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For a Few Hours More: Leone’s ‘The Dollars Trilogy’ Marathon

Sergio Leone (second from left) directing Clint Eastwood (right) and Margarita Lozano in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
© 1964 United Artists Corporation with Constantin Film Produktion, Jolly Film, and Ocean Films

“It gave back the confidence that the Western can be a great movie.”
––Bernardo Bertolucci, on the films of Sergio Leone

 

I spent an entire day in the moment before death.

On July 18th, the Philadelphia Film Society presented a remastered showing of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy at the Bourse in Philadelphia. I was pleased to see that all three screenings were well-attended, the audiences increasing with each film as if they reflected the increasing complexity and grandeur of the action on screen. I came away from that experience with an intense desire to share my feelings with all the regular readers here at Forces of Geek, and the challenge of finding something new to say about the most celebrated genre films of the 1960’s.

For the uninitiated, the Dollars Trilogy is the unofficial, retroactively applied, name for three Italian westerns made in the 60’s. The films were directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood. Their success made both men household names, popularized the Italian western (or “spaghetti western”), and ushered in a whole new era of tough adventure films with stoic, mostly silent, main characters.

They changed the way that audiences saw the whole genre, stripping away decades of Hays Code leftover censorship and triumphalist politics and returning the genre to a kind of primal, existential, brutality. Additionally, the excellent Hitchcockian editing which extended the moments before violence to the breaking point, was hugely influential and Ennio Morricone’s scores replaced Hollywood orchestral pieces in the public consciousness as “Western music”.

The Philadelphia Film Society lends itself to discussion between films even with strangers, and I heard multiple times that day that it was a showing earlier that month of Leone’s later masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West that had generated the interest in these pictures in particular, and Westerns in general. Almost every group of people I had talked to had members who had grown up with the pictures and people seeing them for the first time. It was a wonderful Philadelphia movie buff crowd, that was going all in on a theatrical experience par excellence.

Without further ado, the films:

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A stranger named Joe (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a small town, sees a corpse riding out on a donkey, a kept woman surrounded by thugs, and a group of gunsels who harass him and decides: “There’s money to be made here.” He strategically plays both gangs off of one another for maximum profit before his true intentions are sniffed out by the largest gang’s top gun, the sadistic, rifle-wielding Ramon (Gian Maria Volonté).

A clone of Kurosawa’s excellent Yojimbo, which was in itself an unlicensed adaptation of Hammett’s 1926 pulp classic Red Harvest, A Fistful of Dollars was a worldwide sensation upon release.

This film is often remembered as the first “spaghetti western” or as the picture that revitalized the Western in cinemas after years of stagnation, and neither designation is entirely accurate or fair: it’s the twenty-fourth Italian western, a cottage industry that had started due to the popularity of West German westerns a decade earlier. As for the American theatrical Western, there were many fine revisionist Westerns being made in America; if there was any problem with the Western it was the proliferation of sanitized Westerns on television that had really taken the wind out of the sails.

What the film is, and why it’s remained a powerful work in the American consciousness for over 50 years, is the debut of the nastiest, roughest, most brutal hero that the genre had ever seen to that point.

In much the same way that Sean Connery’s James Bond set a new standard for badass cops, Clint’s “Man With No Name” is absolutely cool: detached, clever, deadly. He’s often described as “amoral” which tells you that the early scenes wherein his motivations and conduct remain opaque to the audience are far better remembered than the final act, where he makes it clear that this has been about rescuing a damsel in distress.

What Fistful gave to the genre and to audiences was a hero that people could once more see themselves in.

Sergio Leone replaces exposition and the two-shot with extreme close ups in silence that became his trademark and the effect of the visual and narrative style is a cold world filled with sudden, cataclysmic, unjustifiable violence. In the American West, he found what Italians a generation earlier found in sword and sandal epics: a period of history where pain was common, life was cheap, and heroism was possible. As the 60’s became the 70’s, the Americans came around to this way of thinking in films like The Wild Bunch, High Plains Drifter, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Leone and Eastwood “rediscover” the West, and bequeath it to filmmakers who will need its new brutalism to talk about Vietnam, and Watergate.

