Director Sergio Leone helped redefine and shape the Western genre with his grave, gritty approach. According to Judge Bill Gibron, this remarkable DVD set will do the same for his motion picture legacy.
Our reviews of A Fistful of Dollars (Blu-ray) (published September 12th, 2011), For a Few Dollars More (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2011), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Blu-Ray) (published June 11th, 2009), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: Special Edition (published May 31st, 2004), and The Man With No Name Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published June 21st, 2010) are also available.
A Great Man. A Great Set of Films. A Great DVD Package.
He was born into the belly of Italian show business: his father a famed director (Roberto Roberti), his mother a certified star (Bice Waleran). By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with film, and took several jobs on Hollywood and homeland period productions. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he was forced to fill in for Mario Bonnard when the filmmaker grew ill. Suddenly, he was behind the lens, and it would be a place he'd remain for the rest of his career. Oddly enough, he only made nine credited films, but for fans of the spaghetti Western—a showy subgenre that brought grit and gravitas to the sagging cinematic staple—four of his films would remain major motion picture milestones. Indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West would both revolutionize and reign in the format's filmic impact. They become the beginning and the end of the sagebrush switch-up. But there was more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed. He was first and foremost a man of extraordinary vision, as illustrated all throughout the sensational DVD box set named after him, The Sergio Leone Anthology. Containing the first three operatic oaters mentioned, as well as the little seen sleeper A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker), itÂ's the perfect place to begin your journey into the bleak bombastic world of Leone, and all the cinematic splendor that comes with it.
Facts of the Case
From a pure plot standpoint, here are the storylines for the quartet of movies featured in the The Sergio Leone Anthology:
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Duck You Sucker (1971)
It wasn't because he wanted to make American TV regular Clint Eastwood a star. It had nothing to do with a love of Wild West mythology. There was really no call, especially in American markets, for the overdone archetypes of the six-gun saga, and the rest of the planet wasn't pining for the days when blood, sweat, and steers semi-civilized the U.S. plains. No, Sergio Leone fell into the form that would later be called the spaghetti Western because it was gaining a small amount of notoriety in his native Italy. There were already more than two dozen of the so-called deconstructionist films floating around Mediterranean movie palaces, and Leone was looking to add his name to the growing list of potential profiteers. Borrowing the storyline from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (the very angry Japanese auteur would later sue—and win!), and tossing in unique aesthetic choices, Leone felt he had the makings of a fine film. Unfortunately, many of the actors approached, including a candid Charles Bronson, thought it was the worst script they had ever read, due in large part to the number of conventions the filmmaker chose to avoid. When an associate suggested he view the American TV western Rawhide for inspiration, Leone found his lead. Tall, tanned, and slightly sinister in stature, Eastwood became the soon-legendary Man with No Name in Per un pugno di dollari—translated as A Fistful of Dollars when it finally expanded internationally. The rest is movieola history.
Critics and purists were dumbfounded. Unlike other Italian cinema, which seemed to pay homage to the movies made in Hollywood, A Fistful of Dollars was the aesthetic antithesis of what the Western supposedly represented. Amoral and confused, with good and evil intertwined and competing for narrative prominence, Leone wanted to make literal horse operas, movies where the emotional and psychological undercurrents were laid out bare and brazen on the silver screen. Though the plot follows the features of Yojimbo a little too closely, Leone's stylistic borrowings from Kurosawa and fellow foreign filmmakers were equally obvious. A Fistful of Dollars is a movie that uses the vastness of the West as a metaphor for man against the forces of value and honor. He removes the classic Tinseltown shtick of black hats and white hats, and instead reimagines the boom and bust towns of the era as the dirty, stinky, sweaty, smelly primitive enclaves they must have been. Thanks to the location—the sunny and scorching Almeria region of Spain—Leone could crank up the fire factor, using the sweltering setting to underline the tensions between the characters. He also set up the visual aspects—odd angles, unusual framing, candid close-ups—that would bring the genre to the forefront of world cinema. While he may not have intended it as such, the filmmaker was manufacturing timeless iconography with every shot he selected.
