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Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ (1964-1966): Trilogy Review

Directed by: Sergio Leone || Produced by: Arrigo Colombo1, Giorgio Papi1, Alberto Grimaldi2-3

Screenplay by: Duccio Tessari, Luciano Vincenzoni2-3, Sergio Donati2, Age & Scarpelli1, Sergio Leone1-3 || Starring: Clint Eastwood1-3, Gian Maria Volonte1-2, Lee Van Cleef2-3, Marianne Koch1, Eli Wallach3

Music by: Ennio Morricone || Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano1-2, Tonino Delli Colli3 || Edited by: Roberto Cinquini1, Eugenio Alabiso2-3, Giorgio Serrallonga2, Nino Baragli3 || Country: Italy, West Germany, Spain, United States || Language: English, Italian

Running Time: 99 minutes1, 132 minutes2, 177 minutes3 || 1 = A Fistful of Dollars, 2 = For a Few Dollars More, 3 = The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The series of films that not only established Clint Eastwood as an international movie-star and Sergio Leone as a maestro of Western filmmaking, but are also credited with creating the Italian “Spaghetti Western” movement and rejuvenating the greater Western genre in general are A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). These are collectively known as The Dollars Trilogy, The Blood Money Trilogy, or The Man with No Name Trilogy. Prior to this unofficial franchise, Italian writer-director Leone was known for directing “sword-and-sandal” historical epics like The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) and The Colossus of Rodes (1961). These three movies established Leone’s now recognizable cinematographic style of rhythmic, aggressive extreme close-ups, operatic, domineering landscape photography, and long, distinctive zooms that connected the two. Renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone also began his first of six collaborations with Leone on this trilogy, an ongoing partnership that lasted until the latter’s death in 1989.

Gian Maria Volonte (right) stars as the principle villains of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

The background of these filmmakers’ claim to fame has been told so many times their origin stories feel like classic genre pictures in their own right: The “golden age” of American Westerns from the 1930s-1950s had come and gone, Hollywood had since transitioned to Biblical and classical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), some of which were filmed in part in Europe to save costs on production. Leone worked on some of these American-financed projects, accumulating practical experience with high-concept genre-filmmaking that would latter pay off in his auteur projects. Recognizing that Westerns were still marketable in Europe, Leone produced his vision of the mythic American frontier melded with the pulpier, almost grindhouse style of his native Italian filmmaking industry.

As mentioned above, Eastwood and Morricone were fundamental to Leone’s novel interpretation of the American frontier on film. Eastwood is credited with the creation of the dress, personality, and overall visual style of the trilogy’s main character, marketed in the films’ simultaneous 1967 American release as “The Man with No Name.” Due to budgetary limitations, much of Morricone’s iconic soundtrack is an amalgamation of flutes, guitars, harps, brass, animal vocalizations, and various elemental sound FX, tracks of which are used either diegetically or non-diegetically depending on their placement within each film. Together, Eastwood’s now universally recognizable gruff, cynical, anti-hero demeanor and Morricone’s eclectic, charismatic, and contemporary soundtrack formed the face and voice, respectively, of Leone’s remixed Westerns.

The overall tone of these Western remixes is a combination of violent satire and black comedy, which may explain why a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino is so drawn to these films and references them in his work. Leone’s Spaghetti-Westerns, starting with this Dollars Trilogy, are often described as not only hyper-stylized, more violent takes on the cinematic American frontier, but also darker, irreverent anti-morality plays exemplified by the defiant anti-hero of Eastwood’s lead. It is a deconstruction of Old West romanticism, if you will, or a reaction to classical Hollywood’s nostalgia for that time period.

Leone’s Dollars Trilogy can never be faulted for its ambition, creativity, and unapologetic style. However, as I’ve as I’ve noted in my musings of the James Bond franchise (1963-present), George A. Romero’s Dead Trilogy (1968, 1978, 1985), and other classical franchises, creativity alone a great movie does not always make. At the risk of offending countless Western fans, film professors, and perhaps Tarantino himself, I’ve never been a huge fan of A Fistful of Dollars as a standalone film, particularly when Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) exists as a superior version of the same premise. A Fistful of Dollars (henceforth, Fistful), for those who don’t know, is now recognized as an unofficial remake — also know as a “ripoff” by those less polite than I — of Kurosawa’s ronin epic, even going so far as to lift entire scenes, beat-for-beat, as well as specific plot details from the Japanese original, Bollywood style.

