not without controversy, in that it eschewed the traditional Americana romanticism. It instead offered a potent social commentary on capitalism, greed, as well as the destructiveness and absurdity of war. Its heroes are less pure, less righteous and more morally ambiguous, where the clear lines between hero and villain are blurred.

Leone brought in a fine cast, which included the titular trio of Clint Eastwood as Blondie (the Man with No Name), “The Good”, a reserved yet confident bounty hunter, Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes, “The Bad”, a ruthless, cruel and sociopathic mercenary, and Eli Wallach as Tuco Ramirez, “The Ugly”, an amoral, impulsive, and comical Mexican bandito. The story offers a classic morality play where we witness the intersection of powerful and competing emotions; greed, duplicity, treachery and betrayal. Three men come together in a common goal by forging an uneasy and self-serving alliance as they seek to unearth $200,000 in Confederate gold. The gold is buried in a grave at Sad Hill Cemetery and Tuco knows the location of the cemetery, while Blondie knows in which grave the treasure is buried. What unfolds is a contest of wills, where the end justifies the means as we explore to what extent each of the three are willing to go to achieve their objective. The film did not receive any season end award nominations, and critical reception was harsh with many repelled by the gratuitous and graphic violence. Yet over time the film has gained significant appreciation with many asserting that it as one of the finest Westerns ever made. Commercially the film was massively successful, earning $24 million more than its production costs.

Sergio Leone had collaborated with Ennio Morricone for the two earlier films and he was the natural choice for this latest endeavor. He continued to eschew using a classical romantic idiom, instead embracing a non-traditional soundscape that could only be described as bizarre, unconventional and brilliant. Illustrative is his distinctive Main Theme, which simulates a howling of a coyote, which is carried by an ocarina, flute, nativist drums, whistling, gunfire and wordless vocals. Its A Phrase offers two sets of four repeating declarations with counters, the first set comprised of a high register ocarina and wordless vocals, while the second set offers a low register ocarina with a whistle. The B Phrase is carried by electric guitar and wordless vocals, and has a more structured melodic construct that offers both drama and passion. The theme serves as the identity of the three men collectively, but also individually, with distinct articulations for each; the flute for Blondie, the ocarina for Angel Eyes and human voices for Tuco. In each scene where one of the three is introduced, the A Phrase resounds with their pseudonym; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Two other themes support the film, and both offer exquisite beauty. The Elegy Theme offers an evocative trumpet elegy, which is joined by kindred contrapuntal trumpets. It is used as a leitmotif for defeated and dying confederate soldiers. It offers one of the score’s most moving and emotional statements. Equally brilliant and supremely moving is the Story of a Soldier Theme, which achieves a perfect confluence of word and melody. The heartfelt song speaks of the travails, futility, and tragedy of war. It is lament written by Morricone with profoundly moving lyrics by Thomas Connor. At times it is rendered without the lyrics by harmonica and whistling. Lastly, Morricone infuses his soundscape with a wide assortment of instruments and effects, which impart its unique and unconventional expression, including acoustic guitars performed by Alessandro Alessandroni, harmonicas by Franco de Gemini, castanets, drums, wordless female vocals performed by the legendary Edda dellOrso, gunfire, and the mesmerizing metallic twinkling of gold coins.

“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” offers one of the most iconic main titles in cinematic history, one that is totally unique in both its conception and application. It supports the roll of the animated opening credits with the iconic Main Theme, which earns Morricone immortality. It simulates the howling of a coyote, which is emoted by an ocarina, flute, nativist drums, whistling, gunfire and wordless vocals. It is rendered in ABA form with a bridge of martial trumpets, which supports scenes of war, and then concludes inversely with a BA statement. The music immediately challenges the viewer and informs them that this will not be a traditional John Wayne Western supported by Tiomkin Americana. In the first scene, three men come to kill Tuco, who is in a saloon. They burst in, but Tuco kills all three and escapes. As he rides off the A Phrase of the Main Theme supports the graphic, “The Ugly”. The music for this short cue is not on the album. In “The Sundown” a young boy observes Angel Eyes riding in towards their ranch and he runs in to raise the alert. A lyrical acoustic guitar plays over soft shifting strings to carry his progress. As he dismounts the guitar becomes animated belying his menace, as he enters the ranch. He has been hired to kill the boy’s father if he does not disclose the information he needs to find the hidden gold. Although the father cooperates and tosses in $1,000 to leave in peace, Angel Eyes takes the money and ruthlessly murders him and his eldest son.

