Sunday, October 5, 2008


Sergio Leone's superlative "For a Few Dollars More" (**** OUT OF ****) with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef ranks in the top five of all Spaghetti westerns. This exciting bounty hunter shoot'em up has Monco (Clint Eastwood) forming an uneasy alliance with Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) to wipe out a ruthless gang of murderous desperadoes. Monco wants the bounty on El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte of "A Bullet for the General") and his gang, while Colonel Mortimer vows to kill Indio strictly out of revenge because the dastard raped his sister and she committed suicide. A multitude of distinctive Leone touches appear in this fabulous frontier saga; this represents the first time that Leone would stage a gunfight in the round. Meanwhile, Ennio Morricone's theme music is classic with its chiming bells, piercing whistles, and crisp whip cracks, but it is the tender and moving watch-piece theme that is really memorable here. Leone and cinematographer Massimo Dallamano lensed this 132 minute oater in the craggy mountainous regions of southern Spain that substitute marvelously for the American southwest. Every time that a six-gun toting character tramps the gritty earth with his jingling, spur-clad boots, you can hear the scratchy sound of dirt being displaced. The sets seem so much more authentic the way that they have been grafted to the spartan scenery.

The opening words on screen establish "For a Few Dollars More" as a bounty hunting western: "Where life has no value, death sometimes has its price. This is why the bounty hunters appeared." Clint Eastwood returns as the monosyllabic gunman dressed in a serape, with wrist-bands, and a Colt's .45 revolver with a coiled snake on the plow handle grip. More than Eastwood's stoic performance, it is Lee Van Cleef's formidable presence as a natty stranger clad in black who carries an arsenal of weapons on his horse that makes this western stand out. Originally, Leone had sought the service of Lee Marvin. Marvin would have been exemplary, but veteran western heavy Lee Van Cleef made the role of the Colonel into one of his most memorable roles. Later, Van Cleef would take the Colonel character a bit farther in Gianfranco Parolini's exciting saga "Sabata." As the pot-smoking villain, Gian Maria Volonte challenges both men at every turn of the plot. Volonte looks like the equivalent of a wolf with his lupine features and grizzled hair. There is a psychotic glint in his eyes that make you believe that he prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. "For A Few Dollars More" represents the first western in over 40 years where a character actually smokes a marihuana cigarette. Everybody here looks like a mutant, especially Klaus Kinski cast as a killer named 'Wild' with a hunchback. Leone characterizes each character with an Ennio Morricone musical motif.

"For A Few Dollars More" begins with Colonel Mortimer killing a repulsively ugly outlaw named Guy Calloway (José Terrón of ""God Forgives... I Don't!") after he tries to flee from the colonel. Mortimer wields a rifle, kills Guy's horse and then kills Guy with a bullet in the forehead as the villain shoots at him. Mortimer collects a thousand dollars for Calloway, and the scene shifts to White Rocks where Monco shows up to claim the $2-thousand bounty on 'Baby' Red Cavanaugh (José Marco of "Man of the Cursed Valley") and winds up not only killing him but three of Red's gunslinging partners. Now that Leone has set up his two heroes, he shifts the scene again to introduce the villain as a band of killers break El Indio out of prison. Coincidentally, Indio shares his cell with a carpenter (Dante Maggio of "The Fighting Fists of Shangai Joe") who knows a thing or two about the safe at the Bank of El Paso. El Indio and his trigger-happy gunslingers kill all the uniformed prison guards and Indio shoots the warden in the face. Later, Indio tracks down the man who turned him into the authorities and used the bounty money to start a family. Indio's men murder the man's wife and 18 month old son and then Indio prods the man into a duel with the watch-piece used as a timer.

Meanwhile, Mortimer searches for a bank that only a maniac would try to rob and learns that the Bank of El Paso is just such a bank. Indeed, Indio plans to rob a bank, but he has planned a very unconventional hold-up. Monco and Colonel Mortimer arrive in town at the same time. They agree to work together but neither truly trusts the other. Earlier, they spent an evening shooting at each other's hats that ended into a stand-off. Monco shot at Mortimer's hat and the hat skidded past Mortimer. Comparatively, Mortimer blows Monco's hat off his head and continues to shoot at it in the air. Afterward, they devise a plan that calls on Monco infiltrating the gang. Monco uses dynamite to blow a hole in the cell occupied by El Indio's right-hand man Sancho Perez (Panos Papadopoulos of "The Indian Tomb") who is serving time in prison. When Indio asked him why he wants to join his gang, Monco says that he wants to kill them all for the bounty on their heads. Indio appreciates Monco's audacity and admits him to his gang.

The bank hold-up itself differs from most westerns of the day. After they blast a hole in the rear of the bank, the bandits take the entire safe, something that would be imitated in "Sabata," and haul it off in a wagon. Mortimer worms his way into the gang because he claims that he can open it with nitro after the villains cannot blast it open without destroying the bank notes. Each shoot out is terrifically staged and the gunshots themselves are nothing like the American equivalent. The final shoot-out in the round with the chimes on the watch serving as the timing device is imaginative. "For a Few Dollars More" is better than both "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." British spaghetti western expert Christopher Frayling has written an excellent book about this movie and its shattering impact on American westerns as well as Italian westerns.

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