Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1965)

3. For A Few Dollars More
Per qualche dollaro in più

“A Fistful of Dollars” was an immediate success, at home in Italy and internationally. Sergio Leone and his producer wanted to get to work on a follow-up as soon as possible. Clint Eastwood was uncertain at first but, after seeing an undubbed print of “Fistful,” enthusiastically agreed to return. Debate rages to this day about whether or not “For a Few Dollars More” is a direct sequel or merely a thematic follow-up. When released in America, United Artist sold all three films as being about the Man with No Name, connecting them as a series. Sergio Leone always insisted that there was no continuity between the films, each meant to be singular stories. Eastwood is clearly playing the same character. The debates don’t affect the film any. “For a Few Dollars More” is not only a worthy follow-up to “A Fistful of Dollars,” it may actually be the better.

The Wild West is being terrorized by El Indigo, the most dangerous outlaw around, and his gang of miscreants, robbers, and murderers. The crooks plan to rob the bank of El Paso next, making off with a vault full of half a million dollars. On his tail are two separate bounty killers. The first is the poncho clad Manco, a lightening-fast gunslinger who doesn’t say much. The second is Douglas Mortimer, a black-clad former colonel who shoots with deadly accuracy and a bandoleer of high-tech guns. The two hunters meet on the trail of Indigo, butting heads at first. Eventually, they form an alliance to take down the villain, who Mortimer has a personal connection to.

From its opening minutes, “For a Few Dollars More” establishes itself as having a wider lens then Leone’s last film. A lone horseman crosses a prairie. The angle is wide and distant, the man seeming tiny in the field. A shot rings out through the area, the assassin unseen, the man falling dead from his perch. With that, the titles float on screen, designed to look like puffs of smoke, each pierced by a single bullet hole. The opening declares that this is a movie of bad men clipped down with deadly accuracy.

Powering the opening, and the whole film, is Ennio Morricone’s incomparable score. The whimsical whistle connects it with the first film’s theme, while also signaling its wild west setting. The flicking of the jew harp provides movement. The soft drum implies the beats of horse hooves and, later, the pumping of a locomotive. The guttural cries of men are primal and fierce while the strumming guitar builds to a sweeping, powerful, choir theme, where each of the elements meet again. There’s no doubt that it’s a ridiculously great, adventurous score that gets the audience excited.

Like the other Leone westerns Morricone would score, each of the main characters receive a musical motif of their own. Leone also begins the film by introducing each main character in a lengthy, singular scene. Mortimer stops a train and takes out a target. Manco walks through a thunderstorm, interrupts a poker game, and claims his own bounty. El Indigo, meanwhile, displays his stopwatch, the object that informs and defines his personality. The trio of leads, each getting a first scene to themselves, is something Leone would return to. As in films past and present, Leone also has his heroes undergo a Christ-like torture, beaten and brutalized by the villains. The movie concludes with the good guy and the bad guy having a duel in a stone circle, settling their personal grudge. That Leone would return to these story elements is appropriate, as they are classic western moments his films helped defined.

Despite Clint Eastwood being the marquee name, Mortimer is introduced first. The character is played with a stoic focus by Lee Van Cleef, already a veteran of westerns himself. He is steely and calculated, to the point of being relaxed. In the first scene, a mark shoots wildly at him. Mortimer, meanwhile, casually, calmly, loads his gun, taking the guy out with one clear, clean shot. The bounty hunter is presented almost like the James Bond of gunslingers. He is outfitted with the highest-tech weapons of the day, each contained in a unfolding brown leather satchel on his horse. Van Cleef also shows a quiet humor, an eyebrow cocked and a pipe in his mouth. He’s a different sort of badass then Clint Eastwood and a valuable addition to the film.

Which isn’t to say Eastwood still isn’t the king of cool. His own introduction has him casually strolling through a thunderstorm, unaffected by the rain. He casually marches up to the guy he’s going to kill and tells him so. He casually shoots underarm at an attacker. Eastwood’s Man with No Name maintains his ballsy toughness, smooth execution, and take-no-shit attitude. For example, he’s not above shooting an unarmed man. His soft spot for kids are maintained too, though even that has a limit. Like before, his scheming and planning can only take him so far and he eventually finds himself over his head. Eastwood inhabits the part so naturally that it’s no wonder he would define the western hero archetype. His performance is a deliberate, fascinating variation on a theme.

