Italian film director Sergio Leone’s 1965 color film, For A Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollaro In Più), is the sort of film that’s not only good, but educational. I’ve often said that great art is hermetic, in that it is difficult for younger artists to learn how the thing was accomplished. Near-great art, such as this film, is even better for educating young artists on how to achieve greatness, for it does achieve greatness, in parts, but also allows the internal ‘scaffolding’ of the art to leak through in its non-great moments. This provides a ready contrast for young artists to see the mechanics behind something that works to such an extent that greatness is applicable, and aspects of the work that do not. Having said that, this film is a quantum leap above Leone’s first in the Dollars Trilogy: A Fistful Of Dollars, made a year earlier. Whereas that film was a hit and miss reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 comic classic, Yojimbo, For A Few Dollars More is from an original screenplay (by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni, adapted from a tale by Leone and Fulvio Montella) that is quite good, with several returning actors (Gian Maria Volonte, amongst them), although all of them play different characters, including Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name (an American marketing ploy which Leone did not take seriously), who, as in A Fistful Of Dollars, has a name. In the first film it was Joe. In this 131 minute film it’s Manco (or Monco, in European versions). The name means ‘cripple’ or one armed, as well as colloquially meaning a thief. This comes to light in the fact that Manco always has a hand on his gun, so does everything else with his free left hand (a trait not seen in the first film).
The film opens with alternating portraits of two ‘bounty killers’ doing their jobs, and goes almost twenty full minutes before the ‘real’ story of the film starts. The first is an older man, Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), who is sort of a 19th Century Terminator, replete with the latest technology used to kill bad guys. Manco (eastwood), by contrast, is a younger man, more style than substance. Mortimer kills his prey from long distance, with style, whereas Manco takes out four baddies in a smooth move. The film does not reveal this fact until later, but the men are also representatives of two different Western archetypes. Mortimer is the old fashioned man on a mission, and one whose mission has an ethical component beyond mere revenge. Manco is the New Wave cool cat who is simply in it for the money. This is aptly illustrated in a bravura bit of editing that truly signaled this film was something new, and that Leone was a major talent. After both men collect their rewards for their kills, they both spy a Wanted poster of El Indio (Volonte), and insane, drug-using psychopath whose gang has broken him out of prison, and who aims to rob the fortress-like Bank of El Paso. When Manco views the poster, his eyes trace upward to the $10,000 reward. When Mortimer views the poster his eyes look downward to the Wanted dead or alive mention, and we get a rapid shuttling intercut between the poster’s focus on Indio’s eyes, and a closeup of Mortimer’s eyes, which ends with Mortimer’s whole face. In this single moment, the film reveals the differing motives of its two main protagonists, as well as the fact that Mortimer has some personal reason to nab Indio.
Indio seems to be haunted by a recurring dream of killing a man and raping his woman (Rosemary Dexter), and this is exacerbated during his indulgence in drugs. Many critics claim that he is smoking marijuana only, but this is never stated in the film, and his reactions are far too extreme to be mere pot; likely he is mixing drugs like peyote or the like. He also seeks revenge on the man who sent him to prison. As he kills the man’s wife and child, he lets a musical pocketwatch play before he commences a duel. Meanwhile, Mortimer and Manco have formed a reluctant alliance after the younger man brazenly tries to run the older one out of town, shooting his hat off, and away from him every time Mortimer tries to pick it up. Once out of pistol range, Mortimer gets his hat, as Manco reloads, then shoots Manco’s hat right off his head, and several times, while in the air, plugs it. This comic gunplay is replete with sound effects that signal a lightheartedness to this otherwise grim story. The two agree that, since Mortimer is known to Indio, and to his henchman Wild, a hunchback played with great hamminess by Klaus Kinski, Manco will join Indio’s gang by freeing one of his men from jail. He does so, and is sent on a mission to rob a smaller bank. Here, Manco kills three of Indio’s gang, and forces a local telegraph operator to send on the news that the bank was robbed. This lets Indio think all is ok, as men from El Paso head to the other town. Then, the gang blows out the side of the El Paso bank and steal the cabinet holding a safe with all the money in it.
Both men are shocked at the brazenness of the robbery, and head after the gang. Manco wants to dissolve their partnership, but Mortimer nicks him in the neck, to convince Manco to continue, and also make it look like he barely escaped from his own ‘robbery.’ They agree to meet along the Rio Bravo, north. Both end up in Agua Caliente, a town south of the Rio Bravo, as Mortimer figured Manco would do the opposite of what they agreed on. In the local bad, Wild sees Mortimer, and wants revenge for Mortimer’s earlier striking of a match against his hunch. Mortimer refuses, but is goaded by Wild. They duel, and Wild is killed. Then Mortimer feigns that he was after the bank money, and helps open the safe with acid, rather than blowing it up, for a $5000 fee. Both bounty hunters then try to steal the bank money, but get caught by Indio’s men and beaten. But Manco has hidden the money in the limbs of a tree. Indio then shows his contempt for his own men by having Nino (Mario Brega) kill the guy guarding Manco and Mortimer, let them escape, and sends his men after them, knowing that they’re no match for the pair, whom Indio claims he knew all along were bounty hunters. But, one of the men he sends after Manco and Mortimer, Groggy (Luigi Pistilli), figures out Indio’s plan, kills Nino, and captures Indio. But both he and Indio are shocked to find the money is gone. The pair team up as Manco and Mortimer kill the rest of Indio’s gang. Mortimer then calls out Indio, by stating his name, as if that should connect with him. Groggy runs for it, but is shot by Mortimer. Indio then shoots the gun out of Mortimer’s hand, takes the pocketwatch out, and says he and Mortimer should duel when the chimes run out. As they do, Mortimer seems a dead man, as his gun is on the ground and Indio’s is in his hand. As the song nears its end, the tune picks up with an identical watch, held by Manco, who has his gun on Indio. He lifted Mortimer’s watch, and gives his gun and gunbelt to Mortimer, to make it a fair duel. Mortimer wins the duel, with Manco as referee. Manco returns Mortimer’s watch, and claims that there is a bit of resemblance between the woman in the watch (the woman in Indio’s dream, who killed herself with his gun as he raped her). Mortimer says that resemblance is natural between a brother and sister, thus establishing the real reason Mortimer was after Indio. He foregoes his share of the bounty money. Manco tosses the bodies of Indio and his men into the back of a wagon he adds up the bounty total, and realizes he’s short. Groggy then tries to gun him down, only to be killed. Mortimer, headed into the sunset, as cowboys of yore always do in old Westerns, asks Manco if he has a problem. Manco tells him he was having a problem with his adding, but it’s fixed now. As he leaves, he gets the bank money from the tree, and heads off into the hills. Whether he returns the money is in doubt.
