I love the Dollars Trilogy. Sergio Leone is one of my favorite directors. I know this is the time of year where everyone is watching horror films for Halloween, yet I felt this urge to go to the west. I decided to revisit Leone’s seminal works in an attempt to get a better grasp on the craftsmanship of the films. I discovered that this is one of the best constructed trilogies in cinema as well as 3 of the greatest western films ever. They honestly are my top 3.
Let’s start with A Fistful of Dollars.
The 1964 first installment of the Dollars Trilogy introduced Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. The film follows the same story as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A drifter comes into town and puts two gangs against each other. Gian Maria Volonte plays the main antagonist Ramon Rojo.
In this first film, Leone clearly wants to develop a style. One thing was undeniable, this was not your father’s western. It was rougher. The characters were questionable and it wasn’t pleasant. While the direction was fine, it wasn’t the Leone that we would soon know.
One year later, Leone would improve on what he had created.
1965’s For a Few Dollars More is a marked improvement over its predecessor. This used to be my least favorite in the Dollars Trilogy as I found it uninteresting and dull. However on this rewatch my assessment has changed. Everything from Leone’s style, Morricone’s music are improved. Gian Maria Volonte’s Indio is one of the most despicable villains ever in a western, Lee Van Cleef’s Mortimer has a quiet motivation and Clint’s Man with No Name is kind of on the sidelines which really works for this one. It actually is the most complex film in the series thematically. There is a focus on age and experience that isn’t really at the forefront of the other 2 films in the series.
On a technical level, Leone’s style is the most obvious improvement. The staging is even more dynamic, which creates some the most tense moments in a western I’ve seen. At times the suspense can rival some of Hitchcock’s better moments. You would think after this, there was no where else to go for Leone. Yet in 1966, he would go there one more time.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the capstone of Sergio Leone’s directorial evolution. We saw the glimpses of it in A Fistful of Dollars. It improved greatly in For a Few Dollars More. In the sequel, his long shots have greater depth, his closeups felt more detailed and his way of creating tension really elevated the action scenes in that film.
The third film in the Dollars Trilogy, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly takes all of these elements and turns it up to 100. It is so much improved over its predecessors that it doesn’t feel at all like them. It’s something different, something better.
The story is simple. Three gunslingers search for stolen cache of money. The motivations are clear. There’s no complexity of characters or hidden depths to them. You might think that’s a negative, but considering it’s a 3 hour epic, the simplicity works wonder for the film.
Speaking of length, this film is easily the best paced of the trilogy. More so than the previous films even. This is because Leone does not waste a single second. Every scene is in service to the plot. Even the scene in the mission with Tuco and his brother work because prior events and the events to follow work in service to the plot.
The 3 lead actors all excel. Clint Eastwood continues to have a cool, calm presence as The Man with No Name. Lee Van Cleef, coming off a pretty nuanced performance in For A Few Dollars More is the killer Angel Eyes who disappears at different points in the film for extended chunks, yet he always feel nearby and ready to strike. And of course the scene stealer Eli Wallach as Tuco who should’ve gotten awards recognition for his role as the scrappy bandit who always manages to stick around.
One final thing, I have to praise Ennio Morricone’s amazingly atmospheric score that fits every scene. The standout tracks for me are of course the main theme but also The Ecstasy of Gold. That track combined with the images of Tuco running through the cemetery is a showcase of all paths of the story converging for the final showdown and it is magnificent.
It’s always amazing to me how Sergio Leone didn’t set out to improve the western genre. Yet he did and to me he made the best version of a dying genre at the time. So strong was his influence that Eastwood’s own Unforgiven took notes before it temporarily closed the door on that style of western. We would later get homages such as the El Mariachi Trilogy by Robert Rodriguez, as well Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino.
I do believe that we all have films that we believe are perfect. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for me is one of them. It is beautiful, entertaining and enthralling from the opening titles to the closing wide shots. It is an example of filmmaking that improved with each installment.
With the release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly we received a rarity in cinema where we got a series of film where the director improved on each successive movie. I believe this very strongly as I feel further proof of this is in Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West. It maintains the creative excellence set by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Proving that Sergio Leone had earned his place in the pantheon of great directors with his Dollars Trilogy as his masterworks.