Sergio Leone shows his sense of humour as The Man With No Name delivers one of cinema's greatest pay off lines.
Given the spaghetti western’s cult credentials today it seems odd that when the three Sergios (Corbucci, Leone and Sollima) first introduced their works, the directors were greeted with disdain from critics.
It feels peculiar in so much as the films seemed to re-brand the western in a time when it was dying out. There are several cultural and historical factors which stopped this occurring. Mostly it was down to snooty critics seeing the movies as inauthentic, synthetic, and a travesty of the 'true western' – what ever that was. The only thing authentic about the American variety was its setting and locations. The genre seemed to ride roughshod over historical fact. Mythmaking and an investment in 'pioneer spirit' held sway.
Rather than simply imitate the works of John Ford and others, the Italians picked selectively from the American Western and spun it into a highly distinct subgenre operating within new parameters and exploring fresh thematic concerns. It has been much discussed that capitalist intrigues and obsessive possession of riches propel many of the narratives. Even Django, a seeming revenge tale, sees its hero raiding a fort to steal gold.
In a 1960s interview with the legendary (and grossly simplistic) John Ford on the topic of spaghettis, Burt Kennedy described the films as "no story, no scene, just killing."
Compared to the US Western the Italian version was incredibly violent. Sergio Leone (who actually revered Ford) is famous for his use of extreme close-ups and skewed framing. Such is the influence of the Dollars trilogy, many of these devices have become cinematic clichés.
Although there were a few spaghetti westerns before Leone shot A Fistful of Dollars, it is fair to say that film became the first classic and most imitated until Sergio Corbucci’s Django.
Clint Eastwood also plays a vital part in the success of the genre and trilogy. The trilogy would launch his career proper. Leone originally wanted Henry Fonda as The Man with No Name, but Eastwood took the gig for $15,000. That’s more than a fistful, but hardly top dollar.
The film shot on locations in Spain, including Almeria and Madrid and based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo. Again, this must have confounded critics of the time. An Italian-German-Spanish production, shot in Spain, masquerading as an American western, but taking its story from a Japanese movie. This broth of influences yielded great results and box office.
The story follows a stranger riding into a border town, San Miguel, and who sets out to exploit a tense situation between two rival gangs after being given the lowdown.
One of the film’s most celebrated scenes works almost in the form of a joke. The Man With No Name walks towards the Baxter gang. He tells the undertaker to "get three coffins ready." The point of the showdown isn’t to build suspense. Instead Leone subverts the staple gunfight into an act of cold-blooded, calculated murder. But because Eastwood is so damn cool in the role we treat him as some sort of hero simply because there are much more vile characters in Leone’s cinema universe.
Leone employs a tracking shot to open but then gives away to a strange, low-angle wide viewpoint from underneath a gate. We then return to the tracking shot which is once more disrupted by a slow zoom into a saloon patron’s face. The Man With No Name continues his approach with two gang members almost book ending the screen in wide shot.
The gang begin to mock him about an earlier incident with a mule. "You see that’s what I want to talk with you about. He’s feeling real bad." The joke is totally on them from the beginning of the encounter. The viewer knows what’s coming (making us enjoy the ‘drama’ of the scene), but the Baxter gang do not.
"My mule," he continues, "you see he got all riled up when you boys fired those shots at his feet." Leone then cuts to a quick pair of close-ups of gang members looking puzzled. One of them finally twigs. "Hey, are you making some kind of joke?"
"No. You see, I know you men were just playing around but the mule, he just doesn’t get it. Of course if you were all to apologise."
The men laugh but stop once The Man With No Name lifts his poncho. Suddenly the expectation of death is much greater. We could say Leone has a very strange sense of humour, but it’s this whole scene is a stunning joke told in the language of cinema.
When the Man lifts his head in close up, an iconic moment of its own, Ennio Morricone’s score makes a quick burst signifying a change in tone. "I don’t think it’s nice you laughing. See, my mule don’t like people laughing… gets the crazy idea you’re laughing at him. Now if you apologise, like I know you’re going to, I might convince him you really didn’t mean it."
Leone heightens the scene with a high-pitched drone and quick close-ups of blank faces (the Kuleshov Effect goes West). Only Eastwood’s steely-eyed gaze gives the game away.
The moment the Man kills the gang with a quick draw is framed from behind the pistol, making it a near point of view shot. John Baxter, the sheriff, comes out and threatens the Man, who casually raises his revolver again. "Well if you’re the sheriff you better get these men in the ground," he replies before walking away, sticking his finger up to authority in the process.
Morricone’s music picks up as The Man With No Name walks back to the undertaker for the scene’s classic pay off. "My mistake. Four coffins."