The western as a genre had its heyday from the 1930s through the mid 1950s. By the time 1960 rolled around, it was pretty much dead, having been written off by critics years earlier and seeing a drastic decline in ticket sales. In 1964, with A Fistful of Dollars, Italian director Sergio Leone brought it back with a vengeance. He made two more films, For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1967 which collectively are considered The Dollars Trilogy (or sometimes The Man With No Name Trilogy), though there is no actual story or character overlap and Clint Eastwood’s characters always have a name.
This trilogy reinvigorated the genre, invented what is now known as the Spaghetti Western, and spawned hundreds of copycats. What separated Leone’s films from the earlier westerns was his graphic depiction of violence, his delineation between good guys and bad guys, and his use of stylized visuals matched by a contemporary and often off-kilter score.
Violence in westerns up to that point tended to be bland and bloodless. Leone made it more graphic, more visceral, and more realistic. His good guys weren’t morally upstanding men in white hats nor where his villains always sadistic bad guys in black. He depicted the West as a morally gray area where men did what they needed to do in order to survive. He shot his films in glorious widescreen, letting the camera soak in all those wide western vistas and in extreme close-up focusing in on the character’s faces and especially their eyes. Ennio Morricone’s scores are vivid, wonderful, iconic things that sound like nothing heard before.
A Fistful of Dollars is essentially an uncredited remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with cowboys replacing samurai. It was such a rip-off that American distributor’s waited until 1967 to release it for fear of being sued by Kurosawa. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is the most famous of the three and the most critically acclaimed. For a Few Dollars more sometimes gets lost in the shuffle between the other two, but it certainly shouldn’t be as it's a great film on its own.
In it, Eastwood plays Manco, a bounty hunter (or bounty killer as they call him here as he tends to kill the outlaws he’s seeking for the reward money). Though technically he’s a different character than the one he plays in the other two films, he wears the same dirty pancho, smokes the same Cigarillos, and carries the same quiet but deadly attitude. He teams up with Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), another bounty killer in order to go after El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè), a ruthless gangster who has just broken out of jail, slaughtering all but one of his jailers.
Leone isn’t so much interested in telling a fully developed story as he is in creating really interesting set pieces. So while there is a story to be told here with fairly developed characters, with somewhat defined motivations, and with an emotional pay off in the end, you don’t leave the film remembering any of that but rather several scenes etched into your brain. Early on, we find Mortimer in the midst of a classic western shootout. The bad guy fires his pistol at Mortimer, repeatedly missing with those clouds of bullet dust drawing ever nearer. Mortimer stands calmly, slowly putting together his contraption of a pistol with a rifle stock, then carefully aiming and finally putting down his foe. Later in a meet-cute for the ages, Mortimer and Manco stand on opposite sides of the street staring at each other. Manco shoots the hat straight off of Mortimer’s head. Then again when he puts it back on. Over and over again until Mortimer finally shoots back, knocking Manco’s hat into the sky then shooting it over and over again lifting it higher and higher into the air.
Not every scene is a stand-out but there are enough of them that when pieced together as they are here it creates a grand entertainment. For my money, I’d argue that The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a better fit artistically. I think Leone develops a better story, digs deeper into his themes, and hones his craft to perfection in that film, but it's hard to argue that For a Few Dollars More isn’t the more entertaining of the films.
Incredibly, I’ve not seen A Fistful of Dollars yet, but you can bet I’m chomping at the bit to catch it now.
Kino Lorber has given For A Few Dollars More a new 4K restoration. It has a ratio of 2.35:1 with a 1080p transfer. Extras include an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas and another commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Several short features about the location and making of the movie. Plus, an image gallery and several trailers.
For a Few Dollars More is an excellent movie, a fantastic western, and one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns ever made. Its iconic performances by Eastwood and Van Cleef mixed with the very fine score from Morriconne and the top-notch direction from Leone make it a must-own.
The entire Dollars Trilogy is well worth owning. Kino Lober has already released A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly both in a Special 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray & DVD and a Single-Disc DVD edition. One imagines there will be a boxed set so depending on how anxious you are to own this one will make your decision for you.