By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Western genre as a whole was starting to feel like a parody of itself. Aside from some important exceptions, American studios were churning out features that were stale, tedious, and predictable — hokey productions with big-name actors intended purely for mass market appeal. But as TV-watching grew, along with popular western shows, these movies didn't receive much attention in theaters. Conversely, European audiences couldn't get enough of the genre and started making their own westerns, namely Spanish serials based on the Zorro legend. One often used example is the U.S. box-office failure of 'The Magnificent Seven' — a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' — which, as a shock to everyone, became a major success throughout Europe. There was clearly something fresh and new about the film, likely Kurosawa's more daring and original storyline, which many Europeans found immensely entertaining.
To combat stock characterization and running the risk of formulaic plots, however, the filmmakers challenged the conventions of the genre in some very distinct and fascinating ways. Directed by celebrated Hammer Studios producer Michael Carreras, 'The Savage Guns' (aka, 'Tierra brutal') is rightly seen as paving the way for what later became known as the Italian western, or as it's more affectionately called, the Spaghetti western. The film essentially introduced the motifs which would later classify the subgenre, particularly the use of graphic violence, the anti-hero protagonist, and the unique, more realistic western setting. As more films continued to be produced in similar fashion ('The Singer Not the Song,' 'The Treasure of Silver Lake,' 'Among Vultures'), they began to redefine not only the genre but even unintentionally demythologize the vision of the American west. And Italian production companies wanted a piece of the popular moviegoing action.
Coincidentally, a young, up-and-coming talent named Sergio Leone was pitching an idea he was calling "The Magnificent Stranger" — clearly a cash-in title. The script was based on another Akira Kurosawa film, 'Yojimbo,' which eventually led to a lawsuit by the producers, and was made with a very modest budget. At the time, the filmmakers never predicted the movie would go on to be such an international success, or that the two follow-up films would eventually come to be categorized and remembered as a trilogy. Although Leone did not directly invent the subgenre, these three westerns are responsible for making it the influential success we know today. Technically speaking, the films are unrelated and lack a single, unified storyline although each follows the exploits of a nameless central character. In spite of this, they are recognized as a package that revolutionized and cemented the archetype for all subsequent Italian westerns.
A Fistful of Dollars
'A Fistful of Dollars' is an unofficial — and unauthorized — remake of Kurosawa's samurai adventure, 'Yojimbo,' but that film was also inspired by the conventions of American westerns and some plot points from the Dashiell Hammett novel 'Red Harvest' as well as the film-noir classic 'The Glass Key,' an adaptation of another Hammett novel. The similarities are undeniable as the plot of an unnamed stranger (Clint Eastwood) attempting to profit from a gang feud is virtually identical. The gunslinger is befriended by a local barkeep, Silvanito (José Calvo), who explains the town's despondent and miserable state of affairs. It's a clever narrative device which equates the cigar-chomping newcomer with the audience. We learn about this place and its inhabitants along with the film's main character.
On one end of this desolate small town near the Mexican border are the Rojo brothers with Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté) as the conniving, ruthless leader. The other gang is made up of family members of the town's sheriff, John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), but led by his headstrong wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano). The reasons behind the bad blood are never fully disclosed except that each family is vying for either dominance or revenge. As part of a dark sense of humor, the only person making an honest living is the undertaker Piripero (Joseph Egger). In spite of obvious parallels to Kurosawa's movie, Sergio Leone makes the story his own by introducing a unique and eccentric style that he later perfects in his follow-up films.
With 'A Fistful of Dollars,' we can see the makings of a director's preference for medium shots and the extreme close-up, emphasizing a raw, gritty realism which makes it a clear distinction from American movies. The locale is a dilapidated and unwelcoming sight, where the sheriff is nothing more than a scared man behind a useless, copper badge. Populating these films are characters covered in sweat and dirt, sun burnt and humbly dressed for the harsh, desert environment. Gunfights are not only shown as the violent brawls they truly were, but they're also depicted as cruel, bloody malicious, and overall nasty. There is no gallantry or bravery about the way these people treat one another. Power, greed, and territory are ultimately at the heart of westward expansion. This is nothing like what moviegoers were accustomed to when watching a western.
