One can devote a lifetime to studying the Italian B-movie industry and still never fail to be awestruck by how majestically crude it could be at its most mercenary. The rule there, as everywhere else in commercial cinema has always been that success begets imitation,* but while any American hack producer, name-your-favorite Roger Corman wannabe, knows how to crank out a knock-off, such men are pikers compared to the most accomplished of the Italian copy artists. Samuel Z. Arkoff is an amusingly colorful figure, with his grubby pursuit of whatever trend seemed to be pulling in the most bank at any given moment; Dino De Laurentiis is equal parts myth, legend, and the biggest pair of swinging balls ever hoisted by a movie producer. The history of the Italian B-movie from the late-'50s into at least the mid-'80s is a single story, cycling over and over again forever, of a movie making a big hit, and apparently overnight the entire apparatus of the national film industry cranking out films that differ from that model in little other than character names: zombie films tumbling out after Dawn of the Dead within months, what feels like several hundred movies about leather-clad barbarians in post-apocalyptic futures all within two or three years of The Road Warrior... I suppose one could be angry at this, but I prefer to be dazzled by the bravura with these artists - and I do not hesitate to use that word - in chasing that sweet spot of creating a film just different enough from a dozen others that the audience doesn't feel cheated. It takes real, genuine effort to find as many ways of mimicking The Exorcist as these people did without flat-out remaking The Exorcist.

I have indulged myself in this otherwise pointless tangent by way of making a point about Sergio Leone's famous and iconic and boundlessly influential "Dollars Trilogy" (or, if you roll that way, "Man with No Name Trilogy") that I don't think people spend a lot of time thinking about: it wasn't planned that way. Thanks largely to George Lucas, we're very used to thinking about epic movie experiences in threes, and pop cinema has become very trilogy-centric, with The Matrix, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings, and God knows how many others encouraging us to think in terms of a three-act structure mapped onto movie franchises themselves, even when, as in the Spider-Man movies, there's no actual narrative reason it couldn't have stopped at two or gone on to four. Want to be dressier? Krzysztof Kieślowski and Lucas Belvaux.

Now, as I was saying, we're in, what, the third generation raised with Star Wars as its primary text? And to that mindset, noticing that Sergio Leone made three movies starring Clint Eastwood as a taciturn gunslinger in black jeans and a brown serape and grouping those three movies into one grand gesture just makes sense. It's not an inherently wrong thing to do, either - there's been a great deal of brilliant criticism about the place of the Dollars Trilogy in the development of genre films, and about the series' growth through time. But if we were able to visit 1965, I suspect we'd find that Leone just wanted to make more money. After all, A Fistful of Dollars did huge business in Italy when it was released in 1964, securing the Western as the new genre of choice for the sensible Italian B-director. And Leone, being sensible, knew that there was no better way to copy that film than to put Eastwood right back in that serape (back in the States at this time, the actor was still just the dude from TV's Rawhide), and make sure the word "Dollars" showed up in the title. And hence we have For a Few Dollars More, which improves and expands upon its predecessor in nearly every way; but not because it deepens the narrative universe of the first film. It's because Leone was a better filmmaker than he was the year prior. Also, Yojimbo's sequel Sanjuro wouldn't translate nearly as well to the American West, meaning Leone had a chance to breathe and explore as he did not the first time.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't consider For a Few Dollars More in reference to A Fistful of Dollars. It is, in fact, a tremendously good sequel, on top of being a tremendously good movie in and of itself - surely the best Italian Western at the time of its release, by which point there were enough of the things to make such a statement meaningful, but still before the peak years of 1966-'68. Insofar as Eastwood's unnamed gunfighter is a sustained "character" in both films - the Italian courts determined otherwise, allowing Leone and producer Alberto Grimaldi to make this film without the original production company, Jolly Films - the sequel enriches and deepens that character, giving him more to do than look angry and sullen. It is only slightly less violent than Fistful, but that violence is far more balanced within a moral universe that is complex beyond the original's nihilistic ethos of "if everyone is wicked, screw everybody".

This is achieved, largely, by means of giving Eastwood a co-lead: yes, despite the poster and the opening credits, it is a right and proper co-lead situation, as evidenced by the fact that we meet our new hero in a fairly lengthy scene that opens the film, with Eastwood's man with no name forced to wait nearly a quarter of an hour to make his first appearance. Specifically, he's a bounty hunter named Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef, a reliable villain in American B-Westerns at the time), who we meet for the first time as he's cunningly and effortlessly taking down a bandit with a $1000 price on his head, Guy Calloway (José Terrón), in Tucumcari, NM (as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Leone and his co-writers have no real idea that New Mexico and Texas are meaningfully separate entities, or the distances involved in traveling from one to the other; but Hollywood has been just as bad about Europe too many times for me to make a thing of it). Always ready for a new job, Mortimer inquires about the location of another wanted man, Red Cavanaugh (José Marco), only to be told that another bounty hunter, named Monco or Manco, depending on the language of the dub you're watching,** is already about to spring. It's no surprise when we meet this Monco to find that he's wearing a brown serape and a mean expression, and no worries about the Man with No Name having a name; it's a nickname meaning, roughly, "One-handed", in reference to his tendency to hide his right hand at all times under his clothes, until he's ready to shoot.

