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Spaghetti Westerns appear to be going through a minor little resurgence lately. I’m not exactly sure what brought on this slight spike in interest, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the new Red Dead Redemption video game, along with my positive review of Blue Underground’s incredible Django Blu-ray release—probably more the latter than the former. Anyway, the fine folks at MGM have now released the most popular series of films in the sub-genre’s history—Sergio Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’, or ‘Dollars’ trilogy, including Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. My review copy came a few days after the release date, so I’m going to try to keep this one briefer than my Django review.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

Fistful of Dollars


‘Get three coffins ready…’
‘…my mistake. Four coffins.’

Every cinematic fad has its watershed moment. There were Giallo thrillers before The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, just as there were disaster movies before The Poseidon Adventure, but neither genre became a full-on craze before these key films, neither the best of their kind, struck dramatic chords with their audiences. Fistful of Dollars isn’t the first Spaghetti Western, or the best, but it was a massive surprise hit, and it went on to define the style, pacing, look and sound of the genre. Fistful is a much cheaper production than its follow-ups, and Leone wasn’t quite as comfortable pushing his expressionistic visuals to their limit, so those seeing the films out of order may be disappointed. Fistful is also such a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Yojimbo the story doesn’t stand out as much as the latter two entries in this loose trilogy. If it were one of a kind Fistful would probably be a lost treasure, but as the first of a series of evolutions on a similar theme it’s fascinating, though unfortunately difficult to separate it from the films it birthed.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

For a Few Dollars More


‘Tell me, Colonel, were you ever young?’
‘Yep, and just as reckless as you. Then one day, something happened. It made life very precious to me.’

For a Few Dollars More suffers the unfair fate of being made between a watershed, genre-defining movie, and one of the best and most celebrated movies of all times. This curse has developed into a bit of a blessing, in that the films standing has forced many fans to re-evaluate the film, and I know plenty of people that now count it as their favourite in the series. Leone takes much bigger chances with quick cut editing, and juxtaposed extreme close-up faces and arid landscapes. Leone then begins dragging out the runtime, including dreamy flashbacks, and dividing the story into a series of set-pieces, all of which would feature in his follow-up films (culminating in Once Upon a Time in America, which takes all these elements to their furthest tolerable extreme). The editing here is made especially strong through the necessity of telling the story through both Eastwood and Van Cleef’s eyes. The scene where Van Cleef catches Eastwood in his telescope is a primo example of Leone’s developing and oft-mimicked talent. Few Dollars More is a stepping stone between films, but it should not be overlooked or underappreciated.   The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is still my favourite, but there are things here that are subjectively better handled, specifically the tighter plotting, and the overall cast, which is arguable the most versatile of the ‘trilogy’. Eli Wallach’s performance is the most endearing in the entire collection, and Fistful introduced the mainstream to Clint Eastwood, but Few Dollars More introduces both Lee Van Cleef and Klaus Kinski to the Spaghetti Western genre, which lead us to Death Rides a Horse and The Great Silence.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


‘You see, in this world there are two kinds of people—those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.’

Though not necessarily the best European Western, Sergio Leone's epic Civil War era romp is easily the most recognizable, and in turn may be the quintessential Spaghetti Western. The plot follows three bandits: Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach) on the trail of a fortune in buried gold during the American Civil War. There are double, triple, and quadruple crosses aplenty as the three ultimate anti-heroes slug it out for superiority. The narrative rolls around in circles, listlessly spiralling to the climatic shootout without ever really developing a proper plot (the hunt for the gold doesn’t really even start in earnest until well into the second hour), or logically owning its three hour runtime, yet somehow the film never bores, and the terse, simplified dialogue never fails to amuse. Once Upon a Time in the West is still the bigger technical achievement, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly features a massive budget (for the time), and Leone takes the time to perfect visual motifs developed over the course of this ‘trilogy’. Beyond the colossal scope and immaculately rendered widescreen images, the film is probably Leone’s funniest film (arguably Duck You Sucker has the bigger laughs, I suppose), and the first to really capture genuine tragedy. The no win sadness of the Civil War weighs heavily on the shoulders of the entire film. This is the perfect mix of entertainment and art.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

