Looking back at Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy

With Django Unchained out now in the UK, Paul looks back at Sergio Leone's classic Dollars trilogy that helped inspire it...

Howard Hawks, one of the most successful Western directors of all time and a key influence on Sergio Leone, once said a great movie can be defined as one with “three great scenes, and no bad ones.” There can be few directors who understood the power of great scenes quite as strongly as Leone, the director of the Dollars trilogy and de facto godfather of the spaghetti western.

Some might argue his emphasis on great individual moments was to his detriment, as the MacGuffin-laden plots of his films seem to exist mainly as devices on which he can hang his elaborate setpieces, and were subsequently labeled as exercises in pure style. While the artistic and intellectual merits of the three films are up for debate, their influence on modern movies – particularly in the action genre – is not, with legions of filmmakers in debt to Leone to this day.

Not least of these is Quentin Tarantino, who cites The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as his favourite film of all time, and with the recent Django Unchained has crafted an unashamed love letter to a spaghetti western genre that Leone popularized and arguably invented with these films.

The early 60s saw the American Western in a state of decline: Hawks, along with John Ford, had been one of the key figures in the Western’s golden age, the period that lasted between the 1930s to the mid 50s and saw the release of classics such as Stagecoach, Red River, My Darling Clementine, Shane and The Searchers. The pair had managed to infuse the traditionally pulpy genre with a hitherto unseen moral and psychological complexity, as well as providing a deceptively rich social and cultural commentary on the period.

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However, while these two still were capable of producing the odd masterpiece (see Hawks’s Rio Bravo in 1959 and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962), the genre as a whole had descended into self-parody and stagnated, and had largely been written off both by critics and as reliable box office performers.

By the early 60s, the western had been replaced in the public’s imagination by big-budget historical epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus, and the Italian genre-film industry – never ones to let a trend escape unexploited – cashed in with a succession of sword-and-sandals pictures, starring a rag-tag bunch American B-movie actors and bodybuilders.

Leone had directed an unremarkable entry in this genre – The Last Days Of Pompeii, starring Steve Reeves – but as a history buff with a lifelong obsession with the American West, he longed to make his own Western. He believed that there was still an audience for them, certainly in Europe – the first European Westerns had already been produced by German backers, and had enjoyed a modest if unremarkable success. However, Leone realised that latter period American Westerns had suffered from being too glossy, cliched and overly preachy: his idea for A Fistful Of Dollars was to try and marry the tropes and iconography of the American Western to the more immediate, unvarnished style of Italian filmmaking of the period.

That Leone not only succeeded but also managed to create a true pop cultural milestone in the process was of course largely down to his phenomenal abilities as filmmaker: however, it must be noted that he also got very lucky. Fistful – and, by proxy, the subsequent popularity of the Spaghetti Western genre – was also borne out of a timely convergence of talents, all of whom were operating at the very top of their game.

Leone’s first masterstroke was to hire Clint Eastwood, at that point a TV star in Rawhide but yet to make any movies of note. Frustrated by Hollywood’s reluctance to cast an actor who “people could see at home for free”, Eastwood went to Europe for the same reasons American actors travelled there for the sword-and-sandals films and the later polizioschetti (police-action) movies: the US had all but given up on him. He was paid just $15,000 for the job, but the journey also afforded him a bona fide starring role and, as Eastwood later put it, “at least I got a trip to Spain” (the films were produced by Italians but filmed in the Spanish desert, which cost a fraction of the price).

Eastwood’s approach to acting was a perfect match for the style Leone had in mind for his new Western. A phlegmatic presence, Eastwood relied on an economy of movement that also extended to his dialogue: the actor reportedly frequently petitioned Leone for fewer lines in the films. The actor was also responsible for creating his character’s iconic costume from scratch, combining his own wardrobe with props liberated from the set of Rawhide and the famous poncho, which was discovered in a Spanish shop. Then there was that face: craggy and weary even at 34, it was the ideal subject for Leone’s regular extreme close-ups. What it lacked in expressiveness (Leone later said Eastwood had only two expressions: with the hat and without) it made up for in gravitas and quiet menace.