That said, audiences didn’t fall in love with a political attitude or an editing style, they fell in love with a character and an actor. Clint Eastwood is revolutionary in these movies in how movie audiences perceive “cool” in their heroes; the only comparable performance is Sean Connery as James Bond. The first ten minutes of the film are a kind of mission statement in how Eastwood’s Joe will revise the Western hero forever: he sees a woman and child being mistreated and does nothing, enters into town and is forced off his mule by hired guns, talks to the innkeeper who tells him everyone in the village is either a mercenary or the undertaker because two gang bosses have carved the town up and his only visible reaction is that “there’s money to be made in this town.”

See in your mind’s eye that dingy theater in Abruzzi in 1964? Can you hear the catcalls and razzies and laughing of the young men? Can you smell the cigarette smoke that pervades the building? Now that you’re there, in the moment, can you feel the incredible tension the first time Clint looks up and lays that deadly squint at the screen? The silence as the crowd knows without realizing that they’ve never seen a Western like this before? The explosion of the guns of a hero who shoots first. The raucous cheers going up and snacks being THROWN as Clint tells off the sheriff and walks away from killing four men with a smile and a dry joke.

It’s 1964 and FINALLY the Western is as mean as you never knew you wanted it to be. It’s 1964, and you were there when the legend was born.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

The success of Fistful caught everyone by surprise, not the least of which the people who made it. The Italian popular movie industry was a commercial machine that demanded roughly a thousand knock offs and pseudo sequels for every big hit and it behooved the producers to get the team back in Franco’s Spain as soon as possible for the film’s official follow up. Leone’s first film was a strict remake of a Kurosawa original but here Leone shows his genius for escalation and story construction by pairing Eastwood’s established hero (now going by the name “Manco”) with another Hollywood player, Lee Van Cleef.

Van Cleef is a revelation, and if Fistful propelled Eastwood to superstardom, then this film gave Van Cleef a healthy career for many years on both sides of the Atlantic playing variations on the character he displays here: Colonel James Mortimer. Mortimer, or “the Man in Black” as he was dubbed in UA’s advertising for the film, is another new take on the Western hero though distinct from Eastwood’s unknowable Stranger. He’s all business, with an assortment of gadget guns and custom weapons for any occasion and he’s grown old in a business where men die young by being smarter than the men he tracks as a bounty hunter.

Mortimer and Manco are both on the heels of a vicious psychopathic bandit called Indio (again, Gian Maria Volonté, though he gets a lot more to do in this film) and agree to pool their talents to bring in the large gang protecting him. Indio is a villain worthy of the two heroes, who are nearly invincible against every other opponent in the film. He’s haunted by a rape-murder he committed years ago, forced to dull his own memory with drugs as the flashbacks overwhelm him and his tormented self-hatred and sadism collide in duels he arranges where he gives men who he’s already destroyed the chance the kill him if they can outdraw him going by the melody of the dead girl’s locket.

Fistful entirely followed Eastwood’s Stranger, but this film slides back and forth between protagonists, and arguably this is more Mortimer’s story than Manco’s. Eastwood expressed some misgivings about being upstaged (and they’re warranted, his role as mediator of the final duel is an electric moment but one that places him clearly in a secondary role), but rises to the challenge like a true pro. This film gives us the least insight into his character of the three but he’s allowed to bounce off more oddballs and weirdos than in the other two and consistently finds the means to surprise and delight the audience without betraying the fundamental mystique of the character.

For a Few Dollars More is also the movie where Ennio Morricone really comes into his own as a composer. His score in Fistful is great but limited to a few key leitmotifs. Here, from the opening where a piccolo and jaw-harp give way to his iconic electric guitar right up to the mariachi horns that signal the raucous explosion of emotion and violence that comprises the final duel, he’s the best that ever did it.

He elevates great material into myth, and his offbeat compositions, which must have been startling in 1965 are so successful that they’re emulated every time a TV show has a “western” episode. He is the rebel who was so great he replaced the establishment.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1965)

For the main event, we got one of the twenty greatest films ever made: An existential meditation, a swaggering piece of entertainment, an epic without pretension.

(Author’s Note: Unfortunately, we were shown the restored, extended, version with 15 minutes of footage from the Rome premiere placed back into the movie and while that version is still a great movie the added scenes are superfluous and my commentary from here on out will reflect the 2 hour, 46 minute theatrical cut which is the version i recommend.)

