Tag Archives: Sergio Leone

Great Directors: Sergio Leone

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 15, 2014

Sergio Leone

LeoneCamera

From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Tuco (Eli Wallach) is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room.
One Armed Man:  “I’ve been looking for you for eight months.  Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you.  Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me.  I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.”
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam.]
Tuco:  “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”

“When I was young, I believed in three things:  Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite.  Now I just believe in dynamite.”—Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 into a cinematic family.  His parents were the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran).  During his school days, one of his friends was Ennio Morricone, his future musical collaborator on films.  Leone’s parents did not sympathize with the Fascists in power in Italy before and during World War II, and they were effectively exiled to Naples until the war was over.

LeoneMorricone Leone and Morricone.

Working in cinematography, Leone began as an assistant to director Vittorio di Sica on the classic The Bicycle Thief in 1948.  During the 1950s he started writing on screenplays for the historical “sword and sandal” epics popular at the time, including work on some large-scale films at the famous Cinecittá studios in Rome, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).  His big break came in 1959, when director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, with Steve Reeves, and Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

When historical epics fell out of favor with the public, Leone turned his attention to inexpensive westerns, with largely Italian casts, filmed mostly in Spain—the so-called spaghetti westerns.  He first brought them to international prominence in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars, starring American television actor Clint Eastwood and based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo.  It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but it was far and away the most successful to date.  With progressively larger budgets, it was followed by For a Few Dollars More, with Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in 1965, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Eastwood, Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in 1966, completing what came to be referred to as his “Man With No Name” trilogy.  There is no continuity of story or character between the three, and sometimes the Eastwood character actually does have a name.

LeoneEastwood Directing the Man With No Name.

By the conclusion of the trilogy, Leone had started a revolution.  He had developed an international market for inexpensively-made Italian westerns and had introduced a vogue for them that lasted a decade.  He had made Clint Eastwood a major star, and created another in Lee Van Cleef.  He had introduced a different kind of moral universe in westerns, one less aligned with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys but with even more violence.  There are those who would say he introduced sweat and dust to westerns, but those had long been there (see Hondo, for example)—just not so prominently and consistently, nor so lovingly captured on film.  He prolonged the careers of such actors as Jack Palance and Henry Fonda, who found prominent roles in spaghetti westerns when such roles became scarcer for them in Hollywood.  And he was godfather to an entire generation of Italian filmmakers, often while simultaneously fighting with them:  Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Tonino Valerii, Sergio Corbucci and many others.

In terms of cinematic style, Leone was revolutionary as well.  The music for his films, composed by his friend Morricone, brought a new way of thinking about music in films, and not just in westerns, much different from more traditional studio composers like Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.  Morricone said that Leone asked him to compose a film’s music before the start of principal photography, contrary to the normal practice.  He would then play the music to the actors during takes to enhance their performances.  His film-making style was noted for juxtaposing extreme close-ups (often focusing on the eyes, especially if they were blue), with extreme long shots.  He was always willing to sacrifice story for effect or mood.  His work has been much imitated since.

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Once Upon a Time ,,, Leone with stars Fonda, Cardinale, Bronson and Robards.

Leone’s success with the Man With No Name films enabled him to make what many consider his masterpiece:  Once Upon a Time in the West (C’Era una Volta il West), released in 1968.  The film, starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale, was shot mostly in Almería, Spain, and Cinecittá in Rome, with some shooting in Monument Valley, Utah.  A bigger budget gave Leone the scope for a long meditation on the mythology of the American west, with many references to previous iconic westerns and with Leone giving his cinematic impulses free rein.  The resulting three-hour epic was ruthlessly edited by Paramount and was not a box office success in the U.S., though the full movie was a huge hit in Europe, especially in France.  

During the 1970s, Leone went on to direct Duck, You Sucker!, set in the Mexican revolution, although he had intended only to produce it, and he produced the spaghetti western comedy, My Name is Nobody.  He turned down an opportunity to direct The Godfather to focus on his own gangster pet project, a four-hour gangster movie titled Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro (1984).  Warner Bros. recut it drastically to two hours for the American market, where it was a flop.  It was his last significant work.  When the four-hour film was restored and made available, some hailed it as a masterpiece as well.  Leone died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60.