Yet to understand the impact of A Fistful of Dollars, one need look no further than the superstar making turn by Eastwood. Everything cliché that's come to typify the actor—the steel-jawed determination, the skinny-eyed glare, the magnified machismo, the clear-cut anti-heroism—is here in splendid, hyperactive spades. Unlike the archetype for this kind of role (the posturing and punitive John Wayne), Eastwood came across as heartless and unable to give a good goddamn. Emphasized by Ennio Morricone's amazing musical score (which Leone originally didn't want, since he hadn't been that impressed with the composer's previous oeuvre), the unspoken nature of The Man with No Name's determination electrifies the entire premise. It amplifies the stakes, as well as the man purposefully playing them. So does his gun. Just as Sam Peckinpah did with his gore-soaked shoot-Â'em ups, Leone allowed violence to fill in the brutal blanks of life in these baneful border towns. Unlike the standard Western that made bullets into Bibles, delivering justice via a higher order of personal power, A Fistful of Dollars delved directly into the brutality of such an act. Eastwood's character may be pitting evil against evil, but he was doing so with his own brand of sadistic authority. There was definitely no mercy in this mercenary, no sympathy in his near-psychotic desire to destroy.
Unlike anything anyone beyond the European market had ever seen, Fistful did phenomenal business. Of course, success breeds sequels, and Leone wanted to quickly capitalize on his film's sudden fame. But there was a problem. Eastwood wasn't that interested. He had yet to see the final product, and wasn't sure if Leone's vision—and his part in it—had translated well. Going so far as to send the reluctant actor a print to screen on his own, Leone went about creating the follow-up. For A Few Dollars More, would see the now-happy actor repeat his symbol of stoicism, along with another confused character—in this case, a fellow bounty hunter played by Lee Van Cleef Â- both placed in a direct line of conflict with each other and a raging criminal mental case named El Indio. With Eastwood satisfied and the rest of the casting completed, Leone headed back up Almeria to recapture the original Dollar dynamic. But something more interesting occurred. Without Kurasawa and his storyline strapping him in, Leone allowed his own ideas to slowly seep out and filter throughout the production. Emphasis on character over carnage became apparent, as long sequences of introductory exposition were used in place of rapid-fire gunplay. Vistas were expanded beyond believability, further isolating the action and the individuals within it. In El Indio, the evil inherent in the narrative was raised several sensationalized notches. He in turn became a benchmark of the genre's growing gruesomeness.
In retrospect, For A Few Dollars More is like watching the Devil duke it out with a couple of misguided Messiahs who, themselves, hide their own inherent wickedness. It's a showdown in the most classic of cinematic senses—internal struggles battling against greater outside forces. In each one of our leads, a rage is growing. Eastwood's is monetary, pure and simple. Van Cleef requires payback. For El Indio, it's all about his freaked-out, fractured, drug-addled mindset. We get to see a lot of this villain's awful behavior, including insane showdowns with his own gang (if you look closely, you will even seen the infamous Klaus Kinski as a hunchbacked henchman). Like any maelstrom of murderousness and dementia, there is lots of calm before our sickening storms, and Leone loves to languish over these moments. He keeps the suspense continuously twisted, taking time out of the forward momentum of his story to simply stay with a sequence and let it play out (as when El Indio challenges one of his men to a drawn-out standoff). Eastwood is again excellent, but it is Van Cleef that actually earns much of our empathy. Granted, his storyline had more heft and, as a complement to The Man with No Name, he is supposed to shadow the motives. But in conjunction with Leone's growing confidence behind the camera, we end up with an intriguing collection of contradictions and contemplations. If A Fistful of Dollars was into creating emblems, then For a Few Dollars More was interesting in extending their cinematic shelf life beyond simple imagery. It managed to do so brilliantly.
