“You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”
Never has there been nor will there ever be a more badass cowboy than Clint Eastwood. The man is more grizzled than a 1,000 year old oak, and, despite having concluded his Western career with 1992’s Unforgiven, remains the world’s most iconic cowboy, excepting perhaps Mr. Marion Mitchell Morrison (better known as John Wayne). But Clint played a very different hero, one that forever changed the image of the Wild West and revitalized a flagging genre.
In Eastwood’s acclaimed filmography, there’s no denying that two characters dominate the landscape: Dirty Harry Callahan, and the one, the only, Man With No Name (AKA Joe, AKA Manco, AKA Blondie—actually, it seems to me like this guy’s got a name; several, to be more precise). But Inspector Callahan is a topic for another day, today, we visit the wild, wild west.
Originally released in Sergio Leone’s native Italy in 1964, 1965, and 1966, respectively, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were picked up by United Artists for US distribution, landing in 1967 for the first two titles, and 1968 for the final. Looking for a marketing angle to package the three films together, UA decided to brand them a trilogy, and thusly, The Man With No Name was created, a mere marketing gimmick. Though linking the films together is far from impossible (the outfit is constant, as are various mannerisms, and the poncho is picked up at the end of the [chronologically first] film), there are also inconsistencies that come from the films being written independently of one another (i.e. Manco’s one-hand thing, chronological inconsistencies [why didn’t Blondie age 10 years between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars?]). Therefore, the trilogy notion is a possible, but ultimately a largely contested connection. The films are connected more on a collaborative basis, and The Man With No Name is a cultural, rather than a narrative through line.
But enough with this preamble. Let’s get right into the bulk of this, beginning with…
Pretty much a straight -up “western”-ization of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars takes that plot and runs straight forward with it. Perhaps the least complexly-plotted Leone film, A Fistful of Dollars takes a very simple tale of rivalry and betrayal and crafts an iconic genre in one simple stroke.
Clint Eastwood is the Stranger, called Joe by some, unknown by all. He wanders into a small town in Mexico, riding a donkey, out of cash, and taunted by the town’s residents. He is shown kindness by only an innkeeper, who informs him of a feud between two families, vying for control: the Rojos, and the Baxters. Joe sees this as an opportunity to profit by pitting the families against each other. He quickly displays his gunslinging talents, and uses a clever ploy involving prop corpses to create a distraction to search for stolen Mexican gold. Joe soon finds, however, that even his ambiguous morals can’t allow for the injustices to continue, and decides to strike back.
This is the film that basically birthed the Spaghetti Western as a genre, or, at the very least, defined it, so its reputation casts a long shadow. As a film, it’s pretty good, but pretty generic. There’s a few inventive shootouts, and a relatively interesting central plotline, but it’s so much smaller in scope than its “sequels” that its rewatchability factor is lowered significantly. The film also lacks a solid, memorable antagonist for the audience to boo and hiss at, leaving Clint’s iconic cowboy squaring off against interchangable townspeople. A solid genre entry that hinted at director Sergio Leone’s and future actor/director Clint Eastwood’s potential, A Fistful of Dollars earns an A-.
Taking the Man With No Name and clarifying his position as a bounty hunter, For a Few Dollars More deepens the series’s world and adds an ally in Colonel Douglas Mortimer, the Man in Black (Lee Van Cleef, in his first role in the series). The film also adds a strong villain, which was sorely lacking from the prior installment, in El Indio, a ruthless, almost sociopathic bandit.
For a Few Dollars More also improves on Sergio Leone’s directorial prowess. The film is downright beautiful, and Leone gets consistently good performances from his actors, despite his emphasis on visuals over acting. Ennio Morricone’s score continues to shine, and Clint Eastwood is even more of a badass in this one.
A brilliant film that corrects the missteps of its predecessor and creates a fascinating image of the American West, Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More earns an A+.
The only film in the series that can honestly be labeled an “epic,” The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly presents the strongest case arguing for Sergio Leone as the definitive Western director, and Clint Eastwood as the ultimate cowboy. A hefty film that somehow breezes along, filled with iconic moments, GBU is truly a cinematic masterpiece. Created through Leone’s mastery of long shots and wide angles, and enhanced through Ennio Morricone’s iconic score that rivals the likes of John Williams’s work.
The film’s iconic trio is one to behold, as their loyalties shift from scene to scene. None of them trusts any of the others, but they’ll work with each other—to a point. Tuco (the Ugly) and Blondie (the Good) keep up an excellent banter, with Tuco chatterboxing complaints at Blondie, and Blondie responds with a short, sharp reply. Though Blondie’s the protagonist, it could be argued that Tuco is the most relatable character: he’s pulled himself out of the dirt through hard work, just to get where he is: a con man pulling a cheap scheme, and he’s proud of that. He’s only just competent, not nearly as charming as he thinks he is, in a word: flawed. The Good is only good by default, he’s moral by comparison to a con man and a ruthless killer. That ruthless killer, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef again!), is a hit man who likes the bounty, but who kills to kill. He completes every contract, if a target offers him a contract to kill the one who placed a bounty on his head, he’ll kill first the target, then the initial employer, completing both contracts, and making double the profit.
Profit is the central MacGuffin of the piece in the form of Confederate gold desired by all three titular parties. They’ll work together when necessary, but none of them desires a split in that gold. Tensions build, alliances shatter, and it all culminates in the greatest Mexican standoff in cinematic history. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is not only a fine Western with spectacular action, but also a character piece with three strong central performances and a steady hand behind the camera, set to an independently beautiful score. An easy A+.
Sorry this one took so long, I ran into a bit of a wall with some writer’s block, but I got through it. I should be back to a more regular posting schedule from here on in, but until next time, thanks for reading, and I’ll catch you later. Peace!