Sergio Leone played the numbers game – one hero/anti-hero for debut A Fistful of Dollars (1964), doubling down in For a Few Dollars More, bad guys in triplicate for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and virtually an entire spread – Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale (not quite fitting the anti-hero mold) – for his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), upping the artistic ante with every episode. For a Few Dollars More is part sequel, part caper and part dress rehearsal.
Looking back on this Leone venture now you can’t help but be influenced by what followed in particular Once Upon a Time in the West, and the way in which themes, ideas and characters introduced here are more fully developed. You could start with the musical motif. Here a fob watch that plays a little tune, as important to its owner, the outlaw El Indio, as Bronson’s harmonica and coming complete with revelatory flashback. Oddly enough, you can find comparison between El Indio and railroad baron Morton from the later film in their almost orgasmic expressions (El Indio is stoned half the time, possibly the first western villain to be hopped up on marijuana) to what they perceive as a dream (water in the case of Morton). As with Once two enemies team up, here Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, there Bronson and Fonda, and there’s an almost identical sequence when the pair, working in tandem, clear a street of gunmen. Although there’s no revolving camera, the final shoot-out takes space in a space marked out as a circle.
Revenge here is triggered by a murdered sister rather a brother. And Indio is at least as clever as Fonda, matching him in grandiose ambition and treachery. And there’s even an irritating insect, and a railroad, but that’s just a nuisance. Perhaps the most telling moment in Once, the one where Leone took command of his artistry was in the massacre at the ranch, a child brutally dispatched on screen whereas here when a child is murdered it is off-screen.
The story’s an unusual one for a sequel. Having established the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) – actually given a name here, Monco – as a gunslinger par excellence, the new film pits him against Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) not just a rival bounty hunter but in some senses smarter. If it came to a shootout, the longer range of the Colonel’s weaponry would challenge Monco’s skills. When they discover they are both seeking the same wanted man, El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), they decide to join forces. Monco, however, is tasked with being the inside man and must join the gang.
Halfway through, the picture switches tack and becomes a caper movie. El Indio plans to knock off the “fortress” of a bank in El Paso to the tune of half a million dollars. So, unexpectedly perhaps for a western, we get the usual heist preparation and logistics. El Indio’s cunning plan pivots on creating a diversion by robbing a bank elsewhere, Monco part of the small group tasked with that job. Turns out El Indio is disinclined to share the spoils, making the job of the bounty hunters easier by arranging for his own bunch to be killed off.
The twists and turns of the plot, El Indio trying to outwit everyone, Colonel Mortimer not easily duped, gives this more zip than you might expect. Sure in the first 20 minutes the body count is exceptionally high, but once it settles down becomes more character-driven.
There’s a surprising amount of humor, a boy huckster ripping off Monco, a trio of gunslingers turning tail after a demonstration of Mortimer’s marksmanship, a rapacious wife lusting after a “tall” man since, in a visual punch line, her husband is revealed as short.
And, of course, there is Leone’s visual splendor, his unrivalled ability to create scenes, build tension, not quite to the baroque levels of Once but getting there, the “hat” shoot-out, Mortimer standing tall nonplussed as bullets zing along the ground coming closer and closer. Supporting characters are well observed, El Indio’s sidekicks Nino (Mario Brega) and Groggy (Luigi Pistilli), though in the scene-stealing stakes nobody can beat the glowering scene-stealer-in-chief, Juan Wild (Klaus Kinski), who scarcely needs to be saddled with a hunchback to steal a scene.
It was a rehearsal for Ennio Morricone too, as he developed individual themes from individual characters. It took a posse of writers to nail this down – Leone, sometime producer Fulvio Morsella (My Name Is Nobody, 1973), Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Sergio Donati (Once Upon a Time in the West), Fernando Di Leo (Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!, 1966) and Enzo Dell’Aquila (Seven Guns for the MacGregors, 1966).
Note: although movies could often take a while to work their way round the world, the first two “Dollars” pictures, despite their success in Continental Europe, took forever (in Hollywood terms) to reach the U.S. and Britain, not reaching either country till 1967, hence the oddity of the release date.