The Dollars Trilogy (1964, 1965, and 1966)

I was in college when I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for the movie For a Few Dollars More (1965).  The tagline was as follows:  “The man with no name is back…  The man in black is waiting…” So, it was obviously a sequel.  I wondered how I could have overlooked the first movie, whatever its name was, but in any event, I decided to wait until I saw the first one before watching the second.  Finally, a friend of mine, who had just seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and who had also seen For a Few Dollars More, said the movies, all of which were directed by Sergio Leone, were unrelated as to story, so I should just watch whatever was available.  As result, I ended up seeing the movies in reverse order, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly first, For a Few Dollars More second, and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) last.

I must admit, I was a little disappointed.  Compared to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was rich in style and story, A Fistful of Dollars seemed to be cheaply made, which, as a matter of fact, it was.  But eventually, it became one of my favorite movies.

Years later I read that the movie was an unofficial remake of Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa, which led to a lawsuit by Toho, the Japanese film company that produced it.  While this movie itself had its antecedents, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, which in turn were preceded by The Servant of Two Masters, an eighteenth century play by Carlo Goldini, the almost scene-for-scene duplication of Yojimbo in A Fistful of Dollars made me wonder how Leone’s lawyers could have defended their client with a straight face.  In any event, the lawsuit may have had something to do with why For a Few Dollars More showed up in the local theaters where I lived before A Fistful of Dollars did.

The basic idea in Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars is that of a man playing two warring factions off against each other as he seems to be on one side and then the other as suits his purposes.  In A Fistful of Dollars, the central character is played by Clint Eastwood.  I had never seen a Western where the hero had a beard, wore a poncho, smoked a cigar, and rode a mule, but there he was. Eventually, this character, who would also appear in the sequels, would become known as “the Man with No Name,” but here he is given the nickname “Joe” by the coffinmaker, a generic name for an American.  In For a Few Dollars More, his name is Monco, but after the idea of the Man with No Name caught on, the scene where a sheriff refers to Eastwood’s character as Monco was snipped out of most prints, although a later scene where he is so referred to is not.  In any event, both scenes are in the DVD.

The principal character in Yojimbo, played by Toshirô Mifune, does not seem to have a name either, though he allows himself to be called Sanjuro Kuwabatake.  This feature seems to have originated with the Continental Op stories, of which Red Harvest was one, for that character has no name either.  It is the culmination of a tendency of having the hero be devoid of a family and not a part of any community.  Being a bachelor, he would have neither wife nor children.  There would be no reference to his parents, presumed to be dead, if we thought of them at all.  But as a man gets his name from his parents, the idea of a man with no name would seem to imply that he never had any parents, as impossible as that is.  At one point in A Fistful of Dollars, after Joe has been hired by the Rojos brothers, he is given a room to stay in and told to make himself at home.  “I never found home all that great,” he replies, “but thanks.”

By the 1980s, heroes in the movies would start having all sorts of stressful family connections.  I could list many examples, but I’ll stick to just one, which is Unforgiven (1992), where Clint Eastwood stars in a Western in which he is a widower with two young children.  We gather that he used to be someone similar to the Man with No Name, but who was then domesticated by a wife that reformed him, getting him to settle down and raise a family on a small farm.  I guess the idea was to make the movies more relevant for the baby boomers, who were all saddled with family complications themselves.  But back in the old days, it was assumed that audiences wanted to forget about all that by identifying with a completely unattached hero.  It all depends on what you want from a movie, relevance or escapism.

Joe is a hired gun who drifts around looking for someone to pay him for his services. Soon after arriving in San Miguel, a small Mexican town, he finds out that there are two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters: the former making their living dealing in liquor; the latter, guns.  Smugglers periodically load up on the guns and liquor and take them north across the border, where they sell them to the Indians.  That was a nice touch.  There was nothing like that in Yojimbo, where the rival factions deal in silk and saké, for the simple reason, I assume, that they don’t have Indians in Japan. But here in America, it was standard in the movies that Indians could not hold their liquor.  It was often illegal to sell it to them because they would get drunk and go on the warpath. And in this case, they would be outfitted with the guns that were also being illegally supplied to them.  In other words, whereas the evil in Yojimbo is confined to just the town where the action takes place, in A Fistful of Dollars, it extends well beyond San Miguel, even reaching into another country.

