The Evolution of Eastwood: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966)

“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.” – Blondie

I should get this out of the way right up front: I’m one of the very rare breed of film lovers who enjoys watching For a Few Dollars More more than The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. However, I do consider this third installment in the “man with no name” trilogy to be the more cinematically important film of those two, I think objectively that For a Few Dollars More is more tightly constructed and more focused overall.

This perspective was largely birthed out of this chronological, close-proximity viewing sequence. I watched each film with only a day’s break in between to collect and assess my thoughts on them. A Fistful of Dollars is a thrilling initial entry. For a Few Dollars More expands the world and enriches the character motivations substantially. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly attempts to do the same thing, while also making a handful of profound statements about the futility of violence and the cold reality of death. However, this third film takes so much time setting up that it feels unfocused in places.

There is undeniably cinematic greatness in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. The simple narrative of three competing bandits in search of a buried treasure amidst the American Civil War has the advantage of being simultaneously intimate and epic. There are moments of tremendous emotional impact, such as the scene where Eastwood’s drifter gives his coat and hits of his cigar to a dying young soldier or the juxtaposition of the hauntingly beautiful song the soldiers sing as Tuco is beaten for information. The themes are provocative, as the violence is amplified and the body count is significantly higher (of course due to wartime casualties). The film was initially heavily criticized for its violence, but reassessment over time has redeemed and highly praised Leone’s vision.

If the films latter half were the bulk of the movie, with the first half trimmed down significantly, this would easily be my favorite in the series. There are moments in that latter half that are utterly unforgettable and vastly outrank any individual moment in the first two installments. However, the first half spends a lot of time establishing the scenario: showing us Tuco and Blondie’s tenuous partnership and the ruthless, homicidal glee that Angel Eyes exhibits. We are nearly an hour into the film before we fully know the primary search the three titular icons will undertake, and while in other films that would be no complaint, Leone takes too much time in my opinion getting to where we need to get for the necessary collisions. The pacing feels ambling, as if the film were finding itself out as it went along. But once Tuco and Blondie finally set out for the buried gold, things quickly and powerfully ramp up.

My other major complaint is the disparity between how much characterization is given to Tuco (about whom we discover almost everything) versus Angel Eyes and Blondie (about whom we see primarily motivations only). If the same sparse background were given to all three characters, things wouldn’t feel so off balance. As it is, the climactic battle feels inevitable in its outcome and much of the suspense is diluted, despite the powerful cinematography, performances, and musical score.

Eastwood is given less to work with in this film than in either of the two previous installments. In A Fistful of Dollars, he had to balance pitting two rival families against each other and revealing a subtle benevolence towards a couple of their victims. In For a Few Dollars More, he juggled distrust and admiration for his new companion without ever losing the malice and threat towards the hunted bandits. But in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, he merely has to appear, look stoic and melancholy, and squint as frequently as possible. I’m not criticizing the performance, but the weight of interesting narrative beats are nearly all shifted to Tuco’s character (played by Eli Wallach). Just as For a Few Dollars More was mostly Colonel Mortimer’s story, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is mostly Tuco’s, but unlike that previous film, Leone gives Eastwood’s bounty hunter less to work with, not more.

Eastwood still delivers a compelling performance simply by standing up. It’s worth noting that this film is technically a prequel to the first two, with Eastwood not obtaining his trademark poncho until late in the film (following arguably the film’s most powerful moment). Eastwood is captivating and charismatic, but he appears to be on autopilot for a large section of the story. Perhaps his working relationship with Leone was growing tiresome (they never worked together again) or perhaps he was ready to move on to other roles, but he does seem a bit more distant in this narrative than in the first two stories.

This film is nearly universally praised. Perhaps my disappointment in this viewing is more grounded in a reaction to that praise than to the film itself. Because it is undeniably an epic achievement, deeply influential in both cinematic style and the boundaries of film at large. If my review sounds like a non-recommendation, please don’t take it as such. This is a film that deserves to be seen and that you will likely highly enjoy.

