A few weeks back I took a look at a great sequels program TIFF is running in Toronto: Second Coming: Cinema’s Greatest Sequels. And sure enough, like a Hollywood mogul counting box office receipts with a wicked glint in his eye, that Pavlovian response kicks in. More! There must be more sequels, with more guns, and more villains. And Megan Fox! No, not Megan Fox. Leave her out of this. Forever maybe. But give us another hit of those truly awesome sequels, back to the well, one more sweet, sweet time…
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is one of my all-time favourite westerns. Directed by Sergio Leone, Fistful is the archetypal spaghetti western, as they came to call the micro-genre of westerns made on the cheap in Italy during the sixties. A brilliantly reductive film, Leone felt that Hollywood westerns were too baroque and losing touch; he wanted to boil the western down to its essence. In Fistful, Clint Eastwood is tougher than leather and chiseled out of desert stone as the Man with No Name, a stranger who arrives in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Two families in the town are feuding, the Baxters and the Rojos. In short order the stranger sets to playing both sides against each other in ever-escalting fits of violence as he flits back and forth between them, mercenary and calculating. He discovers that the leader of the Rojos, Ramon, is holding a beautiful woman hostage for his own advances, keeping her from her true husband and her whining mope of a son. What’s a cold-hearted gunfighter to do, but help the poor woman and her snivelling brat? Drawing heavily on the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s mercenary samurai movie Yojimbo (1961), the offhand violence and stylish tongue-in-cheek nihilism helped make Eastwood a major star.
For A Few Dollars More (1965) takes that glorious base and builds on it with a few spectacular additions. Eastwood is back as Monco, basically the same character from the first film. But complicating his wily schemes is a second gunfighter, or bounty killer as they’re called here. Lee Van Cleef is superb as Col. Douglas Mortimer, Monco’s black-clad partner and nemesis. They track down and infiltrate the gang belonging to “El Indio,” a notorious thief and murderer played with mad intensity by Gian Maria Volonté. With Manco on the inside and Mortimer tracking, they find themselves constantly at odds, each angling to cut the other out of the prodigiously growing bounty for El Indio and his henchmen. There’s enough double-crosses here to make Quentin Tarantino’s head spin. Everything is more involved than the original Fistful, and also more confident. Leone’s signature rounds of close-up reaction shots become operatic, each face screwed up with tension as fingers agonizingly stretch toward holstered pistols. Enio Morricone returns to do the score again, with whistling themes and cowboy choruses and the clang of bells; it’s desert music, driving and implacable and sucking the blood into the sand. Leone takes all of this even further with the last instalment of his Dollars Trilogy, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), setting up three anti-heroes to hunt down a fortune in gold. But For A Few Dollars More strikes the best balance of the lot. It’s a wickedly enjoyable film. And it’s whining western brat free!
A Fistful of Dollars appears at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto today, Thursday, August 28th, at 9:30pm. For A Few Dollars More shows on Saturday, August 30th, at 4:00pm. If you’re not in Toronto, both films can be found on iTunes and one Netflix or another. Even more great sequels will be showing as well, including Batman Returns (1992), The Color of Money (1986), and Before Sunset (2004). For full schedule and info on the films, see here.