Once Upon a Time in America is one of my all-time favorite films, and Once Upon a Time in the West is my favorite western, so I guess you could call me a fan of Sergio Leone. I can't remember when I was first introduced to him, but I'm fairly certain that the first films of his I watched were those in the "Dollars" or "Man With No Name" trilogy, and much like the early work of Godard or Scorsese, they were a shot in the arm to conventional depictions of their subjects, both in terms of form and content. Newly released on Blu-ray in a three disc set, The Man With No Name Trilogy continues to inform and redefine the idea of both genre and filmmaking form, and this collection celebrates the films' collective achievements by offering superlative presentation as well as an extensive slate of bonus materials.
Even with the amount of literature and discussion already devoted to Sergio Leone over the past 40 years, it's hard to overestimate his importance in cinema history. As sole credited director, Leone helmed only seven films during his three-plus decade career, but five are confirmed classics (the other two less so primarily because of their comparative obscurity), and all of them bear influential, inspirational stylistic hallmarks. But suffice it to say that there are few films as deserving of multiple perspectives as the culmination of Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy, and what emerges from the set is not merely a chronological progression in Leone's career or an expanding scale of classic westerns, but a true artistic trajectory for a filmmaker who not only revolutionized the Western genre but in a very real way changed the face of modern movies.
A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in the series, completely razed the classical idea of the western, which by the early 1960s occupied audiences' minds as a chronicle of aging Hollywood stardom rather than any particular tradition of storytelling. Almost in inadvertent accordance with the changing tide of American culture, which was beginning to explore darker and more complex themes in different media, the 1964 film took an amoral point of view about its hero and his actions: whereas earlier films offered justification and explanation for their heroes' violent tendencies, Fistful provided none. When the Man With No Name (it was Joe, actually) fires upon his adversaries without provocation, killing them in cold blood, Clint Eastwood and Leone provide no background or context, creating an ambiguity about the character that ultimately fed his mystique across two more films.
At the same time, there are strong moral underpinnings to the central character's drive, even when their origins are never revealed. This would continue through For A Few Dollars More, where Eastwood's Man (renamed Monco) found himself squaring off against Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), a bounty hunter of equal prowess who may or may not have deeper motivations for pursuing their common prey, the murderous thief El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte, returning to play another villain after Fistful). While initially theirs seems like a seedling for the double-crossing partnerships that would occupy much of the plot of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Monco and Mortimer adopt a strange familial relationship - part respect, part competition, like a son trying to best his father and win his love at the same time. Mind you, 'love' is relative in Leone's films - camaraderie is generally the best a Leone protagonist can hope for - but as commentator Christopher Frayling acknowledges, this is the film where deeper emotional exploration and complexity take root in the master's body of work.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly continues Leone's expansion of the themes and ideas that would run recurrent in his body of work: a mysterious, questionably sympathetic protagonist, a deliberate storytelling pace, sudden, unflinching bursts of violence, and a conclusion that remained adamantly detached from conventional morality. Beyond that, however, Leone was in his wheelhouse stylistically, creating ever bigger and more drawn-out scenarios in which to squeeze every last drop of anticipation and anxiety from audiences; projecting his three-way pursuit of gold against the landscape of the American west, not to mention the historical context of the Civil War, he creates some of the most ambitious and breathtaking set pieces in cinema history.
With the exception of a handful of shots in A Fistful of Dollars, all four films look fantastic: focus is sharp, color quality is strong and consistent, and overall the films are cleaner than they have ever been. Particularly given the low-budget origins of the series - Fistful cost just $200,000 - consistency between shots and color intensity has been a problem during subsequent mastering jobs on video and DVD, but here those have been either corrected or otherwise eliminated.
These are movies made during an era in Italian cinema in which film developing houses were poorly run, and as a result original negatives were permanently and irreversibly damaged; as a featurette on Fistful indicates, the picture problems that appear are not a result of lackluster mastering but original damage that was subsequently never repaired. One might assume that available technology, including Warner Brothers' super-resolution remastering process, might have salvaged some of these scratches or other image problems; additionally, the transfers appear to be the same ones used on previous DVDs and/or import editions of the domestically unavailable special editions. But as the same featurette indicates, the original film stock itself was cheap, and neither processed nor maintained in the same way as other classics, so this is likely as good as these movies have looked (or will) in standard-definition.
