Accidental filmic poetry

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Tonight we're rewatching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in honor of Ennio Morricone, the composer of its iconic score, who died today. Deediedeedledee nwah nwah nwaaaaahhh

And I've just had a thought about the title that turns on the quite different interpretations of the-Adj constructions in English and Italian, which I mainly know about from this paper by Hagit Borer and Isabelle Roy .

In English, "the Adj" generally only allows a generic reading, and often refers to the class of humans characterized by the adjective, as in the poor, the rich, etc. In Italian (and French, Spanish, etc.) this isn't the case; the construction, although based on the same syntax, can also receive a particular referential singular interpretation. Borer and Roy ascribe this to the presence of identifying number and gender features on the determiner in those languages.

In the original Italian title of the movie, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo ('The, The, the these 'The-Adj' sequences are referential; they refer to the three main characters Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco. The Italian title is more or less equivalent to English "The good guy, the bad guy and the ugly guy". 

In English, though, the grammatical structure of the title can only get the generic reading. The use of these forms in the film to refer to three protagonists, then, bestows an archetypal quality on those characters; they're metonymically interpreted as instantiating the whole classes of good people, bad people and ugly people respectively. And the kind of mythic force it imparts somehow fits so perfectly with the grandiose yet tongue-in-cheek quality of the whole film, to me it's really a fundamental part of its impact, humor and appeal.

My question is, do you think Leone and the scriptwriters understood this property of the English translation? Or did they read their English calque of the Italian grammatical structure just as they would have read the Italian? The Italian title, in fact, with its masculine singular marking, cannot be understood in the same way as the English is. To represent the English interpretation in Italian, apparently, the plural would be needed: i belli, i brutti, i cattivi. My guess is that neither the writers nor the director realized that the title read so differently in English. 

 According to Wikipedia, the Italian title was a last-minute suggestion of screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, and the title for the English version was determined by the studio after some alternatives were bandied about and rejected. I wonder if someone at United Artists recognized the different reading, and the epic quality it imparted, when they were discussing the choice!

Thanks to Roberta d'Alessandro and other Facebook linguists for Italian judgments and discussion!



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 3:27 am

    It is a great shame that the Language Log thread on "Freeest or freest" had not gone to press before the film was released in English-speaking countries, otherwise it would obviously have been titled "The goodie, the baddie and the uglieee" …

  2. cliff arroyo said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 4:05 am

    I've never seen the entire movie, but when I first became aware of the title a few years later, I absolutely interpreted it generically.
    I think my interpretation was something like:
    The good (moral behavior), the bad (evil behavior) and the ugly (ugly, not fully evil but pretty crappy, behavior).
    I might have interpreted it as "the good" (referring to good people) "the bad" (really bad evil people) and "the ugly" (crappy people who behave poorly).
    I absolutely wouldn't have occurred to me that it referred to three individuals, which still sounds wrong…

    I sincerely doubt that Leone et al understood this.

    I'm also trying to figure out how to translate the Italian more or less gracefully into English…maybe "The hero, the villain and the brute"? (I don't like 'the villain' but…)

    I'm also not sure why the order good, bad and ugly sounds better in English than the original Italian order, the Italian order suggests a spectrum with ugly as an intermediary between good and bad.
    The English (to me) suggests a classic dichotomy with an independent variable thrown in to mix things up (I don't know if that's how the movie works or not).

  3. JPL said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 5:01 am

    I was surprised by your interpretation of the title of the film "The good, the bad and the ugly" as bestowing an "archetypal quality" to the characters as exemplars of Platonic categories, and I wish I had had such an interesting interpretation all these years, but I haven't. From before I ever knew there was a field called "linguistics" (but as a native speaker of English) I have always interpreted the expressions as referring to the particular characters in the film (i.e., the Italian interpretation), and I was always puzzling which of the characters the terms were referring to, or at least the latter two. But your English gloss of the Italian was not the way I thought of it: rather I would say in my interpretation the title would be more or less equivalent to "the good one, the bad one and the ugly one", where "one" (which I guess is a pro-form) is substituting for a nominal understood from the context which would indicate a category ("character" or "man", etc.); but I think there is a subtle difference between use of "one" and repeated expression of the contentive nominal. So the adjectives would serve to differentiate the category of 'man', etc. into subcategories, which the characters exemplify, not necessarily the Platonic qualities, although that is probably more interesting. The expression "one" there does not directly figure in the reference relation, but it indicates "another case" of a nominal previously established. There are other expressions like this for other syntactic categories, I think, such as 'do', as in "Max objected, and Millie did too". I agree that expressions like "the poor", as in "the poor are under-represented" have the generic interpretation, but I didn't interpret the title in that way. Also, I wonder whether "the-Adj" expressions necessarily only occur in expressions referring to humans; what about "out with the old, in with the new!" or "you have to take the good with the bad [experiences]" or "Here is a basket of tomatoes; separate the fresh from the spoiled". To make a rough conjecture, it looks like this sort of expression is productive and used in the context where one wants to refer to instances of subcategories of a category and one doesn't want to keep repeating the relevant nominal expression. The generic case ("the elderly", "the rich') does not need the "one" device or the contrast of subcategories, since it invokes a category itself, which is fine for the nominal position.

