The Evolution of Eastwood: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

“It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.” – The Stranger

It’s highly appropriate – almost poetic – that Eastwood’s second directorial feature would be a western. What is even more bold and provocative is for it to have been High Plains Drifter, a brutally bleak and gritty story that is grim, violent, offensive, and – perhaps literally – haunted. It’s also deeply compelling and remarkably effective.

The film opens with a horizon shrouded in a blurry heat. Suddenly, not so much emerging as fading into view, a single rider makes his way into the town of Lago, with every public townsperson standing in suspicious awe as he rides through. Within minutes of his arrival, he has killed three men and raped a woman in broad daylight. The next day, this same stranger is commissioned out of desperation to protect the town from the impending threat of three former residents who will soon be released from prison and make their way back to town to enact revenge on those who imprisoned them. He accepts the offer and begins to make every use of his newfound power, rattling every complacent and corrupt citizen’s routine existence into chaos. By the time the three villains do arrive, a deeper and darker purpose behind the stranger’s presence in the town begins to fully reveal itself.

Eastwood returns to his old familiar character, this time a literal “man with no name” as his identity in the film is never confirmed (his character is even credited as “The Stranger”). His performance here is as volcanic as it has ever been, and it is surrounded by a host of equally compelling performances under Eastwood’s strikingly assured directorial hand. The script was fashioned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidymen from a 9-page treatment pitch. It is saturated in mystery and soaked in dread: a quality mirrored in the film’s shadowy visual aesthetic and ethereal musical score. Indeed, the overall tone of the film and the feelings behind some of its individual moments are far more akin to ghost stories than to western legends.

It is difficult to discuss this film, filled as it is with such unflinching ugliness, as a recommendation. But it is also difficult not to recommend a film so confident and coherent in its vision, and so utterly effective in its impact. It should be clarified that there are no real “good guys” in this film. As a textbook example of the revisionist western, wherein good guys and bad guys blend together as shades of grey, this film makes no pretense about its foggy moral complexity and its disturbing view of human nature. Keep in mind something that I mentioned earlier: that the supposed “hero” of our story, within the first fifteen minutes of the film, commits a blatant act of sexual assault. Roy Rogers, this ain’t.

Yet, the film is also surprisingly vocal about matters of conscience, infusing scattered observations about hypocrisy and injustice into its cinematic dna. The film seems to be making sweeping statements of morality such as bystanders who do nothing are never “innocent” or that you can never fully bury your transgressions in the sand. But it does so without allowing the audience the reprieve of a saintly hero. Instead, we get almost the living embodiment of willful vengeance. The premise could be seen as analogous to, “what if a day of reckoning came to certain members of a corrupt society, but instead of a righteous avenging angel who brought justice, it was the Devil himself?” (an analogy further substantiated by the fact that in the film’s final third, The Stranger paints the town blood red and paints the word “Hell” on the entrance sign). Vengeance is at the very core of the film, although on whom and why is not revealed until nearly the film’s final act. But there are hints speckled throughout the narrative that this stranger did not arrive by accident and that every inhabitant’s desperate attempts to control their own fates have merely been the movements of pawns orchestrated by a sinister puppet master.

Not everyone will be on board for this level of moral ambiguity, and rightfully so (John Wayne himself penned a tasteful but derisive letter criticizing the film’s philosophy of humanity and its perspective on the western era of history). But those who can quickly acclimate to this bleak and unyielding revenge tale will likely find themselves highly rewarded, as the film is so effective it almost dares you to try to dismiss it.

As a sophomore effort by Eastwood as a director, the achievement is astounding. He has channeled the muses of both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, whose works so clearly informed his emergence as a performer, blending both their penchant for grandeur with their haunting storytelling sensibilities. Their names can briefly be seen on the gravestones in the town into which Eastwood’s stranger rides, but it’s only two of many implied ghosts that haunt the tale of the High Plains Drifter. This is a disturbing and provocative film, not to mention powerful, and while its content is likely to distance more than a few audience members, its impact is undeniable.


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: JOE KIDD

JOE KIDD (1972)

“You get to a church right now and you pray I don’t see you again before this thing is done.” – Frank Harlan

Eastwood returns to the genre that made him a star after a 4-film gap, and this time, the pedigree of talent is significant. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the film.

