Sergio Leone’s DOLLARS TRILOGY
Every film fan has those extra special movies that stay with them through the thick and thin. These are the kinds that you may have discovered at a young age and decades later you still love them as much or hopefully even more than you did the first time you experienced them. The really unique ones just get better with age like a fine wine. It may have nothing to do with their “artistic value” or their spot on some stuffy critics list. They’re simply the movies you unabashedly enjoy for whatever the reason it is they appeal to you. I definitely have a select few that are part of that treasured category in my life and the movies I’ve chosen to look at are in my opinion, the cream of the crop. Not only that they also happen to be part of a trilogy.
The reasons why I love the following movies are 1) they’re such original directorial visions 2) they’re endlessly rewatchable and 3) they are some of the purest works of cinema ever created. By that I mean each took the main components of moviemaking: the camera, dialogue, actors and music to a place that is beyond what most productions are able to accomplish. The man who brought them to life was a true genius whose work has influenced generations of filmmakers that followed. The thing that really made him so special was his ability to bring art and genre cinema together in a wildly original and exciting way. When you watch his films you know exactly who made them….
I honestly can’t remember when I first discovered Sergio Leone’s first Italian Western Per un Pugno di Dollari (1964). It may have been a VHS rental or a viewing on TV when I was a kid. The date it occurred doesn’t really matter, what does is the fact I can say it is a film that I now cherish completely. At the time I became a fan I had no clue it was a remake of Yojimbo (1961), I also didn’t know who Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone were back then. I think what I responded to was the way the filmmaker had managed to boil down the most appealing aspects of the popular American Western genre to their essence but did it with a uniquely Italian twist making it a cinematic fable that almost anyone who loved movies could enjoy.
At the time the film was released, Leone’s name was changed to the American psuedonym “Bob Robertson” while his new protege, composer Ennio Morricone was given the moniker “Dan Savio”. Co-stars Gian Maria Volonte and Benito Stefanelli became good ol “Johnny Wels” and “Benny Reeves”. The original working title for the movie had been The Magnificent Stranger but was later switched to the more earthy sounding A Fistful of Dollars.
The colorful opening credits sequence features a form of animation known as rotoscoping and was created by Iginio Lardani who would go on to work on all Leone’s Dollars films. There are silhouettes of cowboys on horses and men being shot all accompanied by Morricone’s almost bizarre audio melange of whistling, gunshots and galloping. This was essentially Leone’s spin on the popular James Bond title sequence from Dr. No (1963) which had similar animated imagery, thus establishing his main character as a kind of 19th century version of the popular hero.
As the camera zooms into a bright white illustrated image of the sun, the screen cuts to black and we fade in to see a mysterious man (Clint Eastwood) on a horse wearing a ratty poncho as he arrives at the outskirts of the small Mexican border town of San Miguel. The Stranger (his actual name is later revealed to be Joe) stops at a well to have a drink of water and there he witnesses a scene unfold in front of him almost like a play. A young boy named Jesus is trying to see his estranged mother Marisol (Marianne Koch) who is being held captive as a prostitute by some local thugs across from his home. The boy quietly enters the adjacent hacienda, but is noticed and chased out by the men who yell obscenities and shoot their guns at him as he runs crying to his father.
The drifter slowly makes his way into town and as he rides along, a dead man on a horse passes him held up by a stick, with a rudementary sign on his back which reads “Adios Amigo”. This surreal image gives us a clue as to how different this Western adventure will be and is our first real taste of Leone’s dark sense of humor as well. Joe is soon greeted by Juan De Dios (Juan Cortez) a crazy church bell ringer who warns him that trouble lies ahead. Immediately after the exchange, Joe is confronted by a group of men who work for The Baxters, one of the two families who are rivals in town. They taunt him by shooting their guns and driving his mule giddy, not realizing he is a deadly pistoleer. In one of the films most iconic moments Joe calmly asks the men to apologize to his mule for being rude and when they relent he shoots them all in a super fast show of skill.
Joe meets an old man named Silvanito (Jose Calvo) the local barowner who lets him eat and drink at his place for free. He explains that the town has become a virtual morgue and that he should leave quickly but Joe doesn’t care. He needs money and can tell that if he plays his cards right, he can make a bundle. He learns from Silvanito that the Rojos sell liquor and the Baxters are gun merchants with John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukshky) working as the current Sheriff. The two families are sworn enemies and have caused the deaths of most of the male townsfolk due to their ongoing battle to run things. The dead bodies that continuously turn up keep Piripiro (Josef Egger) the town’s coffin builder busy. Seeing this as his way in, Joe inquires about a job working for Don Miguel Rojo (Antonio Prieto) and his two brothers, the dimwitted Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and the maniacal and crafty Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte) who is introduced to us as he massacres some soldiers with a Gatling gun during a bushwhack. Joe’s plan is to play both families against each other to his advantage. He doesn’t care who is killed, just how many dollars he can make during his brief stay in town. While he’s ahead of the game for awhile, he soon finds himself stuck in a fight for survival as Ramon and his bandits catch on to his ruse. Joe may be a careless hombre but he is somehow able to put away his personal agenda long enough to help young Jesus reunite with his mother and father (these characters were clearly based on Jesus, Mary and Joseph).
