Given that I think The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is one of the most genius films ever to walk the earth, I’m helpless to explain why I’d never seen any of the movies that preceded it. Everything after, sure, even Duck, You Sucker! But while picking up the Dollars trilogy—A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly—on the third film isn’t akin to starting Star Wars with Return Of The Jedi, it might seem odd that I’ve only seen one of them, and that one many times.
Partly, it’s because I’m not a methodical movie-watcher. I’ll certainly obsess over filmmakers I love, but I don’t feel the need to complete the set. I’m about four movies away from watching everything Robert Altman ever directed, but my DVD of Quintet and a download of That Cold Day In The Park have sat unwatched for years. (Though if anyone knows how to get a hold of Rattlesnake In A Cooler or The Real McTeague, do tell.) But perhaps it’s also because The Good, The Bad And The Ugly seems so perfect, so climactically absurd, that anything coming before would just seem like a dry run.
The needed spark was provided by MGM’s recent Blu-ray release of what they call the Man With No Name trilogy—technically inaccurate, since Clint Eastwood’s Fistful character is repeatedly referred to as “Joe.” The idea of an unnamed gunslinger was actually the creation of a clever American ad rep, but we’ll let it slide. The Dollars trilogy, as it shall henceforth be known, isn’t a continuing saga so much as a series of variations on a theme. Whether you choose to interpret the varying monikers applied to Eastwood—Manco (Spanish for “one-armed) in For A Few Dollars More, Blondie in The Good, The Bad— as proper names or epithets, it’s clear that the characters are distinct from one another: different men of similar but not identical bents. More concretely, actors who are killed off in one movie often reappear in the next. Lee Van Cleef, who plays Eastwood’s antiheroic comrade-in-arms in For A Few Dollars More, and is also the third film’s cold-blooded “Bad,” barely seems to have changed outfits from one movie to the next. In a sense, Sergio Leone is to the spaghetti Western what Ozu is to the Japanese home drama, remaking the same story over and over, growing more abstract with each new iteration.
Even Fistful is a remake of sorts, borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. (Kurosawa is said to have sent Leone a note saying, “It is a very fine film, but it is my film.”) According to Leone biographer Christopher Frayling, as word began to leak out that Leone was at work on an uncredited remake, an edict went round the set to the effect that Kurosawa’s movie was not to be mentioned. But there is no disguising the film’s origins. Even if, as Fistful’s producers claimed in their unsuccessful defense against Kurosawa’s copyright-infringement suit, the inspiration for the later film’s plot was the 18th-century Italian play Servant Of Two Masters, the visual scheme of Leone’s movie leaves no doubt as to his familiarity with Kurosawa’s movie. Plopping Eastwood’s roving gunman down in the middle of a dusty street with opposing gangs lodged at either end, Fistful replicates Yojimbo’s visual plan to an almost distracting extent.
The bigger problem with Fistful, at least in retrospect, is that Leone is still attempting to work with a conventional plot, which never plays to his strengths. The story, which also draws heavily on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, is built around a series of double-triple-quadruple-crosses, as Eastwood’s character plays the treacherous Rojos (led by scoundrel-in-chief Gian Maria Volonté) and the slightly less treacherous Baxters off against each other. Leone can handle the mechanics of the constantly shifting allegiances, of deceptions nestled within deceptions, but they plainly don’t interest him.
Leone’s movies are, at heart, not about politics or manipulation, but about existential self-definition. Critic Richard Jameson memorably described them as “operas in which the arias are not sung but stared.” The films’ distinctive alternation between epic long shots and macro close-ups may derive in part from the limitations of Techniscope, the cut-rate widescreen process which functioned poorly in the middle distance, but it fits with Leone’s view of the world as a great moral vacuum in which power and force of will are the only currency that matters. Where traditional American Westerns in the John Ford vein concern themselves with the establishment of law and the growth pains of a nascent nation, Leone’s post-Fascist oaters depict authority as either corrupt, or simply absent.
In Leone’s West, even the villains are philosophers. “When the man with a Winchester meets a man with a pistol, the man with the pistol is a dead man,” says Volonté’s Fistful baddie, citing an “old Mexican proverb” that turns out to be as inaccurate as it is apocryphal. The epitome of the breed is The Good, The Bad’s magnificent Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, who divides the world into two kinds of men: “those with a rope around their neck, and those who have the job of doing the cutting.” After gunning down a verbose opponent, he utters a credo that holds for all of Leone’s taciturn heroes: “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” The manner of taking another man’s life is its own explanation, and adding to it will only get you killed.
In For A Few Dollars More, Leone’s mature style finally comes into focus. Volonté reappears as another, even more reprehensible bad guy, and Van Cleef and Eastwood do the Marvel Team-Up thing as bounty hunters trying to bring him in. A few flashbacks indicate a history between Van Cleef and Volonté that finally pays off in a single line, but for the most part, that’s as much plot as needs explaining, and so much the better. Who needs character development when you have Van Cleef and a hunchbacked Klaus Kinski staring daggers at each other in a dusty saloon? While it doesn’t have the lunatic fervor of The Good, The Bad’s climatic cemetery shootout—and I’ve regrettably not had had the chance to see it on the big screen—For A Few Dollars more feels like its successor’s equal, which is about as great a compliment as I can bestow.