The Great Scenes: “The Ecstasy of Gold” from THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Movie: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Spoiler Level: Moderate

The Setup: After a series of misadventures that led them across the Southwestern countryside near the end of the Civil War, the wily and devious Tuco and his mysterious partner/rival (known only as “Blondie”) finally stumble upon the thing they’ve been scratching, clawing and killing to find: a graveyard. They are here to find a chest full of gold buried in the grave marked “Arch Stanton” that promises to make them richer than they could ever imagine. While Blondie never breaks his cool upon finally discovering the graveyard, Tuco throws every other concern in the world (including a flying cannonball) and runs with reckless abandon through the graveyard searching for the treasure.

Why It’s Great: I’ve given a “moderate” spoiler warning above because the scene does signify a major plot development in the movie but this scene, as with nearly the entire film surrounding it, is mostly about style and emotion rather than plot. Tuco, who represents “The Ugly” part of human nature that includes wild, unbridled greed, simply cannot contain himself once he finds himself in the presence of the treasure he seeks. He throws aside his dignity, running around like a starving animal that’s just caught a whiff of something tasty.

While Eli Wallach’s grimy, energetic performance fits the moment perfectly, the scene’s greatness comes from someone who never appears on screen: composer Ennio Morricone. The legendary composer who revolutionized film music sets this scene to a divinely perfect piece of scoring called “The Ecstasy of Gold” that swells and builds until it nearly explodes with tension. For my money, this is the best piece of film scoring in history. It takes a scene about a dirty thief scrounging for gold and makes it the perfect encapsulation of the emotional frenzy that greed can create in the human soul. When it comes to raising goosebumps, this scene does the trick every time for me, no matter how many times I watch it. It speaks volumes without a single word of spoken dialogue.