    Oh, and my favourite Ennio Morricone song:

    BTW, there is another film, "Les modernes" (English title "The moderns"), directed by an American, Alan Rudolph, and I again would interpret this title as referring to the characters in the film, rather than the generic category.

  4. JPL said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 5:29 am

    BTW again, I think you could make the case that the generic examples are cases of zero derivation and are nominals in those sentence contexts, while the film title in my (or the Italian) interpretation are still adjectival, with ellipsis of the nominal. I don't know what the various grammarians would say.

  5. JPL said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 5:34 am

    Sorry, the link to the Morricone song should be:

  6. David Marjanović said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 6:45 am

    and the title for the English version was determined by the studio after some alternatives were bandied about and rejected.

    By the studio? That's amazingly close to Leone. German titles are determined much farther down the chain, and usually they're completely new and have nothing to do with the original, often with disastrous consequences.

    In this case, the German title is Zwei glorreiche Halunken, "two glorious criminal scoundrels" or something like that. Yes, two; the Good One doesn't even make it into the title. Also, the Good One is Joe in the German dubbing, because you can't have anything set in America without a Joe, and the Bad One – Evil One, really – keeps his Italian name of Sentenza.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 6:47 am

    Correction: it's the Evil One, who isn't glorious, who doesn't make it into the title. The Good One and the Ugly One are actually SPOILER

  8. Mark P said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 7:45 am

    From the earliest time I became aware of the movie I interpreted the title to refer to the specific characters.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 7:55 am

    Whilst I, not being a film buff, immediately interpreted it as "The good (in general), the bad (in general), etc.". And even after watching it, another interpretation did not so much as suggest itself, let alone receive serious consideration.

    It could also, I suppose, have been called "The goodly, the bad and the ugly". It is a shame that, unlike "the goodly [1]", "the badly" is seemingly unattested as a mass noun phrase.
    [1] “Surely God is goodly and accepts only the goodly.”

  10. Mark Aronoff said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:08 am

    My favorite translated movie title is the Hebrew title of the apocalyptic Armageddon. The word was borrowed into English from Greek Koine (the language of the New Testament). The Greek word was borrowed from Classical Hebrew /har megiddo/ 'Mount Megiddo'. The etymology of /megiddo/ is not clear. The /n/ was added in the borrowing process, presumably so that the word would have a proper Greek neuter singular ending: -on.
    Fast forward two millennia. The English word Armageddon is completely opaque to speakers of Modern Hebrew, although the mountain sits smack dab in the middle of the country. The Hebrew version of the movie title is /arma gadol/ 'big (military) arms'. This expression is, however, ungrammatical in Hebrew. The borrowed nonce word /arma/ must be feminine in gender, since it ends in -a, so the adjective should be /gdola/, but then the expression would be too far from the English word.
    So there you have it!

  11. RQA said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    American film titles of that era may be an exception to the standard modern English linguistic convention; consider “The Wild and the Innocent” (1959), “The Young and the Brave” (1963).

  12. ajay said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    Looking at the plot summary for "The Wild and the Innocent", I think it fits standard convention; it isn't about two people, one of whom is wild and the other innocent. It's about the wild in the sense of the wilderness, and some innocent people (at least four of them). Similarly the entire title of "The Young and the Brave" seems to refer to the small boy who is the lead. The other protagonists aren't particularly young.

    And, of course, "The Fast and the Furious" has, I understand, a large cast, most of whom are either fast or furious at several points through the film and a lot of whom are both.

    Interestingly this rule might not hold for superlative adjectives. Couldn't you have a biopic of a sprinter called "The Fastest"? Or indeed one of Muhammad Ali called "The Greatest"? You could say "he's the fastest" but you couldn't say "he's the fast". It has to be "he's the fast one."

  13. Tal Cohen said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    This immediately brings to my mind "Crime and Punishment", which are two generic terms, but the Russian title might as well refer to a specific crime and a specific punishment (as in, "The Crime and The Punishment", or even "The Crime and Its Punishment" — which is the Hebrew title).

