“For a Few Dollars More” - Sergio Leone (1965)

Sergio Leone, who very early in his career served as a production assistant to Vittorio de Sica for Bicycle Thieves (1948), started off directing low-budget “sword and sandal” (aka peplum) epics in the late 1950s for the Italian film industry. But in 1964 he switched genres with his A Fistful of Dollars, which was set in the American Old West.  The extraordinary success of that film launched the ensuing craze of the “Spaghetti Western”, of which Leone was the acknowledged master.  Leone went on to make two sequels to A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – and together they are referred to as the “Dollars Trilogy” or the “Man With No Name Trilogy”.  All three films were very successful, but I believe the second production, For a Few Dollars More, is the best of the three. A Fistful of Dollars was more or less a direct copy of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but recast into a Western setting, and while it was entertaining, it was inferior to Yojimbo.  The two subsequent “Dollars” films offered intensifications and exaggerations of Leone’s stylized dramatic techniques, but by the time we get to the third one, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, things have become somewhat overcooked and reached the level of slapstick.  For me, it’s the middle one in the series, For a Few Dollars More, that stands tallest.

Note that all three “Dollars” films display something of a casual, even cynical, attitude towards the American Western genre to which they belong. The surreal level of violence and the mounting body count in these films are not suitable for all tastes, even if the “bad guys” get what they deserve. Indeed, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was highly critical of the almost adolescent depiction of violence in the film [1].  In order to enter into the fantasy world of all three films (and For a Few Dollars More in particular), one must suspend one’s normal sensibilities about killing and true-to-life realism, as if one were watching a sci-fi or horror film.

For a Few Dollars More tells the story of two professional bounty hunters who compete to collect the reward for the capture or killing of a notorious outlaw.  One of the bounty hunters is “The Man With No Name”, again played by Clint Eastwood, who was the principal character in A Fistful of Dollars.  In that respect For a Few Dollars More is a sequel, but there is otherwise no narrative connection in this film to the earlier film.

Aside from Eastwood and Van Cleef, most of the rest of the cast comprised Italian actors, which didn’t matter too much, since all the dialogue was dubbed.  The most significant characters in the film are
  • Manco (Clint Eastwood) – a bounty hunter and known to the screen public as “The Man With No Name”.
  • Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) – the “Man in Black” – a bounty hunter who was once a respected military commander from “the Carolinas.”
  • El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) – his name in Spanish means “The Indian”, and he is the ultimate bad guy.
  • Juan Wild, the Hunchback (Klaus Kinski) – a minor member of Indio's Gang.  Kinski would later achieve fame in some Werner Herzog films, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
We expect that our narrative interest will focus on Manco, the presumed hero, but it turns out that the other bounty hunter (the “Man in Black”, played by Lee Van Cleef) is equally interesting, if not more so.  It is the interaction between these two ruthless and suspicious bounty hunters that fascinates.  The contrasting personalities of the two bounty hunters is notable:
This is not his name, but merely a soubriquet which means “the one-handed man”, since Manco does almost everything with his left hand.  He keeps his right hand shielded by his serape so that at first one wonders as if he is paralyzed on the right side. But when he draws and shoots his gun, he uses his right hand to deadly effect. Manco is intuitive and a perceiver, who delays action until the last second, at which point he becomes lethal.

Mortimer is about twenty years older than Manco and is a thinker.  In fact, though Manco is the presumed hero, it turns out that Mortimer is smarter, more thoughtful, better equipped with weapons, and a better shot.  He seems to be superior to Manco in every way. 
Neither man is very trustful, but it seems that Mortimer is more trusting of Manco than Manco is of Mortimer.

Another key aspect of the film is Leone’s cinematography and overall mise-en-scene. The settings look realistic enough for some Mexican border villages, but the exteriors were shot in Almeria, Spain, and the interiors in the Cinecitta studios in Rome. Leone uses picturesque long shots to set the scene, and then varies the pace by building up the tension as one of the many tense confrontations takes place between mutually hostile characters.  Leone draws out the tension in each of these scenes by showing  tight close-ups of the contestants and the onlookers.  We are expecting extreme violence in these scenes, but we have to wait as the tension mounts on each occasion.  Since these confrontations are key to the film, I will label them as C1, C2, . . . in the following.

