This video essay by Max Tohline exhaustively unpacks the famous two-and-a-half minute standoff from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It covers the 65 shots in this standoff, during which no one speaks all three main characters move very little. He notes that the chief actor in this sequence is the editing, and argues that, from a certain perspective, film is at its best when it “isn’t telling a story at all.”
This is a really, really thorough breakdown of this short-but-important scene. Tohline walks through three different ways the editing develops and operates within the sequence: it reveals mathematical patterns, it visualizes the main characters’ thoughts, and it cooperates with the music to construct a nearly-hypnotizing rhythm. This essay demonstrates that in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Leone was doing more than telling a rollicking Western adventure—he was playfully experimenting with the medium of film itself. So many so-called “spaghetti Westerns” have at their core a genuinely artistic motivation, wrapped in a box office-friendly story full of action and adventure. This essay demonstrates how Leone strikes this difficult balance, especially without the benefit of a melodramatically profound or socially incisive script.
As a video essay, this works nicely as an instructional piece of positive criticism. It is wonderfully constructed—the enormous time commitment producing this must have taken is certainly visible. This essay could be great viewing in a college-level film studies class, especially one about genre films or editing techniques, because of its exhaustive exploration of how shots, eyeline matches, and music are combined to such extraordinary effect. I did take issue with one of Tohline’s big-picture theses: he says that film is at its best when it isn’t telling a story at all, but spends a good deal of time in his essay explaining why this nearly three-minute sequence, which includes no dialogue or action, informs and improves the story solely through the techniques of filmmaking. A substantial portion of his analysis proves not that the best thing about film is when it revels in technique, but when it uses uniquely cinematic techniques to develop a story, rather than relying solely on its script. There is a dissonance between his more abstract, artistic insight and his actual analytical work, which indicates to me that the motivating factor here is the desire to explore and praise the sequence and its editing techniques specifically, and not to make some grander statement about the power and possibilities of cinema the Leone captures. I think that dovetails with another more banal criticism that might nonetheless be more important for those of us taking a video essays class: this video isn’t that entertaining to watch. It’s beautifully put together and very instructive, but it doesn’t engage or stimulate the viewer. Some of the best videographic criticism, like “Carnal Locomotive” or “Every Frame a Painting,” is thought provoking, profound, amusing, or some combination of the three. This has the advantage of making your audience better appreciate your point, because they are paying closer attention to what you say. Video is an inherently fun medium; a video essay should use that entertainment value as a resource to engage the audience.
I am an English professor at Columbia College and recently created a new Film Appreciation course. I would love to use your page and video in my course but cannot do so unless it is correctly close captioned with proper punctuation. Would you consider adding captions? Let me know. Thank you, Kim Pippa Tonnesen