Zoomed in faces. Stunning cinematography. Hardened, squinting heroes chewing on cigars. Lots of bad guys shot dead. Within five minutes, you should know when you’re watching a Spaghetti Western, and no, it’s not just because the dialogue doesn’t quite match the mouths of most of the cast. There have been several terrific westerns from Italian filmmakers – A Pistol for Ringo, My Name is Nobody, They Call Me Trinity. The best, though? Well, those would feature a rising star named Clint Eastwood, directed by a chubby genius named Sergio Leone. Welcome to the Man with No Name Trilogy.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Plot: A nameless drifter (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a town with two powerful, warring factions.
Okay, let’s name the elephant in the room – this is a knockoff of Yojimbo. There have been a few of these, and yes, it is always better if a film is an original story instead of aping another film’s plot. That being said, A Fistful of Dollars is still an entertaining ride.
Most of this can be attributed to the casting of Clint Eastwood as the lead character named “Joe.” While Mifune’s protagonist in Yojimbo takes joy in his machinations, at one point laughing as the opposing sides fight, Joe does not. In fact, you can’t really tell what’s going through his head most of the time. Clint gives a steely-eyed squint and often favours the characters with a glare, but he’s wonderfully sparse with dialogue. This was reportedly at Eastwood’s own request, and it’s the right call. It gives his character an aura of mystery and suspense – while you know which way his character will ultimately go, you’re not sure how he’ll get there.
Despite this being a copy of another movie, seeing the ultimate deception is still wonderful. I especially enjoyed the ploy of having the dead soldiers in the graveyard. You can sense Ramón Rojo’s triumph in murdering a soldier who is already dead – it’s satisfying and borderline hilarious. Speaking of Rojo, veteran Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté is terrific as the lead bad guy, a murderous and unpredictable heel. His cold-blooded slaughter of the Baxter clan is almost uncomfortable. This makes his panic at the end when he’s forced to face Joe in a one-on-one confrontation with his own clan dead at his feet all the more satisfying.
It’s impossible to discuss this movie without mentioning Ennio Morricone’s score. It’s iconic and the perfect accompaniment to the action on the screen, The whistling, the guitar strums – close your eyes, and you can almost imagine a dusty, hard-bitten hero riding up to a lawless town. Likewise, Leone’s cinematography perfectly captures the Spanish mountains and countryside, making you believe you’re in the wild west. A Fistful of Dollars is less about the story and more about the immersive experience of joining the Clint Eastwood character on his adventure.
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Plot: Two bounty hunters (Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) compete to claim a stolen fortune from a gang led by the psychopath El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté)
To some, this is the best film in the trilogy. An original story which isn’t as long as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I can appreciate why some people would think that. However, I respectfully disagree and believe it’s the weakest of the three films.
This isn’t to say it’s terrible – none of the trilogy are substandard movies. Seeing the interplay between Eastwood and Van Cleef’s characters is entertaining. Volonté’s character has more facets than his scenery-chewing turn in the first Dollars movie. The scene where Eastwood continuously shoots Van Cleef’s hat is one of my favourite sequences in any of the movies. The twists and turns keep you guessing all the way to the end. There’s a lot to like about this movie.
However, I find this movie rather draggy. Maybe it’s because you know the two leads will end up working together. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really care about El Indio’s drug-induced reminiscences about a terrible crime he committed in the past. It could be simply that I don’t really buy Van Cleef as a good guy – he’s better suited as a villain. In any case, the 132-minute runtime feels bloated to me and could have stood for some trimming.
The cinematography is as good as the first film, and there’s a satisfying amount of killing in this movie. Eastwood literally drives away on a cart of dead bodies, which I find hilarious. Morricone’s soundtrack is a little too derivative of the first Dollars movie for my taste, and it sounds like the remnants of the first film that weren’t used. Again, I don’t dislike the movie. It has some genuinely great parts – but overall, it doesn’t hold a candle to the first or third film.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Plot: Conmen Blondie and Tuco (Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach) and hired killer Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) race to find buried treasure in a graveyard.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a masterpiece. A perfect combination of sprawling story, charismatic characters, intrigue, action and music, it’s undoubtedly one of the best Westerns (and films) ever produced.
Let’s start with the characters. What shocked me was how much this is Tuco’s movie – I read that Clint Eastwood was concerned that Eli Wallach would steal this movie under his nose, and I don’t blame him for those reservations. Wallach owns every scene, and his gleeful, unhinged portrayal of the “ugly” Tuco is brilliant. When he goes to the gunsmith, and he’s taking apart all the guns to examine them – it’s a nothing scene and yet tells you so much about the character. Tuco is the movie’s heart, and Wallach plays the character flawlessly.
Lee Van Cleef seems to be in his element as the heartless and sadistic Angel Eyes. When he walks into the guy’s home at the beginning of the movie, sits down and begins eating the guy’s dinner in front of him – simply genius. In this film, Van Cleef can tell you more in one glare than characters will do with complete monologues. He truly is “the bad.”
As for Blondie, Eastwood closes off the trilogy perfectly. He is the only “good” character of the three leads, and his touching interaction with the dying soldier near the film’s end gave me goosebumps. The most introspective and thoughtful of the characters, this is one of Eastwood’s best characters ever.
There’s so much story to this one that I don’t even know where to begin. While the quest seems simple, the journey is anything but, and there are so many near misses and crazy situations, you feel like Blondie and Tuco earned their payday at the film’s end. The final confrontation between the three film leads has to be one of, if not the best, in cinematic history and has more suspense than a dozen modern thrillers.
The music for the movie is perfect. Everyone knows the movie’s theme song, and it’s legendary for good reason. What shocked me, though, was how terrific the music was through the rest of the film – I thought it would just be the theme, and that’s it. Morricone’s music perfectly fits every scene, and it’s all memorable. Likewise, the cinematography is spot-on, with no scene better than the spectacular destruction of the bridge. This movie files on all levels of storytelling and filmmaking – it’s as close to a perfect film as you’ll ever find.
That wraps up The Man with No Name retrospective. While I cut my teeth on John Wayne westerns and have enjoyed modern oaters like the Coens’ True Grit, Leone’s trilogy is undeniably some of the best of the genre. If you haven’t seen them yet and you enjoy sprawling, stylistic flicks, there’s no better trilogy for me to recommend.