Fistful of Dollars

The opening credits are part of the show, with their Westerned stage names and the terse, brilliant title.

This is a very taut line of action you might find in a Randolph Scott Western (The Stranger Wore a Gun, for example, anticipating Yojimbo). From first to last, it’s constructed of religious imagery that reflects Leone’s 60/40 plan of sound and picture in its symbolism and its naturalism. The regality and grandeur of the one match the plainspoken intimacy of the other, in the proportion of Morricone’s score (40%) with all the elements of sound, and Leone’s technique (60%).

There is a Hitchcockian sleight-of-hand that has structural uses. Joe is in Mrs. Baxter’s room without her knowledge, she crosses the room and the camera at waist-level follows her to a close-up of her outstretched hand stopped by his grasping her wrist, then it tilts up to show his other hand already over her mouth. This is how the first scene is later amplified as a revealed action, Joe has arrived at the whitewashed outskirts of the border town, he stops to drink at a well, a little boy is roaming the empty street, then climbs in a window and is ejected through the door by a fat ruffian who shoots at the dirt around his feet, driving him into the arms of his father across the way, who is then beaten, while a woman looks on from the window. Much later it’s discovered that the boy’s name is Jesus, the woman is his mother and Ramón Rojo’s captive mistress, but already it’s the parable of the vintner’s son—the division of the scene furthers the perception of each aspect.

The two witnesses of Revelation appear in a Judgement of Solomon, the town is scourged mightily and freed by the return of the hero (out of One-Eyed Jacks) suitably armored, after being carried out in a coffin, alive.

He plays the Rojos, who disguise themselves as a U.S. Army troop to murder and rob a Mexican Army gold convoy, against Sheriff Baxter (who keeps his badge in his pocket) and his arms-trading clan, until the latter are destroyed and only Ramón is left, who “always aims for the heart.”

And humming along with all this is a memory of Keaton under two flags, Pinter’s The Dwarfs, etc. So begins Leone’s long study of America (with a side trip to Mexico in Duck, You Sucker!), in the tradition of Columbus and Vespucci.

Peckinpah derived a certain view from this (and something from the rotoscoped titles) for The Wild Bunch, witness the coffinmaker in the final scene here collecting the bodies, and the influence on Eastwood in High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider and Unforgiven grows more formidable, in much the same way Leone’s own style expands upon the perfection he found by modeling a Western after Kurosawa, that great student of John Ford. Later, all the epic furor in the symbolism is allowed to permeate the structure along the line of action and extend it, giving a sense of spaciousness to some degree replacing the speed and verve of the earlier films, although it’s predominantly a shifting of dimension. Morricone’s music has longer lines, too, rather than (as here) a counterpoint of features like a three-ring circus. A vertical compression, a horizontal expanse, the same visible elements are slightly rearranged. Fistful of Dollars is fast, very fast, saying much in few frames, because of its vertical layering of symbolic expression distributed along a linear course going back and forth like Lönnrot’s labyrinth.


For a Few Dollars More

The profit of taming the West. Bad ‘un’s are everywhere with a price on their head. You can pick and choose, take them as they come.

Manco and Col. Mortimer do this separately in Tucumcari, combine in El Paso to undo El Indio, and part ways in Agua Caliente.

Mortimer’s sister killed herself to avoid El Indio’s rape.

It’s a cash-and-carry business, you stack the bodies and count the money.

Peckinpah is near, from the opening shot like the one not filmed at the start of his screenplay for Ride the High Country to the flashbacks in The Wild Bunch.

El Indio, the laughing bandit.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The screenplay adopts a supremely ironical position toward the American Civil War identical with that of Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi and Hodges’ Get Carter toward World War II (and see also Brian G. Hutton’s Kelly’s Heroes), characterizing it as a criminal conflict of rival gangs. Furthermore, the character of Blondie is loosely adapted from Twain’s Murel (in Life on the Mississippi, Chapter XXIX, cf. Paul Bogart’s Skin Game and Pollack’s The Scalphunters).

Angel Eyes is a personification of Union depredations, the first commanding officer rails at his treatment of prisoners (the second is stymied at a bridge until Blondie and Tuco blow it up to gain passage), prefiguring Lincoln’s view of Reconstruction, which also figures in the Confederate prisoners’ song (an image from Verdi’s Nabucco) under duress to cover a beating. The essence of the story is a search for Confederate gold, hidden in a grave next to a battlefield.

The speed, vitality and precision of Leone’s technique were a shocking surprise, hence his many years of stigmatization as a “spaghetti Western” director. It’s hard to compare his vivacious compositions of action, camera movement, music and editing to anyone else’s, though the range of his citations is vast and minute and extends from Griffith to Lean and just about everything in between. It might have sufficed merely to have realized his vision of the North American continent in the Spanish badlands, but he did so via the creation of a sweet new style.


Once Upon a Time in the West

The vast proportions are set up so as to provide an adequate realization of two images, one of which is a flashback.

The railroad magnate (Gabriele Ferzetti) has a dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean outside his window. He dies face down in a mud puddle.

Opposed to his roughshod tyranny, or rather that of his hired gunmen (whose job is to “clear the track of obstacles”), is a man (Charles Bronson) whom the chiefest of these once made stand under a noose, supporting his brother, whose neck was in it (this is the scene at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with a difference). The villain (Henry Fonda) thought it was comical, in a Roman sort of way, to stick a harmonica in the boy’s mouth, so he could play while his brother tottered and dangled.