  14. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:51 am

    I'm actually a bit of a spaghetti western buff so this is a great topic!

    In the original Italian title of the movie, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo ('The, The, the these 'The-Adj' sequences are referential; they refer to the three main characters Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco. The Italian title is more or less equivalent to English "The good guy, the bad guy and the ugly guy".

    Actually the "bad" and the "ugly" have been switched in English. The Italian really translates as "The Good, the Ugly and the Bad". It sounds better switched in English for reasons of prosody ("ugly" is two syllables while "good" and "bad" are one; "cattivo" is three syllables while "buono" and brutto" are two).

    The funny thing is that the "the bad" was then mislabeled as "the ugly" in the original English theatrical release (quickly rectified). But the confusion then continued with the promotion Sergio Sollima's spaghetti western "The Big Gundown" when Lee Van Cleef (who had played "the bad") was then promoted with the line "Mister Ugly is Back"!

    My question is, do you think Leone and the scriptwriters understood this property of the English translation?

    Mickey Knox (the English dialogue translator) thinks the translation of the title was done by United Artists (

    As the article mentioned in the op notes, this is a somewhat exceptional case. It's made clear in the film's title sequence that only a single individual is being referenced each time.

  15. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 9:08 am

    In this case, the German title is Zwei glorreiche Halunken, "two glorious criminal scoundrels"

    That was a translation of the Italian working title of "I due magnifici straccioni" with a relatively liberal interpretation of "straccioni".

  16. ajay said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 9:12 am

    This immediately brings to my mind "Crime and Punishment", which are two generic terms, but the Russian title might as well refer to a specific crime and a specific punishment (as in, "The Crime and The Punishment", or even "The Crime and Its Punishment" — which is the Hebrew title).

    Very interesting. Is it also "The War and the Peace" in Hebrew?

  17. DaveK said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 10:05 am

    At least on the DVD version I saw, at the end of the last scene, there are close-ups of the three main characters labeled in Italian. Tuco is labeled “il cattivo”, but in the advertising I recall, he was the ugly one.
    And by the way, I assume that “cattivo” is related to the English word “catiff” which I’ve seen in Shakespeare as a term of contempt that probably has more ugly in it than bad

  18. John Shutt said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 10:18 am

    Order GBU (rather than GUB) also seems to me to work better, in the US culture I'm immersed in, because good/bad is a standard pairing, to which adding the ugly comes across as a sardonic twist.

    I had taken the title as descriptive of general classes of things (similarly to the expression "take the **** with the bad"), and then didn't think about it until presented with specific matchings with characters; I took that, after having gotten to know those characters, as artistic revelation of an alternative reading hidden in plain sight.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 10:22 am

    DaveK: Yes, "caitiff" and "captive" (and French "chétif" meaning 'weak, puny') are all from Latin "captivus" meaning 'captive'. The meanings have drifted a lot. Wiktionary says "cattivo" means 'evil' from "captive of the devil".

  20. Robert Coren said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 10:28 am

    Romance languages in particular tend to handle the definite article rather differently than English. I've always been annoyed by the translation of the French movie title Le Chagrin et la Pitié as "The Sorrow and the Pity"; I'm pretty sure (admittedly without having seen the movie) that it would have better reflected the intention of the original to have omitted the articles in English.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 10:31 am

    ajay: The title of the Hebrew Wikipedia article on War and Peace has no "the".

    Incidentally, the article there on the 1998 movie Armageddon looks like Armagedon, not Arma gadol. I'm not comfortable enough reading Hebrew to look through it for an alternate title. (I wonder whether those links will work. There seem to be some problems in copying and pasting the Hebrew.)

    And couldn't arma be a masculine noun in Hebrew ending in 'aleph or `ayin?

  22. rpsms said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    The paper actually labels the film title as an *exception* to the generalization rule.

    In any event, the film presents the faces of the characters stylized with the wording on the screen at various points in the middle of the narrative, which very strongly influences the potential interpretation. Were this not the case, people would probably more strongly lean to a generalized interpretation.

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 12:29 pm

    I think a lot of the reason the English order (G-B-U) sounds better is simply rhythmic – the G-U-B order just doesn't flow as well. It's probably also relevant that brutto, though it can mean literally 'ugly' in the sense of unpleasant to look at, is much more general than English ugly and is often a fairly generic negative evaluation, maybe something more like 'nasty' or 'awful' or 'mean'. So not that different from 'bad' after all.

