Red Hot Dollars

For A Few Dollars More (dir. Sergio Leone 1965)

“You never give me your money. You only give me your funny faces.” – Paul

One day, when I was nine years old, my father came home with a gift basket he’d won at an office raffle. In the basket were the usual raffle-style knick knacks: a pound of coffee, some kind of chocolate covered snack food (dates maybe?), an ill fitting t-shirt with a hacky slogan (Party Naked!), and to my surprise a couple of VHS tapes. Now, we didn’t own many movies growing up. In fact our VHS collection consisted mainly of 60’s era children’s movies that an elderly neighbor taped off his television (Computer Wore Tennis Shoes anyone?). Therefore I had to catch most movies in the theater or on loan from the library. So it was kind of awesome to get a couple of finely packaged, brand new VHS tapes with actual box art, not just a title written in crayon on lined paper and taped to the cassette.

The three movies in the basket, and I can still vividly remember pulling out each one, were Silence of the Lambs, For a Few Dollars More, and that perennial 90’s staple Notting Hill. I quickly set about watching all three. Notting Hill was a disaster. Even at nine I could tell that Hugh Grant’s smarmy twinkle wasn’t for me. Silence of the Lambs honestly didn’t make a big impression, blasphemy I know, but I think it’s because I spent most of the movie with my eyes closed and ears plugged.

And then came For a Few Dollars More. Oh man. Now that was a film.

Of course at that age I lacked any notions about what Spaghetti Westerns were or what they represented in the history of cinema. I didn’t realize For a Few Dollars More was one of the most cynical, sadistic, aggressively un-Hollywood westerns ever made. I simply thought it was incredible. The shrieking bullets. The operatic music.  The final showdown set to the chimes of a pocket watch. The dirty, sweaty banditos with their bullet belts. Yes, bullet belts. Once upon a time, guns were such a part of everyday life that people carried bullets on their belts! Not pagers, not cell phones, not fanny packs, fucking bullets! Can we please bring back the bullet belt? Like, I’m not really in favor of arming every American, or even allowing them to carry handguns, but I will admit that the bullet belt should be resurrected.

Now, why, you ask, did I just bore you with a self-indulgent trip down my cinematic memory? Because last week I had the pleasure of watching For a Few Dollars More on a 35mm print at Film Forum. The screening was a part of Film Forum’s ongoing Spaghetti Western series. The house was packed even at 10pm on a thursday and the print was just as scratchy and decayed as I could’ve hoped.  A couple of the reels even had that red tint that you see in really old prints. And from the opening credits to the final shot For a Few Dollars More was as gloriously unrepentant as I remember.

Just in case you haven’t’ seen it, I’ll briefly summarize. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play bounty hunters in the South West circa the mid-1800’s. They’re in competition with one another to bring in whichever outlaw is on the run that week. When, Indio, a merciless bank robber escapes from prison, Texas posts a huge reward and circumstances eventually force Clint (The man with no name) and Van Cleef (The man in black) to team up and split the reward. And just in case the money wasn’t enough of an enticement to bring Indio to justice, he also happened to have violently raped Van Cleef’s sister years prior. Like I said, pretty sadistic. But in reality the plot and story are just an excuse to explore the dirty, rough, stylized atmosphere of Leone’s old west.

Upon re-watching the film I realized how clouded my memories of it were. The best moment, in my mind, had always been when Clint Eastwood lights his match off the shoulders of a hunchbacked member of the outlaw posse (played by Klaus Kinski). Except, wait, in the actual film it’s Van Cleef who does the lighting. And so it went.  In fact, Lee Van Cleef almost out bad assess Clint throughout. Van Cleef gets the final laugh in their hat shooting duel. He’s given the harrowing back-story. And he gets to kill Indio! Side note: Indio is one of the most interesting villains in westerns. The actor, Gian Volote, gives Indio the mannerisms of a stoned feline.

One scene in particular that I absolutely love is the build up to the opening credits. It’s done in one long wide shot. Completely static. A man on a horse can be seen in the far distance, clomping along merrily, until out of nowhere an unseen shooter guns him down. The nonchalance with which he’s killed is enforced by the surrounding expanse of indifferent mountains and plains. This is an American west where people die as a part of the background. Just watch.

Actually, the friend I saw it with even remarked that the film could be re-titled “How little Clint Eastwood gives a fuck”.  And that really is a perfect summary, not just of Eastwood, but the entire tone.  Men and their families are killed with complete apathy. There are probably more shots fired than words spoken. The only other filmmaker I can think of who kills with such detachment is early John Woo.  But you forgive the viciousness because it’s all done with such brilliant style, close up eye zooms, long silences followed by thundering score and screeching bullets.

You know, the more I think about it, For a Few Dollars more is The Empire Strikes Back of Leone’s trilogy.  The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the crowd pleaser. It’s the one that everyone can quote. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is like Return of the Jedi. It has the most of Leone’s trademarks. It has the most of everything. But For a Few Dollars More is slightly less indulgent. It solidifies Leone’s style without muddling the thrills. It hits that balance perfectly just like The Empire Strikes Back. It should be considered his masterpiece.



Random Notes

Apparently people in the old west were easily fooled by clothing made to look a person. In For a Few Dollars More some chump mistakes Clint’s poncho and hat for the actual man and  is gunned down because of it. And in another Spaghetti Western I saw recently, Death Rides A Horse, a guy is suckered by a pair of boots beneath a window curtain. C’mon people. Haven’t you ever seen a western before?

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