The script for Joe Kidd, penned by the legendary Elmore Leonard, was given to Eastwood as a star vehicle for him. Cementing the pedigree behind the film’s production was the addition of not only Eastwood as the titular star, but Robert Duvall as a villainous landowner and director John Sturges, who had helmed such acclaimed classics as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

Set in the early 1900s, the film centers around a former bounty hunter named Joe Kidd (Eastwood) who is reluctantly drawn into a land dispute between the rebellious Luis Chama (played by John Saxon) and the greedy land-peddler Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). Loyalties are tested and sides are flipped as the contest develops, culminating in Kidd taking matters into his own hands to settle the conflict for good.

On a surface level, there’s a lot to appreciate about Joe Kidd. There is a simple, direct narrative with a crisp and steady pace. The performances are unanimously strong (which is to be expected given the interplay of Eastwood and Duvall). Overall, the film is entertaining enough, particularly for fans of standard western genre fare. The problem is that it’s largely unremarkable, which – when the pedigree of its production is this high – is no small detriment to the film’s commendation. It’s also relatively short for most of Eastwood’s catalogue, clocking in at a mere 87 minutes, which could be a compliment to its economy of storytelling if its individual elements were more compelling.

Eastwood as a performer seems a bit pedestrian this time around, lacking either the stony subtlety of the “man with no name” or the fiery passion he brought to previous westerns like Hang ‘Em High or Two Mules for Sister Sara. On-set information indicates that he was struggling with several health complications, which may have contributed to a lackluster performance, and even at his worst he delivers the appropriate gravity and charisma to be consistently watchable. Duvall is compelling, as always, but relatively under-used, with the bulk of his dramatic moments peppered through his grand introduction to the story. The characters are rather painfully underdeveloped, with stereotypical behaviors and confusing shifts in motivation.

But Joe Kidd is still pretty good. At least, it’s good enough for a Saturday afternoon diversion if you’re a fan of westerns and haven’t checked it out yet. There are some elements to enjoy and certain moments that are undeniably entertaining (like the rather outrageous climactic moment involving a train barreling through a saloon). But the film is ultimately very benign, and given the talent driving its creation, it could – and probably should – have been excellent.


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: TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970)

“Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once.” – Hogan

The script for Two Mules for Sister Sara was shown to and discussed with Eastwood by Elizabeth Taylor while he was filming Where Eagles Dare with her husband Richard Burton. The original plan was for her to star in it, but when the time came, she was busy on another project. The role went to Shirley MacLaine (a more established star than Eastwood at the time), and it was the last time in Eastwood’s career that he would get second billing for a major role in a feature film.

Partnering up once again with director Don Siegel, who had helmed Coogan’s Bluff previously, and bringing on composer Ennio Morricone to score the film provides some familiar touchpoints for Eastwood in this film while still allowing him to flex a bit of range in his characterizations. He plays a drifting bounty hunter named Hogan (who strongly resembles his “man with no name” with the hat and cigarillo but minus the poncho) who rescues a nun (Sister Sara of the title) from a group of lecherous bandits and finds that his current mission to capture a French-occupied fort coincides with hers to rescue a group of prostitutes from the same place.

Despite much grumbling and numerous frustrations (not to mention her nunnery vows), Hogan finds himself drawn into romance with Sister Sara which deepens even further after he is badly wounded by a group of Indians along their quest and nursed back to health by her. Her impetuous boldness and his stubborn attitude provide much of the flavor and enjoyable drama in the film, and the broader setting of their mission raises the stakes to a very effective and engrossing level.

Eastwood is more talkative and expressive in this film than in any of his previous works thus far, frequently casting out sarcastic arguments and displaying exaggerated reactions to the absurdity of his character’s predicament. It is no small degree of fun to see him flex his characterization this way, and MacLaine’s fiery, assured portrayal as Sister Sara is an excellent counter to him. The story itself isn’t the strongest, but its functionality as a vehicle for its stars is well-suited and Siegel handles the pacing and tone extremely well. There is even a soft third-act twist that makes for a fitting resolution to both the narrative and the characters (I call it a “soft” twist because it is a twist of character rather than of plot).

