Monday, February 5, 2018

For a Few Dollars More

Eastwood in his iconic role.
Sergio Leone's second collaboration with Clint Eastwood sometimes get lost in the pantheon of his Spaghetti Westerns. It wasn't his first notable Western--that'd be A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And it's rarely included in the discussion of which film is his masterpiece; that honor seems to be reserved for either The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It's a shame, really, since For a Few Dollars More is a well-crafted, entertaining, and often humorous take on the Western genre. While it lacks the grandiose themes of Leone's later classics, it lays the foundation that made those movies possible.

The opening scenes cross-cut between two men who are searching for a notorious outlaw called El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè). Monco (Eastwood) is a bounty hunter who wants to collect the $10,000 reward--dead or alive--for El Indio. The well-mannered Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) has more personal reasons for finding the outlaw.

Van Cleef as Colonel Mortimer.
After impressing each other with their marksmanship (the famous "hat shooting" scene), the Colonel proposes a partnership. Monco can keep the reward for El Indio, but Mortimer gets the money for the rest of the gang. The latter then hatches a plan in which Monco will infiltrate the gang, so "there's one on the outside and one on the inside." But just who can trust who?

As in Once Upon a Time in the West, the connection between Mortimer and El Indio isn't revealed until the climatic confrontation between the two men. But Leone provides key information along the way in the form of flashbacks and a pair of gold pocket watches. Each man possesses one of the watches, which play the same disturbing little tune. Leone expands on this objectification of revenge in the later Once Upon a Time, in which Charles Bronson's character wears a harmonica around his neck--an instrument which also carries significant meaning in terms of the narrative.

Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone contributes one of his finest scores, perhaps rivaled only by his work in (again) Once Upon a Time in the West. However, it's Leone's use of Morricone's haunting music that sets it apart from scores which simply enhance a film's atmosphere. Whenever El Indio confronts a man with murderous intentions, he opens his watch and waits until its melody winds down before drawing his gun. Leone uses this to great effect in the big showdown between El Indio and Mortimer. As the music gradually slows down almost to a stop, another iteration of it starts to play again as the camera pulls back to show Monco's hand holding Mortimer's watch. It's one of my favorite scenes in all of Leone's films.

Monco's hand and the watch, with Mortimer and El Indio
in the background.
Casting is key in character-driven films like this and the dry Lee Van Cleef brilliantly complements Eastwood's cynical character. Although Van Cleef was only five years older than Eastwood, Monco constantly refers to the Colonel (almost affectionately) as "Old Man." The mutual respect between the characters is established during the aforementioned scene in which they shoot each other's hats.

Gian Maria Volontè.
Of course, one must have a good villain and For a Dollars More has that in spades with Gian Maria Volontè's hypnotic portrayal of the creepy El Indio. Volontè had worked with Leone and Eastwood previously in A Fist of Dollars. His subsequent films departed from the Western genre and included the critically-lauded 1970 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

For a Few Dollars More received mixed reviews on its initial release. Roger Ebert found it "delicious" and described it as "a gloriously greasy, sweaty, hairy, bloody and violent Western." It was a huge international hit, establishing Van Cleef as a star and enhancing Eastwood's reputation. It may not be as widely acclaimed as Leone's other Westerns, but I'd rank it as his second best. Yes, Once Upon a Time in the West holds down the top spot for me.

3 comments:

  1. Mortimer passed thru various hands, including Lee Marvin's and prob Henry Fonda's. Van Cleef was pretty much outta the biz by then. but Leone remembered him. It's said Leone hired him as soon as he saw him walking on his way to his office.

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  2. Yes, this one deserves much more recognition than it typically receives. It's not as polished as Leone's subsequent (and higher budgeted) classics, but For A Few Dollars More has an epic raw magnificence.

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  3. Col. Mortimer, to me, is to Lee Van Cleef what the role of Max Cherry was to Robert Forster. Both were in stages of their careers where good roles, or even sizable roles in bad films weren’t coming. Reportedly, Van Cleef’s reaction to the role was similar to Forster’s when Tarantino offered it to him. Shock and disbelief.

    Van Cleef accepted Leone’s offer, expecting only a few scene character part, and was reportedly stunned when he discovered Leone had cast him as the co-lead. The break shows in Van Cleef’s performance. He relishes every scene, every line. He knows this is the chance of his lifetime, and he absolutely delivers.

    While Eastwood is, of course, brilliant, to me, Van Cleef is the true discovery. Right after this film, Van Cleef created one of the most despicable villains ever to grace a western. When I watched the film, there was a brief nostalgia moment. “Oh! It’s Col. Mortimer.” And after that moment, it was gone for the rest of the film. That Van Cleef could essay two such vastly different characters in back to back films with the same lead and director is a testament to his ability.

    And in fairness, hats off to Eastwood too. Not only for his performance but for the way he lets Van Cleef shine. A more egotistical actor would have balked at the script. Yes, he’s top billed, but you could say the true protagonist is Col. Mortimer. He has just as much screen time, plus the connection to Volonte’s El Indio. Eastwood, while critical to the final shootout, doesn’t fire a single shot.

    Eastwood takes his top billing and then steps back, just a little. He lets Van Cleef do what the script intends. He lets Van Cleef provide much of the emotional depth, but most importantly, he lets Van Cleef’s character be his equal. It might be the best western chemistry between two badass actors ever filmed.

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