Both families want complete control of the town, and Joe hires out first to one side and then to the other, making more and more money as he does so.  At that level, he is completely amoral. However, he forms a friendship with Silvanito, the owner of the saloon, who tries to get Joe to leave town before he ends up being killed like so many others.  Silvanito corresponds to Gonji in Yojimbo. One of the hallmarks of a Leone movie is humor, and the difference between these two characters is an example of that.  Whereas Gonji is just an angry man, always complaining, Silvanito is amusing, using his dry wit to provide a running commentary on the situation in San Miguel.  In fact, that is a difference between the two movies in general, Yojimbo being serious, even angry in its tone, while A Fistful of Dollars, hardly a comedy, continually causes us to smile, if not laugh, at some of the scenes and dialogue.

Joe also becomes friends with Piripero, the coffinmaker, who makes a good living providing coffins for all the men who get killed in the feud between the two families. And Joe also takes pity on an innocent family, in which the wife is held as a sex slave by Ramón Rojos (Gian Maria Volentè).  Joe helps that family escape, but is almost killed as a result.  In the end, the Rojos wipe out the Baxters, and then Joe kills the Rojos. Inasmuch as Joe gave all his money to the family he rescued, he is no better off than when he first arrived in San Miguel.  But that’s all right, because he will simply move on to another town, where he will find someone willing to pay for his services.  In other words, the two friends and the business about the family aside, Joe is still an amoral hired killer.

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro has a nobler motive.  He tells Gonji that the town is full of men that deserve to die.  If he can figure a way to kill off all these men, the town will get a fresh start.  In A Fistful of Dollars, however, all Joe cares about is getting paid as a hired gun. It is perhaps a subtle difference, but it is nevertheless a shift in the amoral direction.

In Yojimbo, all the fighting has to stop when a government official arrives, so we have the sense that there is such a thing as law and order in this region, this town being an exception.  In A Fistful of Dollars, on the other hand, the law is both worthless and corrupt.  When Joe kills four of Baxter’s men for refusing to apologize to his mule, but actually to prove to the Rojos what he is worth as a hired gun, Baxter shows Joe his badge, saying he is the sheriff.  Joe tells him that since he is the sheriff, he should see to it that the dead men are put in the ground.  Then he turns his back on him and walks away.  Furthermore, Ramón and his men massacre a company of American soldiers, has his men put on their uniforms, and then they massacre a company of Mexican soldiers that were planning on buying guns from the Americans. Therefore, not even the armies of either country have much of an effect on what takes place in San Miguel.

It was the amoral quality of this movie that was the most problematic for the censors when the movie needed to be edited for television after ABC bought the rights to broadcast it in 1975.  The censors were old hands at bleeping out bad words, snipping out nudity, and reducing or minimizing scenes of violence, but these standard techniques were not enough.  No matter how much of the violence was suppressed, the amoral character of the Man with No Name still came through.

Then someone came up with a clever idea.  Instead of cutting stuff out, why not add stuff in?  So, taking advantage of the fact that smugglers in the movie were buying guns and liquor in San Miguel and selling them to the Indians in the United States, an additional scene was filmed in which some guy, dressed up to look like the Man with No Name, is let out of prison on condition that he will work undercover for the United States government, with the job of eliminating the two rival gangs of San Miguel. Legitimate government agents have gone there previously, but they have all been killed.  It is Joe’s job to pretend to be a hired gun who cares about nothing but money. If he succeeds in eliminating the Rojos and the Baxters by playing off one side against the other, he will receive a pardon for his crimes.

To those who were familiar with the movie, it was obvious that this preliminary scene was not part of the original.  For one thing, Joe’s poncho was too long.  And why would a prisoner be allowed to wear a poncho anyway, along with his boots, cowboy hat, and cigar?  At one point, we see a close up of Clint Eastwood’s face, which is clearly taken from a scene in the movie.  But usually the Eastwood replacement keeps his hand on his cigar while he smokes it so he can conceal his face.  He is told by Harry Dean Stanton, the warden, not to talk, so the censors didn’t have to worry about faking Eastwood’s voice. Finally, when this fake Joe is given his pistol, the barrel is longer than the one used in the movie.

Notwithstanding all these clues, a lot of people thought this was part of the original movie.  Another of Sergio Leone’s movies, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), had had a lot of footage cut out for theatrical release in the United States, much of which was added back in when it came to television. As a result, it was thought by many that something similar had happened here.  It even fooled Peter Bondanella, who refers to this added scene as if it were part of the original movie in his book Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.  At least, that’s what he wrote in the first edition in 1983.  Whether he has corrected it in subsequent editions, I cannot say.