There is a bit of the Dumbest Possible Action trope that bogs the film down, such as the pretense of the chiming watch and why Indio does not just kill off the bounty hunters right away (instead, his gang beats them, just as Eastwood’s character wa sbeaten in the first film, and not just killed), but since it heightens the flavor of the final showdown, it’s not as egregious a flaw as it could be. Also, the film is so technically good, and such an improvement over the first film, that a minor flaw is just that, enough to keep the film from unequivocal greatness, but, as mentioned, it also gives insight into the workings of the film. The screenplay makes up for its DPA weaknesses by giving good character development to Van Cleef’s character, as well as Eastwood’s. Volonte’s over the top scenery chewing is actually well suited for his psychopathic character. The rest of the characters are mere filler, cast for their faces more than their acting abilities. But look at both how Van Cleef’s Mortimer is written and presented. He is the old man of ethics, from pre-Spaghetti Western films, but his character gets humbled. He has likely plotted Indio’s downfall for years, only to end up having the killer shoot his gun out of his hand, thus making him a sitting duck. Then, a second humiliation comes when the extra-ethical Manco saves his ass, after the earlier part of the film had shown him continually outsmarting and being one step ahead of Manco. Yes, he redeems himself by winning the dare, but also by forgoing the bounty money. And all with style and grace. Ennio Morricone’s score is very good, and the soundtrack takes a quantum leap upward from the first film, as well. Even when it leads an audience, say in a comic gag, it’s so distinctive that there is a surrender to its silliness. Leone shows, along with cinematographer Massimo Dallamano, a keen visual vision, one that marks Leone as a visionary director, even though, ostensibly, his medium is a comic genre one. That’s how good the man had gotten, even by this point in his career, and this film not only undermines older Western conventions, but established new ones that other directors would ape with far less success.
The two disk DVD, from MGM, is a good one. Disk One has the film, restored and in good shape. The film is seen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It has a good audio commentary track from film historian Christopher Frayling. It is a bit better of a track than the one he gave to A Fistful Of Dollars, but then, again, this is a significantly better and deeper film, with far more to comment on. As the commentary begins, Frayling claims that the opening pre-credit sequence showing a rider in a valley being shot by someone behind the camera is of the Manco character killing someone, but there simply is no evidence of this, onscreen or off. It could just as easily be Colonel Mortimer. He also claims that the killer that Mortimer shoots first has the distinction of having the first known dead horse in film history that is deliberately shot by a film protagonist. He then compares this film to two films he claims are influences: Vera Cruz and The Bravados, and discourses on how the moments leading up to violence are always more important than the actual violence seen in Leone films, a point many critics miss. Also missed is how good and confident Van Cleef was stepping into his first major starring role, one that launched him into film stardom, especially in Europe. Frayling cleverly labels this performance not only the biggest of the man’s career, but an odd sort of summation and amalgam of all the major characters he played in earlier Westerns. He also comments on the Leone/Morricone duo, favorably comparing it to the Alfred Hittchcock/Bernard Herrmann and Federico Fellini/Nino Rota duos of director and soundtrack composer. He overreaches a bit with the exegesis of the Indio character, claiming that he exhibits signs of impotence throughout the film (whither the evidence?), due to the rape/suicide of Mortimer’s sister. But, overall, he does a solid job. Disk Two has several good featurettes: A New Standard; Back For More; Tre Voci: Three Friends Remember Sergio Leone; For A Few Dollars More: The Original American Release Version Comparison; and Location Comparisons, as well as twelve radio spots, and the original theatrical trailer.
From its playful opening credits sequence to its modernistic end, For A Few Dollars More is entertaining and well made, in almost all aspects, and its subversion of Western conventions is so complete that one might call it a Western in name only; it’s more of a buddy or caper film. It is also a film specifically aimed at creating myth, both within its diegetic world, and in its non-diegetic world., and it is far above even the best of the pre-Leone Western films, like John Ford’s Stagecoach, or Howard Hawks’ Red River and Rio Bravo. And, while it does not reach the unassailable heights of the truly great films that Leone would later make, one can see, in the film, and in its structure, the DNA of greatness that Leone gave this film, and which had been born in him. And with that gift, the man also showed the way to greatness for other practitioners of the genre, and film in general. That it would take a while longer to come to his own full fruition is merely how life mostly is. And when the wait is rewarded as well as Leone rewarded his audience, one always looks back on it with fondness. Thus, here is where the countdown truly began. Do the honors yourself….
©2010 Dan Schneider
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