Early in the movie, our anonymous bounty hunter, Blondie or The Man With No Name or whatever you want to call him, wanders into a tavern looking for his target. Identifying the bandit gambling at a table, inches from an impotent sheriff, the hunter wanders over to his mark. He silently grabs the cards and starts counting them out. The hardened criminal stares up silently, and he plays along. The game is poker. The two men settle their hands and trade their cards. The villain lays out his cards on the table. It looks good, and then the stranger reveals his cards. Of course, his hand is better. The gambler at the table looks up to this drifter who has so silently intruded on his game. Apparently behind the audience, he asks what the stakes were. As it always is in stories like this, “Your life.”
You know how it ends.
The second part of the wonderful “Dollars” trilogy, linked by Eastwood’s central character and the familiar themes of Leone’s works, For a Few Dollars More can stand tall among the classic Westerns. It’s a story about men of violence in a world of violence. Whether they reflect the sparse and rough environment that surrounds them in the harsh desert sands or whether it simply serves to reflect them is a question left to the audience. These men are creatures of instinct and anger. In one sequence, it takes a member of a criminal gang all his restraint to keep from executing a man in a public bar for a simple insult. In another, it’s explained that all you really need to know about a man is how he carries his gun (and, from that, you should be able to instantly deduce his identity).
When the two central bounty hunters meet in an abandoned street, they test each other like animals. In a way they are, locked in a ritualistic territorial despute: they both seek the same quarry, and neither wishes to share. They push at each other, seeing who will break first – an attempt to toy with the other, scare them off. Moments like this are dark comedy (complete with comical sound effects as a hat flies through the air), as if to suggest that the only hint of human warmth and heart in these parts is the cold bitter gallows humour of it all.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it follows two bount hunters as they attempt to track down their quarry – the vicious El Indio, a man with a $10,000 price tag on his head. Both claim to be motivated by the money. One is our familiar protagonist, who we’ve seen before in A Fistful of Dollars and who we’ll see again in The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. The other is a mysterious Civil War veteran who may be more than he lets on. Leone skilfully introduces each of the three players – he makes sure that Blondie is very much a stranger to the thread which links Colonel Mortimer and Indio. Over the course of the film, we discover that the pursuit may be about more than just money.
For a movie shot in Italy using a prodominantly Italian cast, Leone perfectly captures the spirit of the American frontier. A recurring thread through his work is the bloodshed upon which the United States was built, and perhaps that’s a discussion saved for his later films. There’s no doubting that the first two films in his original trilogy (and, to a certain extent, the third as well) are orientated more as action films than his subsequent works, but the introspection is still present (the balance would shift over the course of his career). However, the most fascinating aspect of his early films are how singularly they redefined the Western.
I’m a Clint Eastwood man, not a John Wayne man. I admire The Duke, but it’s hard to watch any of his classic films about men with honour and reason who fought face-to-face without seeing them as fantasy, at least in the wake of how thoroughly Leone deconstructed the genre. There are no real heroes here. Don’t get me wrong, The Man With No Name is a cool customer here. In fact, I’d argue that Eastwood’s portrayal of the character is in contention with Connery’s stint as Bond for the title of “coolest character of the sixties”. And that was a very cool decade. Still, he’s as much anti-hero as hero, and really only comes out so well because almost everybody else in the film comes across as evil, corrupt or inept.
It’s ironic that Leone managed to redefine the Western so well in his deconstruction of it. Here men fight dirty. Even when there is incredibly impressive pistol work, it’s rarely a fair match. The characters here kill without flinching, not for some greater good or because they have to – many of them kill because they enjoy it. It’s a movie thankfully free of Indians or other stereotypes, where the impression is that conflicts and loyalty are not built on absolute and inherent ideals (the disappointingly frequent racist portrayal in many classic Westerns of Native Americans as savages, for example, as opposed to the order and higher values of the settlers), but instead upon the pragmatic factors which shift frequently – like the vast, almost infinite and anonymous landscape.
Leone is the master of tension. Long stretches pass without dialogue (even without gunshots), but the film is never boring. It’s always intense. He never resorts to cheap tricks, like fast cutting or forced silence. He’s quite happy to allow the ambient noise to continue, a subtle reminder to the audience that life goes on even through these horrific standoffs. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The man is regarded as a legend today for a reason – the soundtracks to the Westerns are at least as famous as the films themselves.
For a Few Dollars More is a classic of the genre and still holds up today. There’s a legitimate discussion to be had as to whether this or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly represents the best film in the trilogy (my opinion falls with the majority on this, though I am still more than a little fond of this particular film), but all three of Leone’s films are rightly considered the corner stones of the later Western, even holding through to the very rare examples that we see in the matinees ever so fleetingly once or twice a decade.