Thursday, January 21, 2010

For a Few Dollars More

[This review has been cross-posted at Decisions At Sundown, a blog started by Jon Lanthier and dedicated exclusively to the Western genre. I cross-post all of my Western reviews with this blog, where I am one of several contributors.]

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, his spaghetti Western cycle starring Clint Eastwood. In each of these films — the trilogy is bookended by Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Eastwood doesn't actually play an unnamed character, but three different more-or-less anonymous drifters, mercenaries and bounty hunters. He might have a name (in this film it's Manco) but he doesn't seem to have a past or a sense of place. He simply wanders through forbidding desert landscapes in his distinctive poncho and cowboy hat, with a cigarette clenched between his gritted teeth. He's fast on the draw, laconic, and has a strong sense of morality and right. He is, in other words, the archetype of the Western hero, and the power of Leone's films comes from the way he riffs on these familiar tropes, mythologizing and stylizing the Western gunfighter into a truly outsized figure. He takes a cultural icon that had already permeated popular mythology, and amplifies it into something operatic.

A large portion of the credit for this achievement must of course be shared with Leone's collaborators, notably Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone, who provided the famous music for all three films and many of Leone's other works. Morricone's music defines the spaghetti Western: his distinctive twangy compositions, collaging together traditional Western motifs with sweeping orchestral strings, dramatic vocals, and goofy sound effects, are instantly recognizable and synonymous with Leone's cinema. And Eastwood, of course, was in the early stages of defining the tough guy persona that would become his career trademark. He carries over the same props and costume from film to film, always smoking the same cigarettes and wearing the same poncho. It's an unconventional garment for a gunslinger, and one that gives Eastwood a kind of grandeur to his movements. When he knows he's going to need his gun, he simply tosses the poncho up across his shoulder, exposing the holster at his hip. Leone seems especially attuned to details like this. The way a man wears his gun, the way he smokes a cigarette, the way he draws and fires, says everything about him. In this film, he emphasizes the way the vicious outlaw El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) smokes in a strange way, the cigarette held between his middle and ring fingers, his whole hand placed across his mouth to smoke as though he was trying to mute himself. Eastwood, meanwhile, lights his smokes with the match elegantly cupped inside his hand, so that he seems to be lighting the cigarette, unseen, on his palm. When Eastwood describes the way another bounty hunter wears his gun, an old man instantly knows who he's talking about, because such things are signifiers of identity in this world.

This attention to detail extends to the three-part introduction, following Leone's favored method for introducing and contrasting his central characters; it's a technique he'd use again for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where even the title indicates Leone's preference for dealing with his characters as sets of opposing traits. The opening two sequences follow first the bounty hunter Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and then Manco as they each track and kill a target for pay. The differences in their methods, in the flourishes of their technique, highlight the differences between the characters; for Leone, style is character. Mortimer is calm and steady, slow-moving and graceful. He follows a fleeing bandit without getting ruffled by the man's evasions and attacks, and finally unfurls a blanket full of rifles so he can calmly unseat the man from his horse from a great distance. Then, as the criminal wildly fires his pistol, hitting only the dirt at Mortimer's feet, the bounty hunter carefully assembles his own pistol, with a rifle stock attachment so he can steady his aim on his shoulder. He takes his time, sets up his shot, and dispatches the outlaw with a single shot right between the eyes. Manco, in contrast, is more spontaneous and also has a component of moral engagement in his hunting. He finds his target and then engages the man in an impromptu card game, a game of chance that, though his target never suspects it, has the man's life as its stakes. Manco wins and tells the man that he's lost his life, and in the resulting fight he uses his lightning-fast draw to dispatch both his target and three other outlaws. As he's leaving town, he then takes the opportunity to castigate and expose the corrupt local sheriff.

The impression is that, while Mortimer is a cool professional just doing a job, Manco is a raw moral force, relying on his inherent superiority — both morally and in terms of skill — to get him through everything. To some extent, the remainder of the film will complicate this relationship and stand it on its head. In the end, Mortimer has more of a personal, vengeful stake in the hunting of the bank robber El Indio, who is revealed in flashbacks to have raped Mortimer's sister and led to her eventual death. Both Mortimer and El Indio carry watches with pictures of this woman inside, making them mirror images, each haunted by what happened to her — Mortimer because she was his beloved relative, El Indio because, as Leone eventually reveals, the woman killed herself rather than letting him take her, an insult which devastates the proud bandit.