From the moment its boisterous title sequence starts, 'Fistful' distinguishes itself as a completely new experience. The black silhouettes of dying gunfighters with a bright, blood-red background announce this as a different understanding of the genre, and maybe the wild west as a whole. The iconic score from renowned composer Ennio Morricone elevates the entire arrangement to incredible heights of excitement and anticipation. A relatively unknown actor at the time, Clint Eastwood is arguably the best thing of the film. The role was originally meant for Henry Fonda or Charles Bronson, but thankfully, they turned it down. In Eastwood's hands, the morally ambiguous hero becomes someone we can align with in spite of his self-interests and greedy pursuits, making the no-name gunslinger into one of the most memorable, iconic figures of film history. (Movie Rating: 4/5)
For a Few Dollars More
After the box office success of 'Fistful' (this is only in respect to European audiences as the film was not released in the U.S. until 1967), Leone immediately began working on his next film with a new producer, Alberto Grimaldi ('Last Tango in Paris,' 'Salò,' 'Gangs of New York'). Although trying to capitalize on the popularity of the first film, the goal was to make a western unrelated to 'Fistful.' And due to his excellent performance as a nameless criminal, both men knew Clint Eastwood was the only person who could star in the next picture. As they saw it, the relatively unknown American actor was the reason for the film becoming a sensation. Looking back, there's no arguing their line of thought. His piercing blue eyes and tough-as-nails swagger was, and still is, the perfect foil to the John Waynes and Gary Coopers of the genre.
At the time, Eastwood was still finishing his contract with CBS on the popular western series 'Rawhide,' and he was unsure of the first film's potential. It wasn't until the now-legendary actor finally saw an Italian-language version that he finally agreed to star in Leone's next film. Impressed by the results as well as the director's distinctive voice, Eastwood packed his bags and returned to Almería, Spain. Only this time, he wasn't playing a mysterious stranger looking to profit from the criminal activities of others. Though he does remain nameless through most of the film, he was set to star as the fearless, cynical bounty hunter Manco, meaning man with one arm or hand. The questionable morality of the character, along with his costar's Colonel Mortimer, played superbly by Lee Van Cleef, is definitely carried over from 'Fistful.' But as far as everyone was concerned during filming, that's where the similarities ended.
Also returning is Gian Maria Volonté as El Indio, a callous but intelligent criminal and murderer. In the previous film, the Italian actor proved he could portray a vicious, power-hungry man with a scary obsession for a local woman. But here, he's allowed to extend that latter aspect of the character with a villain unlike any before in the genre. Indio is both detached and fervent about his unlawful activities, a psychologically wounded and emotionally corrupted malefactor who seems as equally passionate about life as he does sadistically inhuman when stealing it from others. Taking it further is Morricone's beautifully complementary music, adding to Indio's emotional state during certain key sequences. German actor Klaus Kinski, another major name in the Italian western ('The Great Silence,' 'The Beast,' 'Sartana the Gravedigger,' 'Gunfighters Die Harder'), also plays a minor role as a gunslinging hunchback.
Other than the performances and music, what makes 'For a Few Dollars More' so memorable is, of course, Sergio Leone's unconventional camerawork, which is as familiarly imitated as it is celebrated today by many. One of the best moments in the film demonstrating the director's eccentric style is in preparation for the bank robbery, where Indio's gang counts how many steps it takes for guards to walk around the building. The constant switching back and forth between each person counting while the camera moves from extreme close-up to wide angle and back to normal frame is a thing of artistic beauty and creates an unusual sense of tension. Also making the film different from the other two is a sense of humor pervading the story, as in the scene when Manco and the Colonel first meet.