What really fascinated me about this extra footage was that even though I knew it for what it was, it contaminated my viewing of the rest of the movie.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that Joe was really not just a hired gun, but actually an undercover agent.  In fact, some of the dialogue in the movie almost seemed to encourage the idea.  For example, at one point, Ramón says of Joe, “I don’t like that Americano.  He’s too smart just to be a hired fighter.” When I heard that, I involuntarily thought, “He’s right.  Joe is actually working for the United States government.” Many years have passed since then, and I have seen the movie many times during those years, but to this day, when I hear Ramón deliver that line, that involuntary thought pops into my head.

On the subject of censorship, real or imagined, Eastwood once said that prior to A Fistful of Dollars, the Production Code did not allow the man shooting a gun and the man being shot to be in the same frame, but that Leone was the first director to film such scenes.  Many critics have accepted this assertion of Eastwood without question and have repeated it as if it were gospel.  And indeed, when we do see such scenes in Leone’s movies, where the man shooting the gun is in the same frame with the man being shot, the impact is much greater than when they are filmed separately, as is the case in most movies.  But Eastwood was wrong.  Perhaps he was thinking of Rawhide (1959-1965), a television show he worked on where such a restriction may well have been in force.  But not so with the movies. There are numerous examples of earlier Hollywood movies in which the man shooting and the person being shot are in the same frame, but here are just a few from some of the more well-known films:

This Gun for Hire (1942):  Early in the movie, Raven (Alan Ladd) and a blackmailer are in the same frame when he shoots him. At the end of the movie, a cop shoots Raven, and they are both in the same frame.

The Big Sleep (1946):  When Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) shoots Canino (Bob Steele) several times, they are both in the same frame.

High Noon (1952):  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) shoots Frank Miller and, before that, two of those in his gang, and each time he is in the same frame with the man he is shooting.

Shane (1953):  Wilson (Jack Palance) shoots Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in the same frame. And in the final shootout in the saloon, Shane (Alan Ladd) shoots Ryker (Emile Meyer) in the same frame as well.

Rio Bravo (1959):  There are so many scenes in this movie in which the shooter and the person being shot are in the same frame that it is not worth listing them all. In the first one, someone is shot at pointblank range.

The Comancheros (1961):  In the opening scene, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) kills a man in a duel in the same frame. Later on, Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne) shoots several men in the same frame.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):  When we find out who really shot Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), we see Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) shoot Valance while in the same frame.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962):  We see Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) shoot another soldier in the head in the same frame during a flashback. Later, Shaw shoots his wife in the same frame as himself.

Speaking of the impact of seeing a man firing his pistol and another man getting shot in the same frame, Leone managed to make these scenes seem realistic, even though Joe’s skill with a gun seems unbelievable when we think about it later.  Early in the movie, he beats four men to the draw, while in the final showdown at the end of the movie, he beats five men to the draw.  Of course, Joe is a professional gunfighter, who probably spends several hours every day working with his gun.  As that friend I referred to above remarked, the men he kills are “just a bunch of North Side punks that strapped on a gun.”  In any event, the scenes seem realistic at the moment we watch them.  By the 1970s, however, there began a trend toward silliness.  Terence Hill’s Trinity character did stuff with his pistol that we didn’t believe for a minute, and we weren’t supposed to.  Leone himself, much to my chagrin, even contributed to this trend in My Name Is Nobody (1973).

As noted above, there were several features of this Man with No Name that were unusual for a Western hero:  a cigar, a beard, a poncho, and a mule.  The poncho turned out to be more than just a matter of style.  In Yojimbo, after Sanjuro has demonstrated his unequaled skill with a sword, halfway through the movie one of the gang members shows up with a pistol.  Naturally, we wonder how a man with a sword will be able to cope with that.  In the final scene, Sanjuro throws a knife, hitting the man with the pistol in his arm, after which he uses his sword to finish him off.

In A Fistful of Dollars, there is a scene where Joe and Ramón are using a suit of armor as target practice. Ramón says to Joe, “When you want to kill a man, you must shoot for his heart and a Winchester is the best weapon.”

Joe replies, “That’s very nice, but I’ll stick with my forty-five.”

To this Ramón says, “When a man with a forty-five meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man.”

This scene establishes three things:  the man with a pistol will be at a disadvantage against a man with a rifle; Ramón believes that to kill a man, you must shoot for the heart; and that suit of armor would be no defense against a gun, since it is full of bullet holes.

