Westerns are a genre with a peculiar place in the American national consciousness. The iconic image of John Wayne in Stagecoach, with his rifle in one hand and his saddle in the other, framed against the vast American frontier became an enduring fantasy for moviegoers across the country. American audiences loved the mythologized American West, of Cowboys and Indians and insidious bandits all caught in the crossfire of America’s manifest destiny.. In an era of constant remakes few styles of filmmaking have been as open to reinterpretation and genre evolution. While the style of filmmaking that was made popular by the likes of Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) and John Ford (The Searchers, Rio Grande) ruled the box office for decades, cultural trends demanded new styles and stories from their genre fiction. We discussed this transformation in my last piece about Bonnie and Clyde, and just like the crime film the Western underwent a radical transformation in the 60’s. The frontier myth-making and clearly defined sense of good and evil failed to resonate with the new counter culture. The Spaghetti Western represented both a stylistic and narrative shift in the Western genre, handing over the director’s chair for the time honored American genre to Italian visual stylists. Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More is not the most well known of Leone’s westerns, but it’s perfectly emblematic of the changing aesthetics of the Western genre at the time. It illustrates the distinct vision of the American frontier conjured by filmmakers from an entirely different culture.
To understand the deviations from formula that make Leone’s movie special, it’s also important to also understand the common elements it shares with its influences. While Leone’s approach to the narratives and subject matter of Westerns moved away from formula, aesthetically Leone’s films draws from the likes of The Searchers and Rio Bravo. Long wide landscape shots establish a grand sense of scope and scale, the absence of developed civilization very much the point. Like the rest of Leone’s dollar trilogy,the American frontier itself is framed as equal parts beautiful and dangerous. Above all,it’s indifferent to the seedy antics of the story itself.
For a Few Dollars More isn’t the most radical of the 60’s Westerns. It doesn’t embrace the genre’s fatalism as much as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or even Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s still noticeably grittier than the films that preceded it however. The film depicts frontier El Paso as a squalid, desperate place. Criminals roam the town, prostitutes line the streets and everyone seems caught up in a scheme. This anarchy is what makes Clint Eastwood the ideal protagonist as The Man With No Name. Eastwood, who’s made a career out of his quiet intensity and instant credibility as both an action star and figure of authority, reprises one of his most iconic roles in this film. While little differentiates his portrayal of this character in comparison to the more well known films in the Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars and The Good The Bad and The Ugly) the presence of Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer allows a solid, almost buddy-cop like character dynamic to carry the emotional core of the film. Despite how cutting-edge much of the violence and taboo subject matter may appear, the film still has the fundamental humanity that defines most Westerns.For A Few Dollars More is a sadly overlooked gem, sandwiched between the explosive beginning and iconic conclusion of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. It’s a movie brimming with character and style, from the casting of the delightfully unhinged Klaus Kinski to the vintage tense final duel. What resonates with people the most about Leone’s Westerns: the careful attention to atmosphere, the deliberate but tense progression of his stories and the explosive climax are all present. In addition, without the expectations of the first film or the scope of the third, For a Few Dollars More represents Leone’s style at its purest.