Eastwood — Dead or alive, it’s your choice! Gang Punk — Let Red go…

Given the sheer balls of Leone’s unique stylistic approach to what is clearly another filmmaker’s semi-original concept, I never criticize Fistful for its lack of narrative originality so much as I just prefer Kurosawa’s version. My true qualms with Leone’s first Dollars installment is (1) the film’s slow pace, (2) its comical lack of supporting roles, and (3) Leone’s haphazard dubbing — though, to be fair, that third gripe could be applied to all of Leone’s Italian Westerns… Leone’s films have a deliberate, episodic rhythm to them, which makes each story feel more like a series of wacky, isolated set-pieces connected by a thin plot about disputes over gang turf, bounty-hunting, or stealing a whole bunch of money. Fistful suffers the most from this loose veneer of narrative inertia, which is puzzling considering how many plot-beats the film outright plagiarizes from Yojimbo. Things aren’t helped by the movie’s sparse cast, which consist of Eastwood’s anti-hero, Marianne Koch, two rival gangs, an undertaker, and a bartender. This bizarre lack of even uncredited civilian extras to flesh out Fistful’s dull setting undercuts most of the story’s tension, and makes the actions of Eastwood’s Man with No Name feel rather pointless.

To clarify, all three films are slightly different takes on the same diegesis, distinct executions of an identical cinematographic style. Leone improved his narrative execution of his signature audiovisual style with For a Few Dollars More (henceforth, AFDM). Often forgotten as the middle-child between the trendsetting Fistful and the epic conclusion of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, AFDM has Eastwood teaming up with Lee Van Cleef as co-leads on a series of wild bounty-hunting missions. AFDM’s narrative progression feels much tighter than its predecessor, though the convoluted sting Eastwood and Van Cleef try to pull on a villainous gang led by Gian Maria Volante grows increasingly nonsensical by story’s end. AFDM also flaunts so many gunslinger cliches and shows off its co-leads’ sharpshooting skills so often that Eastwood and Van Cleef feel like Western caricatures rather than imposing, dramatic figures.

Rounding out the trilogy is the aforementioned Good, the Bad and the Ugly (henceforth, GBU), my favorite of the bunch. The film’s quasi-titular characters, played by Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, respectively, are well established archetypes whose interwoven adventures make for one of Leone’s better structured narratives. Boasting the largest budget of the trilogy by far, Leone populates this story with a large supporting cast, extensive set-pieces, and a variety of indoor and outdoor locations that add much visual diversity absent from Fistful and AFDM. The movie’s shootout gimmicks are also toned down from the previous films, their sparser use making them more impactful when they are needed for narrative progression. Even Leone’s dark, eccentric sense of humor, which can alternate between hilarious or grating depending on the context, is best implemented in GBU out of the whole trilogy, exemplified by Eastwood’s ever sardonic, dry performance. Last but not least, Morricone delivers one of the finest, most recognizable scores of his 60+ year-career, producing great songs like the titular theme (you’ve all heard it even if you have no idea what film it’s from), “The Ecstasy of Gold,” and “The Story of a Soldier.” He even recorded separate versions of the film’s main theme as different instrumental leitmotifs for the film’s three main characters.

Eli Wallach (left) and Eastwood (right) take cover as they blow up a bridge separating Union and Confederate troops.

Altogether, Sergio Leone’s take on the classical Western turned the genre upside-down in ways that helped prolong the genre’s lifespan in the United States and beyond. One could argue that despite the genre’s unquestionable decline in recent years, whatever visuals, sound FX, and tropes of the Western remain in the modern zeitgeist are dominated by Leone’s Spaghetti-Westerns — including both the Dollars Trilogy and his Once Upon a Time… (1968, 1971, 1984) Trilogy — rather than the classic “Golden Age” Hollywood Westerns by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and George Stevens. I maintain that the first two parts of this trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, are most significant for their subsequent influence on their parent genre as opposed to their cohesive structure as standalone movies. That being said, their unforgettable style, irreverence, and undeniable cinematic language, best exemplified by the trilogy’s final installment, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, are worth appreciating whatever your genre sensibilities.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The quintessential Italian take on the most American of film genres is abrasive, quirky, and over-the-top, featuring an Old West-riff on Akira Kurosawa (Fistful), a sort of buddy-cop prototype with bounty hunters (AFDM), and a Mexican standoff-adventure film (GBU). The former two struggle with pacing issues and convoluted narrative structure, but the latter arguably represents the pinnacle of Spaghetti-Western excess.

—> I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Fistful and AFDM, depending on my referral’s experience with Westerns, yet GBU comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

?  You see, in this world there are two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.

 

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