The Tone of a Showdown

In the fine tradition of the western genre, the finale of Sergio Leone’s epic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, climaxes with the showdown— a concluding battle between the forces of good and evil at work within the narrative. Leone’s film does not take a predictable turn, instead utilizing his own personal style it comes to a much more exciting conclusion than the clichéd conclusion could normally allow. The narrative is original in its own right, with the three title characters participating in the final stare down cooperatively. This unusual twist only begins to show how original and effective Leone’s work is, providing an auteur edge to a much-worn genre, exemplified by the use of his meticulously crafted style. The mise-en-scene in the finale, mixed with Leone’s trademark camera work and editing, all create a tone of bombastic excitement and nail biting suspense in what is quite possibly the most well-known western showdown in the history of cinema.

Establishing that bombast primarily is the mise-en-scene. Within the category of that stylistic element, the set design is most immediately noticeable. The setting barely fits within the boundaries of “over the top” stylizations, as the three characters, Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco, slowly step into a giant empty stone ring in the middle of an endless valley. This ring is surrounded by crosses and gravestones, bringing a morbid sense of completion to the characters’ respective journeys. The three gunmen stand isolated in this environment, the finality of their location defined in the grandiose cemetery in which they stand, like gladiators fighting for their lives. Followed by their entry, there is a long establishing shot of the three characters choosing their locations for the final duel. The framing and staging becomes deftly controlled by Leone, as Angel Eyes, the Bad and only conclusive “villain” to the film, crosses a sightline between Blondie and Tuco, the reluctant partners in the story. Angel Eyes is separating his opponents, creating an equidistant range between himself and the heroes. This enhances the feeling of suspense, delving into the idea that they are now all equal, and that anyone could die in this conclusion— antihero and villain alike. This shot makes it clear that there will be no easy buddy-film team-up to defeat the enemy in the moment of truth, which is an underlying theme throughout the scene, as Tuco, Blondie, and Angel Eyes stare each other down, not sure of who will shoot first or who will be shot at. These are the primary elements of the mise-en-scene, as the lighting remains constant throughout and the only props that maintain prominence past this point are the characters’ guns. The staging and the scenery compose Leone’s idea of an ultimate end to this story, which brings the audience to that moment of “breathtaking suspense” that only builds greater with the inclusion of the camera work and editing styles of Leone’s Spaghetti Western.

Though the props in this scene mostly stick to guns, there is one item of importance early on: a single rock held by Blondie. This item is what the three characters are “playing” for. This is the first moment where camera work becomes essential to the enhancement of the suspenseful and bombastic tone of the scene. To add to the focus of this item, Leone throws in a quick zooming shot on the rock as it is placed down, drawing the audience’s attention to what is being fought for. The idea that a single rock is what it all comes down to plays back once again on that over-the-top feeling, and displays how far these men will go to get what they want, giving the audience members a reason to start biting their nails. The camerawork remains static past this point, allowing the actors to control the frame by creeping into the shots with their eyes and hands. This is seen in a series of perspective shots, a collage of over-the-shoulder long shots of each character, close up the eye lines and matched close ups of their respective revolvers. The use of close ups provides a stronger sense of consideration within the characters’ whenever their eyes are shown. Leone’s depiction of the scene diminishes the predictability of the scene, as the characters meditate on who they are going to shoot, and as their hands slowly creep towards their guns. None of these shots would be nearly as effective without the editing that creates a montage series out of these images and brings them to an even greater level of potency.

The editing in the film can easily fit into the idea of montage, where various non-connecting images are strung together to tell a specific story. Once the establishing shot of the graveyard and the duelists’ staging has been shown, the shots become a tight pattern of the three basic elements of a gunfight— eyes, hands, and guns. Leone moves between these shots to tell the story of the gunfight completely through the language of editing. From the wild eyes of Tuco the film cuts to the calm stare of Blondie, letting the viewer in on how the antiheroes just might be on the same page, supposedly plotting against Angel Eyes. Cutting then to Angel Eyes looking nervously in the direction of Tuco and quickly back to Blondie suggests that he is starting to see his fatal flaw in attempting to stand between the two antiheroes. Closing in on the faces of the gunfighters, close-ups of the face fill the entire frame and the stare down creeps into the draw stage of the fight. The suspense snowballs here into a claustrophobic intenseness, suffocating the viewer with images. The pace momentarily slows with one brilliant shot of Tuco reaching down for his gun instigates to the viewer that the fight is now truly beginning. His hand consumes the screen with a tiny figure of Blondie far back in the frame, being mortally engulfed by the space Tuco’s gun encroaches upon. The sense of extreme intensity and excitement is most played out by this shot, as the simple drawing and firing of one shot will end the epic journey of the characters. The pace then quickens into a series of rapid-fire close-ups, darting from Tuco’s eyes, to the villain’s eyes, to Blondie’s eyes, to the guns of each character, and back and forth repeatedly with a very complex pattern spelling out the flow of the contest. Through the pattern, Angel Eyes becomes the twitch, draws first, and is taken down instantaneously by both heroes, cutting back to the extreme long shot of the circle and showing him as he falls to his death under the cooperative gunfire of Tuco and Blondie. This ending, one final and roaring cacophony of gunfire, is an instantaneous dropping of the gallows for the audience, breaking the tension and following through on the building suspense that has been exponentially growing since the placement of that simple rock.

Though this climatic duel ends in only one gunshot, it is the methodical and almost obsessive calculation of filmic elements as presented by Leone that makes it rise above all other gunfights. The mise-en-scene is simple and memorable so that during the quick cuts all the items within the frame can be recognized for what they are and who they belong to. The use of static camerawork of various long and tight shots draws the audience in with the camera, as perspective is played up highly to place a viewer within the duel. Finally, when edited together, the shots play out as a montage of over-the-top excitement and overbearing suspense, causing the images to be stamped into the minds of film makers and watchers since the first showing way back in 1966.

For your viewing pleasure, the final showdown from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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The Tone of a Showdown by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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