THE DOLLARS TRILOGY
Sergio Leone . 1964 . 1965 . 1966
“Get three coffins ready.” – “My mistake. Four coffins…”
PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARO
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
“I wanted something different from the old-fashioned Western. Hero rides in, very stalwart, with white hat, man’s beating a horse, hero jumps off, punches man, schoolmarm walks down the street, sees this situation going on, slight conflict with schoolmarm, not too much. You know schoolmarm and hero will be together in exactly ten reels if you care to sit around and wait, and you know man who beats horse will eventually gets comeuppance from hero when this guys bushwhacks him in reel nine…”
– from Clint Eastwood’s Playboy Interview by Arthur Knight and Gretchen McNeese, February 1974.
Here’s the full skinny on the guys who lost what some United Artists publicist decided to call… The Man With No Name. Or a “grizzled Christ” as Time magazine critic Richhard Corliss would call him. Well, he does arrive on a mule…
Hollywood stars like Lee Marvin, Cliff Robertson and Henry Silva were laughing fit to bust at the soon-to-be spaghetti Western king, Italian maestro Sergio Leone. Say what? An Italian Western in Spain based on a Kurosawa samurai flick? Get out!!!
Hang on… didn’t that Japanese director also supply the basis of… Yes! But three of 1960’s Magnficent Seven (Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz James Coburn) were also laughing. As was a John Ford stalwart: Henry Fonda.”I’d heard nothing but bad about Italian film-makers,” said Coburn who, presumably, was not acquainted with the likes of Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini…
Cliff Robertson had been an odd choice. He was hardly a recognised cowboy despite a fistful of TVestern episodes of Wagon Train, Outlaws, etc. He wasn’t in a sagebrush feature – as Cole Younger in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid – until 1971. (And since you asked… Leone’s original director credit of Bob Robertson had less to do with Cliff than a nod tyo Sergio’s father Vincenzo Leone’s anglicised directing credit: Roberto Roberti).
Leone lowered his aim. To telly-Westerns, where Rory Calhoun (Leone’s 1960 Colossus of Rhodes star) and Ty Hardin were stars for 15 minutes in the saddle, ending up as among the inspirations for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, 2018. Leone loved ABC’s Rifleman, 1958-1963, yet never asked for Chuck Connors and jsimply moved on to Rome’s B-actioners…
Ex-Hercules, Steve Reeves, the muscle-bound, gay Schwarzenegger of his day, wanted the $25,000 offered to Coburn. Per un pugno di dollari too much and Leone’s turn to laugh. Tony Kendall (born Luciano Stella in Rome), was the Italian-German Bond, Joe Louis Walker, aka Kommissar X (the first movie was Kiss, Kiss, Kill, Kill!). He also made a sauerkraut Western and was Django in Django sfida Sartana/ Django Defies Sartana, 1969, directed by Claudia Cardinale’s future lover, Pasquale Squitieri… calling himself: William Redford.
California’s Frank Wolff would be in two spaghetti masterpieces: Sergio Corbucci’s The Big Silence and Leone’s Once Upon A Time In the West. Having lost Disney’s Zorro series, Wisconsinite Tony Russel also moved to Europe for a Zorro movie! Plus Italy’s sword and sandal schmepics. He maintained that Leone’s script was “terrible… ludicrous.”
Clint Eastwood said much the same. Yet look what he did with it!
He said the dialogue was attrlocious, so he threw it away. (Richard Burton said Eastwood had pared a four-sentence speech to four words in their Where Eagles Dare).
And he was able to do because of another Roman B-star, Utah’s Richard Harrison.:
“Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema
was not doing A Fistful of Dollars…
and recommending Clint for the part.”