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Experimenting with the tools of the trade:  Playing guns with Jason Robards, and using the basic form of transportation.

“Ever since I was a small boy I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood Westerns where, if you cut the woman’s role out of the film in a version which is going on in your own head, the film becomes far better.”–Sergio Leone.  That explains a lot about the Man With No Name trilogy.

“The [John] Ford film I like most of all…is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about.  In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West… because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West…  He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it.”—Sergio Leone, in a very European view.

“I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes.  It fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”—Sergio Leone

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The opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West:  Waiting for the stranger.

Leone Essentials:  A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West

Second-Rank Leone:  Duck, You Sucker!

Leone Non-Western Essentials:  Once Upon a Time in America

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 24, 2013

Once Upon A Time In The West—Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Keenan Wynn (1968; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

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Leone takes his leisurely time getting into the movie.  The lengthy introductory sequence and credits aren’t done until almost half an hour into the film.  It’s interesting to watch as an exercise in filmmaking, and it’s very atmospheric, with little dialogue.

Some think that this spaghetti western may be Leone’s masterpiece and one of the ten greatest westerns ever.  Leone had a bigger budget to work with than with any of his Clint Eastwood trilogy.  Visually, it’s probably his best.  There’s a shot where Harmonica (Charles Bronson as an Eastwood-esque mysterious stranger) looks out a doorway at people building the new town of Sweetwater, and the scene is beautifully composed.  It has a very good cast, with the exception of Cardinale, whose voice is dubbed to get rid of her accent.  Frank (Henry Fonda, in a rare bad-guy role) is a killer-for-hire, now working for a ruthless crippled railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti).  He disposes of Brett McBain, owner of a ranch with water that could delay the railroad, not realizing that McBain’s new wife Jill (Cardinale), a New Orleans prostitute, is about to arrive and will have to be dealt with as well.  Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) are more or less good guys—Harmonica of mysterious origins and Cheyenne as a local bandit chieftain falsely blamed for the McBain killings.  Obviously all this will get sorted out, but it will take its time.

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Henry Fonda as Frank the killer, in dark makeup to emphasize blue eyes.

Even if it’s very well done, this movie still has many of the weaknesses of its subgenre:  Less emphasis on storytelling, more on insistent reaching for emotional reactions through visual images and close-ups; over-the-top violence, although not nearly as bad as in The Wild Bunch, which was in production at the same time; lingering close-ups on faces (frequently from below) and eyes.  It’s a self-conscious epic, slow-moving and seemingly in love with the process of conceiving and making the movie rather than with the story it’s telling.  That deprives it of narrative thrust, but may make it more attractive to auteurs.  The dialogue is extremely sparse, even though the movie is 164 minutes long.  Henry Fonda’s eyes seem abnormally blue, because he’s wearing lots of dark facial makeup; so is Charles Bronson.  The gorgeous cinematography makes some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford.  Some of the movie was filmed in Spain.  A buggy ride taken by Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa starts in Spain and ends up in Monument Valley in the U.S.  The music is by Ennio Morricone, including some nice symphonic stretches but notable mostly for effective use of the harmonica, identified with Bronson’s character.  Bernardo Bertolucci (director of Last Tango in Paris in the early 1970s) was one of the writers, along with Dario Argento, who became a one-man Italian horror film industry. 

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The voices are a bit of a problem, too, for a big-budget film.  The Italian mode of filmmaking involved shooting film without recording any sound, leaving all sound and dialogue to be dubbed in later.  That means there’s usually some form of disconnect with the film, especially when, as with Claudia Cardinale, the sound you hear when she speaks isn’t her own voice.  In the lengthy opening sequence, with the creaking sound of the windmill and Jack Elam’s killer trying fitfully to get a fly off his face without using his hands, Elam has only a few words of dialogue, but it’s jarring that they’re not in his voice.  (His mismatched eyes and rough features have never been so lovingly captured on film, though.)  Bronson, Robards and Fonda, at least, are recognizable by their voices, but sometimes the modulation and ambient sound seem wrong.  That’s true with the harmonica theme, too, when Bronson’s supposed to be playing it and the acoustics are wrong. 

