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Featured Blu-ray Review: Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More

September 10th, 2011

Fistful of Dollars - Blu-ray: Buy from Amazon and For a Few Dollars More - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

At the beginning of August, the first two installments in Sergio Leone's The Man with No Name Trilogy came out on Blu-ray. The screeners didn't arrive till September, but was it worth the wait?

Fistful of Dollars

This film is a remake of Yojimbo, which in turn was inspired by earlier westerns. In the film, Clint Eastwood plays the Man with No Name, or Joe, as he is called by the undertaker, a stranger who comes to the small town of San Miguel, which is situated on the Mexican / American border. He is greeted by Juan de Dios, the bell ringer, who asks him why he's in town. Is it to see the Rojos? The Baxters? Or just to get rich trading lead for gold, which is a good way to put it. It seems everyone in town is rich, or they are dead. After a run in with the Baxters, he heads to the inn where Silvanito, the innkeeper again explains that anyone willing to kill for money will have no trouble finding an employer. The reason for the amount of killing in the town is illegal trade, and the fact that it is split between two gangs. The Rojos deal in liquor and the Baxters are gunrunners, and while this division has meant they are not in direct competition with each other, there is still plenty of bloodshed between the two gangs. This gives Joe the idea to play the two gangs against each other, and get rich in the process.

Since the Baxters shot at Joe first, he decides to hire himself out to the Rojos and to prove his worth, he shoots the three Baxters who shot at him, plus another, just for good measure. John Baxter, the leader of the Baxter family and the sheriff of the town threatens to arrest him, but doesn't follow through with that threat. Don Miguel Rojo, the eldest brother and leader of the Rojos, agrees to pay Joe 100 gold coins and invites him to stay. While being led to his room, Joe meets Marisol, Ramon's mistress, Ramon's unwilling mistress. When Esteban Rojo, the youngest of the three brothers, learns how much Joe was paid, he wants to shoot Joe and take the money back. Joe overhears this and decides it might be wiser to stay in the inn with Silvanito.

One day shortly after that, a division of the Mexican military comes into town transporting something very valuable. When they quietly leave town the next morning, Joe and Silvanito follow them. Joe goes to see what they are up to, Silvanito goes to see how much trouble Joe will get himself into. What they witness is the Mexican army buying guns from the American army, or Ramon Rojo and several of their gang members dressed up as the American army. Ramon massacres the Mexicans and keeps the gold and guns for himself. And when Ramon arrives back home, he announces there will be a truce between the Rojos and the Baxters. And with that Joe decides to leave.

Joe uses this time to retrieve a couple of the dead Mexicans and plants them in the cemetery, making it look like they survived and are witnesses to the massacre. Upon returning to San Miguel, he sells the information to both the Baxters and the Rojos, both of whom send groups of heavily armed men. The Baxters want the two as witnesses, so they can arrest the Rojos and send them away. The Rojos just want to kill the witnesses.

Meanwhile, while those two groups get into a massive shootout, Joe does something that is far too large of a spoiler to get into.

This is not the first Spaghetti Western made, but it is widely considered one of the first to showcase the subgenre's potential. It had all of the elements, but Sergio Leone was still learning his craft, so they don't come together quite as well as in later films. Don't get me wrong, nearly everything in this film works, but not quite as well as it works in the other two installments. The plot doesn't have the pacing it should, nor does it connect emotionally as well as the plots of the other two films do. Some of the supporting cast are not able to hold their own when up against Clint Eastwood, although the dubbing has a lot to do with this. On the other hand, the film still has Sergio Leone's sense of style, Clint Eastwood is awesome as The Man With No Name, and of course Ennio Morricone's score is iconic.

The Extras

I have good news and bad news when it comes to the extras. The bad news, this Blu-ray is shovelware. The good news, the previous DVD had plenty of extras that are ported over. Things start with an audio commentary track with film historian Christopher Frayling, who wrote a book on Spaghetti Westerns. He also is the focus of a 19-minute featurette where he talks about his quest to find pictures for his book and how that turned into a quest to create the most comprehensive archive he could. A New Kind of Hero spends 23 minutes talking about how The Man With No Name wasn't your typical kind of hero you would see in westerns at the time. He was much more complex and a lot less of a goody two shoes. Next up is a nine-minute interview with Clint Eastwood. Tre Voci: Fistful of Dollars is an 11-minute interview featurette with three people who worked a great deal with Sergio Leone. There is a seven minute prologue that was shot for the TV version of the movie, along with a featurette explaining why it was needed back in 1977. Even the guy who filmed it hates it, but it's cool to have as an extra. Finally, there's an image gallery comparing sets and locations now and then.