The railroad does, of course, go through, but minus the appurtenances, and this is seen in a mighty panoramic shot at the close. Earlier, a long shot of a wagon on a dusty trail pans 180° to reveal Monument Valley.

An important secondary theme has the railroad’s hirelings misdirecting the law toward the notorious outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang for their own slaughter of a rancher and his family on the very day the man’s wife (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town.


Duck, You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite)

“I make Westerns,” says John Ford with utter contempt for snobs in the critical establishment. So do the Italian directors of the New Wave, so many inept twirlers of pasta for our critics. In consequence, we have the despicable history of this film, which was mutilated to varying degrees in its first twenty-five years, and only now perhaps approaches a decent cut eight years further on.

The primary structure, more and more evident throughout, is Lawrence of Arabia. An initial quotation from Mao Tse-Tung on revolution as an act of violence (as distinct from a movie or a literary citation) is said to appear in two slightly different forms, according to the restoration (one has it white on black in pieces following one another, more succinctly). The Brechtian resolve of this is more remarkable in that the subject of this film is the Mexican Revolution.

The title is a joke on Mexico after Leone’s invention of the American West, with a refinement of several themes from Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo, etc. into a meditation on the land of the eagle and the serpent.

The main structural device is the pivotal close-up, the underpinnings include The Wild Bunch. Thematic material is later developed in Once Upon a Time in America (particularly traitors in high places).


Once Upon a Time in America

The film takes place in two parts, across a divide of decades. The first part (which has an interesting division of its own) ends in 1933, the second begins and ends thirty-five years later.

Boys grow up in teeming New York to be gangsters, until their leader, Max (James Woods) conceives the ambition (he calls it a “dream”) of robbing a Federal Reserve bank. His partner Noodles (Robert De Niro) turns him in, the caper is suicidal. The gang is all but rubbed out, Max included, and Noodles shuffles off to Buffalo without, however, the suitcase holding the gang’s money, which mysteriously has been replaced with newspapers.

More than thirty years later, Max returns to New York on a summons from an unknown party, visits a crypt in memory of the gang bearing a plaque naming him as the benefactor who erected it, and on the plaque is the key to the railroad-station locker where the suitcase had been kept. Inside the locker, he finds a suitcase full of money with a note on one of the wrappers, ADVANCE PAYMENT FOR YOUR NEXT JOB. He goes to a party at the home of Secretary of Commerce Bailey, who is Max and wants Noodles to kill him, he’s under indictment, the syndicate want him silenced. For Noodles, Max is dead and buried, he wishes him well and departs, only to see Max disappear a short while later outside his estate, ingested by a passing garbage truck (a Felliniesque invention with red taillights and a grinding maw).

The incredible thing is that, after the disastrous American release of Gił la testa, Leone should once again have consigned his film to an American distributor without guarantees against mutilation. In fact, the American cut reduced Once Upon a Time in America by forty percent and rendered it all but senseless, outdoing even the ravages of RKO on The Magnificent Ambersons. Until the facts come out, this will doubtless be seen by Newsweek as yet another case of artistic self-destruction. Nevertheless, American critics distinguished themselves in this instance by spotting the devastation at once. Vincent Canby was fooled by the initial release of Apocalypse Now, he was not to be trifled with again, and eloquently described the studio rescension of Once Upon a Time in America as “a long, inscrutable trailer.” And twenty years later, with a four-hour version available, the definitive cut is still in question, the Italians having nearly ten extra minutes (a reel, in silent nomenclature), or perhaps forty, amid reports that Leone himself omitted valuable material on release.

Welles was asked what he thought of The Citizen Kane Book, in which Pauline Kael argued that he had stolen credit for the work from Herman J. Mankiewicz and John Houseman. Welles just smiled.

It hardly begins to enumerate the possibilities of significance in Once Upon a Time in America merely to suggest a root of inspiration in Leone’s experience with Gił la testa, but the work as cut in America was a laughingstock or worse, and here there is the crypt with its telltale signature, the boy watching through a peephole as a girl practices her dancing lesson, the final meeting with the big shot—and the similarity to Coppola’s ęstheticism in The Godfather—yet the sense of the New Hollywood (which began with the corporate takeovers of the Seventies) can be felt, and without diminishing the work it seems fair to educe a response from it which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever undergone the experience of seeing work butchered that is the product of years, it’s a lacerating humiliation that, especially in the case of a director like Leone who made so few films, can only be deeply injurious. It was one thing to belittle his masterpieces as “spaghetti Westerns,” but to set upon them with an editing table was really too much, hence (if the close reading here proposed be given its due weight) this address to the studio bosses from an heir of Stroheim and Welles.

The main structural considerations draw from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. If you add to this an epic dimensionality incorporating a memory effect in flashback, you have a very fair idea of the new invention Leone has achieved. Merely the fusing of Ford and Altman in this way stands as a remarkable bearing upon the question.

If Altman’s film is grasped (it has not been grasped this way) as the Van Gogh myth analyzed, there is a beautiful contrapuntal expression with Ford. However, to this central line of thought is added the parallel from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in its capacity of symbolic understanding (cf. Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, Hodges’ Get Carter). This makes for an exceedingly sharp satire of delusion and critique, “print the legend”. The irreconcilability of these two perfectly comprehensible lines is perhaps the succeeding point.

A generally painstaking technique reveals the classical Leone in the showdown treatment of Noodles and his cup of coffee in the office (The Maltese Falcon), the discovery by camera movement of the palatial Miami Beach hotel behind the sunbathers (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), as well as a Fellini touch in the last shots before the coda, among many instances of photographic realism and scenic evocation on unwonted ground, not previously covered by this director.