Video


Fistful of Dollars starts things off right with its vibrant red and black pop-art titles. The transfer follows the lead set by the high definition mastered special edition DVD releases in terms of colour timing and general print artefacts, but has distinct advantages in sharpness, details, and lack of compression. No one will confuse the release with a new movie, but realistic complaints should be few and far between. The film’s lack of colour doesn’t do it a great service, though the opening titles and some of the interior sets (not to mention the poppy, acrylic blood) should belay any accusations of badly transferred Technicolor. Grain will certainly be an issue for some viewers, and I’m not going to argue that it isn’t thick, but the bigger problem with the film’s age (and, from what I’ve read, the Techniscope process) is the muddying of details. Fistful is shot in a lot of darkness, and though the hi-def blacks are deeper, and better represented in terms of contrast on this release (night-time silhouettes are beautiful), the darkness takes its toll. The print damage artefacts are also more noticeable here than the other two films, but occasional fluctuation in brightness is the bigger tip-off. Details are sharper than both the special edition DVD, especially in close-ups (faces and costumes), and the ever present grain is smaller in size. My eyes may be playing tricks on me, but it appears that headroom is a little tighter here than it has been on other releases. I’m thinking the cropping may be a bit off, though the frame does appear to be the correct theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

For a Few Dollars More is a step up in quality, and an all around solid transfer. There’s a little room for improvement in terms of artefacts and minor print damage, which mostly rears its head in the form of small white flecks, but occasionally becomes a bigger issue. The film starts a bit rough, with heavy grain, differentiations in frame brightness, and some hard to miss black smudges, but things clear up pretty quickly. The details are sharper, and generally more consistent, even when the camera delves into largely darkened scenes, which don’t exhibit all that much more grain than the brightest scenes. This time the variations between the DVD and Blu-ray release are more distinctive, and the increase in detail is occasionally arresting. Leone’s broader lighting schemes and deeper set focus means the background details are just as impressive as the sweaty facial close-ups. Colours are also more vibrant, and effectively separated this time around, though Few Dollars More still doesn’t feature the most affecting pallet.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is, not surprisingly, the set’s best looking film. This disc is exactly the same as the previous Blu-ray release, so anyone already owning that disc will know what to expect. The details here are sharp without blooming, or creating any real noticeable digital noise on harsh edges, and Leone’s epic scope isn’t lost to standard definition’s lacking long shot capabilities. The depth of field is way beyond any other release of the film, and sharpness doesn’t falter noticeably during the darker shots. The only limitations are those of the wide angle lenses, which are mostly pushed to their absolute limit. Colours are natural, and no hues exhibit more distortion or noise than any others, though, again, the dusty trails of the old west don’t lead to much other than different shades of brown, black and blue. There are still some hairs in the gate, and minor white flecks, but this transfer is, by and large, very clean. The cleanliness extends to a general lack of grain, which appears somewhat unnatural to my eyes. Sometimes the transfer appears a little on the smooth side, including some slightly plasticy skin textures. This, and the lack of fine grain, leads me to believe someone got a little carried away with the digital noise reduction, but the image never appears muddied, or gooey like the semi-recent Near Dark release.

