A Look Back At For Few Dollars More

There are not many places in the world (I’m sure) where you can sit down on any given Thursday afternoon and watch a classic piece of cinema from one of the medium’s greatest auteurs. Luckily for me, New York City is one of them.

On a recent blistering-hot summer day in midtown Manhattan, I strolled over to the Walter Reade Theater to take part in The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Complete Clint Eastwood Retrospective. Of the 37 films being shown, this particular day they happened to be screening the one Eastwood film that could get me off of the couch and into the disgusting city heat, Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (on a side note, Tom Wopat, of Dukes of Hazzard-fame, was sitting behind me during the screening and appeared to be loving it).

Though Leone is only credited with having directed seven films (five of which were Westerns), he has left behind a far greater cinematic legacy than most of the industry’s other more eclectically accomplished filmmakers. With his unofficial adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (which was loosely based on the Dashiell Hammett novel RED HARVEST), Leone single-handedly resurrected a dying genre and created a completely new offshoot known as the “Spaghetti Western.” It established Clint Eastwood as a star and arguably gave audiences the first modern anti-hero. Stylistically, whether it is as an homage or parody, he has probably been imitated or referenced in film and television more than any other director and aside from maybe George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone and Bernard Hermann’s score for PSYCHO, Ennio Morricone’s theme from Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is probably the most widely used piece of music in pop-culture history.

So what about FEW FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and why was it the one film I was interested in seeing? Well, aside from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, it is my favorite of Leone’s films and with the exception of DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (a.k.a. A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE), it is his most overlooked and underappreciated Western.

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is often recognized for having been the original Spaghetti Western film and its success put Leone and Eastwood on the map. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is considered by many to be Leone’s masterpiece and is widely regarded as the work that exhibits the director at his stylistic/artistic peak. In the grand scheme of things, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE doesn’t really get mentioned all that often.

For me, personally, as great and as innovative as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was, it remains a pretty rough piece of cinema and though I can recognize THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY’s brilliance, its three hour running time (maybe more, depending on the version) seems a little excessive. It moves incredibly slowly at times and arguably proves the point that bigger (along with more financial and artistic freedom) does not necessarily always equal better.

With all that said, I am not here to “hate-on” Leone’s other films. Despite their flaws, I enjoy all of his films very much, but it is important to remember that without FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, the works that are commonly considered to be his “masterpieces” would not exist. With FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, we get a glimpse of Leone coming into his own. His use of the camera and even more importantly, editing, is significantly more sophisticated here than with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Aside from DUCK, YOU SUCKER!, each of his films represents a massive directorial leap forward and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is no exception to the rule. It gives viewers an exciting preview of all the elements that will eventually solidify the notion of Leone as an auteur.

Here we have the final duel of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE:

With this scene (and throughout the film) we see Leone taking full advantage of the wide aspect ratio; creating classically rich “Leone-esque” visual-compositions. His editing is slightly more refined here than in his previous films. He manages to more fluently build tension with every cut. With his sound design, we hear the introduction of what will eventually become one of his trademarks. The musical pocket watch plays the role of the film’s “maguffin”, binding our hero to our villain. Its haunting chimes, at times, become both part of the diegetic world of the film as well as part of the film’s non-diegetic score. It is a beautiful devise that Leone would eventually become known for; using it again in both ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (with a harmonica) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (with a pan flute).

Like Leone’s other “Dollars” films, on the surface FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE appears to be a tale of money and greed, but as it unfolds it is revealed to actually be one of revenge; wherein our protagonist, played by Lee Van Cleef (not Clint Eastwood), is searching for the man that raped (and thereby caused the death of) his sister. It is a twist that Leone would return to with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but when used here, gives the film a certain ‘gravitas’ that seems to elude the trilogy’s other installments. Van Cleef and Eastwood each deliver exceptional performances considering the Italian ‘M.O.S.’ style of production of the time, but it is Gian Maria Volonté’s riveting portrayal of the film’s psychopathic villain, El Indio, that gives the narrative an air of dread and the film a much needed sense of credibility; not unlike what Henry Fonda would later bring to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

Like Leone’s other films, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is by no means flawless, but it is a solid piece of Western cinema and, in my humble opinion, the most enjoyable of his collaborations with Eastwood. Though it continues to be over-shadowed by his other work, it undeniably remains an important document of Leone’s evolution from director to master-filmmaker and auteur; possibly even acting as the blue print for ONCE A UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, his grandest opus.

Copyright © 2010 – J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

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