I enjoyed Two Mules for Sister Sara quite a bit. It finds Eastwood playing to some of his strengths without feeling too familiar and finds him stretching his talents without drifting too far upstream from his core appeal (like what happened with the poorly crafted Paint Your Wagon). There are rumors that things on set were tense with MacLaine, not necessarily between her and Eastwood but between her and Siegel, and the film certainly feels as if her character is the more crucial one driving the overall production forward. This is not to say that she overshadows Eastwood, but it is telling that not only did Eastwood never take secondary billing again, he also wouldn’t work with a female co-star of his same celebrity status again until Bridges of Madison County.

But for fans of Eastwood westerns, this is a must-see. I’d even say it’s a must-see for fans of westerns in general. And even for the broader general audience, it’s an enjoyable comedy-action-western that’s likely to bring several smiles to your face and an ultimately satisfied feeling when the credits roll.


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: PAINT YOUR WAGON

PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969)

Take this in: Clint Eastwood. Lee Marvin. Western… Musical.

If that general concept strikes you as somewhat odd, you’re in the precise mindset to encounter 1969’s Paint Your Wagon. Directed by Joshua Logan based on the Broadway play by Alan Jay Lerner, Paint Your Wagon is an odd and apparently misguided venture from conception all the way to execution.

Adapted by the legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, the production became troubled even from earliest developments. The location was remote, forcing the cast and crew to be helicoptered in every day. The original playwright micro-managed Logan’s direction, forcing frustrations and production delays. Lee Marvin, while regarded by everyone as a consummate southern gentleman, was also unfortunately drunk for nearly every scene of the film. Locals were used as extras who eventually became a coercive union, forcing the budget to bloat even further with unreasonable demands that had to be met rather than further delay production.

These complications don’t automatically shine through in the finished film, but something beneath the surface certainly feels strained. The result is a film that’s overlong, unfocused, and largely thematically confused. There are a couple of memorable songs, but even they feel somewhat forced amidst an ambling and disjointed narrative.

The story, in brief, centers around Ben Rumson (Marvin) who, after finding the wreckage of a wagon that left one man dead and the man’s brother (Eastwood) severely wounded, discovers gold dust and stakes a claim there. Eventually a town builds up around that claim, and into that town drifts a Mormon man with two wives (one of whom he rather casually sells off to the highest bidder – which, of course, winds up being Rumson). As the town continues to boom, a love triangle forms between Rumson, his “Pardner” (Eastwood), and the bride (Jean Seberg) which is set against the backdrop of the wild and fickle gold rush in California. Eventually the triangle (and the town) collapses, leaving our characters to decide for themselves how to tackle whatever comes next.

Eastwood again takes a supporting role here, following his strong presence in Where Eagles Dare. His acting is a bit less steady, and it is disarming on a fundamental level to hear him sing (he and Marvin both perform all of their own songs), but his character in this is far too aimless and reactionary to really anchor any of his performance choices. Where he had previously seemed to bring the full power of his expertise to the strong, silent type role of Lieutenant Schaffer, he now seems to feel out of sorts and confused, wondering both on and off screen (apparently) just where the hell everything is going.

Fans of large-scale movie musicals may find a handful of diamonds in the rough to cherish, but not being in that company myself, I found little to admire and even less to enjoy. The narrative is tedious, the comedy is too ham-fisted, the drama is too self-important. And the theme of the piece seems to confuse whether it wants us to be on board with our protagonists’ philosophies or not (it spends 2 hours bringing us on board with their frontier ways of thinking and living only to monumentally dismantle all of them in the last 30 minutes and ultimately justify the stark-raving preacher who condemned it all).

If I haven’t made it clear enough, I did not enjoy Paint Your Wagon. However, it is a vital entry in Eastwood’s catalogue for one gigantic reason: this is the film that made Eastwood want to become a director.

He would later reference Paint Your Wagon specifically as an impetus for him to move more firmly behind the camera. He said that being a part of this production taught him “how not to make a movie.” And it would only be a couple short years later before he would indeed step behind the camera for the first time, beginning a lifelong legacy that expanded beyond performance into the realm of Hollywood storyteller. If only for the push in that impressive direction, perhaps Paint Your Wagon should be thanked after all.