Having created the genre—at least in the eyes of America audiences—and delivered its secondary statement, Leone was determined to solidify his status as the spaghetti Western's ultimate interpreter. With U.S. film studio United Artists looking to capitalize on the format's success, they contracted with Italian screenwriters eager to advance their position of power. But without Leone, the company realized they'd have very little of value on their hands. So they turned to the director to see if he could help elevate the genre once again. With The Good, The Bad and The Ugly he did just that. Expanding his celluloid canvas to include mind-bending landscapes and endemic extreme zooms, and blurring the distinction between virtue and depravity to the point of meaninglessness, the director divided up his core theme into the trio of onscreen characters. As the Civil War rages on in the background, our collection of fortune hunters enters a world which exists within its own set of ravaged rules. It is a sadistic, brutal place, something Leone doesn't shy away from showing us. Within this abyss of immorality and vileness, we are allowed to laugh, if only in the bleakest of black-humored terms (thanks to Tuco, the "Ugly" in the title). Breaking out every one of his still-novel cinematic tricks—long takes, freeze frames, arch angles, realism rooted within a hyper-stylized setting—Leone built spectacle out of genre standards and artistry out of flawed, filthy artifice. With Eastwood and Van Cleef back, and newcomer Eli Wallach added to the mix (as Tuco), the director was ready to approach the epic.
In essence, that's exactly what he did. This is a scathing denouncement of war, its political trappings and its inhuman sacrifices. Typical of most directors working in cruelty, Leone never took his brutality seriously. He laughed at the impression that he was some manner of sadist, stating that the kind of aggression he showcased in his movies was meant as kind of a sidewise satire on the ridiculousness of said aspect of human nature. While many might argue with such a statement, few could question the vastness of Leone's vision. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is so massive in scope it seems to draw on all facets of filmmaking's honored history. There are bows to battle, the sensational stuntwork of silent films (Leone even referenced Buster Keaton's The General in the "bridge" sequence), the existential character pieces that were permeating the 1960s, and the old-fashioned flourishes that made Tinseltown's trappings the worldwide standard. But Leone never let style totally subvert substance. He maintained a visceral attachment to his characters, leading them through a literal Pilgrim's Progress of horrors and tasks before allowing them a chance to bask in the glow of their (frequently ill-gotten) gains. Yet nothing is ever resolved rightly in this amazing classic. Victory is always tainted by the surrounding circumstances, death distilled through place, purpose, and personality. Aside from the obvious directorial flourishes and widescreen wonders, Leone legitimized the counterculture approach to cinema. If he could successfully separate the Western from the names who made it magical—Ford, Aldrich, Walsh—then all motion picture categories had to be up for grabs.
Everything was in place then for a real masterpiece (though many consider The Good, The Bad and The Ugly one as well), and Leone went overboard in delivering one. Poised perfectly at the heart of the Peace Generation's sudden segmenting, Once Upon a Time in the West was the brashest bit of moviemaking the director would ever helm. It took everything that made the historical era iconic and sheered it of its symbolism. In its place was a weird world view where sin was sanctified, power was proprietary, and ethics evaporated in the heat of the midday sun. In a masterstroke of casting, Leone convinced Hollywood good guy Henry Fonda to play one of the most horrific villains in the entire Western canon, and his convincing turn anchors what is a stunning, sweeping motion picture monument. Having reached the pinnacle of his production acumen, having poured everything he had into this last shot at scenic greatness, Leone was done with the genre. He would willingly work on other examples as a kind of hired hand, but he did not want to direct another of these increasingly difficult films. Besides, a glut of wannabe competitors was slowly sapping away the spaghetti Western's novelty, reducing it to its own set of failing formulaic elements. In fact, most merely copied what Leone did and placed their own name on the results. The auteur was looking to move on. Unfortunately, fate stepped in to draw him back.
For some reason, the choice of Peter Bogdanavich wasn't working. Rumors and legends still forwarded today claim it was incompetence meshed with diva-like fits against the novice director from the "Where's Sergio?" stars. In respect, the acting angle may be the more believable. After all, James Coburn had turned down chances to be in A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. So why would he finally sign on for this type of film without Leone in the directorial driverÂ's seat? Similarly, Oscar winner Rod Steiger was a studio mandate. The notoriously contentious method actor would never have agreed to appear had the man who legitimized the genre not guided the production. Whatever the story, Giu la testa, entitled Duck You Sucker, then A Fistful of Dynamite for U.S. release, became a kind of unintended anomaly in Leone's path. Since each of his previous movies had built on the other, providing stepping stones of solid craftsmanship leading up to Once Upon a Time in the West, this sudden digression into rebellion and revenge seemed odd. But when you look at it in retrospect, it would become a kind of mea culpa for the director, a chance to atone for being thought of as a man more concerned with his status as a visionary than evolving as a filmmaker. Tackling tougher subjects here, context with its own concerning outer (the IRA, the Mexican Revolution) and inner turmoil, Duck sees a reluctant emblem redefining his aesthetics. Perhaps he was meant to helm this film after all.
