“Three” has become such a powerful number in our world—we live in three dimensions, many things are divided into three portions (beginning, middle, end), there are three phases to our moon, Pythagoras was a huge fan of the number, every good joke is built from “The Rule of Three,” competitions often celebrate only the top three performers, genies are fond of granting only three wishes, and so on and so forth. Three has ingrained itself as a very natural, aesthetically pleasing and subconsciously “comfortable” number. We expect good things when “three” is involved.
Why then, do most film trilogies suck? Did Hollywood not get the memo about “three” being such a magical number? Or is the film industry for whatever reason vexed, doomed to churn out sequels and threequels that only serve to taint the legacy of the first entry? How many times have you ventured into the second or third installment of a series after being elated by the original, only to be met with crushing disappointment? Even when lucky enough to stumble upon a solid One-Two combo, the inevitable Number Three is hard to get right (*cough* THE GODFATHER *cough*).
Of course there are exceptions to this rule; however, they are far outnumbered by the gaggle of lopsided trios—the kind that always require caveats when brought into discussion (”But the First and the Third are so good that the Second one doesn’t even matter!”). And even rarer than a trilogy that maintains a consistent level of mastery and interest over the three films is one that gets better with each entry. In fact, film trilogies that start off great and consecutively improve are so uncommon a phenomenon that when they do surface, they often have the power to do something amazing—like recontextualize an entire genus of cinema in their wake. Long before Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy prompted a paradigm shift with how we view Fantasy films, Sergio Leone defibrillated the dying breed of gritty, unscrupulous, testosterone-driven, low-budget Westerns.
When considering the true origin of “Spaghetti Westerns,” things are bound to get impossibly muddled, wrapped in a layer of transient etymology and superficial pedantry. Some may cite the mid-to-late-1950s as the emergent period, while others will make an argument for a few works in the early-40s, the two sides sure to descend into a heated debate over the subtle yet important differences between “Spaghetti Westerns” and “Euro-Westerns,” unable to arrive at any confident consensus. Ask the question, ”When did Spaghetti Westerns truly begin to carve their niche into popular culture?” though, and the answer will likely be ubiquitous: 1964, of course, with the release and widespread success of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
Not to entirely whitewash Leone’s transgression, viz. harvesting and essentially revamping Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO nearly shot-for-shot (a maneuver that seems staggeringly brazen, but was a rather common practice among these underfunded European filmmakers), but even when working with someone else’s material, he managed to very much make it “his own”—so much so, in fact, that it never feels like you’re watching a copycat or a shameless, second-rate rip-off. Could partially reduce down to personal bias—whether you prefer the Old West milieu to that of the Far East Samurai—but even the biggest dissenters would sound silly denying Leone’s confidence and precision at the helm.
FISTFUL may not have been the first-ever Spaghetti Western, but it was easily the most important—a volatile watershed for an otherwise peripheral subgenre, tossing raunchy, sweltering machoism into the limelight and resetting the parameters for future outings. Camera angles from the shooter’s hip, blistering facial closeups, tight-lipped and rhythmic editing, and a moral compass so twisted that it’s constantly threatening to asphyxiate itself. Leone didn’t create the Western, but he completely reinvented it, revising the blueprints for mano e mano gunslingers until they no longer resembled their stiff, exasperatingly measured counterparts from decades past.
The effort was not a singlehanded one; Leone’s masterful direction is integral, obviously, but constitutes only one of this tricycle’s three wheels—the other two, equally as important to FISTFUL’s triumph, are Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood. One of the opening shots of Joe calmly walking through the town’s main street towards a group of four gun-wielding townspeople wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Eastwood under the poncho or Morricone’s (now iconic) score decorating the background. It’s a deadly trifecta, each aggregate element bringing out the absolute best in the other two.
Crucial, too, to the prosperity of the follow-up installments is the continuous whetting without unnecessary strain to reconstruct the brand. Leone struck gold—he knew it, the world knew it. The worst thing he could’ve done is let his ego exceed his abilities as a filmmaker, going too bombast or too outlandish, straying too far from his previous formula and alienating his newfound fanbase in the process. Understandably, though, you can’t churn out the same exact movie over and over again and expect people not to notice. Improvement is absolutely necessary, but it must be controlled.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to Leone’s next film, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, is its originality. After a bountiful (yet warranted) lashing from Kurosawa for swiping his story, Leone wisely hired Luciano Vincenzoni to write his next screenplay from scratch, even contributing to major events and bits of dialogue himself. Freelancing is always risky (especially when transitioning from something so previously well-established), but it payed off tenfold—FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is every bit as robust as FISTFUL, arguably even more so, given the crew’s ability to tailor the narrative directly into Leone’s inaugurated sensibilities.
It’s true that the old YOJIMBO story wasn’t mushy or tame by any means, but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is undeniably grimier and lacquered with additional layers of grit, the unscrupulous worldview pocketed right in the opening sequence as a horseback rider is shot from a distance, left to rot in the smoldering heat of the desert towering around him—it’s a film that values basic existence less than even its monetary title would suggest, and Leone wastes no time making this clear to his audience.
Eastwood, likewise, feels and looks increasingly confident in his recurring-yet-technically-unrelated role as The Man With No Name Part II—his stoicism more self-assured, his verbal gamesmanship easily as terse but eminently more piercing. But what great trilogy could possibly survive with only one patently untouchable figure at its center? Doubling down, Leone casts Lee Van Cleef—an aging, stone-faced man from New Jersey whose resumé was laden with unimpressive bit-parts and tertiary roles, yet to prove himself worthy of a big-time, co-leading spot.