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: COOGAN’S BLUFF

COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968)

“You better drop that blade, or you won’t believe what happens next, even while it’s happening.” – Coogan

Work began on Coogan’s Bluff (the second of three Eastwood films released in 1968) even before Hang ‘Em High had been released. The original script had appealed to him and offered a welcome chance to move away from the westerns for which he was known without really moving away from them. Essentially, the film is a western in tone, style, and characterization, but set in 1960s New York City.

The plot involves a womanizing and reckless Chief Deputy from Arizona named Walt Coogan (Eastwood, of course) who is given orders to extradite a prisoner he’d previously captured from New York City. While in the city, he finds himself in conflict with the bureaucracy standing between him and his prisoner and a stubborn Chief of Police (played by Lee J. Cobb). He bypasses the process with lies and exaggerations to get his hands on his prisoner, but he is then tricked and ambushed and the prisoner escapes. What follows is a vigilante manhunt through the city, against the will of both the city police and his own chief back in Arizona, wherein Coogan attempts to bring his escaped convict to justice.

The film was a decent hit in 1968, so I was excited to see it (it’s the first one in this year-long challenge that was new to me). It is most notable for being the first partnership between Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel (who would go on to direct Eastwood four more times, most notably in Dirty Harry). Prior to their pairing for this film, neither of the two men had even heard of each other, but they worked well together and became good friends off-set as well.

As for this first outing for them, Coogan’s Bluff is very “of its time”, which isn’t entirely a compliment. The sensibilities of late-60s/early-70s cop thrillers aren’t terribly appealing to me and some of them border on distasteful, particularly in their treatment of women (of which Coogan’s Bluff has a handful of transgressions). The script is often painfully utilitarian, the direction is straightforward and pedestrian, and the general resolution feels too tidy given some of the narrative’s general complications. In short, it’s easy to see why contemporary audiences enjoyed it, but it doesn’t hold up very well.

What works about it is Eastwood’s steady – if unremarkable – performance, two genuinely thrilling action sequences (one of them a motorcycle chase and the other an out all brawl in a pool room), and an even, simplistic narrative. Unfortunately, these merits don’t quite elevate the material beyond the status of a Saturday afternoon cable matinee. It’s worth noting that the script was a matter of some frustration for Eastwood. He had originally been drawn to the simplicity of the original script, penned by Rawhide veterans Herman Miller and Jack Laird as a possible TV pilot. But upon hiring writers to make the script more cinematic (and watching it go through several unlikable drafts), Eastwood rejected any further rewrites in favor of going back to the original concept. Dean Reisner was finally hired and, with considerable input from Eastwood himself, a new script was finished. This overall experience would start a long-standing distaste in Eastwood’s work for extensive revisions to scripts.

I can’t speak to the quality of the scripts that didn’t make it to the screen, but the one we finally get isn’t very good. It isn’t surprising that it was originally conceived as a TV pilot (the overall production has a decisively small-screen feel), but the script has three major problems:

First, the character of Coogan isn’t very likable (or effective). His treatment of women seems inconsistent (he slaps a man for groping a woman without permission, but frequently makes unwanted advances himself and even roughs up a woman late in the film to obtain information). It’s also his own impatience which causes the primary problem in the first place. His “bluff” subverts due process and enables the prisoner to escape. It’s difficult to root for a hero so fundamentally impetuous and arrogant. Eastwood plays Coogan with an appropriate blend of machismo confidence and gruff rebellion. It’s a steady and assured performance, but ultimately unremarkable and made even less so by how unlikable the character is.

Second, the film’s treatment of women is – at times – painfully offensive. In the character of Julie Roth (played by Susan Clark), the film seems to be attempting to present an independent and self-sufficient working woman, but her inevitable swooning over Coogan and her passivity towards moments of objectification are troubling at best and offensive at worse. All other female characters are reduced to objects of either Coogan’s affections or the villain’s (including the one Coogan eventually starts tossing around a room). It may not be uncommon given the times in which the film was made, but it’s uncomfortable and potentially upsetting to current sensibilities.

Lastly, the stakes in the script are simply too small. The reason for Coogan’s inability to extradite the prisoner is described in only the broadest of terms (which might support the character’s reason for bypassing it entirely). But even after Coogan’s “bluff” to get his hands on the prisoner lands him in deep trouble with both the local and his own direct authorities, his continued vigilante tactics are eventually dismissed with impunity simply because they are ultimately successful (yes, I know I just spoiled the ending of the film, but with a film like this you’ll already see the ending coming from an hour away).