An interesting fact is there had been at least 20 Westerns made in Italy before Leone’s film, but they obviously didn’t have his personality, humor or unique take on the genre. Most were just lower budgeted Italian versions of the stale Hollywood films of the day. Leone had always been a longtime admirer of the American Westerns, and he also loved the work of Japanese auteurs like Kurosawa. His film was born out of those two cultural styles and was a true reinvention of what had come before. He used all the films he had seen and loved as inspiration and injected them with his own distinct Meditteranean/Roman mythology which tied religious imagery and themes into the proceedings. Eastwood’s Joe was very much like an anti-heroic version of Alan Ladd’s Shane, another film Leone was a big fan of.
In the follow up to A Fistful of Dollars (which was released a year later) we are introduced to a new character in the Leone universe, Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) a mysterious bounty killer clad in black who is originally from “the Carolinas”. What he doesn’t realize as he tracks his prey through the Southwest is that he has a competitor in the man called Manco (aka Joe) (Clint Eastwood) a fellow hunter who is after the same wanted men. When Manco arrives in the town of El Paso, he and the Colonel have a heated yet humorous face off in the street, with Mortimer showing that while he may be older in years, he’s even faster and more skilled than the young upstart. This is one of the best sequences in the film taking the lightning fast marksmanship Leone introduced in ‘Fistful’ and heightening it to an absurd degree.
With a large bounty on the head of a notorious bandit called El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), Mortimer presents a proposition to Manco that they put their pride aside and work together to go after him and his cohorts. The reward becomes even higher after Indio and his men rob the Bank of El Paso and dissapear with a large cash box. Mortimer and Manco come up with a plan to infiltrate the gang and steal the loot but when they’re found out, they must do what they can to escape Indio’s clutches. His gang of cutthroats include Wild (Klaus Kinski) a hunchbacked psycho, Groggy (Luigi Pistilli) and his right hand man, the rotund bandito Nino (Mario Brega). We learn through flashback sequences (a storytelling tool Leone would use again to an even better degree in Once Upon A Time in The West) that Mortimer and Indio share a past that ultimately turns the story from being just about a scheme to make some money into a moving personal tale of revenge.
For A Few Dollars More improved on what had made Leone’s first film so successful creating an even more thrilling adventure story. The addition of Lee Van Cleef, a fellow American actor and veteran of countless Westerns, was a perfect foil for Eastwood’s solo “Man With No Name”. It also gave the movie a slightly different feel by introducing the classic ‘old master and his young pupil’ subplot. Volonte’s turn as El Indio was even more outrageous than his role as Ramon in the previous film. He really gave the character a psychotically sadistic persona. In one scene Indio’s men murder a mother and child (offscreen) which showed Leone was pushing things further in terms of portraying violence. If you look closely you will notice Indio smokes marijuana to calm himself down following his murderous outbursts. This was quite a bold thing to show at the time it was made and his character is actually the first villain in a movie to use the drug. There is however plenty of Leone humor as well. One of my favorite scenes is when Manco visits with Old Prophet (Josef Egger) whose home is nearly shaken to bits due to a train passing by. The exchanges between Eastwood and Egger (who starred in the previous film as Piripiro) may have been dubbed in post, but the comedy is still just as strong from their body language and reactions to each other.
Composer Ennio Morricone‘s music again gave the second film its own distinct mood, picking up from where he and Leone’s first collaboration ended. Morricone actually completed the score before filming started so Leone would play the music on set. This time Morricone introduced the twangy sounds of the jews harp along with another riff on the original whistling theme which was reminiscent of traditional Westerns but with a post-modern flavor. This score instantly became one of the best musical pieces of his career.
The biggest question after the release and massive success of Leone’s first two Dollars films was: could he actually surpass them both and make something twice as big in grandeur with even more characters? The answer audiences got was a resounding YES. Not only that but Il Buono Il Brutto Il Cattivo (1966) (the original Italian title) became Leone’s most popular film.
Set during The Civil War, the last Dollars film focuses on a trio of diverse outlaws, The Good/Blondie aka Joe (Eastwood), The Bad/Sentenza/Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and The Ugly/Tuco Ramirez/The Rat (Eli Wallach). Tuco is an infamous bandit in the Southwest and all the dregs in the territory are out to get him for the big reward. Angel Eyes is a deadly killer for hire who pays a visit to his latest target, Stevens (Antonio Casas). While interrogating him, he learns about a cash box full of stolen Confederate gold and Bill Carson, the man who knows where it’s hidden.
While on the run, Tuco, who has a price on his head, is cornered by some men looking to collect the reward. Luckily he is saved by a stranger he nicknames “Blondie” aka Joe/Manco (Eastwood) who suggests they use his status as a Wanted man to both make some money. The idea is for each to play act: Blondie will be the bounty hunter, Tuco the evil outlaw. When Tuco (who plays up his fake outrage by spewing curses at Blondie and his captors) is about to be hanged by the townsfolk, Blondie shoots the rope, they both take off, split the money and do the scheme all over again in the next town.