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Looking back, it’s hard to say how much of Leone’s signature style was deliberately engineered by him, and how much was him simply reacting to his resources and his environment. For example, his much-celebrated technique of using music, facial close-ups and extended periods of silence to tell a story rather than dialogue may have actually been a result of the unique conditions of an Italian film set: as the multi-lingual dialogue of the actors would all be dubbed over in post-production anyway, shooting on spaghetti westerns was often accompanied by the sound of the crew chatting and banging on equipment (ironically, given Leone’s use of silence), much to the consternation of American actors used to the quiet respectfulness of  film sets in Hollywood.

The director’s focus on ambient sound, music and violent action to tell a story led to many critics to label Leone’s style as ‘operatic’; it also proved a superb technique for engineering tension, as well as sustaining the atmosphere of grizzled, monosyllabic machismo that Leone was striving for. He neatly and perhaps inadvertently summed up his attitude to storytelling with Tuco’s famous line in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

It’s also unsurprising that music plays such a key role in the Dollars trilogy when you consider that Leone had one the best film composers of all time at his disposal in Ennio Morricone. His innovative, surreal music was also borne out of restraints – unable to afford a full orchestra, he would have been unable to replicate the grandiose sweep of the classic western scores even if he wanted to. Instead, the scores for the Dollars trilogy are a psychedelic mix of whistling, whip cracks, trumpets, wailing, gunshots and, crucially, the newly invented Fender guitar.

The anachronistic guitar is not only brilliantly used, but also served to dislocate Leone’s vision of the West from those that had preceded it, firmly placing it in an exhilarating, pop-influenced, alternate-universe America entirely of Leone’s imagination. Morricone’s music is integral to all three films in the trilogy – at points, it acts as wry punctuation, such as the way the iconic “Ay-iy-ay-iy-ah!” cuts off Eli Wallach’s final curse of Blondie in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. At other points, it becomes a key part of the narrative, such as the mournful motif of the pocket-watch chimes in For A Few Dollars More. The importance of Morricone’s compositions is highlighted by the fact Leone, starting with For A Few Dollars More, would ask Morricone to write the music before shooting and would then direct to his music on-set.

His obsession with faces, also, is understandable given his access to some of cinema’s most remarkable visages – with the distinctive features of Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Gian Maria Volonté, and even Klaus Kinski on hand, it’s no wonder he presents them in such loving detail. Leone’s close-ups are more than just reaction shots: the combination of the faces, his unusual use of space within the frame and the backdrop of the alien-looking Spanish landscape lend his images a surreal, painterly quality that just serves to add to the otherworldy atmosphere. 

One of the most notorious aspects of the trilogy is the violence: a reaction if not an outright parody of the Polyanna-ish Westerns of the late fifties, Leone transformed the stereotype of the clean-cut cowboy into a dirty, unshaven, morally ambiguous loner. He argued: “The West was made by violent, uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.” The Western landscape was re-imagined as a savage battleground where the only rules were to get rich and be more devious than your opponent, exploding the myth of the noble frontier in a hail of blood and bullets that was also undercut with (sometimes literally) gallows humour.

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Many objected to this interpretation of recent American history, with David Thomson saying: “I think Leone really despised the Western…we never feel we’re in America or with people who think in American. He makes fun of the very mythology and obsession that underlie film art,” but Leone argued later in his life that the films were not intended as arch but a genuine reflection of his feelings towards the country, arguing: “I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”

It must be said that while Leone was an innovator in many respects, he did start the ball rolling with a shameless rip-off: A Fistful Of Dollars wasn’t so much an ‘unofficial remake’ of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai action movie Yojimbo, as a re-skinned version of the same film, replacing warring clans in feudal Japan with warring families in a Mexican border town.  Leone waved away accusations of cinematic plagiarism by saying that Yojimbo had been influenced by Dashiell Hammet’s noir novel Red Harvest, and that Red Harvest in turn had been influenced by the Italian play A Servant Of Two Masters.