Coogan’s Bluff is, in many ways, a very natural next step in Eastwood’s filmography. Coogan wears a cowboy hat (and is often referred to as “cowboy” by other characters). He carries himself very much the way Jed Cooper from Hang ‘Em High carried himself, with simple drives and simple goals. He’s the same basic character we’ve already come to know him as playing, just in the city instead of the west. Fans of this genre’s period will likely find this to be a perfectly acceptable entry, if not an impressive one. But for the casual film viewer, Coogan’s Bluff is little more than mild, diversionary fare.


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: HANG ‘EM HIGH

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968)

“All right, now that makes three mistakes we’ve made. The money, we hung an innocent man, and we didn’t finish the job.” – Captain Wilson

Clint Eastwood spent three years in the 1960s filming the “man with no name” trilogy under the direction of Sergio Leone, then another two years after that recording his dialogue for the English language releases. The whole process left him frustrated and stalled, but it also made him an almost immediate superstar. Following the consecutive American releases of the Leone films (which all hit the states in 1967), Eastwood would release no less than three films in the following year.

Amidst the release of the Leone trilogy, Eastwood was given two scripts almost simultaneously. One was a larger scale western adventure starring Gregory Peck called Mackenna’s Gold. The other was a lower-scale revenge piece (also a western) called Hang ‘Em High. Eastwood preferred the latter script, and even launched his own production studio to see it made. Sergio Leone was approached to direct, but he was already deep into production of Once Upon a Time in the West (with which he finally got the chance to work with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson). So Eastwood called on an old friend of his, Ted Post, who had directed him in more than 20 episodes of Rawhide.

Hang ‘Em High begins when Jed Cooper (Eastwood) is taking a newly purchased herd of cattle across the plains. He is suddenly accosted by a posse of nine bloodthirsty vigilantes who, mistaking Cooper for a murderous cattle rustler, lynch him without trial on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for them, they do a sloppy job of it and Cooper survives. Later deputized as a US Marshal, Cooper sets out on a legally sanctioned quest to bring his nine assailants to justice.

For the majority of its runtime, the film treats its elements very directly. The narrative, the conflict, and the character’s motivations and morals are all very simple, almost superficial. Adding some thematic flavor to the whole piece is a hanging-hungry town judge (played by Pat Hingle) and a beautiful owner of the local general store (played by Inger Stevens). While these two characters influence the plot in ways you’d easily predict, each of them also hides a painful darkness that provides some unexpected momentary thematic exploration. For example, Judge Fenton is so protective of the ideal of just punishment that he is willing to hang two younger boys caught up over the heads in associative crime than provide them the opportunity for rehabilitation (a decision that puts him in direct odds with Cooper). Likewise, Rachel Warren (the store owner), who is openly benevolent and sympathetic to hanging victims, is secretly waiting for the opportunity to watch the man who assaulted her years earlier hang for it.

Eastwood’s acting is solid, of course, but there is a bluntness to his performance that feels almost amateurish at times. After three straight films under a decidedly different visionary director than his Rawhide days, working under a Rawhide veteran for this film may have reverted some comfortable habits. The mystique of the “man with no name” is replaced by an only slightly modified version of the heroic “white hat” character that Eastwood had taken on the Leone roles to flex away from in the first place. Perhaps Eastwood saw this film as a blend of comfort and challenge, by playing a more familiar and safer role to which he was more accustomed but obtaining more creative control by sending the film through his newly formed production studio.

But this is not to say that Hang ‘Em High is by any means a low-quality film. It’s skillfully structured, has a frequently gripping and suspenseful script, and features a collection of high-caliber performers (including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, and a cameo appearance by the then-unknown Dennis Hopper). If you pay attention, you’ll locate Jonathan Goldsmith – the “most interesting man alive” from the Dos Equis commercials – as one of the nine vigilantes. It definitely lacks the flourish and grandeur of the spaghetti westerns, but still serves up an entertaining, well-told story.

Hang ‘Em High does not by any means reinvent the western wheel (and rabid fans of the Leone trilogy may not immediately acclimate to the more blunt, direct tone of its style), but it is a solidly entertaining western classic well worth the time of even a moderate fan of the genre.


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: 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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