Audio


Fans have developed a long running love/hate relationship with MGM’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ DVDs for their 5.1 audio remixes. We all love what the remix does for Ennio Morricone’s scores, which were originally recorded for soundtrack releases with stereo sound in mind, and open to 5.1 restructuring. Morricone’s scores are arguably the most important aspect of the entire soundtrack, and just as big a part of Leone’s films’ success as Eastwood or the widescreen visuals. Morricone would go on to fine tune his unique sound for dozens of other Spaghetti Westerns, perfecting it somewhere around Once Upon a Time in the West just before redefining the sound of Giallo for Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage. These 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are worth it in terms of this indelible music, which doesn’t really wonder into the rear channels too often, but is nicely laid over the front channels, and features some nice LFE support. The original Italian mono has been included for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (as it was on the previous DVD and Blu-ray release), but the best purists can manage for the other two films is the original English mono. Personally I prefer the mono after all these years of VHS releases, and because of Eastwood’s original performance, but the lack of Italian is still a bit of a bummer. Ironically, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the one film in the series I’d say should definitely be watched in English, since all three title characters are dubbed by the English speaking actors.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
Fistful is the weakest overall of these remixes. There are fewer artificial sounding surround and stereo add-ons, but the original production English audio is pretty tinny, including some reverberiffic dialogue. The new sound effects and the impressively remastered Morricone’s music stand apart the most here. The uncompressed DTS upgrade also doesn’t make much of a difference, as the high end stuff is just as susceptible to distortion. The English mono track (which is presented in the two stereo channels) is definitely the preferred way to view this film in particular, and excepting the three channel separation of the score, the mono track actually feature the clearer sound elements. Few Dollars More is generally more of the same, but with more mucking about with the placement of the original mono dialogue and sound effects. It’s a little disconcerting, especially when the voices shift to the stereo channels mid-sentence when the camera shifts, but the vocal performances are sharper, and don’t feature the same reverb. The musical clarity matches the overall sound better here than on the Fistful track, and the additional effects don’t stand out as much.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is at times the best and worst of the 5.1 mixes. The score sounds brand new, warm, punchy, and doesn’t peak with distortion like the other two discs. The dialogue is clear, free of the minor distortions and reverbs that plague the Fistful mix, and the occasional movement to the stereo stations is a little more graceful than the Few Dollars More track. The additional effects added for the sake of surround sound and LFE boosts sound just as convincing as similar effects found in modern releases, but they still don’t match either fan expectations, or the remaining original effects. This reproduction issue spreads to the ‘lost’ Italian footage, which was never dubbed into English. Instead of simply reverting to the Italian track during these scenes, like Anchor Bay’s Deep Red disc, the producers saw fit to bring Wallach and Eastwood into a studio to redub their lines. The two ancient actors sound just as old as they are, and the Van Cleef impersonator brought on for Sentenza's scenes actually apes his subject more convincingly than the aging thesps ape themselves. Wallach’s dub is particularly bad, and features an unnecessary echo effect.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

Extras


The extras collected on the Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More discs are largely ported from the previously released DVD special editions, and could be called the Sir Christopher Frayling Show. Things start with a pair of commentary tracks, one for each film, with Frayling systematically telling us everything we could ever want to know about these films. Frayling stands up well amongst other top end expert commentators like Tom Mes, Tim Lucas, Kim Newman and Bey Logan, incorporating all the best qualities of a lecturer and a fan. On these tracks he’s engaging, entertaining, amusing, informative, and he leaves the audience wanting more.

‘The Christopher Frayling Archives: Fistful of Dollars’ (18:30, HD) starts a pair of new Blu-ray exclusive extras, which focus on the story of the author’s obsession with Leone, specifically his art collection. This would’ve worked better as a slide show with Frayling’s commentary (the man is forced to awkwardly hold these massive prints over his head), but the art is very cool, and the history behind the production art is genuinely interesting. Frayling also whips out an original script, which he uses to point out some interesting differences between it and the final film. The For a Few Dollars More archives (19:00, HD) repeats a lot of the same information, while slanting towards the second film.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
The Fistful extras continue with ‘A New Kind of Hero’ (22:50, SD), which starts the Frayling featurettes previously available. This bit covers the genesis of the original film, from similarities to Yojimbo, the opening titles, casting, costume and production design, Leone’s developing style, the Techniscope process, dubbing, sexual politics, and the film’s place in film history. ‘A Few Weeks in Spain’ (08:30, SD) takes a look at the film from Clint Eastwood’s point of view. There’s repeated information, but the shift in view makes up for any repetition, as does Eastwood’s genuine sense of happiness. ‘Tre Voci: Fistful of Dollars’ (11:10, SD) features interviews with producer Alberto Grimaldi, writer Sergio Donato and English language producer Mickey Knox, who discuss pre-production, writing, and re-dubbing into English.