To watch both films is to realise that Leone was being more than a little mischievous and disingenrous here – while there are clear similarities between all three, whole scenes and beats in Fistful are lifted from Yojimbo. Kurosawa later quipped that Leone had “made a great movie, but it was my movie.” However, Kurosawa freely admitted that Yojimbo had been influenced by classic Westerns, so perhaps there was something to Leone’s claim he was bringing the story back “home”, even he was referring to Hammett’s novel and not the Western genre as a whole. 

Using Yojimbo as a starting block, Leone found that the addition of the widescreen landscapes from his beloved John Ford Westerns, as well as  Morricone’s music and Eastwood’s face resulted in a potent mixture that proved a big hit with audiences. Fistful is comfortably the leanest of the trilogy, the most stripped-down straightforward action movie of the bunch, but nearly all of Leone’s most recognisable trademarks – the close-ups, the violence, the silence – are already present and correct here, and more than any of the other three films, traces of Fistful’s DNA can be found in just about every action film made since.

The film proved hugely successful in Europe upon release, immediately standing out as something special by looking a million miles away from the ‘cheap’ westerns that had come to characterise the genre, particularly outside of America. While it was still made for a shoestring budget ($200,000), Leone’s artful adoption of Kurosawa’s directorial style and his eye for using the Spanish countryside to its full potential made the film feel like an epic despite its limited resources. 

Eager to quickly make a sequel, Leone tried to get Eastwood on board immediately after production finished on Fistful; reluctant to commit until he had seen the finished film, Leone arranged for a screening of an Italian-language print to Eastwood and a group of his friends, to whom he attempted to downplay the merits of the film in an attempt to manage their expectations. However, the screening was a huge success: despite the audience not speaking Italian, Leone’s stylistic, low-dialogue, heavy-action approach rendered that irrelevant, with a stunned Eastwood remarking that the audience “had enjoyed it just as much as if it had been in English”.  Shortly after the screening Eastwood got hold of his agent and told him he’d “like to work with that director again”. 

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For A Few Dollars More is often overlooked in the trilogy, awkwardly sandwiched between both the original film and the best-known, but it’s a stunning film in its own right – director Alex Cox, one of the world’s foremost experts on the genre, calls it his favourite spaghetti western of all. It packs probably the most effective emotional punch of all the films, and introduces a more elegiac, mournful tone that the director would then sustain throughout The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West. The plot sees The Man With No Name (this was actually a marketing gimmick – Eastwood’s character has a name in all three movies. Here it’s Manco) actually takes a back seat for much of the film to Lee Van Cleef, as the straight-edged bounty hunter on a mission for revenge that proves genuinely affecting.

Even better than Van Cleef and Eastwood is Gian Maria Volente, who as in Fistful, plays the repulsive villain brilliantly, but this time adds  an unmistakable air of tragedy that balances out his scenery-chewing. Volente was offered a variety of high-profile film work after For A Few Dollars More, including the Wallach role in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but would come to refuse any role that didn’t chime with his openly-Communist political views, and chose to star in the more radical Bullet For The General instead. 

For A Few Dollars More also sees Leone really grow in confidence as a filmmaker – while there’s a sense that he was standing on Kurosawa’s shoulders with Fistful, here he refines his style into something that is more recognisable as his own – more close-ups, stunning composition, one of the best uses of music in the trilogy with the pocket-watch motif, and some of his best set-pieces: Van Cleef and Eastwood’s first meeting, where they prove their worth to one another by elaborately and repeatedly shooting each other’s hats off is one of Leone’s best and funniest scenes.

However, Leone’s best-known film remains The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the tale of a hunt for stolen Confederate gold set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The film was a global phenomenon upon release in 1966, largely thanks to Ennio Morricone’s all-conquering theme music, which topped the charts worldwide and quickly became one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of music in any genre. It was also released as the spaghetti western genre was to reach height of his success, with other directors taking Leone’s template and runnning with it: 1966 also saw the release of seminal films such Sergio Corbucci’s Django and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown. Critics who had been notoriously sniffy towards the spaghetti westerns were beginning to sit up and take notice, and Leone’s film was certainly one that proved difficult to ignore.