    It's true that cattivo (like French chétif) goes back to Latin captivu(m), but I'm skeptical about any explanation in terms of 'captive of the devil', which sounds like a just-so story to me. The semantic drift from 'captive' to 'bad' doesn't seem any more far-fetched than lots of other well-attested meaning changes, like the modern meaning of silly from 'blessed' and the modern meaning of nice from 'simple-minded'.

  24. BobW said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 12:47 pm

    @Bob Ladd: My Tennessee relatives say "don't be ugly" to children who are being mean or behaving unpleasantly.

  25. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 1:22 pm

    For any Morricone fans out there, this should be coming out in August:

    His passing truly represents the end of an era

  26. Joe said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 1:28 pm

    Speaking of Sergio Leone and movie titles – Leone started a film title construction with "C'era una volta il West" and followed it up with "C'era una volta in America". Subsequently, we've seen "Once upon a time" film title constructions in Mexico, China, London, Venice, and the Hood. It seems that there a slight semantic difference between the Italian "il" and "in" constructs when referring to a place while in English they were translated to the same sense.

  27. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 2:32 pm

    Try putting the French title, "Il était une fois la révolution", of "Duck, you Sucker" (Giù la testa) into English.

  28. Joe said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 2:41 pm

    lol Chris – "Giù la testa" is the only film in the "C'era una volta.." trilogy that doesn't follow the title convention in Italian and English. At least the French kept the convention.

  29. chris said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 5:18 pm

    Interestingly this rule might not hold for superlative adjectives.
    Singularity is ordinarily inherent in superlativeness.

    I mean, you could talk about "the 5 best pitchers of all time" or something but even then, only one of them is THE best pitcher of all time and the others are the runners-up.

    Although having said this, I'm not sure what it implies about "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", unless it's just hyperbole.

  30. Anna. said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 7:18 pm


    I have no idea how "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was translated into Icelandic originally, when the film first came out in the 60s. And I wonder how it'd be translated today — say if the national broadcaster decided to show the film and some translator would be tasked with coming up with a spiffy title. Most likely they'd set out to translate the English title because it's much more familiar to Icelanders than the original Italian one. There are basically two translation choices, as I see it, and both involve masculine plural adjectives.

    "Hinir góðu, hinir vondu og hinir ljótu" is a literal translation and it sounds really stiff, borderline 19th century. Definite articles as seperate words (like "hinir") do exist in Icelandic but are rarely used nowadays.

    "Þeir góðu, þeir vondu og þeir ljótu". This sounds better. "Þeir" is a personal pronoun, masculine plural. If you were to retranslate this into English the closest thing would be "The Good Ones, the Bad Ones and the Ugly Ones".

    But a translator who knows Italian would go with "sá" (a demonstrative pronoun, masculine singular): "Sá góði, sá ljóti og sá vondi".

  31. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

    I've never seen the movie, or any of its promotional materials, but its title has become a template for use in reviews, with only the generic reading available. Often a review of a new video game or other product will be broken down into three sections: "The Good", followed by a bunch of good features, "The Bad" followed by a bunch of bad features, "The Ugly" followed by the worst features, and maybe a couple paragraphs before or after summarizing the person't overall opinion. I had never considered the idea that there might be one good guy, one bad guy, and one ugly guy, but always assumed it was about three generalized concepts. Here's an example:

  32. KevinM said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 9:56 pm

    "It's nice to be nice to the nice." Felix Unger.

  33. Bob Ladd said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 1:37 am

    Like Cliff Arroyo and Kenny Easwaran, I have never seen the movie and had no idea it dealt with three specific characters – the generic interpretation of the English title seems obvious. But there's an interesting twist. Being married to an Italian I have also been acquainted with the Italian title for quite some time, yet until I read this post it never occurred to me that the Italian version doesn't mean the same thing – equally obviously, it can only refer to three people. I just checked with my wife and confirmed that she has had the opposite experience: she's known the English title for years but it never occurred to her that it doesn't really convey the effect of the Italian version.

    I think it's probably safe to assume that Sergio Leone was unaware of the problem.

  34. Dara Connolly said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    For me, the most natural reading of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" in English refers neither to individuals nor to a class of people, but to semi-abstract concepts: that which is good, that which is bad and that which is ugly.

  35. Peter Erwin said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 7:10 am

    @ JPL
    BTW, there is another film, "Les modernes" (English title "The moderns"), directed by an American, Alan Rudolph, and I again would interpret this title as referring to the characters in the film, rather than the generic category.