“Sentence” reveals Angel Eyes bringing the information back to the man who hired him. He accepts his fee of $500, but then murders him also. The cue supports the murder’s aftermath, with plaintive woodwinds that sow a grim soundscape. This statement ushers in the A Phrase of the Main Theme, which supports the graphic, “The Bad”. In “Escape on a Horse” Blondie again turns in Tuco to the authorities for a $3,000 reward. As they prepare to hang Tuco, Blondie shoots the rope to free him and they escape – a ruse they have used many times to earn reward money. The A Phrase resounds as they ride off, with a galloping variant of the Main Theme carrying their progress. But Blondie betrays Tuco, abandons him to the desert, and keeps the $3,000 for himself. As he rides off the A Phrase of the Main Theme supports the graphic, “The Good”.

“The Rope Bridge” is a multi-scenic cue. We open with Tuco staggering across a rope bridge. He has survived the desert, but is dying of thirst. A free flowing and ambient acoustic guitar carries his progress. The A Phrase of the Main Theme takes him into a store, where he robs the owner of two guns, a hat, and $200. In a scene change, Tuco enters a cave atop his theme, which is accompanied by discordant milieu of random percussive effects, piccolo, flute, and Jewish harp.

“The Strong” offers one of the score’s finest cues, an outstanding testament of the Maestro’s compositional gifts. Angle Eyes continues to search for Jackson and rides into a confederate fort that has been decimated by a union attack. It lies deserted except for the wounded in the infirmary. The evocative trump et born Elegy Theme, which is adorned by kindred contrapuntal trumpets, graces us with one of the score’s most moving passages. I just did not wish to move on from the beautiful and haunting scene. “In Chase” a full and unabashed rendering of the Main Theme resounds as we see Tuco riding in pursuit of Blondie, who has once again escaped him. His theme emotes with resolve as he closes in. “The Desert” offers a stunning score highlight where Morricone evokes the searing torment of the desert. Tuco has captured Blondie and at gunpoint is forcing him to walk into the desert to extract a terrible revenge. As he walks, Morricone weaves desolation with tremolo strings emoting and eerie dissonance. A stark piano of hopelessness joins and ushers in a travail of pain, which carries Blondie’s progress. Dire horns and strings affanato raise a cadence of death as Blondie weakens. We begin an astounding and relentless tortured crescendo of pain where we observe that the more Blondie weakens the greater intensity of Morricone’s music, an inspired inversion! We close with a diminuendo as Blondie collapses, and is near death.

In “The Carriage of the Spirits” as Tuco prepares to shoot Blondie, he is distracted by a riderless carriage careening down the road. The Elegy Theme carries its progress, but woven within its articulation is a subtle dissonance and sadness, which informs us that something, is wrong. The contrapuntal writing here is superb with female wordless vocal and counter trumpets playing against the primary trumpet line. As Tuco runs out and halts the horses, he finds within the carriage dead soldiers, from whom he shamelessly steals. Yet one is alive and promises him $200,000 in gold for water. In a bargain, he tells Tuco the location of the cemetery, but not the gravesite, insisting on water. When Tuco runs for water, he returns to find the man dead, and his secret now held by Blondie, knowledge which forestalls Tuco’s death sentence. “Saint Anthony’s Mission” reveals Tuco taking Blondie for medical care at the abbey of Saint Anthony. As we see the monks tending to the wounded, Morricone supports the scene with a comforting religioso ambiance carried by warm French horns and an exquisite solo oboe, which are joined in communion by kindred woodwinds as the melody dances to and from among them. The woodwind writing here is exquisite. We close atop Tuco’s Theme as he is told that Blondie will survive.

In “Father Ramirez” Tuco greets the Padre only to realize it is his brother Pablo. As Pablo relates to Tuco that their mother and father had died, they argue as Tuco’s resentment surfaces. They quarrel and Tuco leaves on bad terms. Morricone supports the encounter with a plaintive acoustic guitar whose notes are tinged with regret. “Marcia” reveals Tuco and Blondie traveling to the cemetery when Union cavalry intercepts them. As they are escorted into the prison camp the “Story of the Soldier” song is rendered as a faux marching tune expressed by harmonica and whistling, which carries their progress. At 1:12 the melody softens and becomes plaintive as the lame camp commander who has a gangrenous leg observes the new arrivals through a telescope. “The Story of a Soldier” offers yet another sublime score highlight, an evocative song, which achieves a perfect confluence of word and melody. The heartfelt song speaks of the travails and tragedy of war. It is lament written by Morricone with profoundly moving lyrics by Thomas Connor. The song is sung by troops as Angel Eyes has Tuco tortured to extract information regarding the gold – a striking juxtaposition.

