“When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back. And we don’t want to shoot each other in the back.”
For A Few Dollars More (1965)
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Leone
132 minutes, rated R
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 4/5
In 1992, director Robert Rodriguez released a small independent film called El Mariachi for the film festival circuit. Filmed with an estimated budget of only $7 million, the story goes that the director actually submitted himself to a series of medical experiments to raise money for the production. His efforts paid off: El Mariachi went on to win numerous awards, including the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 and a Guinness World Record Award for being the lowest budgeted movie to ever take in $1 million at the box office.
It’s a simple enough film. It concerns a traveling mariachi musician that is mistaken for a dangerous criminal and must contend with a murderous gang of drug runners. It’s clever and violent and put Rodriguez on the map as a director with considerable inventive skill. The success of this film allowed him to somehow gather an estimated $700 million to film the follow-up. Released in 1995, Desperado is, essentially, the same film with a bigger budget, better production standards, and better distribution backing.
I am reminded of this cinema history factoid because I think it’s comparable to what Sergio Leone did with For A Few Dollars More. Released only one year after A Fistful of Dollars, it can easily be described as A Fistful of Dollars with more money thrown at it. With a budget of $600,000 (instead of the original’s paltry-in-comparison budget of $200,000), Sergio Leone was able to fix just about everything wrong with the first movie and presented a movie that is now quite-rightly regarded as one of the single greatest Westerns of all time. The title of this film is quite ironic.
For A Few Dollars More is in no way, however, just a rehash of the previous story. It has a much better screenplay, with better character development and more than a few surprises. Where A Fistful of Dollars is just a story of one man “getting one over” on his adversary, For A Few Dollars More is a multi-layered narrative about revenge, redemption, and companionship. It’s funnier than the first, and wound tighter. At no point does it feel longer than two hours.
This time, Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic Man With No Name (here answering to the nickname “Monco”) is not the only protagonist. Before we ever even see Clint Eastwood, we meet Colonel Douglas Mortimer (played by an absolutely incredible Lee Van Cleef), a former Civil War officer now moonlighting as a bounty hunter. He’s an expert marksman and a patient predator. In the film’s opening sequences, he takes his time with the bounty, allowing the man to finish his session with a prostitute before allowing him to escape on foot as he slowly, methodically, puts together his assault rifle. It’s clear to us, though, that there is more to him than we are seeing. There are reasons that he is a bounty hunter, and the screenplay is wise not to divulge them yet. When we finally catch up with Monco, we see that he is a different sort of bounty hunter. He’s more sinister and his methods are more confrontational. The type who might walk up to his quarry in a crowded saloon and loudly declare “You’re coming with me or you’re going to die where you stand.” Of course, before the second reel is done, both Mortimer and Monco will discover that they are after the same bounty. Neither man is backing down, so they’re going to have to kill each other or work together. Since both men are noble men who live by a code, a code that won’t allow them to kill “the good guy”, work together it is.
Their bounty is a sadistic, seemingly heartless, bank robber with a $10,000 reward on his head. Referred to only as “El Indio”, he has recently broken out of prison, ruthlessly slaughtering all but one of his captors. He’s an interesting villain in that he is portrayed in a very sympathetic fashion. He is a despicable criminal, yes, but he feels guilt for his past, in particular a brutal crime against a woman, revealed slowly throughout the film via flashback, for which he carries a purloined locket as a reminder. Gian Maria Volonte (who also played a minor villain in A Fistful of Dollars) is shockingly good in this role. He depicts El Indio as a man who has continued to commit crime because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. It wears on him. It’s heavy on his conscience. In the end, he accepts his inevitable death at the hands of Monco and Mortimer as a matter-of-fact repercussion of the life he has chosen to lead. He deserves it, he knows it, and, in it, finds quiet release. His performance is easily the best in the film.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two things in this review that help propel this film miles beyond A Fistful of Dollars. First, the humor. The general atmosphere of this film, especially in the first half where we’re being introduced to the characters, is far more whimsical than the previous one. There’s snappy dialogue, witty retorts, wry sarcasm. One scene only appears to be in the film as an excuse to have the furnishings of a shack repeatedly fall off the walls whenever a train comes by. This after a quirky, extended monologue from Old Prophet (played by Joseph Egger, who played the undertaker in A Fistful of Dollars) about why he refuses to sell his land to the railroad. The first face-off between Monco and Mortimer revolves around them shooting each other’s hats, first down the street and then into shreds in the air. For A Few Dollars More is all around more fun than the previous movie, even if, at times, the humor seems contradictory to general tone. Second, the soundtrack. Ennio Morricone’s score is something else. I found the score in A Fistful of Dollars often too loud, frequently in opposition to the tone set by the action taking place. The score of A Fistful of Dollars seemed to exist outside of the narrative. The score to For A Few Dollars More is an important element to the story. It’s so ingrained in the visuals– guitar downbeats that strike in sync with horse’s hooves or gunfire– that you almost don’t notice that it’s there. Except for those moments when Leone is intentionally drawing your attention to it. There’s a recurring theme throughout the film, ostensibly music playing from within El Indio’s locket, that is used for multiple effects. Its wistful when the villain recalls his past. It’s chilling when the locket is used as a countdown timer for starting a duel. It’s a call to arms when our three main characters end up in a Mexican stand-off and we learn that there are actually two lockets. This is a score that makes you start thinking about your favorite film scores, and it should have been nominated for an Academy Award.
As for Eastwood, there’s not much progression. Perhaps by design, he plays Monco in much the same manner as he did Joe. At this stage in his career, though, he wasn’t a star yet. He was just a struggling actor who made movies in Italy because he couldn’t find work making them here. This film is more appropriately noted as a progression for Sergio Leone, who took a small movie and used considerable skill to make a big movie that shouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.
This film might be the best one in the Man With No Name trilogy.