Probably the biggest pleasure of “For a Few Dollars More” is the inevitable conflict the film sends the two characters on. As bounty hunters, they are rivals. The fight scene between the two, coming about a half-hour in, is one of my favorite scenes in the film. They play an extended game of keep-away with bullets and hats. Eastwood shoots Van Cleef’s hat several times. Keeping with their established personalities, Van Cleef takes Eastwood’s off with a single shot. However, the two are only rivals for so long. Soon, they meet and formulate a plan. In most any other western, this would be a dull scene of exposition, setting up a plot that will obviously go wrong. However, watching Eastwood and Van Cleef bounce off each other is an absolute joy, the two forming a funny back-and-forth.

In “A Fistful of Dollars,” the villains were bad men, motivated by greed and murdering with glee. El Indigo is also played by Gian Maria Volonte, like the first’s Ramon. Volonte is just as vicious here. Indigo also takes pleasure in dispatching his foes, dangling their inescapable fates in their faces with the chiming stopwatch. However, that stopwatch is a key to Indigo’s past. He’s a more complex villain, motivated as much by regret as material gain. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of his past, a device Leone would also return to in future works. What he did was equally unforgivable but it roots his personality in a human sadness. The best bit of acting from Volonte comes when he stares into space, consumed by memories, the sad music box playing him to sleep. He is frightening when gunning down victims and plotting bank robberies. Yet the details of his past make him a more captivating adversary.

“For a Few Dollars More” also shows Sergio Leone’s directorial style expanding. The wide vistas that are so associated with him are on display here. The Spanish desert continues to make a visually fascinating location. No wonder Leone would want to film as much of it as possible at once. Gunslingers stand in the distance, firing off shots, their bullets rippling in the sand and dirt. He shoots the faces of hard, bad men with the same sort of gravitas he gives to the landscapes. He allows tension to build during the duels, placing as much importance on setting and location as he does to story or characters. This technique creates a surprising amount of suspense, making the viewer wonder about the outcome of the gunfight, even though the audience can assume the good guys will prevail. Leone’s bag of filmmaking tricks elevates the genre to a masterful art form.

“For a Few Dollars More” mostly tells a very different story from its predecessor. It’s not an unofficial remake of any Kurosawa film that I know of. However, the sequel does have one thing in common. In both stories, Eastwood’s Man with No Name must go undercover with the bad guys. This leads to the middle section of the story where it suddenly becomes a heist film. Prison bars are torn from walls. The plot device involving the vault, hidden inside a wooden box, is clever. Even more clever is the way the wood is shot away by the bandits. Because this is about both of them, Van Cleef worms his way into the gang too, in another surprisingly intense sequence. However, Leone spends more time on the duo’s discovery, leading to double-crossing, scheming, and changing alliances. These moments are somewhat routine and the only time “For a Few Dollars More” drags.

It doesn’t drag too much though. This is an action film that moves. From the first scene, the shoot-outs are lightening fast, muzzle flashes striking and bodies falling to the floor. The quick cut editing emphasizes the ferocity of the action. The early scenes of Eastwood mowing down rows of goons with super speed and accuracy are exciting as hell. However, the movie is buildings towards the thunderous climax. Manco and Mortimer have to face off against an entire town full of banditos. They march through the streets, gunning down their attackers. Leone’s camera films the streets between buildings tightly, creating an effective tunnel. Eastwood spins around in a chair, blasting goons through the window. Van Cleef is more direct, barging in and letting his rifle blaze. The stand-off between Mortimer and Indigo is breathtakingly exciting. All the film’s best elements come together. Leone’s lyrical direction, Morricone’s gorgeous score, and the intense performances combine to make a fantastic conclusion.

And, hey, if nothing else, the movie has got Klaus Kinski as a hunchback too! “For a Few Dollars More” is more direct and action-packed then the first part of the trilogy. It has more to offer with a more exciting, better constructed screenplay. The action is fantastic. The score is incredible. The actors are men at the top of their field, doing what they do best. It’s the rare sequel that’s superior to the original. That’s saying a lot, since “A Fistful of Dollars” was really good too. Most of all, the movie shows Sergio Leone evolving into a genre genius, a man who could turn a simple western into a exciting masterwork of filmmaking. [Grade: A-]

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