In “The Military Train” Angel Eyes sends Tuco off on a military train, while he and Blondie set off on horseback for the cemetery. The Story of a Soldier Theme emoted by harmonica supports the scene. “The End of a Spy” reveals Tuco escaping the train and brutally killing the soldier who tortured him. As he escapes, his theme resounds in victory. At 0:29 we change scenes to town atop the Elegy Theme to support a soldier’s execution by firing squad. “The Bandit With a Missing Hand” reveals Tuco being stalked by a man seeking revenge for his right hand, which Tuco shot off. Morricone sows tension with dire strings, chattering percussion and fragments of Tuco’s Theme. Tuco however gets the last laugh by gunning the man down. In “Two Against Five” Blondie escapes, kills one of Angel Eyes five men and joins up with Tuco. The two groups slowly position themselves for the showdown. Morricone sows tension texturally with shifting and random percussion strikes, discordant horns and rolling drums. As Blondie and Tuco gain the upper hand, the advance atop a confident rendering of the B Phrase of the Main Theme. After a cannon explosion raises a dust cloud the tension returns with a reprise of the random percussion strikes, discordant horns and rolling drums. As the dust cloud subsides, Tuco and Blondie gun down the last of Angel Eye’s men, only to discover that he has fled.

As they move on in “Marcia Without Hope” they are captured by Union Troops and brought to a drunken Captain preparing for a final assault on a bridge held by confederate troops. We see that the Captain is resigned to his fate as he prepares to lead his troops into a futile battle. Morricone fills us with a heart wrenching sadness by creating a somber ambiance with a wordless choral rendering of the Story of a Soldier Theme. “The Death of a Soldier” offers a score highlight as we see medics bringing back the mortally wounded Captain. Blondie is moved, and in an act of compassion, offers him one last drink. Morricone supports the death of the Captain, and Blondie later giving a young rebel dying soldier one last drag on his cigarette, with the Story of a Soldier Theme carried by an elegiac trumpet and wordless chorus. The emotive power brought by the music to this scene is supremely moving, and perfectly captures the terrible cost of war.

“The Ecstasy of Gold” provides us with the score’s masterpiece cue, and one of the most sublime in the Maestro’s extensive canon. Tuco and Blondie shared their secrets while blowing up the bridge and Tuco has ridden off in an effort to get to the gold first. Blondie cannon fires the horse out from under him, and he stumbles into the cemetery. Morricone’s timeless melody opens hesitantly on English horn and twinkling piano, but then begins a stirring and wondrous ascent joined by an angelic wordless female vocal as we see Tuco jubilantly dashing through the cemetery in anticipatory ecstasy. Slowly, yet inexorably, we begin an intensifying joyous crescendo on dell’Orso’s vocal, resplendent strings and celebratory horns as the camera spins and Tuco circles through the graves in search of the Arch Stanton headstone. We climax gloriously with unbridled joy as he finds the coveted headstone.

“The Trio” offers a finale for the ages, a classic Mexican standoff between the three men where cinematography, acting and music achieve an extraordinary confluence. The Arch Stanton grave was a ruse and Blondie leverages his position, as he is the only one who knows the correct gravesite. He asks Angel Eyes to sheath his gun, and proposes writing the headstone name on a flat rock, which he then intends to place in the center of a circular rock bed – the implication is clear, who ever survives the standoff wins the gold. As he walks to the center of rock bed a solo lyrical flute weaves a pastorale, and is joined by contrapuntal acoustic guitar with castanet adornment in a repeating line. What follows is brilliance as Morricone alternates two musical constructs, the trumpeting motif, which speaks to the men’s quest for victory and lust for gold versus the piano-guitar motif, which speaks to their fears and anxiety. At 1:43 trumpets resound, joined by wordless female chorus as the men assume positions on the rock bed circumference. They form a triangle of death and the trumpeting fanfare speaks to their lust for gold. The guitar motif and piano resume and raise tension as each man surveys the others and contemplates whom to shoot first. Slowly Morricone escalates the tension by infusing the metallic twinkling sound of gold coins, with mock gunfire. The tension becomes unbearable as the piano agitato line replete with drum strikes, alternates with the trumpeting fanfare as we see Tuco sweating with anxiety, and Angel Eyes slowly, and purposely moving his right hand towards his revolver. At 3:49 trumpets resound and crescendo, empowered by a dance-like cadence of drums as the camera moves to and fro with close ups of each man’s eyes, and their gun hands. Angel Eyes pulls first and is cut down by Blondie. Tuco’s gun fails to discharge and he stands defenseless, yet Blondie spares him and instead finishes Angel Eyes with two more lethal shots. We learn that Blondie had disarmed Tuco’s gun the night before, and now orders him to dig up the gold on the neighboring grave titled, Unknown.

