After the troubled release of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) director Sergio Leone wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the western genre again. He had survived a bitter court battle after his film was accused of borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (a claim the director reportedly denied citing that both films were based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 crime novel Red Harvest) but afterward, Leone was emotionally as well as financially spent. He had lost a great deal of money during the legal proceedings and his mind was on other projects. But the public loved his film and the success of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS meant there was money to be made with a sequel. When he was eventually offered a budget of $600,000 to make a follow-up (nearly 3x the cost of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), Leone agreed and reunited with his star Clint Eastwood along with composer Ennio Morricone to co-write and direct FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE(1965).
The title was a play on words to mock his past producers who he had parted ways with on less than amicable terms and indicated that Leone’s new film would have a much bigger budget than its predecessor. It was also a brash statement about why the director was returning to the genre. Like the protagonists in his film, Leone was hoping to make “a few dollars more” to help compensate for his previous losses and the title would prove prophetic. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE would go on to be one of Leone’s most profitable films grossing some $5 million dollars in Italy and $15 million dollars in America. It would also be an important turning point in the careers of Leone, maestro Morricone and the films two stars, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS may have been Leone’s first western and the film that launched the “Dollars Trilogy” but the director really began to shape his own distinct vision during the making of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The films opens with a lengthy shot of a singing cowboy, a traditional figure in Hollywood westerns, who is brutally gunned down signaling that Leone is abandoning more traditional character tropes and introducing audiences to a darker and more unforgiving view of the Wild West. And the film is undoubtedly a dustier, dirtier and edgier picture than its predecessor but it unfolds in a more gingerly fashion and the visual flourishes are much more prevalent. The lengthy long shots and extreme close-ups that eventually became the director’s signatures are more confident in A FEW DOLLARS MORE and the film contains more gallows humor, which allowed Leone the chance to flex his comedic muscles further. The creative use of flashbacks would become one of the director’s most popular narrative devices along with his unique handling of provocative musical cues and prolonged silences arranged skillfully by composer Ennio Morricone.
Leone and Morricone had been boyhood school chums but they cultivated a lifelong friendship and working relationship during the making of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS that flourished into something truly remarkable during the making of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The two men worked closely together to incorporate music more liberally into the film’s soundtrack, which allowed Morricone to unleash the full range of his creativity. Besides the film’s recurring theme, Morricone was asked to compose separate themes for individual characters, including the two main protagonists, Manco aka “The Man with No Name” (Clint Eastwood) and Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) as well as the film’s main villain El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté). Other characters, such as El Indio’s unhinged sidekick Wild aka The Hunchback (Klaus Kinski) are also introduced with unique sounds or instruments.
Using the marranzanu or “Jew Harp” along with flutes, horns, twelve-string guitars, church bells, an organ, vocal choirs and a distinct whistle (provided by Alessandro Alessandroni) accompanied by a full orchestra, Morricone was able to build a richer and more complex soundtrack using layer upon layer of sound. One of the film’s most unique elements is the use of a music box melody that accompanies the matching watches carried by Colonel Douglas Mortimer and El Indio. This haunting tune drifts in and out of the film, triggering the memories of both men, and setting a melancholy pall over the entire film. But FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE also uses music and sound effects in a more lighthearted way, such as when Clint Eastwood confronts Lee Van Cleef for the first time and the two men engage in a “hat shoot-off” that assigns a characteristic sound to each of their hats. In fact, many of the character’s actions are conveyed through subtle musical clues that define their personalities.
Leone and Morricone both gained a firmer grasp on their filmmaking and composing talents during the making of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and clearly developed a more complementary working relationship that would benefit them greatly in the years to come. While Leone’s camera lovingly lingers on dust-covered streets, decaying buildings, weather-worn leather boots, gleaming gun barrels and the expressive faces of the actors that make up his cast, Morricone breathes life into them through his music and sound design. Together they’re one of cinemas most extraordinary and ingenious duos and it’s become impossible to think of one man without acknowledging the talents of the other.
We can also thank FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE for reigniting the career of Lee Van Cleef. Cleef had retired from acting when Leone saw a picture of the actor and demanded “that face” for his film after Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan supposedly turned the director down. Cleef took the job because he wanted the money and assumed he’d just be playing another heavy who ended up dead. Much to his surprise, Cleef would costar alongside Eastwood and both men got equal time in front of Leone’s camera. Cleef was also allowed to ride off into the sunset before the credits rolled bringing an element of the old-fashioned cowboy hero into Leone’s hostile interpretation of the West. Afterward, Lee Van Cleef went on to build an impressive career for himself as the star of many popular Spaghetti Westerns.
It’s also worth noting that Clint Eastwood has acknowledged that it was on the set of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE that he really began to find his footing as “The Man with No Name.” The character’s ruthlessness and independence became more apparent in his performance and after being impressed with the Italian actor who had dubbed his voice in the previous film, Eastwood reportedly became intent on adopting a similar halting manner and timbre in his own voice. When the “Dollars Trilogy” (made up of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY) was finally released in the U.S. in 1967 the films received almost universally bad reviews from American critics but the public didn’t listen. Audiences flocked to Leone’s films in droves propelling Clint Eastwood into superstardom and turning Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks into chart-topping records.
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) will air twice on TCM this month. You can catch it tonight (March 6th) as part of TCM’s special line-up devoted to composer Ennio Morricone’s Western Scores. It will also air again on March 31st along with VERA CRUZ (1954), one of the films that influenced Sergio Leone, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), the first western that Clint Eastwood both starred in & directed.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
This piece was originally written for TCM/Movie Morlocks