Meanwhile, each film features unique and interesting featurettes and documentaries which more than justifies that overwhelming wealth of bonus content, even when some of it seems repetitive from one film to the next. All three of the commentary tracks by Christopher Frayling are entertaining and informative because they not only delve into production detail and general discussion of the content, but convey Frayling's palpable enthusiasm for the material. Additionally, on both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood talks about his participation and collaboration with Leone, and the actor-turned filmmaker offers plenty of insight - not to mention clarity - about who contributed what, their chemistry with one another, and the general atmosphere on a Leone set.
All of this is fascinating stuff as the featurettes not only reveal new dimensions of the first two 'Dollars' films, but they provide a context for the creation of the movies and their subsequent release on home video. Specifically, Frayling describes the Italian developing technique and industry referenced in the Video section above, and accompanying footage from Fistful points out the negative scratches that would otherwise earn this set low marks in that category. Otherwise, the interviewees and contributors provide a great backdrop for the legacy of Leone's career.
Additionally, each film features at least one unique extra that not only distinguishes it from the others but chronicles the various versions and iterations of Leone's work through the years. On Fistful, cult producer/director Monte Hellman speaks about an introductory segment he shot for the initial television release of the film that was intended to explain and legitimize Joe's amoral behavior in the film. Ironically, Fistful is the only movie in the series that provides an even vague motivation for the main character, but in 1978 Hellman shot a pre-credit sequence with Harry Dean Stanton that also appears in the set and which explains how Joe is in fact an ex-con who is offered a full pardon if he will go to the town in the film and clean up its crime. (The footage is from beta, so it's pretty bad, but as a piece of archive footage or a footnote to the series this is invaluable.)
Meanwhile, on For A Few Dollars More, "The Original American Release Version Featurette" explores the changes MGM made in the film prior to its domestic release in 1975, due mostly to their marketing campaign for the film. The most important of these is an excised bit of footage that actually reveals the Man With No Name's name - evidently the studio was determined for Eastwood's iconic figure to never be identified as Manco, a Spanish word for a person with an injured hand, or a thief - but the three changes are significant in that they show how American producers and distributors attempted to shape Leone's vision for true 'western' audiences.
Just as interesting is the reconstruction featurette on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the Morricone featurette is superior if only because the composer is one of the most prolific and influential figures in the history of movie music. Film music expert John Burlingame talks about Morricone's beginnings in the industry, and then addresses themes in the third 'Dollars' film that he focused upon in terms of their composition (using animal sounds) and chronology (Leone reportedly played the demo for "The Ecstasy of Gold" on set for the climactic graveyard scene).
While there are so many virtues in this set, my only complaint with this Blu-ray set is the exclusion of Duck, You Sucker, which only debuted on DVD in 2007, both as a two-disc Special Edition and as part of The Sergio Leone Anthology. Unlike, say, the Magnificent Seven multi-disc set that was released just a few months ago on Blu-ray, which features several films I'd argue are of little interest to fans of the original, Duck is an essential part of Leone's filmography and a great film in its own right. In fact, its comparative obscurity makes it a viable candidate for Blu-ray treatment – if not just general rediscovery – especially in light of the fact that his westerns continue almost more than any others to influence filmmakers today (see Jonah Hex for the most recent example). Otherwise, however, this set is lacking for nothing, except if somehow they actually resurrected Leone himself to provide a commentary track.
Ultimately, Leone's genius was to juxtapose the terrible, triumphant, tragic, hilarious, and ridiculous moments in these stories into one transcendent spectacle; as each character confronts his own tangled labyrinth of morality and ambition, the director creates a suitable physical landscape to represent that struggle and a plot that sustains the outcome. Further enriched by Ennio Morricone's pointed, whimsical but always evocative scores, which punctuate the silly, the sad and the serious with equal emphasis, Leone's films are a tapestry of cinematic self-awareness and virtuoso storytelling, and The Man With No Name Trilogy ensures that the director's work will continue to be celebrated and studied for decades to come.