Thus far, we have John Wick (the Red Circle) at #5 and The Wild Bunch (finale) at #4. Today, we're going with the very epitome of an exercise in style over substance at #3, and as such it depends more on landmark director Sergio Leone’s vision and flair and less on choreography and staging. In fact, this is easily the simplest gunfight to make my list, and it features the fewest players. Yet, as I noted a moment ago, this is an exercise in style, . . . and what an exercise in style it has proven to be.
Top 5 Movie Shootouts: #3) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (finale)
Clint Eastwood is a true titan of the cinema, yet he was basically just some up-and-comer with a lean physique prior to his work with Leone. I’m not sure that he or anyone else realized just how big of an impact those so-called spaghetti westerns would have on the film industry, but Leone’s daring juxtapositions and his grandeur would usher in a whole new era for one of Hollywood’s most beloved genres. It is entirely possible that no western has had as much impact or cultural significance as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the shootout that brings this masterpiece to an end remains thoroughly enchanting.
As Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach square off in a remote cemetery with a fortune in gold on the line, the sprawling film gives way to an operatic pairing of sight and sound. Ennio Morricone’s monumental score perfectly captures the tension as Leone’s camera carries us through a series of extreme close-ups deftly interwoven with vivid wide shots. Steely gazes give way to fingertips that dance above the weapons that will soon determine who winds up dead and who winds up with the gold. The three men involved in this exhilarating standoff have each worked valiantly and suffered greatly to arrive at this moment, and Leone wrings every drop of suspense that he can out of the impending gunfire.
So deft is his touch and so perfectly suited to this wild reinvention of the western genre are the cast and Morricone’s score that the sequence remains nothing short of spellbinding to this very day. Once the first weapon is drawn and the shots ring out, the shootout concludes in the blink of an eye, but that only underscores the power and scope of this grand finale. Just as Leone used a daring collage of imagery and Morricone’s haunting score to perfectly capture the anticipation of this duel, he utilized brutal concision to convey the finality and brevity of the resolution to this grand yet finite conflict with the same precision and effectiveness.
Yes, this one is all about style, and it’s truly the build-up that makes this gunfight a classic, but that doesn’t impact its standing in the legacy of the cinema. I have no qualms about featuring the poetic and visually stirring climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on my list, and I’m sure that those enjoy a great film will second that.
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Those readers who are left wanting after this revelation should find more to their liking when my next selection arrives courtesy of a far higher body count and enough firepower to make Rambo take cover. Look out, L.A.--the heat is on when I unveil my choice for #2 on this list.
Also, those who enjoyed this piece may want to see where I ranked The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when I did my Top 5 Clint Eastwood Movies a while back. Here's a hint: it's #1 with a bullet!