In the final showdown, Joe walks down the street while Ramón repeatedly shoots at him, aiming only at his heart, as Joe closes in.  Joe falls when the bullets hit, but then rises again, reminding Ramón to aim for the heart, or he’ll never stop him.  Finally, when Ramón is out of bullets, Joe reveals a solid piece of iron hidden underneath his poncho, a possibility that never occurred to Ramón because the suit of armor in his house was ineffective against bullets.  And that’s when we realize the purpose for this odd piece of clothing, the poncho.  It was put in the movie so that Joe would have a way of concealing the iron armor.  Although not needed for that purpose in the sequels, it became iconic, making its way into second and third parts of the dollars trilogy, right along with the cigar and beard. As for the mule, we never saw him again.

Several critics have argued that the Westerns made after the end of World War II, through the 1950s, and into the first couple of years of the 1960s, reflected the the attitudes of Americans during the Cold War. For example, one might see High Noon (1952) as an allegorical criticism of the way people that were blacklisted in Hollywood were abandoned by their friends, or regard The Magnificent Seven (1960) as justifying American intervention in third-world countries for their benefit.  If so, we might see A Fistful of Dollars as expressing a revulsion against the Cold War, seeing both American Imperialism and Soviet Communism as equally corrupt and exploitive. While the servant-of-two-masters theme antedated this attitude concerning the Cold War, some of the popularity of A Fistful of Dollars may be attributed to the timely way this theme resonated with the growing cynicism regarding this conflict between the superpowers.

The Rojos, the Baxters, and Joe constituted a three-way conflict.  Perhaps this inspired Leone to have another three-way conflict in the sequel, For a Few Dollars More.  In this case, Monco (Clint Eastwood) is a bounty hunter, or, as is said in the movie, a “bounty killer.”  He competes with Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), another bounty hunter, hoping to cash in by bringing in El Indio (Gian Maria Volentè) and his gang. Mortimer is also motivated by revenge.  His sister shot herself while Indio was in the act of raping her, something that still haunts Indio.  Only by smoking marijuana can he get some temporary relief from that trauma.

This was the last time someone that was truly evil in a movie smoked a marijuana cigarette.  Since then, if a character in a movie smokes marijuana, we are supposed to like him, something I discussed more fully in an earlier essay, “Movie Marijuana.”  A possible exception is the television series Narcos (2015-2017), in which we see Pablo Escobar, a pretty evil character, regularly smoking weed. However, there is another drug dealer in that show, Gacha, who doesn’t smoke marijuana, and he turns out to be really evil by comparison.  So, everything is relative.

The prologue said, “Where life had no value, death, sometimes had a price.”  And so we see, at the end of the movie, when Monco is piling up the bodies of Indio’s gang into a wagon, adding up the amounts each corpse is worth. Mortimer has gotten his revenge and doesn’t want it spoiled by profiting from the killing of Indio, so he leaves it all to Monco.  At first, Monco is wondering why the sum does not reach the total he was expecting.  But then, upon hearing a noise, he turns and kills the last bad guy, bringing the account into balance.  Referring again to Westerns as reflecting attitudes by and about Americans, this might be a comment on capitalism, which values the worth of a man in terms of dollars alone.

In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name profits by hiring out to the two sides of a conflict.  In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Man with No Name profits by avoiding, as much as possible, the conflict between the North and the South during the Civil War.  This seems like a good idea, given the way this movie depicts the war as not just killing men, but also crippling them.  This theme of avoiding the war fit right in with the one being fought at that time in Vietnam, where many young men did all they could to avoid being drafted.

Prior to the release of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, whenever a bunch of people in a movie embarked on a project to obtain a great deal of money, something always went wrong. In some cases, the project was illegal, and given the Production Code in force at the time, the criminals had to die or be arrested, as in The Asphalt Jungle (1950).  In It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the treasure hunters are not criminals, but the buried treasure was stolen loot, so they all had to be arrested in the end. But even when the enterprise was entirely legal, there was an unwritten rule that it must fail, that trying to become rich in some quick and easy way, without holding down a regular job, was wrong and must not be rewarded. For example, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), there was nothing illegal about the three men prospecting for gold, but it had to fail nevertheless. When the two surviving members of the team realize that all their gold has been lost, they laugh about it. Presumably, even when the search for money was legal, it had to fail, the movie’s way of telling us we should be content with our lot. One slight exception is King Solomon’s Mines (1950 et al.). The people in the movie do manage to keep a handful of gems, but the vast treasure is lost for good.  Another exception might be For a Few Dollars More, since Monco does get to collect the bounty on all those men he killed.  But in that case, being a bounty hunter is his profession, and he is just making a living.

