For a Few Dollars More
aka Per qualche dollar in più
Sergio Leone was an extraordinary filmmaker. He’s had imitators, homagers and those who have taken a not-dissimilar approach with very different results, but no one has come close to his verve, flair and sense of humour. That may be the key to his idiosyncratic virtuosity, actually. He made epics you can’t take too seriously, with the exception of his final film, almost as if in direct rebuke of po-faced David Lean. And For a Few Dollars More is the one where his stylistic tendencies fully blossom.
A glorification of violence? Certainly it is, just as any movie creating excitement through conflict is, to some degree. Leone’s unabashed about it. Indeed, he pushes the throttle, heightening its anticipation to his much-cited operatic levels. The good guys are super cool. The bad guys are super bad (just about the first thing Gian Maria Volonté’s Indio does on being broken out of prison is send a mother and child to be murdered). Indeed, Indio isn’t just super bad, he’s super mad, all but grabbing at invisible flies as he puffs himself into a hash-fuelled reverie.
Such emphasis is important, of course; the villain needs to be quite so villainous in order to deserve exactly what’s coming. Normally, striking a match on a hunchback’s hunch would be an unforgivably cruel and indefensible act. But when that hunchback is Klaus Kinski, it instantly becomes entirely commendable and utterly hilarious (obviously, striking matches on the actual Kinski would have been the mildest of responses to his alleged actions and proclivities). Also, as these things go, it’s exhibit A evidence in how shrewd match-striker Colonel Mortimer (Lee van Cleef, never better) is; he calculates there’ll be no recriminations as the gang is there to scout for a bank job. Likewise, he later displays the kind of psychological insight (Indio’s response to Manko’s response to his suggestion) that suggests Leone, or Luciano Vincenzoni, or Sergio Donati (dialogue), had seen The Maggie at some point.
As with its predecessors, Leone knows he can’t make his heroes’ path completely plain sailing. After the playful altercation over who it is who’s going to take the bounty for Indio and his gang – “Just like the games we know” notes Manco’s pint-sized informant Fernando (Antoñito Ruiz) as Manco and Mortimer scuff each other’s shoes – the mistrustful collaboration (most of the dirtiness is on “boy” Manco’s part, notably) culminates in both being apprehended and soundly beaten by the gang. This is necessary too, in order to justify the climax. We’ll have forgotten about the offscreen deaths at the outset. Indeed, we’re more likely to recall the demise of Mortimer’s sister in the queasy nightmare flashback, accompanied as it is by a sinister take on the pocket-watch theme.
Christopher Frayling has observed Leone’s habit of toppling those assuming law and order, be it church or representatives of justice, along with his delight in the mildly lascivious. In the latter arena, there’s the booby hotel madam (Mara Krup) who can’t get enough of Clint, much to her bookish, diminutive husband’s ire (an uncredited Kurt Zips). Progress is everything, except – in probably the most broadly comic scene in the movie; even Clint is goofing – to Joseph Egger’s old timer, who has refused to allow the railroad to build on his land; stubbornness and rectitude aren’t always rewarded or even sensible.
Then there’s the undercutting of Indio giving a sermon on robbery from an abandoned church (and it does indeed tell like a moral tale). Mortimer is being mistaken for the clergy at the start, reading a Bible (except that, as it turns out, he IS the most moral man in the movie; he even gives away his bounty, as that isn’t why he’s been doing what he’s been doing). “Tell me, isn’t a sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal, and above all, honest?” asks Manco, before taking away the sheriff’s badge.
Manco makes no protestation of the such scrupulousness. Indeed, with Mortimer assuming the honourable robes, he’s allowed to be relatively regressive, only out for the loot – he counts his gang victims in terms of the price on their heads rather than names, leading to one of the best last lines ever: “Thought I was having trouble with my adding. It’s alright now”. Where he is in his “journey” is unclear (if we choose to see all the Clints as one man – he’s as all-purpose as Mad Max, though, and the opening title card “That is why the bounty killers appeared” sets out a myth-building landscape along the similar lines to George Miller’s first sequel). But he’s markedly less virtuous than in A Fistful of Dollars. Indeed, one might argue his only graduating moment is being called upon to arbitrate the showdown at the end. Which in itself positions him somewhere between the two in standards of decency.
On which level, the fraternalism between his Boy and Mortimer’s Old Man – unbelievably, there were only five years between the actors, with van Cleef playing someone about ten years older than he was and looking the age quite comfortably – makes For a Few Dollars More easily the warmest of the three movies. Where the trilogy finale concludes on a screamed insult between enemies/reluctant partners, this movie signs off with surest of bonds. You’d like to see these two work together again someday. Which may be why Leone edicts the cruellest of cuts by bringing van Cleef back as the devil himself.
Lee went on to become a big spaghetti western success story, of course, even if none of his collaborators were as expansive, vibrant and distinctive as Leone, while Clint became White Hat Clint. Of whom, it’s amusing to hear that he borrowed his laconic cadence from the guy who was dubbing him in Italy. I have to admit that, even if he isn’t the most stylish of riders – the hat peak rising, less assured in the saddle than you’d expect – Clint as “Clint” is really these three movies to me. Very little afterwards is in the same ballpark (the first Dirty Harry, Unforgiven), probably because, as a director-star, he was devotedly the journeyman, whereas Leone was in the business of fashioning icons, figures who were so much larger than they could ever be in real life.
Leone’s having so much fun with the visuals here, all those extreme closeups and low angle expanses, expanding space and time (the time-piece lullaby being his first great extravagance in that regard, courtesy of a Morricone all-timer of a theme). The knockabout rivalry between his characters is told mostly in visuals at first – the observer being observed and realising it, as Mortimer swings his telescope on Clint watching him through binoculars – but there’s also some prize dialogue, such as Manco asking if it was indiscreet to ask about the watch: “No, the question isn’t indiscreet. But the answer could be”.
The deftness of the switches in gear is always impressive, such that the construction is deceptively straightforward; it actually has remarkably intricate interlocking parts. Mortimer grazing Manco so he’s allowed a free pass from suspicion by Indio (“He did his part”). Mortimer unfazed by the Hunchback prodding his memory (“Remember me?”; “No”; “I generally smoke just after I eat. Why don’t you come back in ten minutes?”) And then beckoning the worst when he reveals the reason for his presence (“I’m the one who can open the safe for you”).
That Indio later says of Manco being a bounty hunter, “I knew he was one from the first moment he arrived”, indicates someone who is remarkably perceptive, yet balanced against what we know: being remarkably mad. If he weren’t, he would never have hatched a scheme believing he could let Manco and Mortimer loose to do his dirty work for him and come out ahead (the “You shouldn’t have shot the apples from that tree” line may be for the men’s benefit, or alternatively, he was just bullshitting about knowing Manco was a bounty hunter from the off). He’s also cruel to beetles (there’ll be no disclaimer at the end of this movie).
Frayling quotes Leone as calling his films “fairy tales for grown-ups”, and that’s certainly true of the span from A Few Dollars More to A Fistful of Dynamite. Leone deals in resonant broad strokes, mostly because he’s about that ultimate rarity: pure cinema. While it cemented Clint as icon, this is arguably more van Cleef’s movie, and certainly the go-to one to for him as the hero, rather than villain. Volonte’s returning bad guy eclipses his bad guy in A Fistful of Dollars, while Mario Brega makes it 2 out of 3 and Luigi Pistilli 1 out of 2 Leones. As to the dating, some have put it as late as 1901 (!), but the 1872/3 of the newspaper seems more plausible. So post- the Civil War that will be seen in the trilogy capper…