Fistful also features ‘Not Ready for Prime Time’ (06:20, SD), a look at the edits made for television, and ‘The Network Prologue’ (07:30, SD), a prologue that played when the film premiered on network television, staring Harry Dean Stanton, and a terrible Eastwood lookalike, complete with a brief description from the collector that taped it. The prologue creates a reason for Eastwood to be in the town—apparently he’s hired as a mercenary in return for being let out of prison. Things are wrapped up with a selection of location comparisons (05:20, SD), 10 radio spots, a double bill trailer, and a US trailer.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
The Few Dollars More featurettes begin with ‘A New Standard’ (20:10, SD), a companion piece to ‘A New Kind of Hero’ with Frayling discussing the ground covered by the first movie, the addition freedom Leone was given to develop his style, casting, Van Cleef finding his place in the film, homoeroticism, character development, and amped up violence. ‘Back For More’ (07:10, SD) continues Eastwood’s story from ‘A Few Weeks in Spain’, while ‘Tre Voci: For A Few Dollars More’ (11:00, SD) picks up where ‘Tre Voci: Fistful of Dollars’ left off. Things are wrapped up with a look at the television version of the film (5:20, SD), featuring comparisons between the versions, another location comparison (12:20, SD), 12 radio spots, and two trailers.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly features nothing not already available on the previous Blu-ray release. Extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first track features general film historian Richard Schickel, and the second features our old friend Christopher Frayling. There’s a lot of overlap between the tracks, both of which are info-packed, so your personal choice will probably depend on how sick you are of Frayling’s voice at this point.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
This disc’s other extras were produced outside the Christopher Frayling heavy UK special editions, and designed for a solo release, so the featurettes here don’t quite match the structural precedent set by the other discs. These begin with ‘Leone’s West’ (19:50, SD), a look at the film’s production, with a glance at general Spaghetti Western history (most of which can be found on the previous discs). Interview subjects include Richard Schickel,  producer Alberto Grimaldi, English language producer Mickey Knox, Eastwood, and Wallach. ‘The Leone Style’ (23:40, SD) features interviews with the same subjects, discussing the director’s love of long shots, juxtaposed close-ups, use of paintings as reference, casting, and love of explosions. ‘The Man Who Lost the Civil War’ (14:20, SD), the brief history of Henry Hopkins Sibley, whose infamous ‘Sibley Campaign’ provides some backing for the film’s historical setting. ‘Reconstructing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (11:20, SD) discusses the process of remastering the film’s negative, and cutting the deleted footage into this cut with the new soundtrack. ‘Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Part 1’ (07:50, SD) all too briefly covers the genius of the composer’s work throughout Leone’s cannon. This is followed by a ‘Part 2’ (12:30), which features music scholar Jon Burlingame narrating the composer’s history with Leone in more depth over a still card. Things end with two deleted scenes, and American and French trailers.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The

Overall


The Man with No Name Trilogy was certainly among my most anticipated releases of the year, and though this is a clear upgrade from the already impressive DVD versions, these discs aren’t perfect. Fistful of Dollars is pushed to its limits and shows its age, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has been a little over processed. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are full of unnecessary surround sound additions, but all three original English mono tracks are also included for the purists in the house. The extras are solid; especially Sir Christopher Frayling’s jam-packed audio commentaries. This won’t be the last we see of the series on high definition disc, based on countless re-appearances on DVD, but I’m guessing MGM/Fox won’t be putting more money into new transfers anytime soon, so I still recommend a buy for Leone fans with the assurance that I was personally not bothered enough by any of the set’s shortcomings to do otherwise.

Man with No Name Trilogy, The
*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken directly from the Blu-ray discs and resized for this page. Images one through four are from Fistful of Dollars, five through eight are from For a Few Dollars More, and the rest are from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.


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