    No, I think that title is pretty clearly referring to the generic category of Modernist painters, writers, and assorted and hangers-on and wannabes — of which several of the characters in the film are examples, of course — along with the cultural milieu the characters move in (1920s Paris) and look back on (e.g., earlier, more famous Modernist artists). That's why Hemingway is present, as well as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, why the forged paintings that play a key role in the plot are supposed to be by Modernist artists (Matisse, Cezanne, Modigliani), and why there are little jokey references to previous Modern artists (like the fact that the cafe everyone frequents is named Selavy and is run by someone named Rose).

  36. John Shutt said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    All this puts me in mind of Bruno Snell's suggestion (The Discovery of the Mind, 1957) that the ancient Greeks were able to invent science because their language had a definite article that allowed them to form abstractions by applying it to an adjective or verb. For which, it would seem, the stakes would be even higher if one buys in to Eric Havelock's premise of a fundamental distinction between the oral mindset and the literate mindset, in which the characteristic mode of literate thought is the abstraction.

    (Just a passing thought.)

  37. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 7:54 am

    Chris, you wrote: "Singularity is ordinarily inherent in superlativeness."
    W.B. Yeats begs to differ:
    "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."

  38. KevinM said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    And let's not forget the young (sorry) who jocularly avoid this locution by referring to people my age as "the olds."

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 8:51 am

    One counter-example does not a summer make, but whilst singularity may be " ordinarily inherent in superlativeness", there are nonetheless almost two (American) billion Google hits for the phrase "the best of the best". If one can have "the best of the best", then clearly the second "best" in the phrase must represent plurality rather than singularity.

  40. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 8:55 am

    Robert Coren: You can see where the title comes from in this trailer:

    At minute 1:26, the daughter of a resistance member (Marcel Verdier, a pharmacist) asks her father (the trailer is subtitled): was there anything other than courage in the Resistance?
    And he responds: Of course. For me, the emotions I felt most often were sorrow and pity ("le chagrin et la pitié").

    So you're right, a more accurate translation would be Sorrow and Pity.

  41. Chris Button said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    Was Alexander the Great one person or many? The context makes it clear. So it is with this film. The title sequences take care of that. Blondie the Good, Angel Eyes the Bad, and Tuco the Ugly.

  42. ajay said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    Singularity is ordinarily inherent in superlativeness.
    I mean, you could talk about "the 5 best pitchers of all time" or something but even then, only one of them is THE best pitcher of all time and the others are the runners-up.

    On the other hand, "The Best and the Brightest".

    And comparatives are different again. "The Better" doesn't work.

  43. Scott P. said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    "It's nice to be nice to the nice." Felix Unger.

    Don't you mean Major Frank Burns? Or was that borrowed from The Odd Couple?

  44. Scott P. said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 10:39 am

    And comparatives are different again. "The Better" doesn't work.

    "The older, the better." ;-)

  45. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 12:34 pm

    Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
    Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
    – Voltaire

  46. Chris Button said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 1:34 pm

    A more confusing singular/plural alternation in the genre is with "Gli specialisti" (directed by Sergio Corbucci of "Django" fame), which goes from multiple Italian specialists to a single French specialist as "Le Spécialiste". That's not ambiguous like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", it's just a question of not being able to count, or rather counting different things!

  47. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 1:53 pm

    What about adaptations of this pattern that deliberately break it by swapping in something other than an adjective in final position? I see from a quick search that there is a 2016 novel by Sara Humphreys (looks like pulp romance from the cover) titled "The Good, the Bad, and the Vampire," but the one that came to mind unbidden before any googling was the title of the second Bruce Springsteen album: "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle." That's deliberately a bit playful, the "Vampire" one may have just been clumsy. But it seems like there should be more out there.

  48. Peter Christian said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 1:57 pm

    Surely the English G-B-U order is simply an adaptation of the existing idiomatic order "good, bad indifferent", which apparently comes originally from "Tristram Shandy".

  49. Chris Button said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    I think it's more about the relative comfort of "red and yellow" versus "yellow and red"

  50. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 3:19 pm

    Doesn't anyone remember The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which clearly referred, respectively,to the characters played by Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner?

  51. JPL said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 5:44 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    Yes! Thank you for the reminder. Also another one of my favourite movie themes, by David Raskin. (I was listening to different versions of it just a few weeks ago, and I think this is a good one, and also the version by guitarist Russell Malone.)

  52. Josh R said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 7:39 pm

    Interestingly, English used to have the same capability as Italian, back in the Old English days. The weak declension of an adjective could be used as a standalone singular noun. Beowulf is repeatedly referred to as "se góda", literally "the good", meaning "the good man". So, "Se góda, se yfela, ond se unfægera" would be understood by an Anglo-Saxon audience exactly as the Italian title is understood by an Italian audience.