The overall narrative goes through four basic acts that tell the tale.
1.  Introducing the Principals
In the first act, we see Mortimer hunt down and kill a wanted man so that he can collect the $1,000 reward.  This is confrontation C1. The man Mortimer kills looks inhuman, more like a rabid animal, and this  presumably serves as Leone’s “gentle” introduction to the bloodshed that will follow (roughly 30 people will be killed in this story).  Mortimer is supercool and displays his deadly marksmanship. 

In the following scene, Manco comes into a small town and finds his bounty target in a saloon. Again there is a slow buildup before Manco dispatches the wanted man and his three henchman with a few quick shots in confrontation C2.  For this he gets a $2,000 reward.

Up to this point we have been presented with two ruthless killers, and these are supposed to be the “good” guys. So their target, the third principal, has to be much worse than these guys for our sympathies to be in the right place. And Leone meets those requirements by depicting “El Indio” as an utterly sadistic psychopath who delights in the suffering he inflicts on others.  Indio is initially shown being sprung from prison by his outlaw gang, and in the process, he cruelly kills his cell-mate (C3), who had earlier given him the secret of where all the money was stored at the famous El Paso bank.  Once out of prison, Indio captures another bounty hunter (not Manco or Mortimer) who had sent Indio to prison, and he then has this man’s wife and infant child exterminated in front of him.  Then Indio finishes him off, too, by conducting what is apparently his killing ritual: a mock duel (C4), whereby he starts his musical pocket watch playing a brief tune, the ending of which will signal the time for annihilating his victim.  Leone builds up the tension during this sequence by showing 18 successive extreme close-ups of various participants and onlookers during the period that the pocket-watch music is playing.

Indio’s musical pocket watch ritual will be repeated, and we eventually learn via brief flashbacks that it is associated with an earlier time when he was obsessively in love with Colonel Mortimer’s sister. When he had encountered her with her lover who was giving her the pocket watch as a gift, he killed the man and raped her. But in the middle of his treacherous act, the mortified woman killed herself. Whenever Indio recalls those horrible moments, he drifts into a marijuana-laced haze of madness.

2.  Manco and Mortimer Meet Up
When Indio, Manco, and Mortimer variously learn that the well-guarded El Paso bank has the most money in the region, maybe one million dollars, they all head there.  Indio goes with the intention of robbing the bank, while the two bounty hunters, knowing Indio’s insatiable appetite, separately go to El Paso hoping to get the $10,000 bounty on Indio’s head. There are two confrontations in this act, but unlike the first four confrontations, they do no result in bloodshed. In the first one, C5, Mortimer intentionally insults one of Indio’s men, the hunchback Juan Wild, but despite sinister glares, nothing comes of it. In the next confrontation, C6, Manco discovers that there is another bounty hunter, Mortimer, who is after his quarry, and he tries to force him out of town. This results in a life-threatening display of marksmanship between the two, as they shoot off each other’s hats.  In the end, they decide that it makes more sense to team up and work together against Indio’s gang of 14 gun-toting desperados.

3.  The El Paso Bank Robbery
Manco reluctantly accepts Mortimer’s proposal that he join Indio’s gang and work from the inside.  This he manages to do, and he is sent off with three other gang members to rob a bank in a nearby town.  Once safely out of town, though, Manco kills the other three gang members in another deadly confrontation (C7).  When he returns to El Paso, he and Mortimer keep an eye on the bank in hopes of thwarting Indio’s intended robbery.  However, Indio’s lightning strike is too well-planned, and Indio and his men make off with the bank’s safe.

Mortimer now tells Manco to rejoin Indio’s gang and convince them all to head north. Manco joins them, but hoping to get all the stolen money for himself, he tries to double-cross Mortimer by convincing the gang to head south.  Indio has his own ideas, though, and decides that the gang should head east, to the small town of Aqua Caliente.

4.  Agua Caliente
When the gang arrives in the small town, the crafty Mortimer is there too: knowing how evil minds work, he had anticipated everything.  Bearing no grudges, Mortimer then helps Manco get through another confrontation (C8) with sinister townsfolk from Agua Caliente by displaying his uncanny marksmanship.  Then he has a deadly confrontation with the hunchback Wild in the local tavern (C9).

