Monday, December 24, 2012

Reeling Backward: "For a Few Dollars More" (1965)

Merry Christmas Eve, and welcome back to the second installment of my look-back columns on the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone "Man With No Name" trilogy.

Like with last week's column on "Fistful of Dollars," it soon became clear to me that I had never actually seen "For a Few Dollars More" in its entirety. I'd obviously viewed portions, especially Eastwood's scenes with Lee Van Cleef, but most of the middle section was completely new to me.

Regular visitors to this space may have noticed that I did not comment in last week's column on the musical score by Ennio Morricone. That might seem puzzling since he's one of my favorite film composers, and I rarely miss an opportunity to talk about how much I love his work. And there was a reason for that: "Fistful" was simply not a very memorable score.

The famously prolific Italian already had more than a dozen scores under his belt by the time he did "Fistful," but he had not quite reached his creative plateau yet. That score is rather minimalist, just a few punctuations of sound and musical accents -- most notably, a descending flute arpeggio that is evocative of dripping water.

With "For a Few Dollars More," one can hear Morricone growing bolder and more confident. Reportedly it was recorded before production on the sequel began, and Leone actually shot certain sequences in time with the music.

There's much more use of non-instrumental sounds, percussive thwacks and plonks that act like a rhythm section keeping time with the action. But you also hear more human voices and swelling full orchestras knocking you over with a wall of sound. If the music in "Fistful" felt like experimentation, then the sequel registers as an artist finding his full voice, and letting fly.

And "More" is definitely a sequel to "Fistful," in a way that "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is not. The final film is more a culmination of a movement than a continuation of an individual story. The middle firm serves as the bridge, sharing more of The Man With No Name's adventures.

I noted last week that Eastwood's character actually did have a name, "Joe," though only one person, the coffin maker, calls him that. Perhaps he called every American who wandered south of the border by that name. In "More" he again has a name, Manco, though it isn't used very often. What's notable is that this is not a name foisted upon TMWNN, but one he chooses for himself. "I never heard of him before, but he calls himself Manco," is how we first hear of him.

Manco translates to Spanish and Portuguese as roughly "one-armed" or "lame of hand," and you may recall that in "Fistful" he gets beaten to a pulp by his enemies, including having his shooting hand crushed. Joe/Manco has to heal and re-learn to shoot before the final showdown. In "More," he wears a leather brace on his right hand and performs virtually every non-critical action with only his left -- lighting matches, flipping up a deck of cars, etc.

His shooting ability, neither his speed or accuracy, doesn't seem to have diminished one bit from its unnatural level. So why favor the hand? It seems more like Manco simply prefers to preserve his right hand for killing, rather than because he has any sort of disability with it. But the continuity of the injury between the first two films serves to underscore that they were intended as literal sequels featuring the same character.

Leone reputedly wanted Charles Bronson for TMWNN, and Bronson again refused to take on the second lead role in the sequel. Bronson probably came to regtet it -- but remember, the "Dollars" films weren't released in the U.S. until 1967 when all three came out a few months apart, launching Eastwood's career as a leading man. So Leone found another character actor rambling about Hollywood, Lee Van Cleef, to take the one Bronson had refused.

He plays Douglas Mortimer, a former soldier turned "bounty killer" like Manco. The two clash, then join forces, then split up again ... sort of. Mortimer prides himself on his marksmanship and careful methods, which have allowed him to survive and thrive to "almost 50 years of age" in a business that is filled with reckless young shootists like Manco. (Point of fact: Van Cleef and Eastwood were actually only two years apart in age.)

Mortimer carries around quite an array of odd firearms, including a ridiculously long revolver to which he attaches a shoulder stock for impressive long-distance accuracy. In one of the movie's most memorable sequences, Mortimer and Manco engage in a bit of one-upsmanship upon first meeting. First they step on each other's boots, exchange blows and then take turns shooting each other's hats off. Mortimer eventually "wins" this contest when he's able to use his gun gizmo successfully at a distance Manco cannot.

It's more like an encounter of male animals in the wild feeling out each other's strength than a true fight to the death, and indeed it ends with them sharing drinks and stories, and agreeing to partner up. In fact, one of the young boys who witnesses the standoff exclaims, "It's just like our games!"

With his pinched, hawkish visage and deep-set eyes, Van Cleef was quite an arresting physical specimen. He had one of those faces that you couldn't decide if it was fascinatingly ugly or compellingly handsome. Both, somehow.

He'd been almost entirely a TV guy before this film, but after it made a splash in the States his movie career took off. Most notably, of course, he played the main villain Angel Eyes in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

It might seem strange to have the same actor playing different roles within the same trilogy of films, but Leone often reused his favorite performers over and over. Gian Maria Volonté, who played the chief villain in "Fistful," is back as a different character here as El Indio.

The burly Mario Brega, who played a henchman in the last movie, returns as lieutenant to El Indio. Brega also had a memorable turn as a sadistic soldier in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- I think he might be the only actor besides Eastwood to appear in all three films.

Also notable is Klaus Kinski, in one of his first performances to gain attention in the U.S., as an unhinged hunchback bandit.

The plot of "For a Few Dollars More" is rather thin. We establish Manco and Mortimer as formidable characters by watch them warm up on a few minor bad guys, and then they spend the rest of the movie tussling over who will get the big reward for Indio. Meanwhile, Indio and his gang are planning a clever robbery of a seemingly impenetrable bank in El Paso.

I think if this film came out first and had to stand on its own, the "Man With No Name" trilogy, and perhaps even the entire spaghetti Western movement, might not have taken off like it did. The things that stand out are the on-again-off-again rivalry between Manco and Mortimer, and also the attempt to gift Indio with a little depth and psychology.

One of his first acts in the movie is to assassinate the man who ratted him out and sent him to jail -- but not before killing the man's wife and 18-month-old son, too. Indio never shoots in cold blood, but always offers a quick-draw contest to his victims, timed to the musical chime of the beautiful pocket watch he carries with him. Morricone's score takes on a haunting note, and Indio seems to almost sleep into a stupor. Turns out he's haunted by memories of his most despicable deed, one that brought Mortimer on his trail.

If a bit shaky narratively, "For a Few Dollars More" is still a rousing sequel that kept the party going until the "Man With No Name" trilogy could reach its culmination.

3 stars out of four

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