El Indio is the third point of this triangle, and the third man introduced in the opening sequences. He is shown being broken out of jail by his gang, killing his cellmate and heading off to a hideout that's set up and presented like a church. At one point, Indio steps up into an elevated area that's an analogue for the lectern, and gives his men a speech about their next job; Leone inserts a shot of the space's high, V-shaped rafters, which cause the outlaws' words to reverberate magnificently. This religious satire is a consistent undercurrent in the film. The first shot after the opening credits is a closeup of a gold-embossed Bible being read by an unseen man on a train, who everyone assumes is a reverend. But as soon as he lowers the book, revealing the chiseled, hardened face of Lee Van Cleef, his eyes squinting coolly, there's no doubt that he is not a man of God. It's a subtle joke about appearances and surfaces: Mortimer may be reading the Bible, but one look at him is enough to suggest that he is actually a killer, a hard man who's seen much bloodshed in his life, that he couldn't be any holy man. Appearances mean everything here, which is why Leone focuses so intently on the iconography of the Western, the gestures and accoutrements.

In fact, at times the film seems to be nothing but gestures. The plot is simple: a dangerous bandit has escaped from prison, with a massive reward offered for his capture, dead or alive, and two bounty hunters set off after him, sometimes competing and sometimes agreeing to work together as partners. Within this minimal framework, Leone riffs on the mechanics of the shootout, the showdown, the stylized rituals by which rugged Western men test their mettle against one another. When Manco and Mortimer first meet, they engage in a playful duel, with an undercurrent of danger, by shooting at one another's hats. It's a process of sizing up the other man, testing his nerves, testing his skill. If they were not assumed to be equals, there would be an element of humiliation in it when Manco shoots Mortimer's hat off his head and then shoots it away whenever the older man stoops to pick it up. But Mortimer maintains his even-keeled demeanor and then shows up his adversary with his own showy gunplay, and Leone cuts away to them sharing a drink together, professionals with a healthy competitive respect developing between them. The other major gunfights in the film are staged as showdowns where Leone cuts precisely between closeups, watching the men's eyes and faces, watching their hands poised above their gun butts, watching them prepare, internally, for the violence to come. The actual bloodshed is swift and over in a moment. It's the build-up, the accumulating tension, always set to Morricone's grand music, that Leone is concerned with.

This tension builds throughout this sprawling, patiently paced film, which packs in a lot of action — including an explosive bank robbery — but never seems to be moving at a truly frenetic pace. Instead, Leone seems to be steadily building up towards the grand climax, the showdown between Mortimer and Indio, with Manco standing by as a kind of referee to make sure the fight goes smoothly. This is another rehearsal for the threeway shootout that caps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, another of Leone's moral climaxes.

8 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

The two stills you use show what Leone is all about visually. Enormous space in which background and foreground bear the same visual weight.

Ed Howard said...

An excellent, concise way of putting it, David. Leone also loved playing with our expectations about foreground/background and relative sizes, like that image of the giant head and the three gunslingers, or the famous opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

DavidEhrenstein said...

More of the same in the equally famous opening of Once Upon a Time in the West

Dave said...

Wonderful piece here, Ed... this is a series that I plan to revisit in the near future, as I too am not sure which of the three that I prefer -- possibly this one. And I agree with David, these stills are great representation of Leone.

Leone is a director that the more I watch -- and the more cinema I see from all directors -- the more I appreciate his work.

Shubhajit said...

Ed, that's a brilliant review of a truly deserving movie.

Sergio Leone could create cinematic poetry with languid narratives, ravishing visual beauty and operatic climaxes. Clint Eastwood & Lee Van Clef, as you so aptly described, indeed brought a lot about their characters out through small gestures & depiction of habits. Eastwood's dress & the way he smokes in the 'Dollar Trilogy' have certainly attained iconic status. And Ennio Moricone's music, what can you say about him - his music here was masterclass, to put it mildly.

Great writeup as usual, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Dave and Shubhajit. It's one of those films where every individual element is just perfect, the whole trilogy is such a great example of a director finding the perfect collaborators to enrich and add to his vision.

Brent said...

Great analysis. Leone was brilliant and combined with Morricone and Eastwood, there's not much better. The man with no name is almost mythic at this point thanks to those three.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Brent. Agreed about Leone and company, obviously.