And what’s more—not only does Leone bring a relative no-name on board, but he rests the film’s apex directly on his shoulders. Eastwood had more or less been iconized with FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, so it would only make sense to take that ball and run with it. But the climax of FOR A FEW FOLLARS MORE finds Clint sitting patiently on the sidelines while Van Cleef is the one whose leathery eyes are cycling through Leone’s pressure cooking finale opposite the villain, squaring off for his life. This bold decision created an insurmountable return on the investment, though, and under his wing, a second star was born.
Furthermore, given the wildly favorable reception to Morricone’s work the previous year, his latest score amalgamates itself as both commentary (as before) and diegetic—oftentimes within the very same scene. The infamous pocket watch melody patches over those blurred lines between the filmic world and the purely omniscient surrounding space; it’s an overarching theme recognized by both us and the characters on-screen, representing viscera on each side of that coin—it’s the kind of score that transcends mere background noise and makes you thankful people like Ennio exist.
So where can things possibly go from here? Surely this dynamic unit had expended all its facilities. But Leone, fearless as ever, pushes his chips forward once more, casually stepping into full-blown “epic” territory, and crafts not only the crowning achievement of his career, not only the best Western across any region of origin, but one of the greatest films of all time. And while there’s certainly some subjectivity in that statement, it’s hardly hyperbole—you’d be hard pressed to find someone with an adequate explanation for why THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY isn’t a timeless masterpiece.
The path Leone had taken to get to this point is that of a chef with a raw, natural ability for whipping up amazing dishes. The first effort was excellent as it was, and could easily be the pinnacle of many others’ oeuvres. But the desire for perfection is never complacent—a great chef can pinpoint the nuances and flavors that “work” and those that don’t, and henceforth adjust and tweak to improve the dish, amplifying the savory aspects and muting the harsher elements. Leone is no different, and each film a constructive refinement of its predecessor—gaining runtime but upping efficiency significantly.
Another DOLLARS entry, another new face deservingly eulogized—this time it was Eli Wallach, a longtime stage actor who showed no trouble adapting to Leone’s sordid environment with ease, embodying the very essence of the film itself in a surprisingly elaborate package of moral ambiguity and constantly shifting, always enigmatic intentions (even his previous Western roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and HOW THE WEST WAS WON were far more straightforward and one-sided). Eastwood returns, of course, as steely and imperturbable as ever, as does Van Cleef—swapping sides effortlessly from the Allies to the Axis, showing he’s got no problem being either a beacon of righteousness or a semblance of pure evil.
Even Morricone—who previously achieved near-flawlessness with his musical contributions to FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE—persists and somehow finds a way to ameliorate his talents, piling perfection on top of perfection, popping out what might be not one but two of the most recognizable cinematic tunes of all time—the opening ”Ahee-ahee-aahhh, wah WAH waaaah,” an overarching theme that has become synonymous with the entirety of Westerns at this point, and “The Ecstasy of Gold,” which might be the greatest piece of music ever written.
Makes sense then, that it should commence the greatest twenty minutes of film ever directed, yeah? All of Leone’s handiwork and steadily-growing trademarks—the uncomfortably warm, juxtaposing facial close ups; the towering apparition brought on by the searing topography; the pot-boiling hotbox of seedy, self-serving rectitude and blatant disregard for human life; the unwavering and pitiless personalities; the unbearable tension that can be derived from a simple glace; the dense, cyclic, and impossibly taught editing—are culminated, polished, and succinctly packed into the film’s grand finale, beginning with the discovery of a graveyard and rupturing with the medium’s most celebrated Mexican stand-off.
The cuts shuffle through the heads of the three men, their guns, and their hands, getting increasingly closer with each pass until shots that once revealed an entire face now only hold sets of menacing eyes, casting nervous glances back and forth; the music waxes and intensifies, only to drop-out momentarily before it begins to build itself up again, creating an accruing tension in the uncertainty it elicits. Each paw draws nearer to its holster, the succession gets faster, the gazes flimsier, the foreheads sweatier, then—bam! Shots ring out and the lid flies clean off the Crock-Pot. What a way to end such a miraculous series of fims.
Maybe there’s some kind of latent magic beneath the triple-triple-triple execution of Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy—three films with three major components (Leone, Eastwood, Morricone) over the span of three years—wherein it broke free from the cinematic damnation usually cast upon three-part endeavors. It’s difficult to even think of another such case—usually the director bails out after the first or second film, major casting changes are made, different composers are used (then again, it’s not like THE GODFATHER PART III would’ve been good even with Nina Rota on board).
It was a very precise, very peculiar, very particular combination of ingredients that led to this proverbial riptide—Leone’s unwavering confidence, intrinsic prowess behind the lens, and willingness to constantly outdo himself; Eastwood’s unmatched, callous disaffection and a prickly, barbed glare that simmers like no other; and Morricone’s euphonious dexterity, including his ability to shape the tone of his pieces to fit perfectly within the context of the narrative, whether it be dusty, boundless prairies or searing, congested clambakes. It was an exercise in alchemy, and it was engineered impeccably.
None of which is to say that other great Westerns or even “Spaghetti” Westerns don’t exist; they do, assuredly. Even Leone himself went on to create two more, one of them oft-considered his true masterpiece by several groups of rabid fans that have amassed over the years—ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST—and it’d be hard to argue that one might not prefer that train-riding, harmonica-laden, revenge-seeking outing over the rest. But it’d be harder to posit that it would even exist in such a solidified capacity if not for the cornerstone trilogy that came before it.
Sergio Leone did for Spaghetti Westerns (or even Westerns, full stop) what Thomas Edison did for the lightbulb. He didn’t invent something wholly undiscovered from the vast expanse of nothingness—he merely took an idea that had had potential, but was left largely unfulfilled, and fine-tuned it, reinvigorated it, festooned it, made it more palpable and accessible, and canonized himself and (at least) two others in the process. After 1966, the way the world looked at Westerns was never the same.