From the opening vocalizations which have become a part of pop culture, to the credits which are almost as exciting as the full film, to the final three-way duel in which our trinity of killers play the highest stakes game of poker with guns you will ever see, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly never takes a wrong step. It takes thirty minutes to introduce its main characters giving them increasingly complex vignettes in the style of the previous film, and in the two plus hours that follow we go on a remarkable journey of greed, fear, the absurd, pain, humor and death.

That description may sound like a celebrated European novel that you threw across the room in frustration for a Literature class, but there is no pretension here. These are ugly men, in an ugly world, being scarred by an ugly war who have found an angle to never be poor again and will kill for it. Against the majesty of Leone’s operatic editing and the greatest ever score of Morricone’s career which magically evokes everything from coyote howls to searing heat to the frenzied lust for gold in the hearts of evil men, this film is hypnotic, funny, brilliant, suspenseful, and possesses some ethereal quality that makes it stand apart from all the other great Westerns of the period.

I mean, in the grand scheme of things this is a little observation but very telling: how many films from 1968 can play in 2023 and all the jokes still land with the same bracing acerbic irony they had when they were first delivered?

Leone once more escalates the tension through addition: the film was supposed to star the triad of actors who had headlined the first two films but Gian Maria Volonté was unavailable and in his place was cast New York actor Eli Wallach who had made his name, in part, playing bandits in Hollywood westerns. Here he gets a dream role, one for the ages, Tuco Benedito Juan Maria Ramierez (also known as “The Rat”) a vicious, conniving, long winded, clever, opportunistic bandit whom Wallach finds every shade of humanity in. Van Cleef and Eastwood again return, but while Eastwood is once more the mysterious stranger Van Cleef is now the film’s merciless villain, Angel Eyes.

The three double and triple cross one another in search of a cash box of Confederate gold buried in a cemetery somewhere in Texas. In a strange alchemy that’s at the center of this film’s magic the comic concerns of these three bandits elevate into the cosmic when confronted with the endless horror of the American Civil War which prompts even Eastwood’s stranger (here known as Blondie) to observe: ‘Never seen so many men wasted so badly.” He’s watching more men die in an hour than he could have killed in a thousand films, and for a moment the sacred and the profane meet at 24 frames a second and you realize you’re watching high art.

This all builds to the greatest final duel in the history of cinema: an 8 minute virtuoso session of editing, score, and performance as all three gunfighters try and find a way to be the second man to shoot (and therefore, the only man who will claim the massive treasure buried at their feet).

If you take nothing else from this review– see this film.

Conclusion

In reading back what I’ve written I feel like I’ve shared a piece of the magic of these films without spoiling them for the newcomer, but I don’t know that I accomplished my mission of saying something new about them, so let me extend an already overlong article by saying this:

There was a common refrain in the halls of the theater that day. It must have rang out in Rome in 1964, though I was not there, and it rings out in even the most slack jawed YouTube reaction to this film to this day. It is a renewed, repeated refrain like the stings of Morricone’s scores through the films, which so often put a button on the various reversals of fortune. That refrain goes something like this:

I thought Westerns were old fashioned/stodgy/boring, but these films are incredible.”

We’re now further away in history from these films than they were to films like Stagecoach but they don’t feel old fashioned in any way. They were myths then and they remain timeless now, and though the spaghetti western is no more “realistic” a depiction of the Old West than Hollywood westerns of the 50’s, they feel so much more real to us than those films do because we can so clearly see ourselves in the characters depicted. The long silences and hard stares of the characters give room for us to project ourselves, without even realizing it, into their lives and take them on.

None of the three films has any particular moral, political, or religious value but they energize audiences– men swagger out of these films because they inspire us to feel as though we could struggle against the vacuums of decency we find in our own lives, that we could cross our own moral deserts and come out on the other side with a smile and a dry quip.

They belong to no time in history, and so their cynicism and violence and heroism and humor remain evergreen for all times. For as long as towns have people in them they will hide cruelty and ugliness, and as long as that is true we will hope for the Stranger to ride in, to see the world as it is, and make the world a little better even if only by the subtraction of its most caustic ingredients.

 

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