The best of the three
Spaghetti buffs reckon this second part of the Dollars threesome to be the best of Leone’s work. Even as a non-fan I can see that it is a considerable improvement on A Fistful of Dollars. The budget was higher – still only $650,000 but that was astronomical for Leone then – and Clint got $50,000 this time. There were now many extras and stuntmen and several towns. Leone built an El Paso in Almeria. There is even that top luxury of budget-strapped Westerns, a train.
Then there is Lee Van Cleef, eagerly seized upon by Leone to star as Colonel Mortimer, the Virginian gentleman bounty hunter with an arsenal in his saddle roll, who partners the callow but tough Clint, a little as Gary Cooper teamed up with Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz, a movie Leone greatly admired. And indeed, there are many other references. Leone loved 50s Hollywood Westerns and he quotes, affectionately, I would say, or at least as knowing references, not as rip-offs or clichés, various of them, notably The Bounty Hunter (Warner Bros, 1954), a Randolph Scott oater directed by André de Toth.
Van Cleef is actually very good, far better than the stereotyped script (six credited writers) allowed, and for the first time almost introduced an element of the moral into a spaghetti western: flashbacks show that he actually has a reason for chasing El Indio, played by Gian Maria Volontè, who is even more vicious and depraved than he was as Ramon in Fistful. Roger Ebert said Van Cleef looked like an “infinitely weary Clark Gable.” Lee himself said, “It had more depth to it. There was more subtlety about the film and about the performance.” Well, more subtlety, perhaps, but it’s only relative.
The most interesting aspect to it, I think, is the edgy relationship between the two bounty hunters Eastwood and Van Cleef. Though once again, that’s only relative.
The picture was made rapidly to cash in on Fistful’s success (hence the mildly amusing ironic title) and Clint has exactly the same poncho, cheroot, gun and grunt, but this time he is a little more relaxed and shows the odd twinkle, the occasional double-take, the odd one-liner. Actually, the whole movie is more confident and self-assured.
Roger Ebert wrote that “the film is one great old Western cliché after another. They aren’t done well, but they’re over-done well.” I suppose the movie’s droll, in that way.
But it’s still a spaghetti western, i.e. a stylized, trash-art movie. The Morricone music is lousy again: this time each character has a theme, like a (very) poor man’s Wagner opera. Of course there is something operatic about these westerns. Horse opera.
Everything is dubbed: the lip-synching is poor and the sounds are absurdly magnified, Leone being obsessed by ‘sound design’, and the whole thing looks, well, cheap.
Even later big-budget Leone films looked cheap. The scenery is wrong, the Boccaccio faces are too European, even the horses are some fancy high-stepping Andalusians. There are the same Roman Catholic references throughout: the duel in the church, Volontè planning the bank robbery from the pulpit with his gang around him, lit like Renaissance disciples. Very stylish, no doubt, even arty – in short, European, and no doubt the French auteuristes loved it, but it’s not a Western with a capital W, only a spaghetti western.
The picture was shot in Almeria April/May 1965, and released in Italy in December ‘65 but didn’t make it to US theaters till May ’67, where it did well, its predecessor, For a Fistful of Dollars having taken off in January that year. I say well: it didn’t do nearly as much business as Westerns Cat Ballou, Shenandoah and The Sons of Katie Elder. Still, it did make money. Its commercial success got Leone major funding for the third part of the trilogy, which we shall review next time.
Dennis Schwarz said, “It’s overlong, the characters are cartoonish and its ode to violence is not suitable for all tastes, but if you can somehow get by these faults you can revel in such set piece delights as Van Cleef striking a match on the back of an outlaw hunchback’s neck.” That was Klaus Kinski, of course.
Brian Garfield said it was “the least unpalatable of the three”, adding, “but it goes on forever.” It has a runtime of 1 hour 39 minutes. Garfield wasn’t going to like the 3 hour 6 minute cut of its sequel then. He summed For a Few Dollars More up as “Childish, contrived, morally offensive, but fitfully entertaining,” which just about nails it.
Garfield also said the plot was again lifted from Kurosawa, being a reworking of Sanjuro (1962). I wouldn’t know, not having seen that one, though the IMDb plot synopsis of Sanjuro says, “A crafty samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen trying to save his uncle, who has been framed and imprisoned by a corrupt superintendent,” which doesn’t sound too like.
Variety praised For a Few Dollars More (reviewing the Italian language version, Per qualche dollaro in più): “Spanish countryside and Italo studio interiors combine for realistic southwestern effect. Ennio Morricone’s music, without measuring up to his previous efforts in the oater belt, is nevertheless pleasing.” Personally I don’t agree with either of those comments but there we are. Variety added, “Pic is somewhat overlong at 130 minutes” – I do agree with that one.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times passed judgment on it from on high: “The fact that this film is constructed to endorse the exercise of murderers, to emphasize killer bravado and generate glee in frantic manifestations of death is, to my mind, a sharp indictment of it as so-called entertainment in this day. There is nothing wholesome about killing men for bounty, nothing funny about seeing them die, no matter how much the audience may sit there and burble and laugh.” I suppose he had a point but he does come across as sententious.
Don’t like most spaghetti’s – and I tend to think that the people who worship them really don’t like Westerns at all. I do make an exception for Leone’s films though. I think they’re fun, clever and marvelously tongue-in-cheek. I also differ with you Jeff on Morricone’s scores. I consider them original, inventive and gloriously brash. And for better or worse, Sergio definitely made international stars out of Van Cleef and Eastwood.
I would prefer to say “that the people who worship them really don’t” KNOW anything about western as they are probably just aware of its clichés, and spaghettis are a pure and exacerbated concentration of clichés falling into caricature a (very) little like la comedia dell’ arte versus to the classic tragedy. When watching a spaghetti, you can almost never take it seriously with its winks to the audience. Regarding Sergio Leone, he was a true lover of the genre and his films are most of them, a kind of hommage to it, collecting and accumulating the clichés to better transcend them like a Tarantino ancestor. And in his turn it was going to influence back the American western as it happened before in the history with the theater (In Europe 17th century) or the music (the young white americans have discovered the blues only when the british bands came tourne the US)
I think I’ve probably said all want to say on the subject in my review of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. See https://jeffarnoldswest.com/2021/04/a-fistful-of-dollars-released-in-the-usa-january-1967/