Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Film Appreciation - As If Death Needed a Double

Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars sequel For a Few Dollars More.

Like Clint Eastwood appearing in Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula, Lee Van Cleef earned one of his earliest acting credits in a creature feature; in Van Cleef's case, it was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Beginning his screen career with a role in High Noon in 1952, went on to work primarily in westerns but also in any other genre that came along, racking up a jaw-dropping résumé in a short amount of time. Thirteen years after the release of High Noon, Van Cleef had already had a career an actor could be content with, having earned well over 100 credits, and he was thinking of leaving acting behind and settling down as a painter. But then the offer to co-star with Eastwood in the Fistful of Dollars sequel came along.

Fistful of Dollars had been such a big hit in 1964 that the number of Italian western productions went through the roof the following year. According to online trivia, there were thirty "spaghetti westerns" made in 1965, and For a Few Dollars More was among them. Director Sergio Leone was able to convince Eastwood to dive straight into making the sequel, but the script he and his co-writers came up with required an actor to be cast in what was basically a co-lead - For a Few Dollars More isn't just a movie that belongs to Eastwood's "man with no name" character, he shares the film with bounty hunter Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Like when he was casting the nameless stranger in Fistful, Leone wasn't able to get his first choice for Mortimer. He wanted Lee Marvin for the role. He ended up with a different Lee instead, and just like Fistful really got Eastwood's movie career rolling, the sequel revitalized Van Cleef's career. Thanks to For a Few Dollars More, Van Cleef continued to work steadily for the rest of his left, earning around 50 more credits before he passed away at the end of 1989.

When the sequel catches up with "the man with no name", he's making money as a bounty hunter and going by the name Manco, which means one-handed, because he only uses his left hand for all but one task. On his right wrist he wears a leather brace, indicating that arm was injured at some point and now can't be used for anything... except he still shoots with his right hand. While some question whether or not Eastwood's character in For a Few Dollars More is really the same guy from Fistful of Dollars (despite the fact that he has the same wardrobe), if he is the right arm wound is something of a continuity error, because in Fistful his left hand was the one that got injured. Of course, if he's just been drifting and collecting bounties, there's always a chance his right hand got hurt at some point between movies.

For a Few Dollars More is a longer, slower, more complicated film than its predecessor. After introducing Manco and Mortimer on separate bounty hunting jobs, it shows that they're both interested in hunting down a criminal called El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè), whose gang has just busted him out of prison. Over the first hour there are scenes that establish just what a despicable bastard El Indio, scenes which also make this a darker film than Fistful, especially when El Indio has his gang kill a man's wife and 18 month old child, while other scenes following Manco and Mortimer set up the fact that the bounty hunters are on a collision course. It's just under an hour when Manco and Mortimer have their face-off over who gets the shot at El Indio.

Neither man will back down, neither fears the other, not even when they're firing bullets at each other's feet and shooting their hats off, so they have to come to an agreement. They will work together to bring down El Indio and his lackeys. Manco will get the bounty that's on El Indio's head, while Mortimer will collect the bounties on his gang members, which adds up to even more. To pull this off, Manco will have to infiltrate the gang, just like he infiltrated the Rojos and Baxters in Fistful.

With one on the inside and one on the outside, the bounty hunters are able to manipulate the gang's actions, gradually whittling down their numbers and stirring up distrust between members. It all builds up to a climactic shootout between our anti-heroes and the remaining criminals, during which it's revealed that Mortimer has reasons beyond the money to want to stop El Indio, and it's somehow connected to the musical watch the bank robbing murderer pulls out when he's about to shoot somebody.

I don't enjoy For a Few Dollars More as much as I do Fistful of Dollars, I prefer the simplicity and the more exhilarating tone of Fistful, but I still have a strong appreciation for this one and count it among my favorite westerns.

The sequel is more dour, despite a few comedic moments, and some of the stuff with El Indio is quite off-putting. I do enjoy the fun interaction between Eastwood and Van Cleef, and there are some good action beats. It's a bit of an issue for me that it feels like "the man in black" takes over the movie from the "man with no name", even though Van Cleef turns in a badass performance as Mortimer, walking with his revolver that has a shoulder stock. I still like Manco better than Mortimer and wanted him to be the undisputed star.

Regardless, for a script that was initially written in just nine days (there were some revisions after), For a Few Dollars More holds together quite well. While it's less entertaining to me than its predecessor, it's certainly a worthy sequel.

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