'For a Few Dollars More' is a fantastic film, a worthy follow-up to the success of 'Fistful.' It clearly cemented a foundation and style for future westerns, where greed, even in law-abiding bounty hunters, and sometimes retribution, as shown by Colonel Mortimer, are the only real things of significance for the men of the American frontier. Any act of heroism is simply an accidental by-product of that character's self-interested pursuits, which is an aspect put to greater use and effect in the next film. The classic western is really nothing short of a masterpiece, full of the excitement and danger expected of the genre. And Leone's second film reinvigorates and energizes it back to life, displaying a perfect harmony between music, cinematography, editing, directing and story. The director would eventually top himself with a story devised with the help of Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, entitled 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' (Movie Rating: 5/5)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
>If in keeping to the idea that these films are a true trilogy, then logically speaking 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' has to be the prequel. If we place them in chronological order, that is, since the events of this story are set during the Civil War. The previous two presumably take place several years after. Also, while developing the story with Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone's concern was in creating an epic tale surrounded by a real historical event, not something in connection to the prior films or as a direct follow-up. But as legend would have it, audiences everywhere were nonetheless linking the films together. So, as a witty nod to fans — and probably to some degree, acknowledging popular expectations — the director has the nameless stranger use the same revolver with the rattlesnake grip and shows the character finding the famous and emblematic poncho he wears in the other movies.
Aside from such trivia, the only thing really linking the three films, or unifying them if one is so inclined, is the way in which they were filmed. 'A Fistful of Dollars' and 'For a Few Dollars More' experimented with strange, exotic camerawork and introduced a striking visual design that was new to audiences — a style that remains unique and exciting even today. By the time we come to 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' Leone clearly shows he's comfortable with the camera, displaying a willingness to exploit and push his distinctive technique even further on a larger scale. Essentially, this is what makes the film so immensely special and one of the most celebrated, treasured and easily recognized westerns in world cinema. It successfully achieved a certain kind of daring boldness and braggadocio that no other movie in the genre had tried before.
Unlike its predecessors, however, the plot is incredibly simple. Whereas the other two films come with involving and problematic storylines, this film basically sees three men, Blondie (Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), on a deadly treasure hunt for some lost Confederate gold. That's it. Nearly three hours of these men chasing after what is pretty much hearsay. And while on this self-interested pursuit, their journey turns them into witnesses of the atrocities and senseless massacre of war, a self-interested pursuit of its own. There is also no moral ambiguity to be found here as all three men are most assuredly criminals, through and through. Their monikers do not point to any personality traits. Rather, they reflect their efficiency as killers. Blondie is so good he can shoot a rope from several yards away; Angel Eyes is heartless and without loyalties except money; and Tuco is just plain sloppy and dirty.
There is good reason for the story's simplicity. First, the three main characters are simple men, concerned only with reaching one simple goal. And second, 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is not about the story as much as it is about what we see on screen, about experiencing a magnificent synthesis of invigorating music, picturesque cinematography, and stunning direction. The narrative is simply there to achieve this wonderful, operatic experience. (To see this same fusion of filmmaking beauty attached to an elegant, engrossing and complex plot, I recommend 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' which I find superior to this classic precisely for that reason.) Even Morricone's most memorable musical piece at the beginning alludes to the entire film's thematic approach, as a series of movements each deeply connected by a familiar design, arriving at one final, explosive crescendo.
Using the same techniques seen in his previous films, Sergio Leone focuses on creating tension by the framing alone. There is a great lack of dialogue throughout the movie's 178-minute runtime, and this is due to more attention being given to facial expressions, the eyes of actors, body language and the vast, empty spaces which surround each character. Conflict and apprehension grows out of silence, from nothing other than a simple look and gesture. When Angel Eyes visits Stevens, everyone in the household knows the call is not friendly despite no one saying a word. Women and children are best to leave. The quiet and their attempt at remaining calm are not only self-contradictory, but they also suffocate the air to the point of unease and worry. For the rest of the film, this is how Leone works, allowing the images to speak for themselves. 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is a director's film, an auteur in full control of creating a single, grandiose vision of the American West like no other. (Movie Rating: 4.5/5)
A Fistful of Dollars
This Blu-ray edition of 'Fistful' arrives with an unappealing and very disappointing 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Despite being framed in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the picture has been cropped to a noticeable degree, and the color timing is completely wrong. If we take age into consideration, contrast is still terribly dull and flat, making flesh tones look sickly pale and lifeless. Blacks are weak and often faded with poor shadow delineation while the color palette lacks vibrancy. The two-dimensional image is grainy as it should be, but it doesn't show the sort of sharpness levels we'd expect from a hi-def picture. Even close-ups don't look that much different from their standard definition equivalents, like the two-disc Collector's Edition from three years ago.