But, in charting the “Evolution of Eastwood”, the film takes a surprising (if notably tiny) step backwards. Maybe this provides an explanation for why he wouldn’t appear as “the man with no name” again, at least not for Sergio Leone.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965)

“Where life has no value, death, sometimes, has its price. That is why the bounty hunters appeared.” – Opening caption

The sequel to the landmark Italian western A Fistful of Dollars is more ambitious and often more rewarding than its predecessor. Sergio Leone had struck gold with A Fistful of Dollars and he hastily began coordination for a sequel (albeit with new producer, having fallen out with Jolly Films who produced the original). However, Eastwood was reluctant to return to his role because, at the time he was approached, he had not yet seen the first film. A print in Italian was rushed for him to view and, after screening it with a few friends, Eastwood agreed to return for the sequel.

Interestingly, despite the trilogy coming to be known as the “man with no name” series, Eastwood’s character is definitively given a name in this film: Monco. This was largely due to a lawsuit brought by Jolly Films saying that they owned the character from A Fistful of Dollars (the title itself is a subtle jab at that studio: For a Few Dollars More).

Having so recently closed work on the original, Clint Eastwood’s confidence is fixed and his focus is tight going into For a Few Dollars More. He commands the role with much more assurance and his interpretation is more complex and subtle. It adds no small measure of assistance that he is formally playing off a comrade throughout the latter half of the film. Lee Van Cleef, playing the role of Colonel Douglas Mortimer (a role originally offered to Charles Bronson), is arguably a more prominent character in this film than Eastwood’s Monco. The film opens with Mortimer, and the final moments reveal more crucial stakes for Mortimer’s character in the outcome of the narrative’s events.

The story this time is that two bounty hunters (Cleef and Eastwood) are pursuing the same man and his gang of bandits. Seeing little chance of either one of them overpowering their prey’s gang alone (and following a fantastic sequence in which they observe each other’s skills with a gun) they decide to join forces and share the profits. What follows is pretty straightforward cat-and-mouse western gunslinging, with the upper hand shifting sides a time or two before all is said and done.

Cleef’s presence is a strong counterpoint to Eastwood and the scenes with the two of them together are electric as a result. Gian Maria Volonte returns as the primary villain in this film as well (although naturally playing a completely different character) and the enemy here is more cunning, more ruthless, and more emotionally complex than any of the bandits and gunslingers from the last film. His character is visibly insane, but not with a mad, manic fury. Instead, Volonte plays moments of murder so coldly that we know we’re dealing with a psychopath, which makes his occasional vulnerable quivers and haunted flashbacks even more fascinating.

These combined elements elevate the entire picture: Volonte’s complex villain, Cleef’s compelling addition, and Eastwood’s stronger and more layered performance. For a Few Dollars More certainly feels very similar to its predecessor (although the plots are certainly distinct), but it is remarkably stronger and more emotionally rewarding. It was credited with presenting a different take on the bounty hunter character in western cinema (giving that job a more credible and potentially heroic spin) and with catapulting Cleef and Eastwood into stardom in America. There were vocal critics of the film who derided the attempt to basically paint murderers as heroes, but the film was wildly popular with audiences and it became an even greater financial success than the first film.

Eastwood was also at a cross-roads career wise. His prominent roles by this point had all been westerns and the fear of being type-cast was perhaps already being realized. But Eastwood’s obvious gain in experience (even simply between these two films) was fashioning a performer who could communicate as much with a squinty stare as he could with a monologue. A legendary actor was emerging, and that legacy would become nearly irrevocable by the time the third entry in this trilogy was released.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)

“Get three coffins ready.” – Joe

In 1964, legendary Italian director Sergio Leone changed the Western genre of cinema forever.

Prior to that time, westerns (which had been an exclusively American film genre) had been established and populated by tales of cowboys and outlaws, good guys who wear white and bad guys who wear black, wagon trails and cattle drives, not to mention a genuinely regrettable trend of negative portrayals of Native Americans and their culture. Pioneers of the genre, most notably John Ford, had carried the tropes and patterns about as far as they could go under the original paradigm. Most of them did not deal with morally complex heroes (with a few notable exceptions like The Searchers or The Treasure of Sierra Madre). And while those foundational elements are irrefutably brilliant, the genre’s popularity and effectiveness had waned by the mid-60s.