The technical presentation is mixed, to say the least. Granted, this film only cost $200,000 to make back in 1964, so you can't compare it to $100 million movies made today. There are many shots that look fantastic with high levels of detail, solid colors, deep blacks, etc. On the other hand, there are some shots that would look bad on DVD. Given the age of the film, the print is surprisingly free of damage, while there are no compression issues to deal with. The audio is solid, but uncomplicated. The dialogue is clear and there are a few scenes where the surround sound speakers are put to good use, but nothing fancy.

Finally we get to the price. Normally I don't want to spend more than $15 for a catalog release. Fistful of Dollars only cost $13 to buy on Blu-ray. That's a great deal.

For a Few Dollars More

Clint Eastwood returns as The Man With No Name, but a different man with no name, this time referred to as Manco, so that's the name I'll use. Manco is a bounty hunter, but we don't meet him for a bit. We first meet Colonel Douglas Mortimer, another bounty hunter who arrives in Tucumcari, after forcing the train to stop by pulling the emergency cord, which is illegal, but he can intimidate a man with one look, so the train's conductor backs off. It only take minutes for him to find a bounty and collect a cool $1000. His next target is Baby (Red) Cavanagh, but he learns Manco is already on the trail of Baby Cavanagh. Manco catches up to his quarry in White Rock, New Mexico. He interrupts his poker game and calmly kills Cavanagh and his three men, including Half Beard.

We next meet El Indio, a notorious gang leader, and his gang, who break their leader out of prison killing all but one of the guards, who is left alive as a witness. (This helps boost his bounty to $10,000.) El Indio is, well, nuts. When his gang broke him out of prison, he shot his cellmate. He keeps a trophy of one of his kills, which we see in frequent flashbacks. He's more than a little unstable. However, he has a plan to rob a bank and steal a safe with close to $1 million inside and that's enough to ensure the loyalty of his men. His loyalty towards his men is less reliable.

In the meantime, Manco and Colonel Mortimer meet up, and after their initial meeting goes poorly, they decide to team up to take down El Indio and his gang. The plan is to get Manco to go undercover in the gang to get close and help out with the bank heist. After the heist, the Colonel will be brought in to help crack the safe. That part of the plan works, but the "don't get caught" part of the plan could be a little harder to pull off.

Everything that worked in Fistful of Dollars is still strong when it comes to For a Few Dollars More. Clint Eastwood is awesome as Manco, Sergio Leone sense of style is even more refined, and Ennio Morricone's score is incredible. On the other hand, the weaknesses in the earlier film are all but eliminated. Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonté raise the level of acting a substantial degree. The plot has much better pacing and the emotional impact is there. My only complaint is that the film is not as cool as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's pretty close and certainly close enough to be considered one of the best westerns around.

The Extras

Again, the Blu-ray is shovelware, but again there are lots of extras. Extras start with an audio commentary track with Christopher Frayling, who also appears in two featurettes. The first takes a look at his extensive collection of Sergio Leone paraphernalia, while the second is an overview of the movie's production. In Back for More, Clint Eastwood continues his interview while Tre Voci continues the interviews with Alberto Grimaldi, Sergio Donati, and Mickey Knox. There is a five-minute featurette on the changes made to the film when it was originally released in the United States. Finally, there's another now and then comparison for some of the film's sets and locations.

Moving on to the tech specs, we have good news. After the huge success of Fistful of Dollars, they were able to obtain a much larger budget for For a Few Dollars More at $600,000. You can see the difference in the transfer in all areas. The details are sharper, there are very few scenes scenes that look too soft. The colors are brighter, the blacks are deeper, etc. The film is more than 40 years old, and there are a few problems with print damage, but nothing that is too distracting. I would have loved a frame-by-frame restoration, but that's really expensive, so I'm not surprised it didn't happen. Maybe in a few years when it's a major anniversary and Blu-ray has overtaken DVD in sales. As for the audio, it's also better with a little more activity in the surround sound speakers.

Finally we get to the price. On Amazon.com, the Blu-ray costs just $11.49! That's an excellent deal for this Blu-ray.

The Verdict

Both the Fistful of Dollars Blu-ray and the For a Few Dollars More Blu-ray are worth picking up. The only question is do you grab them separately, or as part of the Trilogy Box Set. The Box set is actually a dollar more, but maybe it's worth the extra dollar for the box.


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Filed under: Video Review, Per qualche dollaro in più, Per un pugno di dollari