Through mutual greed, further double-crossings, and Indio’s relentless treachery, the rest of the gang is bumped off, one by one.  Eventually it comes down to the final confrontation (C10), again with the pocket watch, between Mortimer and Indio.  Mortimer gets his revenge, and when asked by Manco before departing if he wants his share of the money and bounties, he says, “maybe next time.”
It is difficult to specify exactly what are the elements that make For a Few Dollars More effective.  Perhaps it is its strange blend of fantasy, iconic images, and in-your-face engagement. Certainly realism is not the focus.  The marksmanship of Manco and Mortimer is impossibly accurate – they never miss, while their opponents almost always do.  In addition there is a ridiculous scene in which Manco and Mortimer are caught trying to escape from the gang with the stolen loot and are subsequently severely beaten up. This extended thrashing is so brutal that it would kill any normal person.  And yet Manco and Mortimer soon recover and barely have scratches on their faces to show for it.

No, what makes the film is the emotional intensity that is generated by the music and the pacing. Strangely, the musical score by Ennio Morricone is an integral and thematic part to the narrative. Morricone was a former classmate of Leone, and Leone would usually have the musical score for his films composed prior to shooting.  Then he would have the music played on the set (remember, the film was dubbed) while the film was shot. This may have served as an emotional guide for Leone’s direction and for the acting, too. In addition, the editorial shifts between long shots and sequences of extreme close-ups tend to put the viewer very much inside the action.  The overall effect is expressionistic immersion, and despite the lack of literal realism, it can promote a kind of emotional realism.  After all, that’s what cinema is about.

A final word concerns the role of Colonel Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef. We expect that Clint Eastwood’s character, Manco, will be the primary protagonist, but it is Van Cleef’s character that eventually dominates. He is smarter, more skilled, more measured, and more stylish than the rough-hewn, cheroot-smoking Manco. And there are interesting details about his style that one picks up as the film progresses.  He wears his gun in a cross-draw position, which would be a slower draw in a duel that requires lightning speed.  But in two lethal duels he faces in the film, he just happens to be equipped with a gun at his hip when he needs it.  Watch for that when you see the film.

  1. Bosley Crowther, “For a Few Dollars More”, The New York Times, 4 July 1967.

Sergio Leone

Films of Sergio Leone:

“Shoot the Piano Player” - François Truffaut (1960)

François  Truffaut’s first feature film, the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), was a big hit for the former film critic and auteur-theory advocate. But his second feature, Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste, 1960) did not meet the elevated expectations of the public or the critics, even though it stands today as one of the iconic French “New Wave” (La Nouvelle Vague) works.  Crafted as a mixture of comedy, romance, and film noir, the film was considered by many to be an artificial pastiche of homages and in-jokes that just didn’t add up to a coherent artwork.  Others, however, loved the film, sometimes without being able to explain why.  I am one of those who hold the film in high esteem, despite some evident flaws, and I will try to argue a case for it.

Truffaut later admitted that he was consciously trying to chart a new artistic direction with Shoot the Piano Player, in an attempt to avoid potential autobiographical typecasting arising from The 400 Blows. By making a film of an expanded narrative based on American crime writer David Goodis’s novel Down There (1956), he apparently wanted  to move away from the personal context and display his sympathies for the American films noir of the 1940s and 50s – and also perhaps demonstrate a full panoply (or at least try out a number) of cinematic techniques along the way.  Nevertheless, I feel that Shoot the Piano Player still lies in the personal psychological space of Truffaut.  Evidence for this can be seen in the fact that Truffaut modified the personality of the protagonist away from the confident and authoritative one fashioned by Goodis in the novel to a more introverted personality like Truffaut’s own.  Thus despite the stark contrasts in external trappings between these two early films, Shoot the Piano Player is still very much of a personal and existential journey like that of The 400 Blows.

To me, the main theme of Shoot the Piano Player concerns how a man enters into and establishes the most significant personal relationship in his life – the one with that woman with whom he seeks the deepest connection. This is explored here by presenting events that cast light on the internal mental landscape of the main character, Edouard Saroyan (aka Charles Kohler).  This role was played by the famous French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour, although he doesn’t sing in this film. It is interesting, by the way, that the main character’s name indicates that he is an Armenian, which is also Aznavour’s own ethnicity (his real name is Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian) [1].

