Here’s something that can not be disputed: Sergio Leone is the man responsible for the greatest Westerns of all time. The stoic art form native to America (but ripped off from Japan) was actually perfected in the Italian desert by a low budget team, anchored by a genius, scored by a musical icon, and starring the world’s prettiest wooden sculpture. Throughout the mid-1960s, Sergio Leone honed his craft while exploring the depths of manhood, revenge, and quiet staring.
Over the course of three films, released virtually back-to-back, Leone carved himself a place in tough-guy cinema with increasingly celebrated films. These Westerns, which came to be known as the “Dollars” trilogy, theoretically culminated in Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a sprawling epic that’s often mentioned in the “Best Westerns Of All Time” conversation. Hell, right now GBU is number 9 on IMDb’s Top 250, an ever-changing list of the most popular films in history.
Yet, here’s where history got it wrong, because The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is actually a bloated, self-indulgent mess. No, the real brilliance to be found in Sergio Leone’s love letter to classic Westerns is in the second installment, For a Few Dollars More, perhaps the truest Western in all of film.
A Quick Note About the ‘Dollars’ Trilogy
Obviously, every person reading this has likely seen some movie that features gaunt men in cowboy hats pursuing ideals of pioneer justice. Leone’s contribution to the genre, however, is a beast of its own. Colloquially referred to as “spaghetti” Westerns (because they were shot in Italy), these films borrowed not only locations, but also characters, creative talent, actors, and plot points from each other.
One could almost look at the ‘Dollars’ trilogy as one big project that uses similar motifs. Fistful of Dollars is about justice, For a Few Dollars More is about vengeance, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is about greed. As a result of that filmmaking philosophy, Leone’s Westerns are less about plot than they are about reinforcing those themes and developing the characters.
For proof, just, recall that the storyline for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was improvised in a pitch meeting.
There’s No Depth In the Cemetery
Here’s a personal preference that will be presented as fact: the best, most faithful Westerns are quiet musings on large philosophical issues. Good vs. evil, past vs. present, freedom vs. control, etc. When done correctly, the Western is unique in its heady mixture of blood and brains. Western aren’t about adventures, or grimacing men shooting other grimacing men, they’re about concepts having the spotlight in a desolate landscape.
Perhaps by virtue of the fact that it’s essentially about three sociopaths looking for a big score, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly tends to lack emotional depth. Moving from one precarious situation to the next, the film feels propelled by hijinks. There’s absolutely an overarching story, but when the people involved are motivated solely by their own bottom line, it can be a little tough believe the proceedings, no matter how well filmed they are:
Meanwhile, For a Few Dollars More is a slow-burn story that relies on its characters’ motivations to move the film forward. While Manco (aka, Clint Eastwood’s the Man With No Name) is motivated by a crude sense of self-serving justice, The Man in Black (Lee van Cleef) is on the job in order to get some revenge for the rape and murder of his sister.
While both heroes are given reasonably equal screen time, the film’s narrative sets itself on van Cleef’s shoulders when the final moments arrive, and — unlike the three-way standoff at the climax of GBU — there is real emotional weight to the confrontation between the murderous El Indio and the virtuous Man in Black.
Earned Violence is the Best Violence
Earned violence is so much sweeter than the alternative. It can occasionally be fun to see some out-of-nowhere, but the good stuff is the action that’s actually got some context and that involves characters you’re rooting for or rooting against. These two little additions make an action film’s fight scenes way more than just dudes pointing pistols at each other. Unfortunately, when The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly gets to its climactic moment, the only thing that can add any excitement to the scene is the score and the kickass camera work.
Meanwhile, in For a Few Dollars More every single part of the body count serves a purpose. I won’t lie to you and say that every corpse in the film had a name and a backstory, but you can bet they were shot and killed for clearly defined reasons relating to both the overarching story and the expected interactions between the main characters and their environments. Add to that the subtle unraveling of the Man in Black’s backstory, and what you have is a final showdown between the Man in Black and El Indio that’s edge-of-your-seat gripping because it’s both technically proficient and earned.
A Brief Conversation About Length
Okay, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is two hours and forty minutes long, and it contains all the emotional depth of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. For a Few Dollars More, meanwhile, clocks in at around two hours and possesses an actual story.
Clearly, a film’s length isn’t a guaranteed promise of quality, but consider this: when youre dealing with a film that’s light on the dialogue and heavy on the slow pans across wasted landscapes, it only makes sense for the director and his editor to get the hell on with the plot as expediently as possible. That’s freaking Aristotle 101.
Both Films Are Scored By Ennio Morricone
In all three of Leone’s classic Westerns, Ennio Morricone lends his considerable musical talents to the storylines. In all three films of the ‘Dollars’ trilogy, the score is front and center for very good reason. It’s goddamn awesome.
What distinguishes For a Few Dollars More from the pack, however, is the way in which Morricone’s haunting score is incorporated into the story itself. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to a repeated refrain of musical chimes that the film’s bad guy, El Indio, carries around with him. The chimes in this locket are used as a calling card for El Indio, as the score to a revelatory flashback, and as a symbol of the secret softness that governs the Man in Black.
So, when the same set of chimes is woven into the climactic duel at the end of For a Few Dollars More, the impact on the viewer is palpable. It’s a musical flourish that helps drive home the larger themes of the story in a hugely satisfying way. It’s also pretty sweet in its own right.