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Harmonica (Charles Bronson) gets the drop on Frank (Henry Fonda).

Leone and his collaborators reportedly immersed themselves in watching the great westerns before making this, and there are lots of references from these films.  Both Clint Eastwood and James Coburn are said to have turned down the role of Harmonica.  Robert Ryan was to have played the sheriff (actually played by Keenan Wynn), but had to back out when his role in The Wild Bunch got larger.  John Landis is a stunt double.  This was Leone’s last western, unless you count Duck, You Sucker, a story set during the Mexican revolution for which Leone served as producer and perhaps director.

Debate as you may whether this is one of the ten best, or even one of the 55 greatest westerns.  What cannot be debated is that to have any kind of informed opinion you have to see this and Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy.  They represent the very best of spaghetti westerns and a new approach that has influenced western movies ever since.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 23, 2013

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Sambrell (1966; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

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There are different versions of this floating around.  The one I saw most recently said it was the “extended English language version,” about three hours long.  That leaves Sergio Leone to take half an hour introducing the three principal characters, which he does in reverse order:  the ugly (Wallach’s Tuco), the bad (Van Cleef’s Sentenza-Angel Eyes) and then the good (Eastwood’s Blondie).  In particular, the sequence introducing Tuco is very reminiscent of the early part of Once Upon a Time in the West, with anonymous gunmen waiting without dialogue on a dusty and wind-swept western street and the camera frequently cutting to 2/3-face closeups.  The production values are higher than the first two in Leone’s “Dollar” or “Man With No Name” trilogy, and he clearly has a larger budget and more time to spend with his directorial tropes and mannerisms.  As in other Leone films, the dubbing is sometimes a distraction to American viewers.  Aside from the three leads, the cast was almost entirely composed of non-English speakers.

After the introductions, it is clear that Tuco and Blondie are running a scam by which Blondie turns in Tuco for the reward on his head (either $2000 or $3000).  As Tuco is being hung on horseback, Blondie springs him by severing the rope with a well-placed bullet and making the authorities duck for cover.  They move on to another town and repeat the scam.  (There’s no suggestion about what would happen if the hanging were from a gallows, rather than from horseback.)  Tuco wants a larger share than half, and he and Blondie take turns betraying each other. 

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Meanwhile, Angel Eyes is in pursuit of $200,000 in gold.  Tuco and Blondie get wind of the same pot of gold from a dying Confederate soldier who tells Tuco the general location and Blondie the specific spot, so they then need each other to find the gold.  Disguised as Confederates, Tuco and Blondie are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a prison camp, where the sadistic sergeant turns out to be Angel Eyes.  Ultimately the three end up at a cemetery where the loot is buried and have a three-way shootout, in which Angel Eyes is killed by Blondie and Tuco finds out he has no ammunition in his gun.

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Not much time was spent trying to come up with a story that would hang together well; it’s all about atmosphere, mood and composition.  Theoretically it takes place in the west during the Civil War.  There are references to Glorieta, and that presumably means New Mexico, where the only Civil War battle in the west took place at Glorieta Pass.  It wasn’t as big a clash as depicted in this movie.  There are also troops using trains, and there were no trains in New Mexico until about a decade after the war.  Some say this is Leone’s masterpiece; others would claim that honor for Once Upon a Time in the West.  Still others would say that For a Few Dollars More is a better movie than either.  This is brilliantly directed and beautifully filmed but short on story and cohesiveness considering its length.

The Eastwood and Van Cleef characters look just the same as they did in For a Few Dollars More, but there’s really no continuity with them from movie to movie.  Each film stands alone.  At the end of the movie, Eastwood is wearing the same sheepskin vest and serape that he wore in the other two movies.  In terms of time, this should be the last, but it’s probably the earliest, taking place during the Civil War.  In particular, Van Cleef turned out to be a sort of a good guy in For a Few Dollars More; here, he’s the Bad, and he has little of the gentlemanly quality from the prior movie.  The two movies made him a star of sorts, though, and he had a lucrative career in spaghetti westerns at this late stage.