But then came The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Three men set out to find buried treasure, and something incredible happens: the treasure does not turn out to be worthless Confederate bonds; it does not blow away in the wind; the men pursuing the treasure are not arrested; and only one of them dies, leaving the other two alive to split the loot. Nothing like that had ever been seen in a movie before, and the violation of the taboo against that sort of thing was exhilarating.  The idea that rapacious capitalism is restrained by some kind of karmic principle, thwarting those who would try to get more money than they deserve, met its end with this movie.

This amoral ending was perfectly in line, however, with all that had come before in that movie. Were it not for the advance notice provided by the tagline, “For three men the Civil War wasn’t Hell. It was practice,” as well as some pictures we see during the credits, we would not even realize that the movie was set in the Civil War when it begins. And it is only gradually that we become aware of the war, because it really does not seem to concern the three principal characters:  the Ugly, Tuco (Eli Wallach), is a bandit; the Good, Blondie (Clint Eastwood), is a bounty hunter; and the Bad, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), is a hired killer.

Here again, we have a three-way conflict, but different from those in the first two dollars movies.  In addition to the two moral categories, the Good and the Bad, we have an aesthetic category, the Ugly. Tuco, who personifies this category, and is something of a trickster figure, steals the show.  He is scroungy, and yet, he is something of a dandy. He uses a pink parasol to protect himself from the sun when he and Blondie and traveling through the desert.  He dips a little snuff from the snuffbox he lifted from a corpse. When he takes a bath, he makes sure it is heavily scented. And, when this movie came out in the late 1960s, there were those who said, “Tuco runs like a girl.”  But those were less enlightened times.

A parenthetical note:  Eli Wallach was a Jew that often played Italians, as in Baby Doll (1956); and in Westerns, he played Mexicans, as in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  It’s fortunate that these movies were made before it became unacceptable to cast someone in a role with an ethnicity other than his own, for then Wallach would have been restricted to playing only Jewish characters, and we would have been deprived of some great performances.  

In any event, the Bad is unequivocally evil, but the Good is hardly a saint. We mainly know Blondie is the Good because the words “the good” appear under his image in a frozen frame.  But we also know he is the Good because he is tall and handsome.  Like the Ugly category, the Good is partly aesthetic, and only partly moral.  This three-way opposition of moral and aesthetic categories apparently met a need of the understanding, for we still hear people using this phrase that is the title of this movie to this day.

This three-way opposition ends in a fantastic three-way gunfight.  Prior to that climax, each man pursues his own business with no interest in the war. Where the war does get their attention, they are repelled, as when Tuco looks at the wounded men in a mission, many of whom are missing limbs, or when Blondie says he’s never seen so many men wasted so badly.  In additional footage seen only in the Italian version, Angel Eyes, referred to as Setenza, is pained by what he sees in another place of refuge for the wounded.  And when this psychopath feels someone else’s pain, that is pain indeed.

Only when they find out about buried Confederate gold does the war take on significance for these three men, especially when Blondie and Tuco need to cross a bridge to get to the cemetery where they know the gold is buried in one of the graves. There are Yankee soldiers on one side and Confederate soldiers on the other.  Every day, there are two battles for that bridge, which the commanding officer of the Yankees, a captain, refers to as a slaughter.  The movie makes an interesting comment about the importance of alcohol in war.  We have all heard about how Ulysses S. Grant was an alcoholic, whom Lincoln kept in command even though he was aware of Grant’s drunkenness.  In the Italian version, this movie makes the point, through the mouth of the captain, that only by getting drunk is it possible to send so many men to their deaths.  In other words, it was not despite his drunkenness that Grant was so successful in war, but because of it.  Through encouragement from the captain, Blondie and Tuco blow up the bridge so that the soldiers will leave the area, which has as an incidental byproduct the result that the pointless daily slaughter is brought to an end.  But essentially, as they pursue the gold, Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes walk through the war as if they were walking through a room.

At the risk of going too far with the idea that Westerns reflect the values and attitudes of contemporary America, is this not the way most of us relate to war nowadays? While those in the military go off to other countries to fight, the rest of us remain at home, pursuing our material interests with little thought given to the soldiers that are crippled or killed. When we do see some of that on the nightly news, we shake our heads, either in disgust or pity, and then have dinner.

After Blondie kills Angel Eyes in the three-way gunfight, Tuco realizes that Blondie unloaded his gun the night before. Since they have yet to dig up the grave with the gold in it, Blondie says, “You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend, those with loaded guns, and those who dig.  You dig.”  That pretty much captures the essence of slavery, which is what the Civil War was all about.  It turns out that the gold is buried in a grave marked “Unknown.” This grave with no name is a fitting coda for the last movie featuring the Man with No Name.

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