  53. Thomas Rees said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 8:55 pm

    It's David Raksin (1912–2004). He was from Philadelphia and went to Penn. I knew him; my father was the timpanist in the Fox orchestra.

  54. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 11:13 pm

    Chris Button – Ladri di biciclette was released in the US as The Bicycle Thief. Although it's wrong, I like it better – it's more equivocal, less on the nose.

  55. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 10, 2020 @ 3:46 am

    I've always taken the English title to refer to the three characters, but that may be coloured by the Swedish version, which, while adopting the English order, have the adjectives as like the Italian original (which I don't believe I'd seen or heard before this blog post).

  56. Chris Button said,

    July 10, 2020 @ 7:22 am

    @ Bloix

    Good point. And with a cameo by a young Sergio Leone no less!

  57. Andrej Bjelaković said,

    July 10, 2020 @ 12:23 pm

    Interestingly, the Serbian translation of the title was Dobar, loš, zao (all masc. sg. adjectives, appropriately), which means The Good Guy, the Bad Guy, the Evil Guy.
    In other words, Tuco was promoted to the Bad rank, whereas Angel Eyes then becomes the Evil One.

  58. Leo said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 3:39 am

    Slightly off-topic, but a film translation I'm dissatisfied with is "The Nasty Girl" for the German Das schreckliche Mädchen.

    It's about a teenager in the '80s who makes enemies by investigating her town's involvement in the Holocaust. The title is supposed to convey the attitude of some townspeople towards her, who have reasons to keep that part of history under wraps.

    First, I don't think "nasty" works for schreckliche. As I remember it (admittedly from years ago), Sonja isn't cruel, bullying or ill-mannered, which is how I usually understand "nasty" – rather, she's disliked because her activities are a source of potential embarrassment, or worse, for local people.

    Second and more subtly, I'm not sure that "the" works as a translation of das here. It looks like das is serving as a straightforward neuter definite article in the nominative case. But the title isn't meant to be a neutral characterisation of the protagonist, unlike how the "good", "bad" and "ugly" characters in GBU really are good, bad and ugly. Das schreckliche Mädchen is more like an off-hand phrase, spat out in anger by someone who resents her digging about. (It may even have been taken straight from the dialogue, I'm not sure.) In English we might say "that girl", as in "that girl was round here again".

    I would suggest translating Das schreckliche Mädchen as "That Awful Girl". Leaving aside the choice between "nasty" and "awful", what interests me more is how to translate das. Can anyone help me here? I lack the grammatical training to explain what I mean, but if we understand the title to represent someone's ill will towards Sonja, "that X girl" sounds more idiomatic to me than "the X girl".

  59. JPL said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 3:45 am

    Something has been bothering me about my comment above, and on rereading the OP I realize my interpretation of what you said is not quite equivalent to your intended interpretation, thus imperfect communication. I'm referring mainly to paragraph 5 of the OP. Here are three possible interpretations of the title, expressed in sentences:
    1. The good and the bad are human properties engaged in an ongoing primordial struggle, but the ugly is non-human.

    2. (Not related to the film, but expressing the sense of the nominal expressions.)
    In this democracy the good are outnumbered by the bad, and the ugly rise to the top.

    3. The three characters, the good, the bad and the ugly, embody these elemental forces in a concrete drama. (I never knew the names of the characters, and I can imagine a version of this film in which each of the characters is a "man with no name". BTW I apply "the ugly" to the sociopath, the Van Cleef character.)

    I said that the paraphrase with the proform "one" is a better equivalent than the one with the full contentive "guy" or even "man", because I want the characters to exemplify sense (1), rather than (2). But (1) and (2) are generic, while (3) is a reference to a particular intentional object in the same way a normal nominal could be. E..g., "The tiger is endangered" vs. "The tiger is about to attack.", where the category is applied to the description of an individual object and the object is understood as an instance of the category. (When you say, "The use of these forms … to refer to the three protagonists …", I assume you mean something like (3).) Here are a couple of other examples of the ability of "the- Adj." nominals to have both generic and individual reference senses:

    4. This unjust law protects the guilty and punishes the innocent. (generic)
    5. The A.G.'s actions protect the guilty and punish the innocent. (reference to a particular situation, where everybody knows who are the referents of the nominals)

    So it seems to me that nominal phrases (in English) whose main lexical content is an instance of a lexeme that originates in adjectival function are ambiguous in the same way as ordinary nominal phrases, and that the ambiguity between generic and particular reference is due to the structure of the nominal phrase as a syntactic element. There is a difference, however, between the "Adj" nominals and normal ones in that the non-generic cases can be expanded with "one" or a contentive nominal, so I said that you could interpret them as still in adjectival function with ellipsis of the nominal. (There are also funny examples, like "Earlier is better than later".)