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Three-Way Shootout.

The music by Ennio Morricone is brilliant, but during the movie it’s kind of intrusive and loud.  The theme is perhaps the most familiar of any of the music from the Leone-Morricone collaboration over the years.  The direction by Sergio Leone was influential, particularly for Eastwood.  Although it’s better done (and has better production values) than most spaghetti westerns, it still has the subgenre’s weaknesses:  the interminable tight close-ups where nothing seems to be happening except sweating, the long shots of desolate landscape and a very small rider or person, the taste for the over-the-top violent and the surreal, the wildly improbable marksmanship.  Eastwood’s character is seldom without a slender cigar in his teeth, but those teeth are very white for a constant smoker.  Between playing Tuco Ramirez in this movie and Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach made himself the quintessential cinematic Mexican bandit chieftain, but there’s a fair amount of the stereotype in his portrayal, too, emphasized by the frequent lingering close-ups and lots of braying laughter. 

There are lots of shots of drawn-out slow movement around almost abstract landscapes.  There is also a brilliantly edited shot where Tuco is about to shoot Eastwood. who has a noose around his neck; cut to cannon shooting, cut back to destroyed building where Tuco has fallen through a floor or two and the now empty noose where Eastwood was.  Filmed in Spain.

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For a Few Dollars More

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 22, 2013

For a Few Dollars More—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski (1965; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

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The opening scene is characteristic Leone, although others have used variations (Budd Boetticher at medium distance in Ride Lonesome, for example).  A distant horseman rides toward the camera, while there are sounds indicating that the camera stands in for the eyes of a second person.  After the credits (innovative for 1965), the still-distant rider is blasted out of the saddle, and it is clear that he was shot by the person through whose eyes we watched him approach.

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The Man With No Name might not survive the early part of the movie.

This is the second in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, not really a trilogy except in a general way.  There’s no continuity of story or character from movie to movie.  Clint Eastwood looks the same as he did in the first, complete with the same serape (which was rumored never to have been washed through the filming of the three movies).  This is the movie that made a spaghetti western star of Lee Van Cleef, who’d been playing western bad guys at least since High Noon in 1952.  He looks meaningfully dangerous as Col. Douglas Mortimer in the steely-eyed closeups of which the Italian directors were so fond.  Although the Eastwood character is referred to generally by fans as the Man With No Name, he is called Monco (Manco?) once early in this film.  Gian Maria Volonte also re-appears in this second film, although his character was killed in the first.  He is again the villain, this time called El Indio, leader of a gang of outlaws.

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Col. Mortimer, unintimidated by hunchbacked gunfighters.

Monco and Col. Douglas Mortimer are bounty hunters, here called “bounty killers.”  We see the prowess of each separately at the start, and then they both start hunting El Indio—Monco for the reward and Mortimer ostensibly for the same reason.  Actually, Mortimer has a more personal motive for hunting El Indio.  When they first meet, they have an impromptu hat-shooting contest, although neither hat thereafter shows the effects of having been shot multiple times.  The two join forces, but we’re never quite sure if they’re really working with or against each other.  Monco gets the gang to accept him so he can see their plans and perhaps influence them.  Eventually the two bounty hunters are found out and are badly beaten.  El Indio is pulling a double-cross on his own men, with the two outsiders in the middle of it.  They both survive the lengthy concluding shootout, and it is revealed that El Indio once killed Mortimer’s young sister and her husband.  Mortimer leaves the entire reward for Monco, and they part ways amicably.

fewdollarsVolonte Volonte as El Indio

Leone grows visibly as a filmmaker from one movie to the next, or maybe he just has progressively larger budgets to work with in each of his four westerns.  In any event, the production values get better with each movie he makes.  As always, Leone is more interested in mood and myth than in storytelling.  There’s an absurdly high body count in this film, and it moves slowly, with lots of time for closeups on eyes, moody sizing-up of each other by various participants, and low camera angles.  It’s long for a mid-1960s western at about two hours and fifteen minutes, and much of it feels slowly-paced.  Sometimes it seems as though Leone deliberately withholds details of the story so he can surprise the viewer later.  It’s not entirely honest. 

