After A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (click the links for our reviews of those), the last of the Dollars trilogy (which actually doesn’t have the word dollars in the title but never mind) was the one with the biggest budget – double that of the previous movie and six times the budget of the first one, at $1.2m. As a result, this film is a really big picture, with huge battle scenes (for it is set in the Civil War), trains and all the paraphernalia that Leone could have wanted. A bridge was blown up before his cameras were ready. No bother: they rebuilt it and blew it again.
Another result of the big budget is far less fortunate: the movie is unconscionably long – over three hours in the Spanish cut, and nearly three hours in the American one. It is slow-paced and at times seems endless. A lot of this time is spent with characters staring at each other.
Alone in Fistful, Clint Eastwood was then joined in an edgy partnership by fellow dollar-enthusiast Lee Van Cleef in the second, and Leone must have thought that as the principle worked, he’d add a third dollar-hungry lead character for this one. So Eli Wallach got the part of the Ugly. Wallach had of course made a hit as the Mexican bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven in 1960, and the urban Jewish stage actor had got a taste for Western movies all of a sudden.
Eastwood therefore had a smaller part. In fact in some ways Wallach took the lead – he was certainly anyway the most colorful character (it should really have been called The Ugly, the Good and the Bad). He plays his scoundrel bandido with huge force, building on his Calvera, and he obviously loved doing it. But Leone should probably have put the brakes on here and there.
Eastwood, the Good (only relatively good, of course), was getting a little less enthusiastic about these spaghetti westerns, and had decided that this would be his last Italian film. He shows none of the wry amusement that he did in For a Few Dollars More. He is workmanlike and does the job. He dutifully chews on that damn cheroot and wears his poncho at the end. But he isn’t as dominant as he is in the first two.
Lee Van Cleef, the best thing about For a Few Dollars More, is back, as the Bad, but has none of the depth of character of Colonel Mortimer in No. 2, although he does well as the machine-like killer in the smallest of the three parts. In a spaghetti where everyone has slit eyes, his are the slittiest.
One thing I will say, the photography of this one is superior. Tonino delli Colli did a better job than Massimo Dallamano. Delli Colli went on to do quite well on Leone’s Hollywood post-spaghetti Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968. Not everyone liked it. Brian Garfield called the photography “faddish”.
The short cheroot, Spanish sun and arc lamps combined to create the famous Clint squint.
The final (interminable) three-way shoot-out in a circular plaza in a cemetery, with the principals on what looks like the stage of an ancient Greek amphitheater with endless rows of dead as the audience (I am getting all European and pretentious here, but I do live in France, you know) has become famous.
It’s as though Leone had groveled around the floors of a hundred editing rooms of American studio Westerns, picking up all the cuttings of the out-takes and rejects and the corniest of clichés, and spliced them all together into a collage to make a three-hour movie of amusing dreadfulness.
In the last resort, this movie is a big-budget spaghetti western with all that that implies. If you are a spaghetti fan, you’ll love it. It’s got all the wide-screen close-ups, electric guitar score, crude overdubbed sound and parodic violence you could want. If you watch the 2003 restored version, you’ll get all three hours of it. If you’re like me, you’ll wish you hadn’t bought that DVD with all the cuts restored. Those blessed cuts.
It grossed $6.1m in 1967, with the first two movies following closely that year. The critical reception was mixed. The New York Times greeted it with some distaste, saying it “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre”. Variety, which had been quite enthusiastic about the first two pictures, was also down on this one, saying of it that it was “a curious amalgam of the visually striking, the dramatically feeble and the offensively sadistic”. It wasn’t polite about the acting either, saying that Leone’s “three actors (especially Wallach) overplay to the point of absurdity”. They may have missed that overplaying to the point of absurdity was rather the point of these movies.
Empire magazine was much nicer to it. “Amid the endless homages and the sheer adoration meted out to Sergio Leone’s ambitious, pricier finale to his Spaghetti Western trilogy, it’s easy to forget just how damn good the film is.” The review described how Leone “divested the cowboy genre of its pomp, and added irony, hyperbole and a great deal of slithery twang.” It added, “Yet his purposes were never trivial, and to see the film as simply an exercise in effervescent cool is to miss the point entirely. Draped in anti-war sentiment, a deep-seated compassion as counter-point to its superficial amorality, this is a covert condemnation of American hypocrisy dressed in a poncho and chewing cheroots with slick indifference.” Yes, well, maybe.
Then again, maybe not.
Other critics are also divided. Roger Ebert, who reviewed it enthusiastically on its release (he even compared Leone to Hitchcock), on the picture’s re-release in 2003 said, “I responded strongly, but had been a movie critic less than a year, and did not always have the wisdom to value instinct over prudence.” 35 years on, he thought that Leone “builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie clichés, using style to elevate dreck into art.” He said, “Leone’s stories are a heightened dream in which everything is bigger, starker, more brutal, more dramatic, than life.”
Brian Garfield, in his Western Films, could be relied upon to dislike it. “Like the Dollars movies, this one is simpleminded and absurd; it’s also long, slow and boring.”
It was the last of the trilogy but not the last of Leone. He, as you know, on the basis of the success of Dollars, talked Hollywood into financing the huge Once Upon a Time in the West. And I’ll be reviewing that too at some point. But not yet. Spaghetti is fine but too much at one time becomes indigestible, don’t you find?