  60. Bloix said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 7:28 am

    Leo- I remember that film, and I agree that "That Awful Girl" is a better translation, because "nasty" can have the connotation of a sort of aggressive sexuality, which isn't intended.

    But "nasty" in the title is used in the same way our current president uses it.

    "That's a nasty question … Instead of asking a nasty question like that, you should ask a real question."

    "He [Gov Jay Inslee] is a nasty person."


  61. djw said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 3:20 pm

    JPL, it's been way too long since I've seen the movie, and I may not have paid much attention to it then, but just thinking in terms of what the terms mean, my gut instinct says "the ugly" should fall in line with your term "sociopath." I know of "good cops" who are really trying to keep the peace and keep people safe, "bad cops" who manage to look the other way when they find grass on a white kid but slam a brown one, and Derek Chauvin, who goes way beyond "bad cop"; he's just flat-out ugly.

    And while maybe the movie title refers to individuals in the movie, I don't have a problem seeing those individuals as representatives of groups: if the movie were about 3 cops, they could each easily represent a small horde of cops similar to them.

  62. Viseguy said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 10:12 pm

    I've never seen the movie, but when it came out, when I was 15 and the theme song was a standard on AM pop radio, and ever since, I've always assumed that the title referred to particular good, bad, and ugly characters who personified something larger than their phenotypes. Who, after all, wants to watch a movie about particular people who are good, bad, and ugly?

    Well, now, 55 years later, maybe I do. To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all genotypes are local.

  63. Joey Jünger said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 7:15 pm

    Leone usually communicated with his American actors by pantomiming what he wanted them to do (this was especially easy with the "Man with No Name," roles, since there wasn't a lot of talking). But he could understand English (in a screenplay) much better than he could speak it (he had no trouble navigating Stuart Kaminsky's operatic and convoluted script for "Once Upon a Time in America"). A similar issue comes up in "The Great Silence," a Sergio Corbucci movie. The silence is (I think) the character himself, who has taken on a vow of silence. Those who speak Italian will have to tell me whether or not, "Il grande silenzio" refers to silence itself or a silent man. Isn't "Jaws" one of these sorts of cases, too? I mean, the shark's name has become "Jaws" in our minds, right?

  64. Philip Taylor said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 2:13 am

    As regards "Jaws", it is not uncommon for people to believe that it is the monster, rather than the latter's creator, who is called Frankenstein. I cannot help but feel that the authoress did not help here, in that if she had chosen to call the creator (e.g.,) "Dr Victor Brown" rather than "Dr Victor Frankenstein", significantly fewer might have been confused.

  65. Leo said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 4:33 am

    I'm relaxed about "Frankenstein" serving to denote the monster. Should we really expect people to talk about "Frankenstein's monster foods" and the like?

  66. Peter Erwin said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 6:45 am

    @ JPL:
    3. The three characters, the good, the bad and the ugly, embody these elemental forces in a concrete drama. (I never knew the names of the characters, and I can imagine a version of this film in which each of the characters is a "man with no name". BTW I apply "the ugly" to the sociopath, the Van Cleef character.)

    Having very recently rewatched the movie: There are two occasions where the characters are explicitly labeled, via a brief freeze-frame accompanied by an animated scrawl of cursive text. The first is actually a set of three occasions, near the ends of the three scenes where the characters are introduced; the second is right at the end of the film. In each case, the association is clear: "the ugly" is Eli Wallach's character, "the bad" is Lee Van Cleef's character, and "the good" is Eastwood's (that's the order they are labeled).

    As for "men with no name" — this works for both "the bad" and "the good", since they are only referred to as, respectively, "Angel Eyes" and "Blondie". And their identities are certainly obscure; I don't think we learn anything about the origin of Angel Eyes, and all we learn about Blondie is that he's from Illinois. (Or that's what he says, at least.)

    But "the ugly" is basically the opposite: he's always referred to by his name (Tuco), and in fact his second appearance features, as he's about to be hanged, a formal pronouncement of his full name ("Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez" — immediately followed by Blondie murmuring, "Known as 'The Rat'", as if he needed even more names) along with a lengthy list of his crimes, which include "bigamy" and "deserting his wife and children". And we later meet his brother and learn about his origin and the fates of his parents. So he's pretty much the opposite of a "man with no name".