The Jolly Films suits had suggested Harrison for the lead. “Never in my life!” thundered Leone. He still craved a genuine Hollywoodian. Harrison had all the charisma of Peter Falk’s glass eye but, at least, he suggested Leone take a peak at Rawhide. “I saw one episode [#91: Incident of the Black Sheep] where Clint never said a word. Perfect! Just a little young – when all shaved and tidy… We got Clint for $15,000.” Silva had wanted $16,000. Clint was less interested in the money, he wanted creative input, script changes and stuntman pal, Bill Tompkins, along, for the ride.
I discussed Dollars with Eastwood, almost exactly four years later, on the set of Where Eagles Dare at MGM’s UK studio in Elstree on April 9, 1968. By which time he had risen from Ambush at Cimarron Pass, 1958, “could be the worst Western ever made” (so bad, he thought about giving up acting) to the finest… until his own Oscar-winning Unforgiven!
He reminisced about his early days at Universal, stuck with cough ‘n’ spit roles (he used the UK term – comes of working in Elstree!), “A Francis The Talking Mule picture, things like that. They were making real turkeys at the time. Never even got shot and died a good death – never in anything long enough for that.”
He did some theatre work and won the Rawhide series – “a film a week for… for seven, eight years… learning next week’s script, while shooting this week’s… everything was regimented.” He got weekends off – and, annually, the series was on hiatus. Usually, he did nothing during this vacation period. “Then, with about a year of Rawhide to go, my agent [Sandy Bressler] came up and said how would I ike to go to Spain to make a low-budget Italian-German-Spanish Western…
“Yeah, well, I said, that will probably be a joke”
“Why don’t you read the story?”
He did and was fascinated when realising the script was, er, inspired, by Akira Kurosaw’s 1960 Yojimbo (in turn, er, inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s never-filmed 1929 book, Red Harvest). Clint remembered seeing the samurai classic in 1961 with a friend. They’d both figured it would make a good Western, the way the same Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai begatThe Magnficient Seven. Except, it was mebbe too rough. Mebbe…
Clint more or less told his agent to make his day. At least, The Magnificent Stranger, as it was then called (Il Magnifco Strangero on the slate) could be hugely different from his clean-cut telly cowpoke, Rowdy Yates. The idea of the hero being the protagonist appealed to him. “I had nothing to lose. if the picture bombed, it won’t go anywhere else. And, hell, I’d never been to Europe.”
Clint arrived in April, ready to rumble. (All three films started shooting in April). He was unshaven and brought his own costume. Black Levi’s from a Hollywood Boulevard sports store (he bleached and battered them), the hat and sheepskin jacket from a film costume outfit in Santa Monica. (The poncho was Leone’s idea). The squint was natural – from the Spanish sun and movie lights. His more cliche equipment – boots, spurs, gun-belts – beronged to Rowdy Yates. And the cheroots from, of all places, Beverly Hills. He cut gthem in halves and hated smoking them. But they sure worked, putting they put him in the right klind of foul mood… for a scene or to ridicule Leone for sporting belt and braces!
Despite the lingo barrier, he got on surprisingly well with Leone. They “tallked” about the script, spun ideas off each other, altered and improved things here and there, Clint cutting his dialogue to the barest necessity. (Sure, he dubbed the English-language version: “not much to say”). They agreed on realism as they rescued the Western which for Eastwood had become ”an empty space” and completely dead for Leone, ‘killed off by those who had maltreated the genre.”
The eight week shoot was cheap and really rough. No trailers. No toilets. “We just went out behind rocks,” said Clint. “Never mind,” he told Sergio, “we’ll make a great Western together.”
They made three about The Men With No Name – he was a different protagonist is per (Italian) movie: Joe, Manco and Blondie. Clint playing it down when everyone else was operatic
While Richard Harrison wound up in soft-porn and 16 Hong Kong ninja actioners and Henry Silva was “considered” for Klaus Kinski’s Juan Wild – The Hunchback – in the sequel….
“Alive or dead? It’s your choice.”
PER QUALCHE DOLLARO IN PIU
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
“Leone had a greaty visual sense as well as a sense of humour,” said Clint Eastwood.. ”He was extremely bold…. never afraid to try anything new.” And he took Fellini’s love of faces to the extreme… close-ups.
Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda refused to be Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Then again, they had not yet been able to see the first film – held up for an American release until 1967 due to a rights wrangle about using Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimba story. By the time they caught up wth what they had missed – twice – Bronson and Fonda admitted the error of their (agents’?) ways, rushed to beg forgiveness, take a knee and join Sergio’s briliantissimo C’era una volta il West/Once Upon A Time in the West, 1968.
Idem for James Coburn with the far less appealing Giù la testa in 1970, known variously as Duck, You Sucker… A Fistful pf Dynamite… and Once Upon A Time… The Revolution. When you can’t settle on a title, you know you’re in trouble.
Although he had only seen an Italian-language print of Dollars it was enough for Eastwood to readily agree to a sequel. . A slightly more lavish affair. The poncho was the same (never washed during all three films, it must have been standing up in a corner), his salary reached $50,000 and his character changed his name – because of a change in producer. Following a bitter row with Giorgio Papi, of Jolly Films, about payment of his 30% of real dollars., Leone took his new script to PEA. Jolly Films sued, claiming ownership of Joe, but the judge ruled in favour of Leone’s new boss, a lawyer called Alberto Grimaldi. The two characters were not the same guy. That is to say that the anti-hero, his outfit, halved-cigars and mannerisms, belonged to the folklore of the public domain. (Eastwood had to sue Jolly Films later for welding tew Rawhide episodes together and releasing the confusing fusion as… The Magnificdt Stranger, no less!).
Playing safe, Grimaldi gave what was to all intents and purposes, Joe, a new name, Monco – Italian for monk. (Aha! Grizzled Christ, monk, and final shoot-outs that critic Richard Schickel called as ritualised as the Mass – Leone’s religion underpinned all three films) In the finale, Eastwood is called Blondie – a nickname more suited to Marilyn than Clint.
With more cash in the kilty. Clint also won a similarly ruthless pardner in the bounty-huntinbg game Colonel Doiuglas Mortimer. And not played by an Italian actor with an anglicised name, but the real thing – anx fhat for Leone meant one man only. Henry Fonda his first Joe choice the year before. Once again, Fonda’s agent – still old-fashioned – got in the way
Fonda, said Leone, “was so annoyed
when Dollars proved such a hit,
that he changed his agent.”
Eli Wallach finally persuaded Fonda to join Leone’s majestic C’era una volta il West/Once Upon A Time in the West, 1968. And, in fact, Leone directed him a second time during Il mio nome è Nessuno/My Name Is Nobody – the start, the battle, the final duel – while assisting his former assistant, Tonino Valerie, helming the rest of the 1973 pasta Western.
Also in the Mortimer mix were Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance, “perhaps as wrong for the role as Fonda was right.” said Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel,
Oh, and James Coburn. Of course.
“Every time Sergio made a film, he’d come see me – wherever I was. Never had anything on paper. It would gel in his mind as he told it – his brother-in-law translating. “ Coburn finally came to heel for the ridiculously titled Duck, You Sucker! 1971. They became a mutual admiration society. “Wonderful man, Sergio – like he was shooting a movie about making movies!”
Marviin won – and quit. Never too happy about mixing spaghetti with pork ’n’ beans. Marvin left for Cat Ballou (and, as things turned out, an Oscar – the very reason why he then refused the final film. His price had soared!). This meant Sergio had three days to find a new Colonel Mortimer. Studying the Academy Players Directory on the plane to LA, his eye fell upon a familiar face “with the nose of an eagle, the eyes of Van Gogh… and a Sicilian haircut. I remembered him from Bravados and High Noon.”
However, Lee Van Cleef proved to be a forgotten man in Hollywood. No one knew who or where he was. Except out of work since John Ford’s Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1961. “Finally his old agent phoned me… Lee had been in hospital after breaking nearly all his bones in a car crash- and stayed long enough to get off the booze. He’d given up movies for painting with little success.”