One of the striking aspects of the film is its rapid narrative movement.  The version of the film that I saw recently was only 81 minutes in length, but a lot of narrative ground is covered over that relatively short stretch.  In particular there are five narrative threads of interest, each of which represents a different “world” (sphere) of concern for, and reflects a different aspect of, the main character, Charles.  For the purposes of clarity, I identify these threads as follows:
CF: Charlie’s world at the piano bar where he works and lives nearby.
CB: Charlie’s world with his two older brothers.
CW: Charlie’s world with his wife Therese
CL: Charlie’s world with Léna
CT: Charlie’s world with the two criminal thugs, Momo and Ernest
These various narrative threads are presented in ten unequally-lengthed sections .
1.  Prologue (CB)
At the outset we see a man, who we will later learn is Charlie’s brother Chico Saroyan, running through dark city streets in a desperate effort to escape some pursuers.  In his frenzy, he crashes into a lamp post and falls down.  A passerby helps him to his feet.  The two strangers now cordially engage in a discussion of what will be the film’s principal theme: what is it about women that make men love them.   The passerby explains his love for his wife and why it grew gradually over time.  Then he disappears into the night and from the rest of the story.

2.  At Charlie’s Piano Bar (CB, CF)
Chico finds the piano bar where his brother Charlie works, and he runs in to hide from his pursuers. Charlie is a tight-lipped piano player who entertains the dancing customers with his playing.  Although Charlie hasn’t seen his brother in four years, he is familiar with his usually criminal activities and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  When two thugs pursuing Chico show up, however, Charlie reluctantly does help Chico escape out the back door.  In this section we are introduced to Charlie’s introspections in voiceover, and on this occasion he reflects on his ambivalent feelings for his dumb and troublesome but upbeat brother.

This section, by the way, also features a bizarre singing performance of a witless and boring song, “Framboise”. The reasons for why Truffaut included it in the film escape me. It is apparently supposed to be funny, but it takes up a full two minutes of this 81-minute film and is merely a distraction.  Later on in the film there will be another disruptive, time-wasting song that takes up a further minute-and-a-half of screen time for no reason.  Anyway, this section does show, at least, life at the piano bar, and we are introduced to the proprietor, Plyne.

3.  Charlie with Léna 1 (CL)
At the piano bar Charlie is informed by Plyne that the pretty waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) likes him. Plyne confesses to Charlie that he moons after Léna, himself, but that he doesn’t have enough class for her.  Charlie is interested, too, and walks Léna home, but his shy, introverted nature holds him back from making any romantic moves on her, and the opportunity is lost.  During the walk home, Léna sees the two thugs (Ernest and Momo) in her hand mirror, and she and Charlie manage to run around the corner and escape their pursuers.

4.  Charlie at his flat (CF)
Back at his apartment, we see that Charlie lives with his younger brother, Fido (played by Richard Kanayan, also an Armenian), who is a young schoolboy. Charlie tucks the boy into his bed for the night, and then welcomes into his own bed his voluptuous neighbor, Clarisse, a hooker who frequents the piano bar for her clients.  From this scene it is evident that Charlie is not so shy and inexperienced as he might have at first appeared.

5.  Ride with the Thugs (CT, CL)
The next day Fido goes off to school, and when Charlie goes out, he is confronted by the two thugs who force him into their car at gunpoint and shortly thereafter do the same thing to Léna, who was also walking nearby.  The thugs, who are still after Chico for some past debts they think are owed them, want Charlie and Léna to lead them to him – and they found out where they live by bribing the bar proprietor Plyne. This is an odd scene, because what starts out as sinister soon degenerates into jocular wisecracks between the four people riding around in the car.  Again there is a conversation about women – this time it concerns the thugs’ attitudes about women and why they cannot resist their charms.  By happenstance, though, the car is stopped at a police checkpoint, and Charlie and Léna escape while the police are questioning the two thugs.

6.  Charlie’s Past (CL, CW)
Charlie again walks Léna home, and this time she invites him up to her apartment.  It is now revealed to the viewer what Léna has known all along: that Charlie was once a famous concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan.  She wants to know why he is now using a different name and performing in a dive like the piano bar where she works.  The film then goes into a 17-minute flashback covering Charlie’s account of his past.
The Flashback:
Charlie/Edouard was married to a comely young woman, Therese, and struggling to come up in the world as a pianist. By chance, it seems, he meets a concert impresario who hires him to perform, and soon Edouard is famous. But later Edouard learns that his big break was brought about by Therese’s self-sacrificing submission to the impresario’s lustful demands, in an effort to advance her husband’s career. The resulting shame and Edouard’s jealous reactions led to Therese’s suicide, which utterly shattered Edouard’s life. Blaming himself for her death, he abandoned his promising career, disappeared from view, and changed his name to Charlie Kohler.
7.  Charlie with Léna 2 (CL)
The next section is really a continuation of the previous one, but since it is the highpoint of the film, it deserves its own status.  By this point in the story it is clear that Charlie has three miseries weighing on him: 
  • his traumatic memories and guilt associated with his lost love, Therese
  • his problems with the two thugs pursuing him (and Chico)
  • his crummy life at the piano bar.