Aside from the cropping, I suspect the film didn't go through any restoration efforts as white specks and dirt randomly appear during the presentation. A brown vertical line even creeps up in Chapter 20 (at the 53:53 mark) which is quite visible. In the end, 'A Fistful of Dollars' makes a substandard debut on Blu-ray, and it's not a significant jump from its standard definition counterpart. (Video Rating: 2.5/5)
For a Few Dollars More
The next Leone western is a significant improvement from its standard definition counterpart, including the 2007 Collector's Edition, and the best-looking film of the entire bunch. The color palette is much more vibrant, warm and nicely rendered with flesh tones appearing healthy and natural for the hot climate. Contrast is comfortably bright and crisp, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the gorgeous panoramic photography. Brightness levels are accurate with full-bodied blacks and strong shadow delineation. The image displays a thinly layered grain structure, giving the high-def picture a beautiful cinematic quality. The transfer is incredibly sharp and detailed for a 45-year-old film. Fine lines and textures are clean and distinct while facial complexions are striking and revealing.
But in spite of all the positives, the video also shows a few drawbacks. White specks, dirt and brown vertical lines distractingly pop-up during the film's runtime — evidence that an older print was used for this presentation. Had the studio placed an effort in creating a new HD master, I have no doubt the film would be stunning on Blu-ray. As it stands, 'For a Few Dollars More' is not a complete letdown and looks quite attractive in high definition video. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Comparatively, the third Blu-ray disc of the package is identical to the one released last year, and it's also the same master used for the 2004 special edition DVD, which went through extensive restoration efforts the prior year. Unfortunately, the work that went into supposedly bringing the film back to its former glory is, quite frankly, a travesty, ruining a piece of cinema history in an effort to appease younger, contemporary audiences. Admittedly, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) is an improvement over its standard definition counterpart, with a decent color palette and better clarity resolution. However, problems — as well as questions — arise when photography limitations are taken into consideration.
First, I have to question the source, and its quality, used for this video presentation (referring back to the restoration process) because I highly doubt this was struck from the original negative. And second, this is not what 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' should look like since much of the film's rough, gritty nature has been removed.
At the time, Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli ('Once Upon a Time in the West,' 'Life is Beautiful') used an inexpensive 35mm 2-perf film stock called Techniscope, which photographed natively at 2.33:1, making for quick shoots that greatly reduced production costs. When blown up to Cinemascope release prints for theatrical projection, inherent film grain is also made more visible, sometimes even more pronounced. (Look at 'For a Few Dollars More' or Argento's 'Bird with a Crystal Plumage' from Blue Underground for how this presentation should look.) But on this high-def transfer, the grain structure is practically nonexistent, which leads to the suspicion of DNR application since the video appears robbed of some of the finer details.
Granted, we've seen worse from other titles, but the picture here only shows some texture in either clothing or facial complexions, and it looks generally soft for the majority of the film. And this is not taking into account that the Techniscope stock naturally captures images with a narrow depth of field, which makes for attractive photography similar to bokeh. Contrast has been slightly bumped, causing some ringing around the edges of buildings, draining color in the faces of actors and dulling much of the picture. This also causes black levels to waver between acceptably accurate to somewhat muted, and small details tend to disappear in the dark shadows. What this ultimately boils down to is that while the restoration and preservations efforts by those involved are greatly appreciated and looked fine on DVD, the amount of digital alterations made are evident on Blu-ray and not very welcomed. Although sorely disappointed as a fan of the film and the genre, 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' comes to the high-def format only as a good improvement over the special edition DVD. (Video Rating: 3/5)
A Fistful of Dollars
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack accompanying the video is somewhat better but also fails to make much of an impression. The track is mostly a mono presentation, which is preferred and appreciated, displaying adequate clarity detail with decent fidelity and acoustics. Ignoring the obvious dubbing issues, dialogue reproduction is reasonable and accurate throughout. Not surprisingly, Ennio Morricone's score is the best aspect of the film although the music doesn't seem very wide or as striking as I would've liked. Dynamics are also not very extensive or sharp. There are several instances, especially during sound effects, where higher frequencies noticeably wane and distort somewhat. In the end, the lossless mix feels heavily restrained and narrow. (Audio Rating: 3/5)