“As soon as we met,” Lee recalled, “Sergio made up his mind: That’s Colonel Mortimer! Well, I wasn’t going to argue with him. Hell, I couldn’t pay my phone bill at the time.” Leone offered $15,000. Lee took it. And the next plane together to Rome. That’s where Van Cleef first read the script – “it’s Shakespearean!”)
“We touched down at noon,” recallwed Leone, “arrived at Cinecitta at 1pm and by 2.15pm he was doing his first scene.”
“Not my idea,” said Clint., although Van Cleef had been a 1964 guest in two Rawhide episodes. “Leone wanted a face, an older man. At first, the idea was to have just an older version of me, making use of trick guns to compensate for his age.” In fact, Van Cleef was a mere five years older than Eastwood but looked 50 or more after battling acoholism and a badly busted knee.
Thanks to Leone-Eastwood, Lee’s career was re-born and, as he said, “not a moment too soon.” He toplined many a decent Italian Western, such as the Sabata franchise (produced by Grimaldi) before Hollywood begged him to come home for The Magnificent Seven Ride!
“Exactly one year to the day – 12 April 1966,” said Lee, “I was called back for the prequel.”
“In this world there are two kinds of people, my friend.
Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”
IL BUONO IL BRUTTO IL CATTIVO
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Sergio Leone never gave up. And Henry Fonda’s price never came down. Even though the role was named Angel Eyes after Fonda’s blue orbs – finally Leoneised in Sergio’s spaghetti epic, C’era una volta il west/Once Upon A Time In the West, 1968.
One again, Alberto Grimaldi procduced, swell on his way to becoming Italy’s numero uno producer, working with Bertolucci, Brando, Fellini, Loren, Mastroianni, O’’Toole, Pasolini, Scorsese, Billy Wilder.
And once again, Leone hired Lee Marvin, finally understanding like most of Hollywood that mixing pasta with pork ‘n’ beans made for a most exciting dish.. Except once, again Marvin walked. A week before shooting, he won his Cat Ballou Oscar and pulled out of the prequel. (What had first been called The Magnificent Rogues took placde during the Civil War and not afterwards as in the earlier films. Clint only found his poncho towards the end).
Sergio then tried Charles Bronson and Milan star Enrico Maria Salerno – his 121 screen roiles include Macbeth and Marc Antony on TV and such films as Bandidos, Candy, Casanova 70 and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. He also dubbed Clint’s sparse dialogue in the Italian language releases of the trilogy.
Bronson, tied up with The Dirty Dozen in London (I used to see them, all playing softball in Hyde Park on Sundays) was also offered Turco. This was the role that worried Clint. OK, he was getting $250,000 – and a new FerrariI – and percentage points – but Turco was the only fleshed-out character, with more screen time, that is to say more scene-stealing time, than The Star! “In the first movie I was just about alone. In the second, there were two of us, and now three. If it goes on like this I’m going to end up with a whole cavalry.”
And despite a role written and named for him,
Jack Elam, another veteran cowpoke like Van Cleef,
passed on the one-armed Elam.
The bounty-hunter was taken over by Al Mulock Almost inevitably, both actors turned up in Once Upon A Time in the West. In fact, Murock committed suicide during the production.
Although many criitics suggest the second film is the best of the three, Roger Ebert favoured the third – which Clint Eastwood found ”bloated rather than expansive.”
He preferred the film that made him. The first.
And this was the last.
There wouild be not another April slate date in Spain for Eastwood. “I’m not coming back,” he confided to Eli Wallach. Yeah, sure, he could continue knocking ‘em out for another ten ears but that would be like another Rawhide deal. Regimentation! “There’s only so far to go, then you want a character with a different background or obstacles to overcome.”
Despite Clint offering Leone Hang ’Em High and Two Mules for Sister Sara (“after five pages, I knew she was a nun!”), the spaghetti superstars never worked together again. “It was,” said Sergio, “necessary for us to… go our different ways.”