As Leone sets up the final shootout between Mortimer and El Indio within a wide circle, you can almost see that he’s dying to play with a three-way shootout in the same kind of setup; he actually does this in his next movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  As with the first (and third) in the trilogy, this film has an excellent score by Ennio Morricone.  Unlike the first and third in the trilogy, the music does not sound as disproportionately loud.  This is probably the least seen of the trilogy, but it’s still remarkably good—maybe Leone’s best western.  It’s not really a sequel to the first; all three movies are independent stories without repeating characters, although several actors play similar roles in identical garb.

forafewdollarsShootout Final shootout.

Look for Klaus Kinski as Wild, the hunchbacked gunfighter killed by Mortimer.  He made more than one spaghetti western at this stage of his career.  This was filmed in 1965 in Spain but not released in the U.S. until 1967. 

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A Fistful of Dollars

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 21, 2013

A Fistful of Dollars—Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte, Marianne Koch (1964; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

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In the opening scene, an American drifter wearing a serape (Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, although he’s called Joe by the undertaker) rides a mule into the Mexican town of San Miguel, not far from the U.S. border with Mexico.  He witnesses an incident where a small boy is chased away from Marisol (Marianne Koch), his mother. 

The owner of the local saloon explains that the town is dominated by two gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos.  The American thinks he can make some money for himself by playing the two clans against each other, and he’s right initially.  The most formidable of any of them appears to be Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte), who uses a rifle exclusively and says, “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a Winchester, the man with the pistol is a dead man.”  Marisol is Ramon’s “hostage.”  The Rojos are running scams on every side, killing contingents of Mexican and American soldiers and making it appear that they killed each other. 

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Clint Eastwood with Marisol (Marianne Koch).

As matters develop, the American helps Marisol escape with her son and husband, enraging Ramon.  The Rojos beat him to a pulp, and he escapes their compound although he can barely move.  As he lies low, he sees the Rojos gun down the Baxters, including the Baxter matriarch.  He recovers while he lies in a local mine, only to find that the Rojos have taken and are torturing his friend the saloon keeper Silvanito. 

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Talking things over with the fatalistic bartender Silvanito.

The American puts on his gun and poncho, and appears before the Rojos out of the cloud of an explosion.  Ramon empties his rifle into the American, who keeps getting back up and coming ahead.  Finally, he reveals that he’s wearing a heavy metal plate under his poncho, deflecting all Ramon’s shots.  He takes out all the Rojo men except Ramon, and puts Ramon’s dictum to the test.  They both reload, and the American wins.

This was filmed in 1964 in Spain, but not released in the U.S. until 1967.  Although it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), it was made without Kurosawa’s permission, and Kurosawa sued Leone.  He later said he made more money from the lawsuit than he did from Yojimbo.  This was the film where American audiences were first exposed to (a) Clint Eastwood as a movie star, (b) a western with music by Ennio Morricone, and (c) spaghetti westerns in general and Sergio Leone in specific.  All those have worked out well.   Leone uses the full width of the panoramic screen, capturing Eastwood facing off against four and five gunmen all in one shot.  Leone and Morricone had known each other since the third grade, but this was the first time they worked together.  The music seems a little loud, perhaps because it’s usually just one whistle or flute at high-ish volume.  Note the four-note descending theme whenever the American makes an appearance or comes to a realization.  It was made with a low budget, and it features many of the hallmarks of Leone’s later work.  It became a cult classic, to be remade again by Walter Hill with Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing (1996).  Even though it was made with a characteristically low budget, it looks much better than most spaghetti westerns—evidence of Leone’s expertise from the start.

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Ennio Morricone’s music here is unpleasantly jangly.  Leone wanted a Rio Bravo-type Deguello on the trumpet and Morricone came up with some Mexican-inflected trumpet music, along with his signature whistling, simple wooden flute and chanting.  The soundtracks of these three films were cheaply done and tended to avoid orchestral arrangements of original scores because of the cost that would be involved.

These three Leone films (the Dollar or Man With No Name Trilogy) made Clint Eastwood an international star.  Prior to his work in these films, he was known principally for his work as Rowdy Yates in the television western Rawhide.

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