For A Few Dollars More (1964)
Written by Sergio Leone, Fulvio Morsella, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Sergio Donati
Directed by Sergio Leone
Setting the table is essential. You need to know who is important, what they want, and what drives them. Director Sergio Leone delivers a straightforward example in the three opening prologues of his Western masterpiece For A Few Dollars More. With each introduction, we meet one of the notable characters of the piece, and more importantly, we see them reveal their fundamental selves through action. By seeing what they do, particularly their view of justice, the audience can immediately understand who we are dealing with. Our anticipation to see them cross paths is primed. I wondered how one person would react when in direct conflict with another and how fascinating it would be to watch play out.
We first meet Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), a bounty hunter who is the consummate professional. He uses state-of-the-art weapons, often modular, so he can adjust them according to his needs. In this way, Mortimer is shown as a grizzled veteran of the Wild West but also unafraid to innovate. He’s not stuck in the old ways; he’s embraced the mechanized future that industrialization brings with it. Manco (Clint Eastwood) doesn’t rely on his weapons as much as his cunning. If Mortimer is a lion, king of all he surveys, cocky & confident, then Manco is a fox. He’s got to be sly, quick on his feet, able to take a beating but recover and plan.
The film’s antagonist is Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), a volatile brute. He demands obscene loyalty from his gang but will betray any of them at the drop of a hat. He’s been captured and relies on them to bust him out. Indio is also smoking opium as he internally struggles with a haunting memory from his past. Indio is a madman capable of cold, cruel violence. Mortimer & Manco are bounty hunters, and now that Indio is free, it becomes clear that this movie is about putting these three people against each other. Three starkly different perspectives on the world. Which will win out?
This is my favorite Leone film of his entire body of work. That’s not to knock his other movies; they are all masterpieces. However, For a Few Dollars More announces itself in the wake of Fistful’s success. A year earlier, that movie had wowed audiences and shaken up the Western. In 1964, Leone said he could do better than that and opened For a Few Dollars More with a confident series of vignettes.
Trinities are an essential element in Leone’s work. We have The Stranger, The Rojos, and The Baxters in Fistful. Here we have the two bounty hunters and their prey. This continues throughout all his work and is vital to understanding Leone. In my reading, he believes that the world needs balance. You are never going to rid the world of evil people. You can undoubtedly create conditions that uncouple them from power, but there will always be some sense of greed & jealousy that cannot be controlled entirely. On the other hand, very few people are genuinely noble and willing to sacrifice themselves and fight for the greater good. They exist but are in short supply. More often than not, the conflicts we see in our world are not between good & evil but evil & evil. Greed motivates people to do some pretty horrendous things, especially when it comes to betraying their fellow humans.
Leone understands that most conflicts are tests. He showcases this in the first direct interaction between Mortimer and Manco, with the latter shooting the former’s hat, keeping it rolling further down the street. Manco wants to know how much it takes for Mortimer to lash back. Instead, he learns that Mortimer is profoundly patient and waits until Manco needs to reload. Only then does the older man don his hat, blast Manco’s high into the air, and keep it there until his gun runs dry. The outcome of this scene is that the two men learn to trust each other. Neither is out to wantonly kill; they simply need to know each other’s boundaries and if they are simpatico.
Indio is the most fascinating character in the whole piece. He is a bombastic, duplicitous monster who fully understands he lacks something inside him. Throughout the film, he will puff away on opium and allow a musical stopwatch to carry him back to a crucial moment in his past. In this memory, he revisits how he failed to capture someone else’s love. He saw a couple in an intimate moment, expressing genuine affection, and he was naturally drawn to it.
By his profession, Indio takes what others have, believing he can take this love. But he simply cannot and watches as a woman shows she would rather kill herself than be with him. And that haunts him; it is a daily reminder that he does not understand people. He could stop and try to change his ways, but he’s so far down this path of evil that it never seems like he can. So instead, he narrows his circle of allies until he’s left alone. If Indio had respected his lackeys more, then he might not be in a two-on-one showdown in the third act. Instead, Indio has convinced himself that he can escape his internal Hell by dragging others down. In so many ways, he is representative of the current angry white male incel type, desperately hungry for genuine love & affection but unwilling to compromise or come to an understanding of what it takes.
Every performance here is right on target. It’s funny that most people associate Eastwood with these movies, and while he is terrific, Lee Van Cleef is far more compelling. I wanted more of Colonel Mortimer, following him on his bounty-hunting adventures through the West. The supernatural level of calm he exudes is contagious; you can quickly see being in a tense situation and looking over to Mortimer, whose composure calms you immediately. No trouble is ever too out of control for him; if it is, he will not betray that fact. Eastwood’s Manco is a punching bag, a guy who lets himself play in the mud with the villains to gain their trust, then effortlessly turns on them before they realize they’ve been had.
For a Few Dollars More is a masterpiece of the Western genre. My favorite of the genre and a great example of how Leone already mastered the form. There is such confidence on that screen that you’ll get carried away, excited to see how plans unfold or collapse when twists are thrown into the narrative. After watching this film, it is impossible not to immediately want to view everything Leone made.
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