If Sergio Leone’s first installment in the “Dollar Trilogy”, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), defined the future of the spaghetti western genre, his second installment, For a Few Dollars More (1965), guaranteed the genre’s future. It not only competed the vision that the first film started, but it also surpassed it at the box-office. In fact, out of all his masterpieces, For a Few Dollars More is Leone’s highest grossing film in the Italian market. Plus, in spite of its mediocre reviews from the confused American critics, it took in $5 million on its initial US release, a large sum for an international flick at the time.
But as impressive as its sales were, the impact that For a Few Dollars More had was even more impressive. It is one of the few sequels in the history of cinema that is better than the classic film it follows. Leone pulled this off by not just retaining those elements that made the first so good, but also by both expanding and enhancing upon them. In the process, he answered the question that was raised with A Fistful of Dollars: would Clint Eastwood have what it takes to become an international star? The answer, as it is known now, was resounding yes.
Leone also launched the spaghetti western career of Lee Van Cleef, who would go on to become the genre’s most productive and recognizable star. Perhaps most importantly, he proved himself to be that rare auteur who could consistently turn a profit.
Following the success of For a Few Dollars More, Italian filmmakers from every B-movie genre tried to make their own spaghetti westerns. Naturally, they all tried, with varying degrees of success, to replicate Leone’s stylized depiction of a American West drenched in blood from an existential-Catholic form of violence. On the other hand, composers, after experiencing for a second time the unparalleled creativity that Ennio Morricone let loose in composing for Leone, realized that they didn’t have to emulate the hokey folk songs and sleep-inducing orchestral pieces of the classic American westerns, and could make music that suited the genre rather than popular taste. Then audiences called for more violence and action, screenwriters cut-down on unnecessary dialogue, and cinematographers started shooting landscapes with wide-shots and faces with close-ups.
Meanwhile, small and large studios alike wanted a piece of the action. They wanted a taste from Leone’s golden-teated cash cow. Bad rip-offs appeared, like For a Few Bullets More (1966) which features characters dressed exactly like the leads in For a Few Dollars More: the iconic Mortimer (Van Cleef) and the Man With No Name (Eastwood). It didn’t take long for that well-dressed, weapon-savvy character of Van Cleef’s to inspire the enjoyable and enormously popular Sartana films (1968-70), while this second appearance of the Man With No Name practically forced every actor to ever take on the role of a spaghetti western protagonist to use the character as their anti-hero model.
The superiority of For a Few Dollars More over Leone’s fantastic first installment in the “Dollars Trilogy”, A Fistful of Dollars, is obvious from the very first shot of the film. We are looking across an enormous desert at an ant-sized man from the perspective of one of our bounty hunters, who then shoot the ant off his horse with a single shot just as Morricone’s title music kicks in. This opening title shot makes it clear that Leone was going into this film with a sense of control and confidence that he didn’t have in the first one. In A Fistful of Dollars, he is like Muhammad Ali in his first fight against Sonny Liston, a relatively unknown fighter brimming with talent who shocked the world and took out the champ. In For a Few Dollars More, he is like Ali in the rematch, the new champ who proves to the world that he’s here to stay by executing a seemingly easy knockout.
As this opening shots suggests, the action scenes in this Dollar film are more innovating and exhilarating than the first. There’s the scene where Mortimer takes his time to assemble what the Man With No Name calls a “contraption” of a weapon before using it to kill the wanted man who all the while is frantically shooting and missing at him across town with single shot to the head. The fun yet intense hat-shooting contest between our two bounty-hunters also stands out. Then there’s the El Paso bank robbery, perfectly organized by El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) and his gang, as well as the brilliant concluding showdown between Mortimer and El Indio as the Man With No Name referees and the chimes of their pocket-watches sing until draw-time. Leone makes every one of these scenes fresh and exciting.
But great action is meaningless without a great story, and the story Leone tells with For a Few Dollars More is what allows him to fully realize his vision of the American West this time around. With the first movie, he created an icon with the Man With No Name and then inserted him into a preexisting story, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which in turn was based on Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled crime novel, Red Harvest (1929). But with this second “Dollar” film, he had the freedom of creating a story around an already established character. This results in a more fluid and better structured film, one that highlights Leone’s visual and thematic genius.
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Eastwood as the Man With No Name is again a bounty-hunter trying to capture a murderous madman — named Ramón Rojo the first time, and El Indio this time — who is again played by the convincing and charismatic Volonte. But this time there is also Van Cleef’s bounty-hunter, an ex-confederate arms-specialist named Mortimer, who is also after the reward money. It doesn’t take long for the two bounty-hunters to realize that they must combine their resources, abilities, wit, and knowledge if they are to track-down and kill El Indio and his gang.
Leone wrote this story with Fulvio Morsella, who would later help him write My Name Is Nobody (1973), for which Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati put together the screenplay. Between the two of them, these writers were responsible for the screenplays of many of the genre’s greatest films, including Death Rides a Horse (1966), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Big Gundown (1966), Face to Face (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Duck You Sucker (1971). Perhaps more than any of their other films, For a Few Dollars More is a testament to their talent because it not only lives up to but surpasses the greatness of its predecessor.
For example, the dry, at times dark, humor in A Fistful of Dollars is also present in For a Few Dollars More, but this time around the writers scattered it throughout the film and into the characters’ mouths more naturally. The Man With No Name’s quips in the first movie sometimes come across as forced one-liners. While they work out greatly and give it that comic-book feel that would set the tone for the Dollar films to follow, as well as the entire spaghetti western genre, the jokes sometimes take you out of the story and relieve tension unnecessarily. But in For a Few Dollars More, the writers have the Man With No Name make his quips while exchanging essential lines of dialogue with Mortimer and, as a result, the humor seems to come from the characters rather than the writers and we therefore aren’t distracted.
The real key to this film’s success, however, is the presence of Van Cleef and his character of Mortimer. While the directing of Leone, the score of Morricone, and the acting of Eastwood and Volonte (as well as the supporting cast such as Klaus Kinski as a hunchback) are improvements upon, or at least equal to, what they did in the first film, Van Cleef is an entirely new force. Whether it is because of the plot twist at the end involving his backstory or the coolness of his demeanor, he is arguably the most memorable force in For a Few Dollars More.
His inclusion is not only a result of the screenwriter’s imagination, but also the bigger budget that resulted from the success of the first film. With the extra financing, Leone was able to add another name actor to the cast, and he went with the Dutch-American Van Cleef, who had made a name for himself in the States working in every cowboy series from Annie Oakley in the ’50s to The Rifleman in the ’60s. Leone made this choice not so much for his acting ability, but because he thought he channeled the great impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh. Leone reportedly thought he had “the same brand of hopelessness, the hint of genius, the same intense eyes, eagle-like nose and clear forehead” as the painter. Since Van Cleef was at the time, as the spaghetti western gods would have it, making a meager living as a freelance painter, he jumped at the opportunity. And the rest, as they say, is history.