But Léna has fallen in love with him and is intent on solving all three problems.  There is now a visually lyrical scene showing her embracing and kissing him.  In her bed, she does all the talking, saying sweet romantic things to him while she caresses him.  This scene makes up for all of Truffaut’s (and cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s) other experimental misfires, and it features my most memorable images of the film.  Léna is determined that her love will revive the old Edouard Saroyan and restore him – to a happy union with her.

The next two sections of the film (8 and 9) are run in parallel, with intercutting scenes.

8.  Fido and the Thugs (CT)
The thugs now kidnap Fido from Charlie’s apartment and force him into their car.  They are still trying to find someone to lead them to Chico.  Again, these scenes with the two thugs show them engaging in small talk and telling jokes, making them appear human, even if they are desperately reckless.

9.  Léna and Charlie at the Piano Bar (CL, CF)

Léna takes Charlie back to the piano bar so that they can both resign their jobs.  But she is bitter about Plyne’s selfish betrayal to the thugs, so she mercilessly taunts Plyne.  Charlie sees that Léna’s taunts are too rough on the simple-minded and still moonstruck Plyne, but he says nothing, thinking to himself, “it’s none of your business. . . . nothing is.”  But Léna keeps at it. Pllyne, who says he worships women as angels, can't believe that Léna could act this way. Finally he goes lethally berserk and attacks Charlie in a blind rage. In the ensuing fight, Charllie accidentally kills Plyne, and barely survives, himself.  Now Charlie has another problem: the police will charge him with murder. 

But Léna whisks Charlie away from the investigating police and drives Charlie up into the mountains where his two brothers, Chico and Richard live.  At the same time, the thugs and their hostage Fido are also headed for the same place.

10.  Charlie at the Saroyan house (CL, CT, CB)
The climactic scene takes place at the snowbound Saroyan residence, where Léna, Charlie, his three brothers (Chico, Richard, and Fido), and the two thugs (Momo and Ernest) all converge.  Léna, fueled by her burning love for Charlie/Edouard, has solved all the problems up to this point, and she appears to have solved things here, too.  But not quite.  You’ll have to see the film to learn what happens in the end.
Truffaut and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who was a favorite of both Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) tried a number of film techniques in Shoot the Piano Player, and not all of them worked. But enough of them did work to result in an outstanding film that simultaneously conveys tension, vulnerability, and melancholy. All the characters, including Plyne and the two thugs, are human and almost innocent despite their violent recklessness.  This reflected a perhaps resigned, almost fatalistic, view of humanity – that each of us is just a captive of his or her own circumstances and no more or less deserving or guilty than anyone else.

For various reasons Truffaut chose to shoot in Cinemascope, and the wide-screen compositions actually contribute to a kind of expressionistic circumscription that adds to the mood. Truffaut used several mirror shots (i.e. images shown that include mirror reflections [2]) to good effect – some of them highly unrealistic but evocative nonetheless.  One example was when Léna espied the two thugs in her hand mirror when she was walking with Charlie.

The kissing scene between Léna and Charlie featured a series of superimpositions and dissolves along with jump cuts of Léna in bed talking to Charlie.  For me these work very well to convey a sense of tenderly romantic delirium.

I have already mentioned the speed of the narrative presentation, and this has a cumulative effect over the course of the film.  There are many tracking shots, but they are not leisurely – everything is moving fast in this story.  The editing is good, too – I particularly liked the intercutting of conversation among the characters inside the car driven by the two thugs. 

Returning to the movie’s principal theme about love between a man and a woman, I would say this is about love from the wistful perspective of a man whose existential survival, on the psychological level, is at stake.  It captures this feeling of loneliness and hesitancy, and its effectiveness is due perhaps as much to the memorable performances of Charles Aznavour, as Charlie, and  Marie Dubois as Léna, as it is to Truffaut’s cinematic techniques. 

  1. Some of my favorite people are Armenians, and I have always admired their style and culture.  Regrettably, though, Aznavour is a staunch advocate of heavy-duty intellectual property restrictions, which I believe and have argued are harmful to our general welfare.
  2. I have discussed mirror shots before – see for example Torment (1944).