The final scene’s score is not provided on the album. As Tuco retrieves the sacks of gold, he looks up to see a hangman’s noose. The Main Theme wails as he contemplates his end. Blondie orders him into the noose while standing on the unsteady arms of a grave cross. A drum strike cadence of death begins a relen tless rhythm as Blondie rides off. Tuco struggles to maintain balance lest he die, cursing his fate, and Blondie, while lusting for the gold coins at his feet. Yet the drums go silent as Blondie turns and shoots, severing as he had many times before, the rope, thus saving Tuco. As he falls the Main Theme resounds against Tuco’s face with the caption “The Ugly”, against Angel Eyes Face “The Bad”, and Blondie’s face, “The Good”. We close with Blondie riding off atop the drum cadence as Tuco yells obscenities. The Main Theme reprises one last time as we see Blondie ride off into the hills.

I would like to thank Gianni Dell’Orso and GDM for this wonderful expanded rendering of Morricone’s masterpiece. The remastering is excellent and offers a superb listening experience. This effort by the Maestro was totally unique in its conception, and brilliantly executed. The iconic Main Theme offers one of the most recognizable themes in cinematic history, one that to this day is instantly recognizable by the public. Leone’s vision for the film eschewed the traditional Hollywood western with its romanticized Americana, and instead offered the public a harsh, violent and ignoble narrative with a damning indictment of the futility of war, which blurred the sharp lines between hero and villain. Morricone realized this and penned a score for the ages, one which achieved a perfect confluence with Leone’s vision. In addition to his Main Theme, which has passed unto legend, his evocative Elegy, and Story of the Soldier Themes are supremely moving in their lyrical beauty and unbearable pathos. The two final album cues offer some of the finest writing in Morricone’s canon, with his “Ecstasy of Gold” piece now considered immortal, one of the finest marriages of music and film narrative in cinematic history. The classic Mexican standoff scene in “Trio” succeeds because of Morricone’s masterful insight and fleshing out of the competing emotions of the three, a remarkable war, both within the men, and amongst them, a violent crossroads between lust and fear. I believe this score to be one of the finest in cinematic history, a masterpiece in Morricone’s canon, and a Silver Age gem. I highly recommend its purchase and addition to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link for the masterpiece cue “Ecstasy of Gold”. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOKhQ8ObQ7E

Buy the Good the Bad and the Ugly soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (2:38)
  • The Sundown (1:14)
  • Sentenza [Sentence] (1:39)
  • Fuga a Cavallo [Escape on a Horse] (1:05)
  • Il Ponte di Corde [The Rope Bridge] (1:51)
  • The Strong (2:19)
  • Inseguimento [Chase] (2:22)
  • The Desert (5:14)
  • The Carriage of the Spirits (2:06)
  • La Missione San Antonio [Saint Anthony’s Mission] (2:13)
  • Padre Ramirez [Father Ramirez] (2:36)
  • Marcia (2:49)
  • The Story of a Soldier (5:30)
  • Il Treno Militare [The Military Train] (1:22)
  • Fine di Una Spia [The End of a Spy] (1:12)
  • Il Bandito Monco [The Bandit with a Missing Hand] (2:43)
  • Due Contro Cinque [Two Against Five] (3:45)
  • Marcia Without Hope (1:48)
  • The Death of a Soldier (3:07)
  • The Ecstasy of Gold (3:20)
  • The Trio (5:00)

Running Time: 59 minutes 22 seconds

GDM Music GDM-7001 (1965/2001)

Music composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Orchestrations by Ennio Morricone. Featured musical soloists Alessandro Alessandroni, Bruno Battisti d’Amario, Italo Cammarota, Francesco Catania, Franco de Gemini, E. Wolf Ferrari, Michele Lacerenza, John O’Neill, Vincenzo Restuccia and Nicola Samale. Special vocal performances by Edda dell’Orso and Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni. Recorded and mixed by Giuseppe Mastroianni. Score produced by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai. Album produced by Gianni dell’Orso.

  1. February 17, 2019 at 4:35 am

    A review almost as brilliant as the music, amazing!

  2. Sean
    July 7, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    I’m sorry, but this just isn’t good enough.

    Comprehensive in many ways, but who is the female singer?

    • July 7, 2022 at 7:07 pm

      Edda Dell Orso. It says it right there at the end in the credits block

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