Leone directs The Good… like it’s the last film he will ever make (although Once Upon A Time In The West is still arguably his defining statement on the Western), and takes advantage of a budget newly boosted by American investors to create a true big screen epic. Once again building on the progress he had made with his previous films, The Good… is bigger and better than everything that preceded it: Eastwood and Van Cleef, both now more than comfortable in Leone’s universe, both return as ‘The Good’ and ‘The Bad’ respectively, and Eli Wallach adds a welcome burst of comic, manic energy to proceedings as Tuco (‘The Ugly’).

‘The Man with No Name’ (Blondie) is more complex and interesting here than at any other point in the trilogy: while he’s happy to repeatedly abandon and abuse the admittedly untrustworthy Tuco, he’s also arguably at his most compassionate, particularly in the extended Civil War sequence where he stops to spend time with a dying Confederate soldier. Blondie even uncharacteristically sees fit to openly philosophise at one point, wearily sighing: “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” while watching a battle play out. Even someone as accustomed to the brutality of the West as Eastwood’s outlaw, a figure who actively thrived from it, is shown to balk at the sheer scale of death involved in warfare on this kind of scale.

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Leone conceived the film as one that would show the “imbecility” and “absurdity” of war, and angered critics by depicting deaths in a Union camp, as opposed to more politically acceptable accounts of atrocities in Southern camps. Once again, Leone was rebelling against received wisdom, more than conscious that the history books are written by the victors. Despite his reputation for contorting the history of the West to his own ends, The Good… is now regarded by experts as one of the most historically accurate depictions of the conflict ever seen on screen.

The reason that the film remains so popular (it is consistently in the top five-rated movies of all time on the IMDB top 250) comes back to those incredible setpieces: it’s the shortest three-hour film ever made, with scene after incredible scene, scenes that remain etched into the memory of everyone who has seen them but remain thrilling after endless viewings. There’s the pitch-perfect introductions of all three main players, Tuco and the gun-seller, Blondie’s trial in the desert, the click-clack of spurs tipping off Blondie to Tuco’s attempted hit, and the whole Civil War sequence, which as Roger Ebert notes is “practically a movie unto itself”.

Everything culminates with the definitive Leone setpiece, a three-way Mexican stand-off that acts as a the culmination of the film, the trilogy, Leone’s career, and the Spaghetti Western genre up to that point. It’s all here: Morricone’s untouchable music, the stunning landscape photography, those amazing faces, the perfectly judged editing, Leone’s obsessive attention to detail and his unparalleled ability to use every inch of the frame. It’s the best scene from a director who specialised in great scenes, 10 minutes of sheer cinematic perfection. 

If it had been the last word by Leone in the genre it would have been a fitting end, but the director would also go on to direct his most critically acclaimed film Once Upon A Time In The West and the underrated Duck You Sucker! aka A Fistful Of Dynamite. Once Upon A Time… may have even forced us to consider the films as a quadrilogy, had Eastwood agreed to play Charles Bronson’s role of Harmonica as originally planned, but the actor was worn out by Leone’s endless perfectionism on The Good… and his reportedly somewhat brusque personality, and so settled back into a long career as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons instead.

However, Once Upon a Time… feels much more blatant and pointed in its echoing of classic American westerns, and as a result the Dollars trilogy still feels very much like its own thing. It stands as one of the most important pieces of pop culture of the last century, an astounding body of work that in its jumble of influences feels timeless, placeless, ageless: they’re films set in the American West in the 1800s, shot in Spain in the 1960s by an Italian ripping off the Japanese.

This maybe why they don’t feel at all dated, although it’s also possibly because so many films have learnt and borrowed from their rhythms in subsequent years. It unquestionably one of the greatest trilogies of all time, and while Howard Hawks never went on the record with his thoughts on Leone’s work, according to his own maxim you would have thought that ultimately he would have approved of the Dollars movies: three great films, and no bad ones.

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Django Unchained is out in UK cinemas now.

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