For a Few Dollars More: How Leone and Eastwood Changed the Western

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.

Bonnie and Clyde: Redefining the Hollywood Blockbuster

By Caleb Brown

When looking at the evolution of filmmaking over the generations, one of the fiercest debates was over censorship and the limits of taboo subject matter in Hollywood. It was a problem that dramatically reshaped Hollywood throughout the 30’s and 40’s, when the Hays code dictated strict guidelines on the adult content of films. The code frustrated executives and filmmakers alike, and led to much of the violence and sexual content of golden age Hollywood filmmaking being reduced to innuendo. But as the moral climate of the 50’s faded, and the radical 60’s counterculture changed consumer attitudes, a new style of cinema was needed to fit the times . While no one film can be pointed to as definitively breaking cinematics taboos clearly pushed American cinema in a new direction. Bonnie and Clyde is one of those films. For its sheer popularity, the controversy is caused, and its refusal to censor violence , Arthur Penn’s smash hit Bonnie and Clyde remains one of America’s most important films. In both its stylistic and historical significance, few films can compare to this ultra-violent blockbuster.

French poster for Bonnie and Clyde

When Bonnie and Clyde took the nation by storm in 1967, the first murmurs of New Hollywood had already begun to stir. But within the upper levels of studio filmmaking, things remained stagnant. The general public had become burnt out on the standard Golden Age musicals and historical epics, and desired new forms of entertainment. Ironically, Bonnie and Clyde would draw inspiration from discarded genres of Old Hollywood, like the classic gangster film. In the 1930s, gangster films like the violent and morally ambiguous Scarface ruled the box office. The Hays code brought their reign to a swift end. Yet this style of violent, boldly mythologized was exactly what the countercultural zeitgeist of the late 60’s demanded. Bonnie and Clyde was a movie where the time it came out explains as much about its popularity as the content of the movie itself. Bonnie and Clyde was a film very much of its time. That, as well as its content, was the reason it was a smash hit.

In a move that would become standard fashion for the directors of New Hollywood, the advancements in cinematic technology met the tropes and structure of 30’s Hollywood. As in the films of Howard Hawks or Will Wellman, the action in Bonnie and Clyde is the draw. its use of squibs, explosive pockets of fake blood, in particular was revolutionary for depictions of bodily violence on screen. The film’s chaotic and assertive sound design also warrants mention; the rattle of the duo’s machine guns still sharp and terrifying to this day. It affords the movie a level of spectacle that the 30’s gangster film directors could only have only dreamed of. It applied decades of progression in audio and visual effects to realize in graphic detail what had previously been limited by technology and the demands of censors. Many films followed in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde’s example, Sam Peckinpah’s Western The Wild Bunch and Coppola’s The Godfather would use similarly stark, sleek, modern filmmaking tools when directing their violence to similarly impressive effect.  Through its blend of cutting edge filmmaking and genre revivalism, Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of genre filmmaking.

Finally, no retrospective of Bonnie and Clyde can avoid mentioning the incredible casting, both from a marketing and artistic perspective. The photogenic couple of Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway certainly endeared themselves to advertisers, yet it was the contrast of such pretty, norma-looking people portraying such deranged psychopaths that drew in audiences. Dunaway’s Bonnie was a star-making performance, riding the fine line between oblivious child and cold blooded sociopath effortlessly. The presence of Gene Hackman offers another stark reminder that the 70’s were just around the corner, and that Bonnie and Clyde would have a strong hand in shaping the coming decade.

The Historical and Emotional Context of James Crowley’s Brooklyn

John Crowley’s Brooklyn is a wistful look at a bygone moment in American history. Within the timeline of immigration from Europe to America, it arrives late. The potato famine that drove hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish to the shores of America had long since subsided.  World War 2 had already occurred, and the Irish in America had already fought and died as Americans on the battlefields of France and Germany. The withering of the ethnic enclaves that dominated New York City in the first half of the 20th century has been the subject of much contemporary historical and sociological interest. But in contrast to the direct ethnic conflict that informs many of the popular on-screen portrayals of the era, the central tensions of Brooklyn are grounded more in the struggle of its protagonist to choose between her upbringing and her personal desire, as represented by the contrast between the two countries she’s torn between.

Eilis is that protagonist, a young woman still unsure about adulthood and discontented with her Irish upbringing, prompting her to start a new life in America. The physical distance between America and Ireland (travelling between the two is a repeating element over the course of the film) is broadly reflective of Eilis’s own internal conflict. Even as she becomes more immersed within American culture, via her lover but also the broader Irish American community, the residual sentimentality for her homeland still shadows her. There’s no domineering backward parental figures impeding the central love story, instead the complicated family drama gives Eilis emotional context. There aren’t conflicting street gangs that force the ethnic tensions of the story to the surface, instead the gulf between cultures is shown subtly, through the use of location and period details thanks to the film’s authentic production design. This subtlety when approaching the film’s emotional and historical contexts sets it apart from other period dramas.

In her piece for Time Magazine “Brooklyn and the True History of Irish Immigrants in 1950s New York City” Sarah Begley cited Irish American historian Peter Quinn to highlight the important place of women in the context of building the Irish American community during the time of mass immigration. To quote Quinn, “[Irish American immigration was] the only immigration where there were a majority of women”. The film dramatizes Quinn’s point. Aside from the central romance most of Eilis’s deepest personal bonds are formed with other women, whether it’s the complicated relationship with her mother, the tragically undercut one with her sister or the various members of the women’s boarding house. While the film draws both aesthetically and narratively from the period dramas of Golden Age Hollywood, the emphasis on analyzing women’s agency within rigid archaic social structures, both within Ireland and the United States, sets it apart from its influences. It does so in a way that’s novel and important, shedding light on a underexplored and important chapter in Irish-American immigration.

Crowley’s Brooklyn is the best type of historical piece. Rather than relying on cliches, it shows us human beings in all their complexity. It maintains the lush, detailed, and authentic set design and period detail of a golden-age Hollywood period drama, but has a much more sophisticated and modern storytelling sensibility. Its most notable deviations from formula are small ones, but amount to a truly unique take.