After working together for a time, Blondie decides Tuco’s bounty isn’t going to get any higher, so he suddenly leaves him stranded in the middle of the desert. After finding his way to a town and getting a new pistol (in just one of the film’s many memorable sequences), Tuco decides to seek out his old bandito amigos and go after Blondie for sweet revenge. He and his men track Blondie down but he’s able to get away when an unforseen accident occurs before Tuco can kill him. Tuco doesn’t give up and continues to stay on the trail where he discovers Blondie pulling the same scam they had done but with another wanted outlaw named Shorty Larson. Tuco decides to inflict a slow torture on his old friend by making him walk through the desert in the broiling hot sun like he was made to do. Almost on the verge of death, Blondie is miraculously saved when a runaway carriage appears out of nowhere. It’s then Tuco finds out from a dying Confederate soldier inside who just happens to be “Bill Carson” (Antonio Casale) about the location of the $200,000 in stolen gold coins in exchange for a simple drink of water. As Tuco walks away to get a canteen, the dying Blondie drags himself over to Carson and gets his own bit of info before the man dies. An irate Tuco is forced to help Blondie recuperate as their old partnership is restored, each knowing one half of the answer to where the loot is really buried.
On their journey, they are sidetracked after being captured by Union soldiers who they comically mistake for Confederates (due to dust coating their uniforms). They are brought to a Union prison camp where they encounter Angel Eyes incognito as a soldier, looking for Carson. Tuco, now using the fake name Bill Carson is confronted by Angel Eyes who is intent on finding out how he and Blondie know who the man was that had the gold. Tuco is beaten to a pulp by Angel Eyes’ thug Corporal Wallace (Mario Brega) to get the answers he seeks while Blondie is spared and given some new clothes. Angel Eyes then takes Tuco’s place as Blondie’s “partner” and they leave to find the treasure. Meanwhile Tuco is forced to take a train to his execution guarded by the brutal Wallace. After using his wits to escape, he returns to seek out Blondie and help him get out of Angel Eyes’ clutches and the two partners set off again to look for Sad Hill cemetery. On their trek through the countryside to locate the burial ground, the two are taken into custody by some Union soldiers and brought to a large scale battle near a river. This is one of the biggest sequences Leone ever filmed and is a real highlight. What is amazing is that he managed to up the ante time and time again because the climactic Mexican standoff between Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes set to Morricone’s suspense laden cue “The Trio” is simply one of the greatest sequences ever edited/filmed/scored!
When you watch The Good The Bad and The Ugly, you will notice that “Blondie” (aka or “Joe” or “Manco”) isn’t in his regular clothing (poncho, brown hat etc) at first. Well that’s because this film is actually the beginning of the trilogy. Yes, Leone pulled yet another trick on the audience by having this adventure be where Blondie gets his iconic garb. So in effect when you view A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More they are taking place after what is perceived to be the final installment!
The dynamic between the three lead actors is just one of the many reasons this film is so enjoyable. Eastwood had established a trademark ‘silent but deadly’ persona yet had a wry sense of humor in almost every scene. Van Cleef with his deathly stare and relentless agenda evoked an evil we really hadn’t seen before in popular cinema. Last but certainly not least is Eli Wallach‘s Tuco, which is easily the most interesting and complex performance out of all three. He has such a wide range of personality characteristics, from being a low down dirty bandit to a sadistic brute, a clown and most strikingly, a lost soul that yearns for friendship. It’s truly a remarkable work of acting and gives the movie that extra magic which makes Leone’s work of cinema brilliance fully complete.
At this point in his career, Leone’s incredibly inventive and stylized filmmaking was at its most extravagant, taking his vision of the Western to a whole new level of surreal proportions. His depiction of the Civil War period in Texas (which was substituted by the massive Spanish landscapes) was juxtaposed with his trademark extreme closeups of the actors baroque looking faces. The reverse introductions of the main characters (The Ugly, The Bad, The Good) added yet another clever touch to the proceedings. One of Leone’s most interesting and creative visual tricks in the film is how he used what was offscreen to surprise the characters. Watch when Tuco and Blondie are suddenly bushwhacked by some Union soldiers with bayonets entering frame when they should’ve seen them in reality. In another one of these shots, Tuco seems to magically discover Sad Hill cemetery after falling against a tombstone when it was directly in front of him all along. There’s so many little details and special moments within the movie like these that make it memorable and fun. They’re just some of the reasons why it holds up so well on repeat viewings. Not only was Leone’s filmmaking outlandish and ahead of its time, but the ironic moments of humor and catchy lines of dialogue (written by Luciano Vincenzoni) were equally strong and witty (“When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”). Ennio Morricone would write his most iconic musical accompaniment to Leone’s epic vision for this production. The music he had created on the previous films were taken to a whole new operatic soundscape which this time incorporated the sounds of wild animals (such as a howling coyote and a hooting owl) complimented the magnificent tale with gusto.
Would Leone be able to go even further out and make a film that was more powerful than this final part of The Dollars Trilogy? You’ll have to watch the movie he made next and judge for yourself…