Whatever the case may be, the first half of Duckis deliriously unbridled. Coburn simmers with his standard '60s/'70s cool while Steiger is so lost in his performance you're afraid he'll never find a way out. Thanks to the narrative update—we are dealing with 1913 here—Leone enjoys slamming the elements of the spaghetti format into the barely begun modern world. Through the use of a machine gun over a standard six shooter (though the timing is historically suspect), the director amplified the killing while crassly depersonalizing it as well. Similarly, the "explosive" aspect of the storyline gives him opportunity to use bombs vs. bullets as his expositional exclamation points. But by the last half of the film, Leone loses the fun and moves full force into his message—based on the then-horrific uprisings in Europe. It's a position that argues against politics, that preaches against staunch fundamentalist or "fascist" views. Instead of merely making murder and revenge a sort of stylized stopgap between equally ethereal camps, Leone wants people to look out for themselves first, while catering to their country second. As visualized via Coburn and Steiger, a posture can only lead to more and more aggression, especially since one position is usually taken in direct contradiction and spite of another. No wonder fans of the No Name Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West seemed flummoxed. This is a movie that managed to dispense with many of the spaghetti WesternÂ's more gratuitous elements and still stay strongly in its creative camp.
Duck You Sucker did, however, spell the end of Leone's relevancy within the genre. After some uncredited assistance on two other titles—My Name is Nobody and Trinity is Back—the director disappeared for over a decade. He produced a little for friends, and helped scholars who were working to reconfigure his historic import. Then in 1983, it was announced that Leone was coming back—and his ambitions were bigger than ever. Instead of working within the Western milieu again, the director was to deliver his take on the still-popular gangster/crime family film. Film fans, already in love with Francis Ford Coppola's own operatic The Godfather, saw the master doing nothing less than manning up to show the student who's boss. But when the film Once Upon a Time in America finally arrived in 1984, there was as much controversy as creativity involved. The studio hated the movie, mandating massive cuts. Leone, who had whittled down his 10-hour magnum opus twice just to reach a ridiculously short four-hour running time, would not budge. In fact, he was still seething over the loss of nearly 60 minutes of what he considered essential narrative material. Severely truncated, the movie was released to universal disdain, with such critics as Roger Ebert complaining that, no matter the flaws in the four-hour film, the resulting studio hack job was just horrible. While his original vision would be somewhat restored for home video, and later contextualized for DVD, the failure finally finished him professionally. Leone grew ill—he had a bad heart—and eventually died in 1989. Still active (he was planning a war epic with Robert DeNiro), he never regained the stature he savored in the '60s.
Perhaps with the recent release of a near-definitive two-disc edition of Once Upon a Time in the West and this new Sergio Leone Anthology, his still-tenuous standing can be fully restored. Outside of the dedicated and the obsessive, the spaghetti Western is still seen as a stunt, a near-grindhouse gimmick that robbed the genre of all its ra-ra jingoistic sovereign splendor—at least from a "USA, All The Way" mentality. But viewed within the context of recent examples of Western deconstruction—Unforgiven (dedicated to Leone), Lonesome Dove, Open Range—the influence of these films is obvious. Leone wanted to rewrite the rules when it came to visualizing the past, and his is now the preferred method, at least amongst the more mindful post-modern set. So exploring the eight discs that make up this set will be a revelation for those unfamiliar with his films, and a welcome scholarly reevaluation for those who already know the maestro's work. It needs to be noted that the version of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly offered here is literally unchanged from the edition released in May 2005. There is a review already available on site, so to repeat information about the new extended cut (with reinsertion of previously lost material), the questionable 5.1 audio remix (which purists balked at for reasons of sound effects tweaks and new vocal tracks), and the wealth of bonus content (commentaries, documentaries, interview featurettes) would be redundant. However, it should be pointed out that each of the films here gets equally stellar treatment, making this compendium a must-own overview of Leone's legacy.