Enter Leone. Leaning on the plot of a recent Japanese film by Akira Kurasawa called Yojimbo (a stunt which got Leone successfully sued by Kurasawa’s production studio), and wanting to reinvigorate and revitalize the western genre, Leone envisioned a battle-weary town torn and terrified by the clashes of two rival families into which — one day — a stranger would ride and ignite the end of the longstanding feud. That stranger? None other than Clint Eastwood, taking on his first starring film role in the first installment of a trilogy that would propel and largely define his stardom.

There is a mountain of things to say about A Fistful of Dollars as a film and how it virtually redefined the western genre in ways which remain standard. It increased the violence and darkened the tone. It sharpened the landscape and sullied up the wardrobes. It presented a notably more brutal and unflinching world in which its characters would inhabit.

But most of all, it fashioned at its center a hero whose motives are foggy and whose morals are even murkier. He is compassionate towards and even rescues a poor family from devastation at the hands of the murderous family, but has no qualms or reservations about lying, scheming, and even casually leveraging dead bodies for his own financial gain. When the film begins, he appears to be merely a bounty hunter and enterprising gunslinger, but as the narrative progresses his deeper intentions (which border on the anarchic) emerge.

The film was, at the time, the most successful Italian film in history, spawning two even more successful (and most agree objectively better) films comprising a thematic and stylistic trilogy. When all three films came to the states (they’re called spaghetti westerns solely because they were made by an Italian director) they achieved identical success and skyrocketed the fame and career of Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood, for his part, delivers an assured and compelling performance in his first turn as “The Man with No Name.” He had played numerous supporting roles at this point in his career and had even been the steady leading role on nearly eight seasons of Rawhide for television. But his character here (occasionally called and credited as “Joe”, which is never confirmed) is firmly an antihero, the reverse in many ways of the white-hatted hero of previous landmark westerns.

What Eastwood brings to the role is a decisively enigmatic quality. His handsome face and humor-flavored voice contrast a distinctly menacing undertone. And when he squints — an entirely practical affectation caused by too much glaring light in his face — he puts on the facade of a mythic warrior, as intimidating as he is controlled. Leone (who originally did not want to cast Eastwood) later praised the subtlety of the performance, referring to it as appropriately binary. Leone is quoted as saying, “Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.” It echoes the ancient comedy and tragedy masks of classical Greek theater.

While the range is certainly limited at this point, it already foreshadows a depth and complexity Eastwood would later explore both in front of and behind the camera. For now, he shows up, makes his move, and then drifts off into the sunset. It’s an epic beginning to an epic career.

Richard Harrison, the popular western star who Leone wanted to cast (after Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and a slew of others turned him down) first recommended Eastwood for the role. Harrison would later state, “Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing A Fistful of Dollars and recommending Clint for the part.”

Honestly, with all due respect to Harrison’s fine work, I can’t say I disagree.

P.S. Although this series focuses primarily on Clint Eastwood’s evolution as an actor and director, it’s impossible to discuss A Fistful of Dollars without mentioning the iconic score of Ennio Morricone, who crafted an indelible soundscape into which westerns would venture for decades to follow. Simultaneously intimate and grand, Morricone’s score is as credited for the success of A Fistful of Dollars as either Eastwood or Leone. It’s a brilliant work and deserves its place in cultural legend.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

Feelin’ It: The Beguiled

(SPOILER FREE) Aaron & Don give their thoughts on this wickedly entertaining remake from Sofia Coppola. We try to inform you so you can decide whether this seductively complex, yet simple, film is one for you.

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Minisode 17: Tombstone

March’s Donor Pick episode is a favorite of ours and gives us a reason to praise the late, great Bill Paxton as well. Tombstone is a classic Western action-adventure with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled and perhaps the most quotable script of all-time. But it also offers us a chance to talk about themes of family, loyalty, and what it means to fight against your nature. Thank you, Patreon supporters, for picking this awesome flick for us to talk about. We had a blast and we hope you will too when listening.

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