Great Movie Scenes for Story: Part 3 The Triangle Duel / The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Westerns have some great scenes for building tension. This tension is usually contained in a climatic fight between two gunfighters in a duel.
Some great westerns have been built around this idea but one of the best final duels come from two of the greats, Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly, is a unique heist movie and the characters are dueling in the end, essentially for a lost treasure. But like all good westerns there are also elements of gamesmanship and revenge.
The three main characters, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) are in pursuit of a lost cache of gold. Each of them carries a piece of information that leads to the treasure and slowly they all trick each other into revealing it to the other treasure hunters.
Now with one key piece of info missing, the name of the grave where the gold is buried, they evade some captors to converge on the dig site. Tuco arrives first and goes to where he thinks the treasure is and starts digging.
The others arrive and Blondie reveals he lied about his bit of information but now offers to reveal the real name of the grave on a rock. Placing it face-down in the center of the cemetery, Blondie slowly backs away as Tuco and Angel Eyes come to understand what is about to happen and both move their own spot.
The Scene Unfolds:
This is one of those rare scenes in cinema history told completely with the camera and editing, essentially pure visual storytelling.
In a normal duel, two men would face off and there would one winner and one loser but in this case, with three, it’s not clear to each of them who they should shoot first.
Maybe choosing to shoot the wrong man, leaves them vulnerable to being shot by the other. This dynamic puts a spin on the traditional stakes of a duel. Now there is an element of unpredictability.
As the three men ponder this problem the space of the shots get tighter, going from a few wide shots of the whole center ring of the cemetery, down to extreme close ups of their faces.
The edits are get quicker too, going from a few seconds down to a few frames.
As they get closer and closer to the moment where they are going to draw, the shots and the edits get tighter and faster, matching the emotions of the characters until, finally, when you can bare stand the tension any more, the guns come out and the shooting begins.
In a flash, Blondie and Tuco are left standing, Angel Eyes is on the ground next to the grave.
What this scene is showing is how intentions, motivations, and even thoughts can be conveyed visually in simple actions and camera angles. It’s also a master class in tension building.
In a scene like this, where it’s clear we have three men, competing for one prize, the audience is left analyzing the possible outcomes. With each shot Leone is giving us those possibilities by a simple glance of one gunfighter to the other. Each angle of the camera shows a view of each character from the perspective of one or both of his opponents.
The trick here is to make you feel like you are in this fight too. With the camera shifting from one gunman to another, you are left shifting who you are favoring or who you think you should shoot. As the shots get tighter on their eyes and their guns and the edits quicker, it builds tension. There was already tension when the three men moved to face each other, the camera takes that tension and pumps it full of electricity. A rousing score by Ennio Morricone also doesn’t hurt.
This scene is a true masterpiece in every way a film has to offer. Writing, acting, directing, cinematography, and editing. It is not only a scene the film historians can geek out over but one the anyone who watches can enjoy as a visual delight.
If you love westerns as much as I do, don’t ride off into the sunset yet! Let me know what you think of this post in the comment below.
I’ll continue to work on more useful breakdowns and film examples to help with your film and storytelling. In the meantime please continue to visit the site and share your own knowledge with our community! More to come soon!