- Special Features
- Blogs & Columns
- Fun & Games
This Thursday, Clint Eastwood turned 82-years-old. Eastwood is among the most prolific and honored figures in cinema history. To every generation of cinema goers, he seems to mean something different. Today, his name is synonymous with well-regarded directorial efforts. In the mid-1960s, seeing his name on a movie poster meant that a new Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western had arrived. From 1964 to 1966 (although they opened later in the U.S.), Leone and Eastwood teamed up for a series of films that redefined the Western. Overnight, the Western had a new, young and fresh face by the name of Clint Eastwood.
The 'Dollars Trilogy' (or the 'Man with no Name' trilogy - whichever you like) began with 1964's A Fistful of Dollars. Leone, who didn't create the Spaghetti Western, wanted to make a film that would reinvigorate a genre that he saw dying. While there were a few good Westerns still being made in Hollywood (The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance chief among them), they starred aging veteran actors and the bad ones that dominated the market had some silly message attached to them. Leone wanted to get rid of all that and saw Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo as a launch pad. Fistful and Yojimbo bear little resemblance though, sharing only the loose outline of a stoic, skilled fighter playing two gangs against each other.
Where Kurosawa is a bit more interested in the people and their reasons for doing what they do, Leone could care less about that. To him, it's all about style, stripping the Western to its bare essentials and reshaping it, Italian style. Leone's trademark is the extreme close-up, where character's faces become landscapes. This isn't exactly among the features of his style that other filmmakers picked up on, but there are plenty of others that were.
By the time Leone and Eastwood went on to make For A Few Dollars More, the pair were in a groove. They knew Eastwood's character almost too well and they knew that another film of just Eastwood alone would make it seem like they were copying themselves. So, they added a wild card: Lee Van Cleef. Like Eastwood, Van Cleef suddenly became a star. Despite appearing in such classic Westerns as High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, he was lucky to ever get a line. Leone gave him a starring, heroic role, allowing him to work alongside Eastwood to capture El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté – who also played the villain in Fistful).
While Fistful and For A Few share several similarities, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is an entirely different monster. Leone was given an even bigger budget and added the great Eli Wallach, who plays the wild Tuco, to the main cast. Van Cleef and Eastwood are back, but in very different roles. While it is clear that the Man with No Name in the first twp films is the same character, Blondie (as Tuco calls him) is very different. If the Man had very loose reasons for his actions, Blondie had zero reasons for killing or breaking his partnership with Tuco at the beginning of the film. All he wants to do is get that gold, making sure that the evil Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) gets none of it.
Of all three films, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the closest to pure cinematic perfection. At nearly three hours long, it might seem a little excessive, but Leone knew how to make the best of that time, building tension in a way no other could. Leone gives us nearly ten minutes of back-and-forth close-ups in the final cemetery duel before one shot and...BANG! It's over in a second. The film definitely has more in common with Leone's next film, the operatic Once Upon A Time In The West (1969). In that film, Leone takes the next step, putting the skills he perfected in The Good... to better use and in a more economical way to actually tell a much more intricate story.
Leone's films changed the Western genre in a similar way that the first two Godfather films changed the Gangster genre. Both sagas suddenly changed what audiences wanted out of the genres. John Wayne on a horse was no longer good enough for Western fans and James Cagney's guns weren't good enough for Gangster fans. Leone's films also changed what audiences expected out of any action film. The lone, quiet anti-hero would never have existed if Fistful wasn't a hit.
Each of these films built on the last, making all three of the Dollars films essential. It is one of the rare trilogies where every film in the series is incredible, with their own unique aspects. In one of the documentaries included on the Blu-ray set, Leone biographer Christopher Frayling calls Fistful a “rock 'n' roll-style Western.” That perfectly describes this series of fun, enjoyable films. Seeing Eastwood puff that cheap cigar, sweep that poncho over his shoulder and shoot a man down never gets old.
Join the conversation on this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page!