Eventually, both Mortimer and Monco end up on the trail of El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté, with tremendously unfortunate grey hair coloring), one of the most notorious bandits around, who is planning to rob the impregnable Bank of El Paso, a fact that the bounty hunters are able to intuit using their magic bounty hunter sense. It's only after they manage to get in each other's way that Mortimer hits upon the idea of teaming up: El Indio is the most wanted man in Texas for a good reason, and surely even the two best bounty hunters in that region will be better off pursuing him together than fighting each other in addition to the bandit. Besides, the reward money is vast, vast enough to split. Monco, already impressed by Mortimer's skill and the excellence of his work under pressure, agrees, and from then on, the two plot to join El Indio's gang (a collection of interchangeable bit actors spiced up by a young Klaus Kinski in a small role as a hunchback - Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega are the only people with character distinct enough to make an impression), and work from the inside to bring him down - only after he's successfully executed his robbery, mind, as the bank is willing to crank up the reward considerably to get their money back intact. There's a twist in there, and it deeply humanises Mortimer (it's also really damn easy to guess the direction of it), and it's that underlying humanity underneath the shockingly efficient killer that gives For a Few Dollars More extra depth and meaning absent from A Fistful of Dollars, particular as that same humanity starts to creep in under the nameless gunman's skin; he seems, if not like a pleasant man, a whole lot nicer than he did last time.

The simplest pleasures of For a Few Dollars More are, in essence, the same as A Fistful of Dollars, only more and better. Leone and Massimo Dallamano are back with the same general sort of wide-screen cinematography, only pushed a little bit more to the edges: the characteristic Leone close-ups are used more consistently and more successfully, and the equally characteristic wide shots, making the Spanish desert look oh so very hot and sandy and big and desperate, are distributed throughout more thoughtfully, punctuating the action rather than just pouncing on us. The opening shots, coming hard on the title cards describing how this is a world of violence and bounty killing, are some of the best in Leone's career: a tiny speck of a man in the midst of desert, tumbling to the ground dead as an unseen gun fires in the distance.

It's in this film, also, that Leone learned what would become a definitive trick as he continued to refine it: how to shoot close-ups in CinemaScope. You're not supposed to do that at all, of course; it's one of the noted drawbacks of the format. What Leone and Dallamano were able to do, as only a few other filmmakers have managed to do besides them, was to part of the composition that wasn't the actor's face as a complement to the close-up, whether it was through the application of negative space (most of Eastwood's close-ups), or by using background action as a sort of commentary on the character mainly in focus (most of Van Cleef's). The refinement of this technique would in due course become the characteristic element of Leone's aesthetic, and it is here, I would say, and not in A Fistful of Dollars where it is seen only in an embryonic form, that it achieves the potency for which the director became famous.

The same is true of Ennio Morricone's score: similar, related, just more effective. The hard part was, of course, already done: find a new idiom in which to express The West musically, and it follows that much of the nuts and bolts of his score in For a Few Dollars More is the same: the twanging, jangling guitars, the use of vocals, tonality just a little bit over here to the side of normal music. The difference is not in the style, then, but the application. Here, Morricone uses two primary motifs, of which the first, heard under the opening credits (maybe the only area in which the sequel falls behind the original: it's a simple text-on-screen deal with shots appearing in the words, not the graphic experimentation that feels like a dystopian alt-universe version of what Saul Bass was doing at the same time), is a beautiful and instantly memorable theme, but not inherently different from plenty of other Italian Western scores: but as it recurs throughout the film, it's always orchestrated differently, just enough to increase the "size" of it, giving the movie underneath a more aching, epic sense. The other motif is, for my tastes, one of the highlights of Morricone's career, a chiming melody that plays from El Indio's pocket watch and serves, as needs dictate, as a countdown to death, as a bittersweet reminder of the past, and as mesmerising rhythm to crank up the tension during the climax. It's not such a sophisticated tune, but used with surgical precision, and it's one of the most damnably haunting pieces of music in any Western I have seen.

Once again, Eastwood is a rough, brutally effective killer; this time, he actually gets to do some acting around that, playing off of his co-star in a number of small ways (I love his little smile of appreciation, as only a fellow artisan could, when Mortimer demonstrates his own bad-assery in front of El Indio's men). This time, he's matched - and outclassed, I would say, except the parts as written don't really allow for that kind of judgment - by Van Cleef, he of the dangerously serpentine eyes and tight little mirthless smile that reads, instantly, as "I am not going to have fun killing the shit out of you, but I certainly don't mind doing it". He'd been playing versions of this character for a decade by that point - mostly as heavies, but what is Mortimer besides an amoral assassin who has the good luck to be surrounded by actively evil men? At any rate, the interplay between the two performers is, while nothing revolutionary, sufficiently engaging that it's hardly a surprise that they'd be reunited for Leone's next effort.

Speaking of which... as much as For a Few Dollars More is refinement of A Fistful of Dollars, the work of a significantly more mature artist, For a Few Dollars More itself looks forward to the even further refinement of Leone's next two Westerns, his masterpieces. Not just because he was settling into the tone of those films (violent, bleak myth-making), nor because his aesthetic was reaching its final form, but had not arrived there yet: some of the most memorable elements of this film are, in hindsight, practice for what was to come. The visually severe, wonderfully tense climax with three men standing in a circle of stone, will recur to far greater effect in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; the use of a single piece of diegetic music as an identifying trait of a character is brought back for Once Upon a Time in the West, and it is one of that brilliant film's most indelible elements. Though perhaps it only says good things about Leone and his work that as much as this film is better than its predecessor, its successors are even better still.