For a Few Dollars More
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on 'Few Dollars More' is also a noticeable upgrade from previous versions. Immediately noticeable is a much cleaner and full-bodied dynamic range, giving the front-heavy presentation a very spacious and engaging presence. Morricone's music fills the entire soundstage with great warmth and strong fidelity. There are also several instances when the score subtly bleeds into the background. Dialogue reproduction is precise and fluid throughout, and channel separation is surprisingly well balanced. Low bass offers a few moments of rumble and weight when certain scenes require it. Discrete effects, like the sounds of a passing train or crickets in the distance, are employed, but they're not very convincing and can sometimes call attention to themselves. All in all, it's a very enjoyable lossless mix, much better than initially expected. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
As part of the process in restoring the film to its original Italian premiere, which comes to us as an extended edition, several hitherto deleted scenes were put back into the runtime. For those particular sequences, actors, such as Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, and other voice talents were asked to provide additional English dialogue since the elements used were originally recorded in Italian. The results are actually not half bad for the most part. Except that there are times when the ADR work is distractingly apparent with a few instances of lip-sync issues. Still, they are a minor hiccup and a necessary evil so that devoted fans can enjoy these previously lost scenes.
The rest of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack displays a stable mid-range and Morricone's iconic score spreads nicely across the soundstage, creating a wide and attractive front-heavy presentation. The problem, however, is similar to the treatment (or mis-treatment) given of the video and part of a major gripe as a purist. The original sound design has also been heavily tampered with so as to attract contemporary viewers. A great deal of this lossless mix sounds and feels artificial. As if gunshots aren't loud and synthetic enough, likely taken from a computer with an extensive .wav file library, all of the atmospherics are easily localized anywhere in the soundfield and delivered in the most unnatural manner. The lossless track even gets ambitious in a spots, trying to show some movement between the channels, but the effects only end up bringing attention to themselves and reminding listeners of how manufactured the entire mix truly is. Added to that, we have a muddled and distorted low end which doesn't add anything of valuable to the film. In the end, this is not how 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' should sound, and it's an unforgivable travesty to an amazing western classic. (Audio Rating: 2/5)
For this Blu-ray package of 'The Man with No Name Trilogy' (or the more aptly named 'Dollars Trilogy'), MGM Home Entertainment and 20th Century Fox have ported most all of the bonus material from the special editions released in 2004 and 2007. Missing is "Restoration Italian Style," the still gallery, a booklet with an essay by Roger Ebert, and the 5x7 posters cards.
A Fistful of Dollars (3/5)
For a Few Dollars More (3/5)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (4/5)
The three films which revolutionized the western genre and have come to be known as 'The Man With No Name Trilogy' (a.k.a., 'The Dollars Trilogy') are collected here as one package. 'A Fistful of Dollars,' which is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo,' introduces not only a nameless, ambiguous hero, played to perfection by an unknown at the time, Clint Eastwood, but also the unique style of Sergio Leone. In 'For a Few Dollars More,' the director pushes his distinctive visuals beyond reproach and adds an involving story that complicates his villains, portrayed beautifully by Gian Maria Volonté . For his third film, 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,' he brings back Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef for his boldest design yet, orchestrating a motion picture that almost functions like moving, operatic art. While not entirely responsible for starting a new genre, the three Italian-made westerns did incite a phenomena that continues to live in many contemporary films and appreciated by fans everywhere.
The Blu-ray package displays some issues in the video that are mostly unsatisfying, but at least 'Dollars More' looks the best of the entire bunch. The audio presentation is mostly attractive and sounds better than before, but 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' hits a real sore spot for audiophiles and film purists alike — clearly a weak attempt at impressing modern audiences. Bonus material is ported over from the special edition DVDs released a few years ago, but a few items went missing. All in all, this doesn't feel like a wholly rewarding package for some of the greatest westerns ever made. Newcomers, to the films or the genre, will want to give it a rent first, but die-hard fans are likely to purchase the trilogy either way since this is their first bow together in high definition. Nevertheless, it's a recommended package for enjoying the films alone.