#2 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
The success of A Fistful of Dollars took everyone by surprise, and Sergio Leone, in order to claim his pending fee from his producers, agreed to make a follow up with Clint Eastwood returning. Writing very quickly, Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni banged out a new script and headed off into production. What they produced was much more naturally in line with Leone’s style, creating a more cohesive overall film that has a more appropriate amount of plotting to fit.
It is the story of two bounty hunters, Clint Eastwood’s Manco and Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer, in pursuit of a noted criminal, newly escaped from prison, El Indio (Gian Volonte). And, that’s kind of it. There is a plan around it that has some twists and turns, but it’s a simple and bare story that takes a little over two hours to play out as opposed to the relatively overstuffed 90-minutes of the Leone’s previous film.
Much like A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More is also a movie of great moments, but the simplified story allows the movement from one moment to the next to feel more natural and more of a whole. We’re not getting a molehill of exposition to explain the conflict between the three main characters because it’s overall a very easy to understand story underneath. Leone’s films aren’t exactly narrative freight trains, moving with utmost speed and efficiency from one plot point to another. They like to luxuriate in details, building up these great moments and letting them play out fully. They’re really not the sort of thing I expect to see praised as some of the greatest films ever made because pacing is so important to so many people, and these movies move really slowly.
Each of the three characters are introduced alone. Mortimer shows up in a town, grabs a handbill that details the $1,000 reward for a local outlaw, and proceeds to shoot him down in the street with a unique extra shoulder rest for his pistol. Manco shows up in another small town looking for a man wanted for $2,000 and proceeds to dispatch him as well as three of his men, hiding his gun wielding hand underneath his poncho for most of the action (including a tense little game of five card draw with the target, played one handed by Manco). El Indio breaks out of prison when his gang show up, killing all of the guards, and El Indio murders his cellmate, taking a small model of a liquor cabinet with him that the carpenter fellow prisoner had been making. All three end up going towards El Paso, home of the most stringently guarded bank in the area.
Manco and Mortimer realize each other’s presence and, after an amusing getting to know each other scene where they shoot their hats around in the middle of the night, they decide to team up with Manco working to get inside El Indio’s gang with Mortimer (who insulted the hunchback played by Klaus Kinski and would be known) staying outside. One moment that really highlights the step in the right direction that this movie is compared to the previous film is how Manco rescues an errant member of the gang in prison in order to gain El Indio’s trust. It just happens quickly and wordlessly. He finds out what he needs to do, he shows up placing a few sticks of dynamite just inside the cell’s window, and then has a horse outside for the man to jump onto as soon as he’s free. It’s done in a few minutes with a bit of humor and a good amount of style.
The overall objective is to whittle down El Indio’s gang, taking the $10,000 bounty for him as well as the cumulative bounties for other members of the gang. So, when El Indio gives Manco the objective of going with three other members to a nearby town to rob that bank, Manco simply kills the three and then forces the telegraph operator to report a robbery that never happened. This triggers the robbery by El Indio, but El Indio hadn’t shared his whole plan, managing to get away with the hidden safe from the bank while Manco and Mortimer wait on the wrong side of the town.
Manco returns to the gang with a tale of being overwhelmed by the authorities (helped by a flesh wound Mortimer gives him to the next with a well-placed bullet), and the gang strikes out east to a remote little town to try and open the safe and wait for the heat to blow over. Mortimer joins them with the ability to open the safe without explosives, and we’re set for the final showdown.
Now, there’s one element of this film that I don’t think really connects, and it’s the one emotional element. Mortimer’s sister was murdered by El Indio some years ago, and the two share a pair of gold watches that each play the same tune, a matching set that Mortimer and his sister had held together. This ended up reminding me of Leone’s similar effort at emotional payoff in Once Upon a Time in the West, that time around the character Harmonica. The information, in both cases, gets revealed late, really late, in the film, and it kind of dulls the seemingly intended impact of it all. It makes sense, but suddenly trying to gain some pathos in a film that’s all about stylish gunplay pretty much from beginning to end doesn’t really work all that well.
Still, that stylishness is infectious. Combined with the more appropriately built story to match, For A Few Dollars More represents Leone really growing as a filmmaker, finding the groove of the kinds of stories he wanted to make and how he wanted to make them. It’s an entertaining romp through the Old West as seen by an Italian in Spain, and it’s a good old fashioned time at the movies.