    This is, I would suggest, consistent with the respective characters' volubility: Angel Eyes is fairly taciturn and Blondie is even more so, while Tuco can't stop babbling, blustering, or insulting people throughout the film. (Though he's capable of restraint when it counts, as he famously remarks at one point: "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk!")

  67. Peter Erwin said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 6:55 am

    As for the characters embodying "elemental forces" — Angel Eyes is certainly "bad", but Blondie is only "good" by contrast with the other two; it's a very ironic label. And Tuco isn't "ugly" in some "worst of all" sense — it's more that he's more grotesque than the other two, overflowing with visible or explicitly mentioned flaws and occasional flashes of (dubious) sentimentality, while still not quite the straightforward, cold-blooded bad guy that Angel Eyes is.

  68. Joey Jünger said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 5:28 pm

    In German, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is "Zwei glorreiche Halunken," something like "Two Glorious Scoundrels." I assume the title refers to Clint and Eli, who are running the scam of collecting the bounty for the baddie and then shooting him free from the noose so that he can ride off on the horse. For some reason they left Lee Van Cleef out of the movie title, and he's a definitely integral piece of the triumvirate. I used to love reading American movie titles on the marquees and the Litfaßsäule in Deutschland. The Adam Sandler remake of "The Longest Yard" was called "Spiel ohne Regeln" ("Play without Rules") presumably because (in John Travolta voice), they got the metric system over there.

  69. Chris Button said,

    July 14, 2020 @ 7:26 pm

    @ Joey Jünger

    We discussed the German title briefly earlier in the thread:

  70. Josh R said,

    July 14, 2020 @ 8:03 pm

    The road to the Japanese title for "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is amusingly convoluted.

    The song in the title of John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" was not well-known in Japan, so the Japanese title was 荒野の決闘 (Kouya no Kettou; Duel in the Wasteland). This led to a run of westerns being retitled with "kouya". When "Seven Samurai" (七人の侍, Shichi-nin no Samurai) was remade into the Magnificent Seven, Magnificent Seven was given the title 荒野の七人 (Kouya no Shichi-nin; The Wasteland Seven).

    With that precedent set, when Yojimbo (用心棒, Youjinbou) was remade into "A Fistful of Dollars", that movie's title was, predictably, 荒野の用心棒 (Kouya no Youjinbou; The Wasteland Yojimbo). This presented a problem when "For a Few Dollars More" came out. So that movie was titled 夕陽のガンマン (Yuuhi no Ganman; The Sunset Gunman). That seemed to work; it seemed to reference Lee Van Cleef's character, a lot of the action takes place at night, and it had the same structure of "X no Y".

    And so when TGTBATU came out, it's picturesque and poetic title was rendered merely as 続・夕陽のガンマン (Zoku: Yuuhi no Ganman; The Sunset Gunman, Continued). Even considering that the title could be translated as "The Sunset Gunmen", since plurals are often unmarked in Japanese, it's a pretty poor title, in that Lee Van Cleef is playing a different character, there's hardly a sunset or night scene to be found, and it's a prequel, so not really "continuing" anything.

  71. Philip Taylor said,

    July 15, 2020 @ 5:24 am

    I wonder if anyone else has been sufficiently inspired by this extended discussion to want to watch the film again ? I was, and watched the first 55 minutes or so in bed last night. I have to say, I rather enjoyed it, and considering that it was made over 50 years ago, it did not seem in the least bit dated.

  72. Joey Jünger said,

    July 15, 2020 @ 6:28 pm


    To put Leone's genius in context, you have to remember he served something like a twenty year apprenticeship as a second unit director before he even made his first feature, in addition to which his father was a famous silent filmmaker. In a technical sense, I think a strong argument can be made that Leone was the best filmmaker of all time, outside of maybe Max Ophuls. The marriage of his camera movement with Morricone's music is definitely the most magical thing I've personally seen.

  73. Yuval said,

    July 15, 2020 @ 8:09 pm

    Very late to the party, but I gotta chime in on the Hebrew stuff:

    First, I've never heard Armageddon (1998) being called Arma Gadol in Hebrew. It's always just been a simple transliteration of the English (well, Greek) name – here's the Wikipedia entry.

    Second, it struck me as odd that the specific (non-generic) interpretation in Romance languages would be attributed to an inflected determiner, since Hebrew, which also shares this interpretation, doesn't mark the determiner for gender or number. The suspicion intensified knowing that Hagit Borer is a Hebrew speaker. And indeed, it looks like the paper attributes the Hebrew phenomenon to number+gender marking on the adjective, so both options are open to languages seeking specific the+adj. Neat!

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