From a pure print standpoint, The Sergio Leone Anthology is almost flawless. The images are practically pristine, and the minor moments of grain and age really add to the films' motion picture mythos. One of the most evocative users of the 2.35:1 widescreen format, all four films here are splendid, their anamorphic transfers respecting Leone's vision. Colors are dark and rich, the balance between light and dark brilliantly maintained. Again, the sound side of things is another issue all together. Because of the reaction to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, MGM made sure that the original mono tracks are presented, but there will always be those who scoff at the fake Dolby Digital 5.1 presentations. From an outside perspective, either offering is fine. The differences are minimal and are only important to obsessives who need everything to remain they way they remember/want it. This is not meant as a criticism, but as an "impossible to please everyone" reality. With the original Leone-approved mixes in place, there should be little artistic argument. It is important to note that any or all of these aural approaches maintain the majesty of Ennio Morricone's amazing scores. If Leone is forever linked visually with this style of moviemaking, the amazing Italian composer is its solid sonic companion.
As for the added content, there is no debate—this is some of the best material ever to grace a digital aluminum disc. For starters, each film is given an insightful commentary track (Leone's biographer Sir Richard Frayling on A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Duck You Sucker, film critic Richard Schickel on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and they are all extremely engaging. They are so packed with insight and information that you may have to listen to them twice just to take it all in. Then, starting with Fistful, we are treated to a cornucopia of bonus features. There's a documentary on the production, interviews with friends, a look back with Eastwood, and an attempt to contextualize the Man with No Name's anti-heroism. For a Few takes it all a step further, repeating the approach but adding discussions of the various versions of the film (how cuts were made for various regions) and an overview of the Spanish locations. Duck You Sucker is probably the most enlightening since it's the first time the film has ever been discussed in such a capacity. Frayling discusses the importance of Leone's politics, while the restoration process is highlighted. From this brief discussion, The Sergio Leone Anthology would appear somewhat superficial. But the participants in all of these extras really want to extol the virtues of each film, and the sheer volume of information is quite overwhelming.
In truth, the Man with No Name actually had a moniker in each of the films he appeared in. He was Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, Monco in For a Few Dollars More, and Blondie in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. But giving the enigmatic figure a frame of reference, no matter how minor, robbed him of his inherent allure. Thus, the aura of mystery is maintained. The situation is exactly the opposite for the man who first put this symbolic statue on film. For Sergio Leone, the more context we gain on the process behind his artistry, the more we come to appreciate and support it. Twenty years ago, people laughed at the notion of the spaghetti Western as anything other than a foreign film fad, the typical twisting of an American standard for some shock-value cinematic currency. But the truth is far more formative. Along with the work done by the aggressive auteurs of the '70s, Leone stands as one of film's most influential practitioners. He took the standard language in one of the art form's most important genres and redefined it in a way that brought new insight and importance to all aspects of film. That's saying quite a bit considering his relatively small overall output. Along with names like Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa, Leone deserves a much stronger cinematic status. A DVD collection like The Sergio Leone Anthology will go a long way in securing said standing—if, in fact, it already hasn't arrived.
Not guilty—not even by a long shot. This is one of 2007's best DVD releases, and a wonderful testament to Sergio Leone's cinematic artistry.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, A Fistful Of Dollars
Perp Profile, A Fistful Of Dollars
Distinguishing Marks, A Fistful Of Dollars
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
Scales of Justice, For A Few Dollars More
Perp Profile, For A Few Dollars More
Distinguishing Marks, For A Few Dollars More
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
Scales of Justice, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Perp Profile, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Distinguishing Marks, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Richard Schickel
Scales of Justice, Duck, You Sucker
Perp Profile, Duck, You Sucker
Distinguishing Marks, Duck, You Sucker
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
• IMDb: A Fistful of Dollars
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.